Zelda Fitzgerald: The Roaring ’20s Icon

by Sara Hodon

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was one of the most celebrated figures of the 1920s.  Along with her husband, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda epitomized the spirit of the times: carefree, fun-loving, and living for the moment.  In the early 1920s, Scott and Zelda had the world at their feet.  Fitzgerald was a rising star in the literary world with the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and was seen as the unofficial spokesman for an entire generation.  Zelda, meanwhile, is credited as being the first true “flapper” and symbol of the age in her own right.

But Zelda’s private struggles betrayed her glamorous public persona.  Unsatisfied to remain in her husband’s shadow, Zelda made numerous attempts at building her own career.

Scott felt threatened by his spirited wife’s artistic ambitions and took every opportunity to sabotage her endeavors.  The stress of their marriage, combined with Scott’s drinking and Zelda’s inability to handle the responsibilities and challenges of everyday life, took a terrible toll on the couple.   Already mentally and emotionally fragile, Zelda experienced a number of nervous breakdowns and was a patient in several mental institutions for most of her adult life.

The woman who became Fitzgerald’s muse and the icon of the Roaring Twenties began her life bright with promise and privilege.  Zelda was born on July 24, 1900 in Montgomery, AL, the youngest of Judge Anthony and Minnie (Machen) Sayre’s children.  Zelda’s next oldest sibling was 7 years older, and her parents, particularly her mother, shamelessly coddled and spoiled their youngest daughter.   From the beginning, it was clear that Zelda had a wild streak.   Her friends from childhood and her teenage years described Zelda as willful, headstrong, and totally fearless.  She would be the one to sneak out of her parents’ house in the middle of the night and run off with a boy.  Her friends marveled at her daring behavior.

Zelda lived for the moment and didn’t think much about the future.  She was a lackluster student who was more concerned with having fun and getting into mischief than applying herself academically.   She did want to leave Montgomery as soon as she could.   She felt stifled by the strict rules of society in the Deep South.  She wanted drama, adventure, and great passion, but it never occurred to her that those things often came with a price.  Later, her husband would comment that her upbringing encouraged her dreamlike view of the world, and prevented her from ever having a grasp of real life.  She’d never had to truly work for anything, and felt out of touch with other women her age.  She spent most of her life trying to develop a sense of who she truly was.

Zelda Sayre wasn’t thinking of such things when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Montgomery Country Club in 1918.   Fitzgerald, a handsome young Army first lieutenant stationed at Fort Sheridan, had been put on academic probation at Princeton and left college to join the military.  He was different from the other boys Zelda had dated before.  He wasn’t the strong, strapping macho type that she was normally attracted to, but she fell for his poetic heart and romantic ideas of the future.   He seemed to have a promising literary career ahead of him.  He had written a few short stories and a play, and was at work on his first novel when he met Zelda.  Although he hadn’t been the strongest student at Princeton, his college experiences left a lasting impact on him and would inspire much of his work.

He and Zelda shared the same dreams, and were soon inseparable.   Though Fitzgerald planned to marry Zelda, he wanted to establish himself as a writer first.  When he was discharged from the Army in 1919, he moved to New York so he could immerse himself in the city’s bustling literary scene and finish his novel.   Zelda stayed behind in Montgomery for almost two years before joining Scott in New York.  Scott was in regular company with some of the biggest names of the day, including Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott.

This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920 and was an instant success. The book was a fictional account of Scott’s own experiences at Princeton; the main character, Amory Blaine, was based on Scott himself.  Infusing his novels and stories with scenes and conversations from his own life was a practice Fitzgerald would use for the rest of his career.  With the release of his book, Scott was heralded as the voice of the young generation in the 1920s and finally felt financially secure enough to formally propose to Zelda, who happily accepted.  The young couple was married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1920.  They soon learned that they were better at partying and drinking than cooking, cleaning, or taking care of a household.   They let their maid handle those trivial matters and went back to their social life.

The Fitzgeralds reveled in their fame and were always seen at the most exclusive parties and events in the city.   They were young, beautiful, just scandalous enough, and came to represent the very spirit of the age.   They appeared on magazine covers and gave interviews to the biggest publications of the time both together and separately.  Their behavior made headlines, such as Zelda’s memorable leap into the fountain in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park.  She hadn’t yet outgrown her mischievous streak and the public loved her for it.

Her husband was appearing in magazine after magazine, and Zelda started to think that she might want some of the spotlight for herself.  The couple’s relationship began to splinter.  The Fitzgeralds had a daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, nicknamed “Scottie” in 1921.  Her birth did little to change her parents’ ways.  Zelda hadn’t particularly taken to motherhood, either.  She and Scott simply hired a nanny and went on with things.  Fitzgerald desperately rushed to finish his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in late 1921 to keep the momentum going.

Meanwhile, Zelda discovered that she had writing talents of her own.  She wrote a series of articles about the modern-day flapper as a favor for a friend of her husband, and was pleasantly surprised at how well they were received.  She had a knack for writing vivid descriptions and unique turns of phrase, a skill that did not go unnoticed by Scott.  Zelda was excited.  She’d never shown any interest in pursuing a vocation before, nor had she been encouraged to do so.   As a girl, her only interests had been swimming and getting into mischief.  Finally, the spotlight that had been shining solely on her husband might now include her, too.

Scott disagreed.

As their fame grew, the dynamic of their marriage began to change.    Scott’s insecurities started to emerge and his controlling side took over.  He and Zelda were equal parts supporter and rival to the other, and he felt threatened by her newfound confidence.   Zelda, always fearless, began to defer to Scott more and more.   He was the writer in the family, as he would often point out.

But there was no denying her talent, the fact of which Scott was well aware.  He used his wife’s talents for his own work, often lifting whole passages from her diary and working them into his own manuscripts, claiming her words as his own.

The creative power struggle between husband and wife began early and lasted for most of their marriage.   Though he recognized Zelda’s need to discover her own potential, he wouldn’t tolerate her as competition within his own field.  Writing was Scott’s vocation, and he thwarted Zelda’s initial efforts to become a writer.  Their relationship became more hostile.  With writing out of the question, Zelda turned to painting.  As a girl, she’d shown some skill with watercolors, and threw herself into that for a time.

New York’s literary scene was shifting, however.  Most of the city’s literary elite were going abroad.  The Fitzgeralds, already dealing with their own issues, thought that a change of scenery might help.   Financially, times were tight. The money Scott made from his short stories made up most of the family’s income, and they had been spending money almost as fast as he could make it.  Friends advised them that living in Europe was much cheaper than New York, so they left for France in 1924.  Their time in Paris and the French Riviera would prove to be an important chapter in their marriage.

While abroad, the couple became acquainted with fellow writers Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as Gerald and Sara Murphy, a wealthy couple who became lifelong friends.   There was a different energy between the Fitzgeralds.   By the time they arrived in France, their marriage had an undercurrent of tension.  Years before, Zelda accused her husband of having an affair.  Scott denied the accusation, but that mistrust caused a fracture in their marriage that never fully healed.

While in France, Zelda had a brief but passionate romance with French pilot Edouard Jozan.   The breakup caused something to give in Zelda, though it was difficult to pinpoint what it was exactly.  Something simply wasn’t right.  She had a particularly alarming episode in their suite’s bathroom, which a friend witnessed but Scott tended to immediately.  That episode would resurface years later in his final novel, Tender is the Night.

Scott’s third novel, The Great Gatsby, was published in 1925.   The novel was critically acclaimed, but saw only modest sales.   The Fitzgeralds, still in Europe at the time, lived in Paris and the Riviera off and on for nearly two years.  Though their writer friends seemed to find inspiration and solace in the South of France’s sunshine and glistening white beaches, it gave the Fitzgeralds little comfort.  Zelda’s fragile mental state did not improve.   Scott tried to cope with it as best he could, but he was trying to keep his career alive and take care of their daughter at the same time.    They returned from Europe in 1927.  They bought a house they called Ellerslie near Wilmington, Delaware and tried to get back on track.

Zelda next turned to ballet.  She’d been a dancer for a time as a teen, but, as with her other passing interests, never pursued it seriously.  Now as an adult, it became an obsession.    Her teacher, the famed Madame Lubov Egorova, was a perfectionist whom Zelda was determined to please.  Zelda would practice for hours every day.   No one quite had the heart to tell her that, at almost 30 years old, she was more than past the prime age for ballet dancers and her chances for professional success were slim at best.  She refused to give up, but the stress of the training was too much for her.  She finally suffered her first mental collapse in 1930 and was admitted to Malmaison, a facility near Paris, in April but left after little more than a week.  She would be a patient at various facilities off and on for the next decade.

During her hospitalizations, Zelda had given writing another try.  She’d kept journals for years, but decided to focus her energies on writing fiction.  This time, Scott supported her efforts.  Her first novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published in 1932.   Though fictional, the book was clearly autobiographical, as episodes from Zelda’s real life appeared in the book.   She based her main character, the fiery Southern belle Alabama Beggs, on her younger self.   The book was panned by critics and readers alike, who felt it was too difficult to read.  The storyline was not consistent and hard to follow; the characters were flat and one-dimensional.

Scott had read the reviews but spared Zelda the worst of the criticism.  The writing process had helped her condition, and Scott feared a relapse should she read the reviews.

In 1933, she wrote a stage play, Scandalabra, which was staged by a small amateur theater company in Baltimore.  The critics mercilessly panned it as they had her novel.   Again, the script’s storyline was convoluted and hard for audiences to follow; the characters described by many as flat, one-dimensional, even silly.   Zelda, who had thrown herself into rehearsals and preparations for the show’s first performance, was crushed.  Scott was disappointed for her, as he was happy to see his wife so excited about something again.

The months of rehearsals and meetings wore Zelda out, and she suffered another setback.  She was admitted to Sheppard-Pratt Hospital near Baltimore in early 1934.    For the next three years, she was admitted to a number of different facilities.  In 1936, she went through a period where she didnt speak to anyone, and when she did finally speak, she announced that she was on a mission from God to teach things to mankind.

Finally, in 1938 Zelda was admitted to what would be her last residence: Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.  Scott, who had faithfully provided for his wife’s care, understood that he needed to move on with his life if he hoped to revive his fading career.  It had taken him seven years to complete his final and most personal work, Tender is the Night, released in 1935.  The book’s beautiful but flawed main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, the psychiatrist and the patient whom he treated and eventually married, were modeled after Scott and Zelda.

Scott found steady work writing film scripts in Hollywood, and settled into a comfortable life with columnist Sheilah Graham.  Scott died of a sudden heart attack on December 21, 1940.  Zelda was devastated but did her best to cope with the loss.  She focused on trying to rebuild her damaged relationship with her daughter Scottie, who was now grown and married to Lt. Samuel Lanahan, whom she’d married in 1943.

The last few years of Zelda’s life were spent quietly at Highland Hospital and back in Montgomery, where she would stay with her mother for short visits.  Since Judge Sayre’s death in 1931, Mrs. Sayre had taken a more active role in Zelda’s rehabilitation.  By the mid-1940s, it was obvious even to Mrs. Sayre that Zelda’s condition would not improve and that she would never be able function outside the walls of the hospital for extended periods of time.

Zelda dabbled in painting and writing for the rest of her days, but it seemed that her creative passions had burned themselves out.  She started a second novel, Caesar’s Things, which she never finished.  She resigned herself to living at a slower pace, where she would rely on the routines set for her.

Zelda’s siblings had also struggled with mental illness.  Her oldest sister Marjorie suffered from nervous episodes throughout her life, and her brother Anthony committed suicide after battling depression for years.

Like Scott, Zelda’s brief life came to an abrupt end, though much more dramatically.

On the night of March 10, 1948, a fire broke out at Highland in the hospital’s kitchen and spread quickly.  The stairwells and hallways filled with thick smoke.  Firemen made every effort to get as many patients out of the burning building as possible.  They were slowed by heavy, locked doors and barred windows.  Zelda was behind one of those doors.  The firemen arrived too late. She was one of nine women killed, and was later buried next to her husband in Maryland.

Scholars and historians have painted Zelda as a crazy woman who emasculated her husband; others argue that Scott was the tyrant whose mental and emotional abuse drove Zelda over the edge.

But most agree that Zelda’s struggles to break free from her husband’s control and chart her own course, both as an artist and a woman, would earn her a place as one of the leading female voices of the 1920s.

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