Zelda Fitzgerald attained notoriety but little fame in her lifetime. She was known mainly as the southern belle who became a beautiful, zany, and mad wife, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life story. In 1970 Nancy Milford published Zelda: A Biography, and much of that was changed. Milford’s Zelda was a woman for the 1970’s. As feminists grew in number, biographers began to focus on literary women. Sisters and wives of noted authors were seen to rival their brothers and husbands. Long, and often unfairly, neglected women poets and novelists were rediscovered and reprinted. The literary talent of Milford’s Zelda had been resented by her husband and obscured by him. Her subsequent mental illness made her story a melancholy case in point.
Since then, so much more attention has been paid to Zelda that she stands as a figure in her own right. Most biographers encountered reticence by the living relatives of both F. Scott and Zelda to display some important material. By the 1990’s, Sally Cline, an established British writer, was given full access to all relevant papers. Cline also tracked down all of Zelda’s surviving paintings. As a result, this somewhat biased book benefits from more biographical evidence.
The story is a good one. Zelda Sayre was born in 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama, to Minerva (“Minnie”) Machen Sayre and Judge Anthony Dickinson Sayre. Because Minnie loved romantic novels, Zelda’s name was prophetically borrowed from several flamboyantly beautiful gypsy heroines. Moreover, on her mother’s side Zelda came from a long line of what she called “the most audacious, impetuous, picturesque and irrepressible” ancestors. There was talk of a strain of mental illness.
As a girl, Zelda lived up to her name and ancestry. Although her friends were from old, established families, Zelda was rebellious. She was a tomboy and did not conform to the ideal of the southern lady. She did well enough in school but only liked her art class. Her talk was wonderful—full of wild metaphors, yet oddly disconnected. The word around Montgomery was that Zelda had no shyness and no morals. She lost her virginity when she was fifteen. She may have been raped.
In April, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Montgomery was near two army bases, and soldiers came to town. Zelda was the most popular belle. Officers swarmed about, and her evenings were filled with dancing and parties. At one of these she met a young officer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was intelligent, sensitive, and gentle. Even though Zelda loved him, she would not become engaged. Cline disputes the usual implication that she hesitated because Scott had no money; rather, Zelda was afraid of leaving her comfortable southern world. She also worried that Scott had little self-confidence. With the publication of his novel This Side of Paradise in 1920, Scott gained both confidence and money. They married that year.
The story of the Fitzgeralds’ married life has been told many times, and Cline fills in the familiar outline well. They first lived in New York. Scott wrote articles which inspired the popular press to acclaim the Fitzgeralds the representatives of the flamboyant postwar era, which Scott named “The Jazz Age.” They danced, drank, and behaved outrageously. They rode on the hoods of taxis and splashed in the fountain in front of The Plaza hotel. They were kicked out of hotels and restaurants for their behavior. They had money and spent more than they had.
When Zelda became pregnant, they returned to Scott’s hometown of St. Paul. Even though Scott worked on his second novel and Zelda gave birth to their daughter, Scottie, the extravagant parties and excessive drinking continued. These activities did not stop when they went East and rented a house in Great Neck, Long Island. A list of their friends and acquaintances reads like a who’s who of the literary and theatrical worlds: Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Maxwell Perkins, Ring Lardner, Anita Loos, Rebecca West, Basil Rathbone, Leslie Howard. When they returned from Europe a few years later, that list would expand to include Edna Ferber, Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Djuna Barnes, and Lillian Hellman.
The Fitzgeralds went to Europe in 1924, and for the following six years they moved among Paris, Rome, and the French Riviera, returning to the United States several times to live in New York again and in Hollywood. In Paris, they became close friends of Gerald and Sara Murphy, a wealthy and artistic couple...
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