My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl
Zelda Fitzgerald. Most have heard about her as crazy F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, or as he called her ´the first flapper´. We almost always read about her in context of her husband's career, but there is so much more to her story! More than anything, Zelda wanted to be recognised for her artistic talents, she wanted, same as her husband, to be somebody, to be an artist in her own right.
Born on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Zelda Sayre was the youngest child of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Dickson Sayre and Minnie Buckner Machen Sayre, a prominent middle-class couple with roots in both Montgomery and Confederate history. Both Zelda’s great-uncle and grandfather served in the United States Senate: judge Sayre's uncle William was a prominent Montgomery merchant whose home eventually became Jefferson Davis's first White House; Mrs. Sayre's father was a Kentucky senator in the Confederate Congress.
She was named for characters in two different 1874 books, Zelda: A Tale of the Massachusetts Colony and Zelda’s Fortune, both of which feature gypsies as the title character. By her early adolescence Zelda was already a formidable presence in Montgomery social circles, starring in ballet recitals and basking in the glow of elite country club dances. She was what we would call today an ¨IT-girl¨, considered a southern belle of her times. She was known to swim in a tight, flesh-coloured bathing suit simply to fuel speculation that she swam naked. In high school, Zelda’s desire to be unconventional and rebellious meant that she smoked, drank alcohol, and snuck out of her parents’ house to spend time with boys. Her friends described her as fearless, daring, and attention-seeking. Later, when she was living with her husband in New York, her carefree spirit and erratic behavior (such as jumping into fountains fully clothed) became a symbol of the 1920s. She was often the talk of the town, and she loved the attention she received. Her contemporary believed that was the only reason behind her behaviour, but reading parts of her diaries and the novel ¨Save Me the Waltz¨, we can suspect she truly believed in the radical idea that women should be more than just daughters and wives. She wanted women to have the same rights as men, and she liked to test her boundaries as a woman.
Zelda met a 21-year-old Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in July 1918, barely a month after graduating from Sidney Lanier High School. He was an army second lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan,an Irish-descended Yankee from Princeton University. Her parents found him unsuitable and advised her not to get involved.
Usually, it is said that despite Scott's claim that he was on the verge of literary fame, Zelda doubted his financial prospects and entertained several other suitors, that Zelda's tactics fueled Scott's insecurities, and the motif of a young man pursuing an elusive and conniving woman would later come to define his fiction. But that is just his ´literary version´of their relationship, part of his lore.
In reality, in typical Zelda fashion, she defied her parents, despite being aware of the fact that Scott, who was in training at a nearby military base, would soon be shipped off to fight in France and might not return. He did leave, but the war ended before he arrived. A tumultuous two-year courtship followed, during which Scott tried to establish a writing career in New York. It is believed that Scott didn’t want Zelda to join him until he could show her the lifestyle he felt she deserved, but another version that seems more probable, is that her father didn't allow Zelda to leave home until he could support both of them. So, Zelda, still in Montgomery with her family most of the time was in denial that she wore Scott’s mother’s engagement ring and officially continued to see other men. Her mother genuinely liked Scott, but worried about the realities that would come with marrying a struggling writer. Zelda’s father thought Scott would be unable to support his daughter and didn’t like that he was Irish, Catholic and a boozer. When Fitzgerald finally sold his first novel, This Side of Paradise, for very little money, and then sold a short story to the movies for a bit more, Zelda immediately left home to marry him. She was not yet 20 years old.
They married on April 3, 1920 in New York, just a week after the publication of the novel. Neither of their parents were there for their wedding in New York, which was a small ceremony at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral just a day before Easter Sunday. Only eight people were invited to join them. Scott insisted the wedding happen early, before noon, before a few of the guests even made it there. Zelda’s biographer Milford wrote:
¨Zelda wore a suit of midnight blue with a matching hat trimmed with leather ribbons and buckles; she carried a bouquet of orchids and small white flowers. It was a brilliantly sunny day and when they stepped outside the cathedral Zelda looked for all the world like a young goddess of spring, with Scott at her side as consort.¨
Zelda’s marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald was a toxic one, complete with alcoholism, mutual infidelity, and jealousy. Zelda accused her husband of having a gay relationship with his friend and fellow writer Ernest Hemingway, and she had nervous breakdowns throughout their marriage. Although they never divorced, the couple was estranged when F. Scott died in 1940 of heart attack. The most legendary couple of the 1920s, faced the grim realities of alcoholism and mental illness, infidelity and literary rivalry, of a marriage in which, according to their friend Ring Lardner, "Mr Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs Fitzgerald is a novelty".
Generally biographers and friends have taken the side of one of the partners, at one extreme endorsing Hemingway's view that Zelda was a madwoman who undermined Scott's sexual and artistic self-confidence and drained him emotionally and economically, and at another seeing Scott as a monster. Most probably, both partners were victims of a social system and psychological practice that punished creative women, especially those married to creative men.
But before all that happened they made a name for themselves in New York as a golden couple, a perfect marriage free of jealousy, which was very far from their real situation.
The era we know as the Jazz Age was just beginning. Women drinking and smoking in public, wearing revealing dresses, dancing to wild music, kissing men without intending to marry them – it was all scandalous in 1920, and the newlywed Fitzgeralds wanted to lead the trend. Determined to be famous, Scott wrote stories about such independent “flapper” girls, Zelda modelled the dress and behaviours, they played pranks, held parties in hotel suites, defied rules, and very soon became celebrities – the first It couple – in this post-war time of growing excess.
F. Scott based some of his characters on Zelda, and he adapted his real-life interactions and experiences with her into his novels. He also copied entries from Zelda’s journals and put them into his books, blurring the line between fiction and reality. In a piece she wrote for The New York Tribune, Zelda Fitzgerald famously reviewed her husband’s masterpiece The Beautiful and the Damned with an accusation of plagiarism, it was received with a sense of humour. “Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home”, she famously told the New York Herald, and the world laughed. It was taken as witty, charming, but never serious. The same can be said for her entire career. Save Me the Waltz is arguably a stronger novel than many of Scott’s late works. Yet people wanted to read about Zelda, not read her. She was an intellectual eunuch. It is well known that Scott’s leading ladies are Zelda in disguise, with borrowed character traits and neuroses. Scott would read over Zelda’s private diary and take as he saw fit.
Daisy’s (from Great Gatsby) famous “I hope she’s a beautiful little fool” line was originally Zelda's. She said it when their only child, Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald was born on October 26, 1921. When planning Tender is the Night, Scott compared Zelda and Nicole’s mental histories in a chart entitled “Classification of the Material on Sickness”. Scott sent her to an asylum, yet banned her from writing about it. It was his story, and he had the power to claim ownership. Scott’s genius was celebrated, thus his alcoholism tolerated. Zelda was not afforded the same privilege. When her eccentricities lost their charm, she was institutionalised. A career was made out of fetishising her hysteria. The career, however, was not her own.
Zelda's influence on Scott's fiction at the beginning of their marriage is inestimable. In addition to inspiring his major heroines, she supplied him with many other memorable lines, including an evocative description of Montgomery's Oakwood Cemetery that appears in his short story "The Ice Palace." All that has fueled scholarly debate that Zelda was Scott's collaborator and that he appropriated her personal experiences in his work. Such charges were given additional weight by the frequent addition of his name to her bylines on nearly two dozen stories and articles she produced between 1922 and 1934. In fact, Scott's agent or editors added his name in several instances without his knowledge because the joint byline increased the price that these works received from leading magazines. Claims that Zelda "co-authored" her husband's writing certainly are exaggerated, but few would deny that her personality was key to its appeal.
In 1927, Scott met Lois Moran, a 17-year-old silent film actress. Scott's affair with Lois was neither his first nor his last. In fact, Scott and Zelda had an established pattern of non-monogamy, but before meeting Lois, Scott had retooled their marital contract to insist on Zelda's fidelity. It was always said that they both had affairs, pretending not to care about it, but in reality the only documented affairs were those of Scott. In a letter to Scott dated September 1930, Zelda writes, "In California, though you would not allow me to go anywhere without you, you yourself engaged in flagrantly sentimental relations with a child."
Over the course of their affair, Scott steadily compared the two women. Even though Scott forbade Zelda from accepting a movie role offered to her, viciously panned her writing and blatantly discouraged her dancing and painting pursuits, Scott audaciously criticized Zelda's lack of ambition while applauding Lois' drive. And yet, Scott propagated stories that positioned Zelda's outrage as yet more evidence of Zelda's "crazy." He implicitly denied culpability.
He himself accused Zelda of having an affair with a French aviator, Edouard Jozan, in 1924 and claimed that it changed their relationship forever. However, Jozan, after both Fitzgerald's were dead said that there never was any affair, that both Scott and Zelda were generally very dramatic, usually over nothing. All that undermined her already fragile mental health.
What is more, Zelda was a real artist, which people refused to see when she was still alive. As a child, Zelda had taken ballet lessons, but her interest in dance was renewed in her late 20s while the couple was living in France. Hoping to become a professional ballerina, she took ballet lessons in Paris with Russian dancer Lubov Egorova. Zelda trained obsessively for a few years, spending all day practicing until her dancing dreams ended when she suffered a mental breakdown in 1930. A belated effort to became a ballerina in Paris had driven her to anorexia and obsessive behaviour, but Scott's chief reasons for having her committed were sexual; she declared an attraction to her ballet teacher, and, in the asylum, was caught masturbating. Her sexual frankness conflicted with his anxieties and pruderies, especially with his own fascinated dread of homosexuality. "The nearest I ever came to leaving you," he told her, "was when you told me that I was a fairy in the Rue Palatine."
Zelda's hospital letters were censored by her caretakers, and have to be seen as written by a prisoner to her jailer. Although she often expressed an extravagant love for Scott, and he loyally supported and wrote affectionately to her, they quarrelled bitterly and endlessly over her ambitions as a writer and painter, her sexuality, and her right to work and to be independent. Zelda repeatedly said that she wanted a divorce, but without any money of her own, and without the means of earning any, she was utterly powerless in the relationship.
So, the crack-up of the marriage and their lives came quickly; by 1930, after less than a decade of fame and high living in New York, the Riviera and Paris, they had entered what would become a long decline. Just as their married life had been lived in hotels, Zelda's post-1930 life became an odyssey between hospitals and clinics; some were four-star European establishments with all the luxuries of a spa resort, some much more basic and punitive with cold baths, strait-jackets and long hikes.
Zelda felt that she had lived the life of a pampered child: "I don't seem to know anything appropriate for a person of 30." Confinement in a series of institutions certainly made it hard for her to grow up. Scott was a control freak who wanted to arrange and order every detail of her life, as he would also for their daughter, but he also did his best to find her the most advanced care. Zelda's doctors included many of the famous names of psychiatric medicine of her day, but their understanding and treatment of women's psychological conflicts was lumbered with traditional expectations that healthy, normal women should be content to limit themselves to secondary domestic roles. Zelda was forced to restrict or give up her dancing, painting and writing and to submit to versions of the rest cure that made her worse. As she wrote: "Enforced inactivity maddens me beyond endurance."
Diagnosed as schizophrenic, although she did not meet most of the criteria for the illness, Zelda was regularly subjected to insulin shock therapy, which induced memory loss and weight gain, and dosed with a battery of drugs including morphine, belladonna, potassium bromide and horse serum. From the beginning, Zelda perceived her treatment as "a sort of castration". Scott, meanwhile, was not institutionalised for his drinking. Moreover, he insisted that she was the real drunkard, while he needed drink in order to work.
Yet the biggest crisis in their marriage and its tenuous balance of power came in 1932, when Zelda wrote an autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, drawing on the same material with which he was struggling in Tender is the Night. She wrote it in only two months: January and February at Phipps Clinic of John Hopkins Hospital and sent it to Max Perkins in March without informing Scott. He was outraged that Zelda should presume to poach on his territory. He wrote in fury to his publisher Max Perkins telling him not to publish.
In May 1933, the Fitzgeralds sat down with Zelda's doctor for a debate on the subject which was transcribed by a stenographer and ran to 114 pages. The transcripts read more like a trial than a negotiation. Scott demanded "unconditional surrender" - he accused Zelda of being an opportunist and called her "a third-rate writer" and a "useless society woman" with an "amazonian and lesbian" personality. "It seems to me that you are making rather a violent attack on a third-rate talent then," Zelda replied. She wanted a divorce and stressed her need to be independent.
In a journal entry outlining his divorce strategy if Zelda insisted on continuing to write fiction, Scott noted: "Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result - new breakdown." In the event, Zelda capitulated and Scott allowed the novel to be published with several cuts.
Zelda's letters are saturated with the need to find meaningful work and to support herself. But Scott could not consent, and gradually Zelda developed symptoms of religious mania and suicidal depression.
In the late 1930s, when Scott was too hard up to pay her hospital fees, he moved her to Highlands Hospital in North Carolina, where Dr Robert Carroll believed in vigorous physical activity and reprogramming rebellious women through electro-shock treatments into "wholesome" wives and mothers. Although Carroll eventually relented enough to support Zelda's painting, he was also involved in a case of raping a female patient. Another psychiatrist, Dr Irving Pine, said that "Dr Carroll took advantage of several women patients, including Zelda".
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Zelda was in and out of mental hospitals. Although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, her fluctuations between depression and mania would most likely get her a bipolar diagnosis today. During her time in these hospitals, Zelda kept herself creatively occupied by writing and painting. She worked on her second novel, called Caesar’s Things, and she painted scenes from Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, and New York locations like Times Square, Washington Square Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Since the ballet didn’t work out, and writing books didn’t seem to be her calling, Zelda desperately turned to painting. She had been painting for years—it was a hobby that occupied her while she was in and out of mental institutions. Her paintings were displayed in 1934 but, like her novel, faced a cool reception. One critic said:
Paintings by the almost mythical Zelda Fitzgerald; with whatever emotional overtones or associations may remain from the so-called Jazz Age.
Zelda’s and Scott’s relationship remained understandably rocky. He was off in Hollywood most of the time, carrying on an affair with Sheilah Graham, a movie columnist. She was once again in a mental institution—this time in Asheville, North Carolina. Zelda “made progress” in Asheville, and in 1938 Scott had a falling-out with Graham, resulting in husband and wife taking a trip to Cuba. They returned from the trip exhausted, and Scott returned to Hollywood. The pair continued sending each other letters, but it was the last time they would see each other.
Scott predeceased her, in 1940, and after his death, Zelda spent much of her time in Montgomery with her family. The years until her death in 1948 were among Zelda's most creative, although her unfinished novel from the period, Caesar's Wife, is the product of her religious obsessions.
On March 10, 1948, a fire started in the hospital’s kitchen. Reportedly, Zelda was scheduled for an electroshock therapy session and was sedated and locked in a waiting room. Regardless of where exactly she was, the fire spread through the floors of the building via the dumbwaiter shaft, and Zelda was killed along with eight other women. She was 47.
In 1975, the Catholic archdiocese overturned an earlier decision and allowed Scott and Zelda to be buried together in St Mary's Church cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. Their inscription quotes the last line of Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
This text is a compliation of a few very interesting articles I came across: