Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise

by Sally Cline
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

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...

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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 whose hospitality became legendary. Through the Murphys, they met songwriter Cole Porter, painters Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, and writer Ernest Hemingway.

All through these years, Scott managed to turn out many fine short stories and two novels, the second of which, The Great Gatsby, would become a classic of American literature. During this time he also drank to excess. Cline records many terrible stories of his offensive and embarrassing behavior. At the same time, he was an authoritarian and even abusive husband—she portrays him as almost a monster. Zelda, whose natural exuberance blended into the wild life when they were the toast of New York, suffered from not having any role besides being Scott’s flapper wife and suffered also from being a thousand miles away from home. She felt especially alienated in St. Paul. As the 1920’s went on, her health worsened, and her behavior sometimes became odd and even self-destructive. She could be nasty or excessively sullen. On Easter in 1930, Zelda suffered her first nervous collapse: She heard flowers talking and other voices.

Zelda’s life through the 1940’s was terrible to live through but easy to summarize. She was in and out of clinics in Switzerland and the United States, ending up at Highland Hospital in Ashville, North Carolina, in 1936. Cline draws on newly available evidence to describe in excruciating detail the horrible treatments Zelda underwent. Some of the therapies may have been unnecessary, for Cline makes out a case that Zelda, probably because of her unique way of talking, was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic. Cline cites other reasons for Zelda’s mistreatment. Zelda had lesbian tendencies; contemporary doctors considered such behavior unnatural and tried to cure patients of it. Doctors also considered a woman to be deviant if she was not a devoted mother.

Cline is also critical of what she sees as a flaw in Zelda’s character: her “outrageous dependency” on Scott. (Zelda’s loving letters to Scott during this decade, however, are very moving.) Zelda’s mental problems were partly real, partly exacerbated by her treatment, and partly a myth built up by Scott’s biographers and by the remarks made by people who knew her, especially Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway sensed that Zelda did not like him or his work and retaliated by calling her crazy.

Cline’s revision of the usual accounts of Zelda’s mental problems is important; so is her emphasis on Zelda’s real talent, hard work, and artistic achievement. At every turn, Cline emphasizes that Zelda was not the shallow flapper and obsessive amateur that myth has made her. She was an independent and adventurous young woman. Even in Montgomery, she wrote, painted, and danced. As soon as she discovered that her wild life with Scott did not give her scope for personal and professional achievement, she attempted to establish herself as an artist in her own right. She began taking painting lessons and studied ballet in Paris under (and also fell in love with) Lubov Egorova, once a leading dancer in the Russian Imperial ballet. Zelda continued to paint until the end of her life. She threw herself into these activities with an energy that some thought obsessive. She wrote articles and stories that were published under Scott’s name or both of their names. In her letters and articles, Zelda is truly witty and incisive; the reader hears an original and winning voice. In her fiction, she shows a wonderful ability to describe sights and smells sensuously.

What clinches Cline’s argument that one should take Zelda seriously is what she did achieve. She was an accomplished enough dancer to be offered a position as a prima ballerina with the Teatro di San Carlo opera and ballet company in Naples, Italy, which she declined. Egorova thought she could dance with Léonide Massine’s ballet company in New York. Cline especially emphasizes Zelda’s success as a painter (though only one illustration of her work is given). Zelda had many exhibitions of her paintings, one in a prominent New York gallery, and she sold many pictures. Reproductions of her paintings can be found in Zelda: An Illustrated Life (1996), edited by Eleanor Lanahan. As a writer, Zelda’s success is measured by volume. She published a number of articles and stories in important magazines and in 1932 produced a well-received novel, Save Me the Waltz. Her accomplishments in all three fields were considerable.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise may be too detailed for some readers. The account of Zelda’s hospital stays becomes boring. Cline’s partisanship may offend other readers, and her narrative is sometimes hard to follow. Her segues from topic to topic are awkward, perhaps because she tries to contribute to all of her arguments at all times. Over and over, Cline documents one of her most important themes: that both Fitzgeralds felt entitled to use the material of their joint experiences for their fiction. This was a major bone of contention in their marriage. Zelda draws upon their experience in her stories. Scott uses details of his courtship and Zelda’s letters and diaries in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), the plot of which mirrors the Fitzgeralds’ life together. Zelda’s remark after giving birth turns up in Daisy’s mouth in The Great Gatsby.

Matters came to a head when, in the early 1930’s, Scott was struggling with Tender Is the Night(1934). He wanted to draw upon their experiences with Zelda’s hospitalization and was furious to learn that Zelda was using this material in a second novel of her own. During a long session with a doctor as referee, Scott argued that, as a professional novelist who supported his family, the material was his and that, as an amateur and wife, Zelda should defer to him. Zelda argued that she was entitled to write about her own life. Cline quotes much of the transcript of this session. One critic points out, however, that she inserts stage directions that tilt the scales in Zelda’s favor.

Some readers may argue that, talented as she was, Zelda did not accomplish enough in her life to warrant all the attention that she has received. Most readers still regard Scott as the major talent. Certainly this biography is skewed in Zelda’s favor. Nevertheless, she was a major player in the culture of her time, and Cline’s biography gives the interested reader many new details of Zelda’s life and many new and persuasive interpretations of them.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 17 (May 1, 2003): 1565.

London Review of Books 25, no. 12 (June 19, 2003): 31-32.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 13 (March 31, 2003): 51.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 7, 2003, pp. 7-8.

The Women’s Review of Books 21, no. 1 (October, 2003): 1-3.

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