She Was Becoming Herself: The Beautiful & Tragic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald
Today, Zelda Fitzgerald has been made into a cypher: her husband’s muse and folly, a socialite and symbol of the terrific excesses of the “Roaring Twenties”. But Zelda was a writer as well, and a more complicated and talented person than history has rendered her.
Who really was Zelda Fitzgerald? Read our short biography on the extraordinary highs and lows of Zelda’s fantastical life and swift demise.
She was born in Montgomery, Alabama, one of six siblings, to a prominent Southern family. Her mother gave her the unusual name “Zelda” based off the title character’s of two obscure books, Zelda: A Tale of the Massachusetts Colony and Zelda’s Fortune.
In school, Zelda was more interested in sports and dance than in her studies. She swam and danced ballet through high school. Even at a young age, she already enjoyed flouting coventions for how high-society women should behave. She smoked, partied and enjoyed dating. One of her childhood friends was the silent movie-star actress Tallulah Bankhead. Both of them were the talk of the town throughout their teen years.
Zelda and F.Scott shortly after their marriage in 1920
Zelda met her future husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1918, when he was in the army and stationed outside Montgomery. He was already writing his first novel, and re-wrote the main character to better resemble her. In this novel and The Beautiful and the Damned, he lifted passages directly from some of her letters to him. He has also been accused of plagiarising her diaries, with passages appearing in This Side and also in The Great Gatsby. Evidently, he was impressed by her writing abilities and even shared her diaries with several friends.
They became engaged in 1920, once Fitzgerald has left the army and established himself in New York. She had agreed to marry him following the publication of This Side. Her family did not approve, because he was already a heavy drinker and a Catholic. As Fitzgerald’s fame grew, so did their drunken excesses. They soon became notorious in New York society for their heavy partying. In 1921, they had their only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald. Zelda was uninterested in the traditional conventions of being a housewife and in keeping a home.
Upon the publication of Fitzgerald’s second book, the Beautiful and the Damned, Zelda was asked to write a humorous review for it in the New York Tribune. Although the review is tongue-in-cheek, it makes reference to the fact that F. Scott would regularly lift things from her diaries, letters or even things she said verbatim. The review was a success and she began to receive offers to write for other publications.
One of Zelda's paintings, Bethlehem
In serious debt, they left the U.S. for Paris in 1924. They moved to Antibes and Fitzgerald began writing The Great Gatsby. Whilst there, Zelda met and fell in love with a French pilot, Edouard S. Jozan. She asked Fitzgerald for a divorce, which he refused. Jozan left Antibes and Zelda never saw him again. His heartbreak over her infidelity heavily influenced Gatsby and its themes of loss and restoration. Despite their fractured relationship, they remained together and travelled throughout Italy after the publication. Zelda began painting during this time.
In 1925, the Fitzgerald’s met Hemingway in Paris and he and F. Scott became fast friends. Zelda, however, disliked him intensely, believing him to be a “phony” whose macho posturing was a fraud. Hemingway introduced them to Paris’ Belle Monde of artist and writer expatriates. Zelda became increasingly jealous and accused Fitzgerald several times of infidelity.
In the late Twenties, she took up again with one of her first loves, ballet. Fitzgerald did not take it seriously. She restarted in her lessons and became a very proficient dancer. However, the intense training effected her mental and physical health severely. She was offered a place at a ballet school in Naples, Italy, but declined the offer.
As her mental health declined, Fitzgerald’s drinking worsened considerably and their destructive relationship became impossible to be around. In 1930, Zelda was sent to a sanatorium in France, where she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and later to another sanatorium in Geneva. She returned to the U.S. as her father’s health was declining. Shortly before his death, F. Scott announced he was going to Hollywood.
Zelda, age twenty-five.
In 1932, she returned to a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore. Over her six week’s stay, she wrote an entire novel, entitled Save Me the Waltz. It was a novelised account of her and F.Scott’s declining marriage. Fitzgerald was furious, as he believed it used material he had been intent on including in his next novel, Tender is the Night. He forced her to revise it and remove the parts he wanted to use. Scribner published it in October 1932. It was not a commercial success.
Throughout the Thirties, her health continued to decline. She exhibited some of her paintings in New York to a lukewarm response. In 1936, F.Scott placed in her a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina and returned to Hollywood to write screenplays. He has grown bitter towards Zelda, believing she has destroyed his dreams and aspirations. They went on holiday to Cuba in 1938. It was a disastrous trip and upon returning they never saw each other again, although continued writing to one another up until F.Scott’s death in 1940.
In 1942, she started working on another novel, checking herself in and out of hospital as she wrote it. Her health never improved and she never finished it. She died in 1948 when an accidental fire broke out in the hospital where she was receiving treatment.
Both of them passed away to little fanfare, their star-power having dimmed over the years of their decline. However, there was a resurgence of interest in them several years later which has rarely waned since. Countless movies, plays and books have been written about their marriage. Many of these painted Zelda’s mental health problems as the reason for F.Scott’s squandered potential. This was revised, however, when the first biography of Zelda was published in 1970 by Nancy Millford. This led to a critical reappraisal of her work, for which her novel especially received high praise. Zelda has since crystallised into a Golden Age flapper icon, with her mental struggles viewed in a more sympathetic light than in previous generations.
Only now do we look at Zelda’s life with sympathy and understanding, and admiration of her tenacity keeping creating and writing despite such debilitating mental health struggles. Zelda is no longer just the muse for a great male author, but a writer in her own right.
Here of some of Zelda’s best quotes:
“She quietly expected great things to happen to her, and no doubt that's one of the reasons why they did.” —Zelda Fitzgerald
"Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold"
"I don't want to live, I want to love first and live incidentally"
"She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring."
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