Zelda Fitzgerald

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is generally remembered as the flamboyant wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda, named after a gypsy queen in a novel, however, was a talented writer in her own right, recognized for her biting, bantering style. Ballet and painting were also important in Fitzgerald’s life. She took ballet lessons in France during the 1920’s, and some of her paintings, exhibited in New York City during the 1930’s and 1940’s, were influenced by dancers. She also wrote a ballet libretto.

The daughter and sixth child of Minnie Machen and Anthony Sayre, a judge on Alabama’s Supreme Court, Zelda Sayre wrote poetry from an early age. A talented, glamorous Montgomery belle, Zelda was writing magazine articles when she met a young soldier at a Montgomery country-club dance on April 3, 1920. She married F. Scott Fitzgerald later in 1920, one week after the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. By 1922, Fitzgerald had given birth to her daughter, Scottie, and the Fitzgeralds had moved to New York City. Soon they moved to the less costly and more intellectually stimulating French Riviera. The couple’s turbulent and extravagant lifestyle, fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, and Zelda’s ensuing mental breakdowns—the first occurred in 1930—created many problems and generated considerable notoriety.

She and her husband embodied the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, living frantic and reckless lives of excess. The embodiment of the flapper, Fitzgerald is said to have stated that “flapperdom” allowed women to “capitalize on their natural resources and get their money’s worth. They are merely applying business methods to being young.” When asked to describe herself, she flippantly responded that she was “independent, courageous, without thought for anyone else.”

At times Zelda Fitzgerald collaborated with her famous husband. Two coauthored articles were published in 1928, and five stories portraying young women’s college experiences were published in 1929. Also during that year, another of her stories, “Our Own Movie Queen,” appeared with only her husband’s name (his name meant bigger paychecks) in The Saturday Evening Post.

Although they collaborated, the couple also competed for public favor in the literary arena. Zelda Fitzgerald maintained that her famous husband appropriated her diaries and letters as fodder for his novels: “Plagiarism begins at home,” she once quipped. He reciprocated by referring to her sardonically as “the famous author my wife” and calling her stories “lop-sided.”

The Fitzgeralds’ tempestuous life together is mirrored in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night, which attempts to capture the spiritual and psychological bankruptcy of the people of their age. The story draws upon both Zelda Fitzgerald’s mental illness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies. The novel recounts the marriage of Dick Diver, a young psychiatrist, and his schizophrenic patient, Nicole Warren. In an attempt to cure her he loses her to another man and then experiences a nervous decline.

Zelda Fitzgerald’s 1932 novel Save Me the Waltz (in some ways a Tender Is the Night from her point of view) came about as the result of a suggestion from her psychiatrist. In it the heroine, Alabama Beggs, competes with her husband for a successful artistic career while attempting to form her own separate identity. When Fitzgerald’s husband tried to dissuade her from writing in 1933, she retaliated by writing the bitter farcical drama Scandalabra, which displeased him intensely. Although it made the rounds, no director would stage it. Indeed, it was not published until 1980.

After the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and four suicide attempts, Fitzgerald returned to the United States to enter a mental hospital in North Carolina. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of the next years in mental institutions. Her husband was also to suffer a...

(The entire section is 973 words.)