Fitzgerald, Zelda (1900–1948)
Fitzgerald, Zelda (1900–1948)
Southern society beauty, artist, writer, and dancer whose works were overshadowed by those of her husband, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Name variations: Zelda Sayre (1900–20); Zelda Fitzgerald. Born on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Alabama; died in a fire at Highland Hospital, a clinic in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 11, 1948; sixth child of Anthony Sayre (an Alabama Supreme Court judge) and Minnie (Machen) Sayre; attended high school in Alabama; married F. Scott Fitzgerald (a novelist), in 1920; children: one daughter, Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald (1921–1986).
Zelda Fitzgerald, beautiful, capricious, and wildly high-spirited, was the first and most famous flapper of what her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald named "the Jazz Age." But her moment of triumph as a rich, carefree bride was followed by years of disillusionment, alcoholism, and a descent into chronic schizophrenia.
Her family, the Sayres of Montgomery, Alabama, were eccentrics in the grand Southern manner and would have suited the plot of a Faulkner novel. Her father, Judge Anthony Sayre of the Alabama Supreme Court, was an icy, reserved man of unvarying habits, who went to and from work at exactly the same time every day throughout his life and always went to bed on the stroke of eight o'clock. Her mother Minnie Machen Sayre , a Southern belle from a leading Confederate family, had hoped to become an opera singer but had met and married the judge instead, with whom she had five children. Minnie's mother and sister had both committed suicide, and she too suffered frequent bouts of mental illness, a family trait passed on to Zelda.
Zelda, born with the century, was a mischievous child, vivacious and impulsive. As a ten-year-old, she called the fire department to rescue someone from the roof, then climbed up there until they arrived to "save" her. She grew up into a striking beauty and challenged local convention by bobbing her hair and smoking in public. One of her childhood friends, Virginia Durr , recalled later that "she was like a vision of beauty dancing by. She was funny, amusing, the most popular girl; envied by all others, worshipped and adored, besieged by all the boys." Durr recalled a Christmas dance when Zelda had pinned mistletoe to the back of her dress, in effect punning on the phrase "kiss my ass." But, as Durr added, Zelda was so used to being the constant center of attention that she found it difficult to adjust, later, to being a mother and to letting her writer-husband have uninterrupted time in which to work. Some of Zelda's admirers founded a fraternity at nearby Auburn University, using the Greek initials of her name, Zeta Sigma, and requiring for membership evidence that a man had dated her at least once. She had a reputation for being "fast" and flirtatious and often deliberately provoked her dates' jealousy by suddenly turning cold towards them and amorous towards others. She was also the center of attention with aspiring officers who came to Alabama for training during the war. Two aviation cadets, flying aerobatics over her house in tribute to her, crashed in mid-air and were killed.
Zelda met Scott Fitzgerald at a dance when she was 18, just after she had graduated from Sidney Lanier High School. Four years her senior, he was stationed near Montgomery with his army regiment, having recently left Princeton University without a degree. Zelda was impressed, and they began to meet frequently. When she invited him for dinner with the family for the first time, Zelda, annoyed at her father's impassivity, teased and provoked him until he jumped up, brandishing a carving knife, and chased her around the table. Other family members were oblivious. Though Fitzgerald could see he had encountered a highly unusual family, he did not realize (and no one told him) that they had a long history of certified mental illness.
Zelda was soon in love with Fitzgerald, smitten with his good looks and charm, his Ivy League education, and the contrast between her Southern Protestantism and his Midwest Irish Catholicism. In the spring of 1919, she accepted his proposal of marriage, noting that they also
had much in common: privileged upbringings, high spirits, love of drink and fun, and similar blond good looks. She then slept with him and later confided that she had first had sex at age 15 with another beau. Her family was worried, however, by the aspiring author's carefree ways, his reluctance to get a steady job, and his love for hard liquor. Zelda also had second thoughts, and she broke off the engagement after a few months when it seemed that Fitzgerald's talk about becoming a great writer would not be matched by the reality. Stung by this rejection, and by her apparent requirement that he be a success before he could marry her, he returned to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in a burst of creative energy completed This Side of Paradise. Published the following year, this first novel was an instant success, prompting Zelda to revive the romance. The couple married in St. Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, New York, in April 1920, even though Scott had lapsed from the practice of his faith.
This Side of Paradise and the sale of dozens of short stories to mass circulation magazines like the Saturday Evening Post made Scott a lot of money, and the young couple at once took up an extravagant way of life in New York City. Zelda jumped into a fountain in Union Square one night and paid a taxi driver to let her ride around town on the hood of his cab. She also flirted outrageously with Fitzgerald's friends, jumping into bed with one, asking another if he would give her a bath, and often kissing men passionately on the lips, just after meeting them. Edmund Wilson, a former college friend of Fitzgerald and one of many men to admire Zelda, wrote that "she talked with so spontaneous a color and wit, almost exactly the way she wrote, that I very soon ceased to be troubled by the fact that the conversation was in the nature of free association of ideas and one could never follow up anything. I have rarely known a woman who expressed herself so delightfully and freshly." At first, Fitzgerald encouraged her wildness, which he later incorporated into stories, but he soon found that she sulked if she did not enjoy a steady stream of costly gifts, pampering attention, and opportunities to act outrageously. All who met them in the early years of the marriage agreed that she demanded to be the center of attention. Scott quickly reached the point of being unable to write if she was in their apartment (because she would not leave him alone) and unable to write if she was not there (because of anxiety at what she might be doing, and with whom). She confessed to him that she was selfish and useless, and that she was completely inept as a housekeeper.
The birth of their baby daughter Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald in 1921 hardly slowed the couple down. They hired nannies and continued the wild round of parties, moving frequently, never having their own home, and often leaving disgruntled landlords and damaged properties in their wake. Zelda took abortifacient pills when she found she was pregnant again, but they caused internal injuries and began the long series of gynecological illnesses that contributed to her decline. (In 1926, when she wanted another child, she was unable to conceive.) Meanwhile Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), appeared, gaining him more critical admiration and more strong sales. Zelda's own first publication was an article about it for the New York Tribune. She noted that her husband had incorporated several passages from her letters and diaries into his new novel. "Mr. Fitzgerald," she added, "seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."
Try to understand that people are not always reasonable when the world is as unstable and vacillating as a sick head can render it.
Fitzgerald, Frances Scott (1921–1986)
American writer. Name variations: Scottie; Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith. Born in 1921; died in 1986; only child of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the novelist) and Zelda Fitzgerald (1900–1948); married Jack Lanahan (a lawyer; divorced); married Grove Smith, in 1967; children: four, including Tim and Eleanor Lanahan (an artist and illustrator).
The daughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald , Scottie Fitzgerald was a playwright, composer, Washington Post columist, and Democratic insider. As depicted by her daughter Eleanor Lanahan , Scottie adored her alcoholic father and blocked out her mother's bouts of insanity, but she was burdened with their fame. Also a heavy drinker, Scottie became a controlling and manipulative mother, writes Lanahan, whose four children eventually rebelled. A son Tim, who had been mentally unstable for years, shot himself in 1973.
Lanahan, Eleanor. Scottie: The Daughter of … : The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.
The couple made frequent visits to Europe in the early 1920s where they befriended a group of talented and wealthy American expatriates who had gone in search of a richer cultural life and the chance to drink alcohol without breaking the law (these were the Prohibition years in America). Among them were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein , Edith Wharton , T.S. Eliot, and many prominent British writers, including James Joyce. These new friends were fascinated by Zelda's beauty and impulsive behavior but dismayed by her drunkenness, which often led to public fights with the equally outrageous Fitzgerald, and sometimes to her undressing in public and throwing sexual taunts at him. When he met and was admired by the dancer Isadora Duncan one evening, Zelda, in a jealous rage, flung herself down a long stone staircase in an apparent suicide attempt. On a trip to France and Italy, during which he completed The Great Gatsby, his masterpiece, she had a brief love affair with a French naval officer, Edouard Jozan, and then asked Fitzgerald for a divorce. But her intensity frightened her lover away. For him it was just a holiday romance; he was not seeking a wife. Zelda again responded by trying to kill herself, this time with an overdose of sleeping pills, and had to be kept forcibly awake by her husband and friends. She began to accuse Fitzgerald of being a homosexual and of being in love with Hemingway, then confided to friends that she found him sexually inadequate.
After the Jozan episode, which did permanent damage to the Fitzgeralds' marriage, she began writing articles, many of which were published in Metropolitan Magazine, McCall's, and the New York Tribune. They showed her to be a perceptive observer as well as a wild participant in the expatriates' lives, but she still felt over-shadowed by her husband's talent and success, even though he encouraged her to write. Ironically, she found that she could get far more money for her articles if they were published under his name rather than her own, and she often settled for the money instead of the recognition. He, meanwhile, was forced to turn out masses of inferior stories for quick money rather than concentrating on his next novel, because the couple's way of life was so costly and wasteful.
In 1927, Zelda conceived a sudden passion for ballet dancing and began to study it with obsessive intensity, even though she was 27 and had started too late in life to hope for success as a ballerina. Often she practiced for seven or eight hours per day, exhausting herself and aggravating her medical problems, but making steady progress. She took dancing lessons first in Philadelphia from Catherine Littlefield and then in Paris from Madame Lyubov Egorova , a Russian ballerina and friend of Sergei Diaghilev, who told her that she was good enough to play minor roles in the corps de ballet even if she could not expect to be a soloist. Dancing became Zelda's only interest, turning her, Fitzgerald wrote, into "more and more an egotist and a bore." Zelda herself became madly devoted to her teacher, sending her flowers every day, and cold towards nearly everyone else. She won a few brief dancing engagements in Cannes and Nice yet declined the offer of a better, solo role with the San Carlo Opera Ballet in Italy, where she would have danced Aïda as her debut. This refusal is a baffling one, which her biographers are unable to explain, unless it indicates that she was expecting an appointment with the world-famous Diaghilev company in Paris.
In 1930, in any case, she suffered a severe nervous breakdown, brought on partly by the strain of dancing for eight or more hours per day, partly from the knowledge that her husband, now at work in Hollywood, had had an affair with a young actress, Lois Moran . Zelda's French doctors investigated her family's history of madness, diagnosed her as suffering from schizophrenia, hospitalized her, and forced her to give up dancing. Aware that she was unbalanced, she wrote to Fitzgerald: "I seem awfully queer to myself.… I see odd things, people's arms too long or their faces as if they were stuffed and they look tiny and far away, or suddenly out of proportion." She moved from Paris to a clinic in Switzerland, suffering from acute insomnia and sudden outbreaks of eczema and asthma. Fitzgerald visited her regularly and wrote constantly when traveling, showing that he was still passionately attached to her despite their destructive behavior towards each other. She wrote to him: "I am infinitely sorry that I have been ungrateful for your attempts to help me. Try to understand that people are not always reasonable when the world is as unstable and vacillating as a sick head can render it—That for months I have been living in vaporous places peopled with one-dimensional figures and tremulous buildings until I can no longer tell an optical illusion from a reality."
Sufficiently recovered by 1931, Zelda was able to leave the hospital, and the Fitzgeralds sailed to America. Scott returned to Hollywood, while Zelda went back to Montgomery for a time. In five months of hard work, despite suffering a mental relapse that took her to the Johns Hopkins Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore, she wrote the text of a novel, Save Me the Waltz. It appeared in 1932 after a bitter squabble with Fitzgerald during which he called her "a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer." He had planned to use much of the same material (including the story of her breakdown) in his own work-in-progress, Tender is the Night. Save Me the Waltz, like Fitzgerald's novels, certainly was unmistakably autobiographical, even after the couple had settled their dispute and edited the text. It provides the best avenue to understanding Zelda Fitzgerald's frame of mind and her idea of herself. Its heroine, Alabama Knight, is married to a painter, rather than a writer, but like Zelda she longs to become a dancer, moves back and forth restlessly between America and Europe, feels overshadowed by her husband's achievements, and finally seeks solace in her old Southern home. Zelda tried unsuccessfully to write another novel and to stage a play but finished neither project, and she published no more articles after 1934.
By then, she and Fitzgerald were living apart nearly all the time but continuing to write and exchange pledges of their love. In 1933, Zelda's brother committed suicide by jumping from a hospital window in Mobile, Alabama. Zelda herself was in and out of mental hospitals then and for the next several years, suffering recurrent episodes of schizophrenia. For one long period, she experienced violent hallucinations and came to believe that God was talking to her directly, ordering her to preach His word. She followed her doctors' encouragement to take up painting, which she had studied in 1925 on the Mediterranean island of Capri, and had dabbled in ever since. She first contributed to an exhibition, in Baltimore, in 1933, selling a few paintings while giving away many more to family and friends. Her initial solo exhibition, in Manhattan, coincided with the publication of Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1934), but her paintings were not well reviewed. For a while, she became almost as obsessed with painting as she had been with dancing five years before, but this work too was interrupted by frequent stays in clinics and sanitariums.
From 1936 to 1940, Zelda lived almost constantly at Highland Hospital, a clinic in Asheville, North Carolina, and saw the decaying Fitzgerald only on his occasional visits from Hollywood, when he was often incapacitated with drink. He died suddenly from a heart attack at age 44, during one of her hospital stays, so that she was unable to attend his Maryland funeral. At the height of his fame, in the mid and late 1920s, he had been earning over $30,000 each year from writing, but by the time he died his entire estate left Zelda with an annuity that yielded only about $50 per month.
She returned to Montgomery and went to stay with her mother, who was also living in reduced circumstances. Zelda was now a bornagain Christian and gained a reputation as a local eccentric, dressing in woolen alpine clothes and cycling around town despite the terrific summer heat, once falling to her knees and beginning to pray aloud at a garden party. She sent long, evangelical letters to old literary friends, instructing Edmund Wilson, for example: "You should redeem yourself; pray and repent.… You are much to be respected and handsome and have a genius for interesting people. You must look to your salvation." She continued to paint, mostly in a surrealist or semiabstract style: dancers, scenes from Paris, and religious themes. Friends who visited her said she talked constantly of the past and of Fitzgerald, who she now feared would be forgotten. Worsening health forced her to return to the asylum in November 1947, where she was an experimental patient with new insulin treatments. A fire broke out there late one night in the spring of 1948, killing nine of the women inmates, Zelda among them.
In her last years Zelda wrote to her daughter Scottie, who had herself married a Princeton graduate and army officer cadet: "I wish that I had been able to do better at one thing and not [been] so given to running into cul-de-sacs with so many." Scottie herself lived to see a reevaluation of her mother's life by feminist scholars in the 1960s and 1970s, but she denied their claim that Zelda should be regarded as the victim of a dominating patriarchal husband. It "will probably remain a part of the 'Scott and Zelda' mythology" she wrote, "but is not, in my opinion, accurate," because "my father greatly appreciated and encouraged his wife's unusual talents and ebullient imagination."
Bruccoli, Matthew, ed. The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald. NY: Scribner, 1991.
Fitzgerald, Zelda. Save Me the Waltz. NY: Scribner, 1932.
Lanahan, Eleanor, ed. Zelda—An Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald. NY: Abrams, 1996.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.
Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. NY: Harper and Row, 1970.
New York Public Library; Princeton University Library.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia