Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the much-maligned wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald – perhaps the best loved American literary figure of the 20th century. However, she was an author herself whose semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz revealed her side of a tempestuous and disastrous marriage.
She was born on 24 July 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama, the youngest daughter of Anthony Dickinson Sayre – a Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. While still a teenager, she met her future husband, the 22 year old F. Scott Fitzgerald at a local dance and was immediately attracted to the young Princeton graduate – recently discharged from the U.S. Army. Their marriage prospects were not good as there was little or no hope of a steady income from someone whose only revenue was from rather sketchy stories that he sold to magazines. However a novel The Romantic Egotist, once rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons, was revised and published on 20 March 1920 under the new title This Side of Paradise. Curiously the book portrays an attractive young character, Rosalind Connage, who was very similar to the young Miss Sayre. “The heroine does resemble you in more ways than four”, he wrote. The book included words taken directly from Zelda’s personal diary – not the only time that he would steal material from his future wife and muse.
With the immediate success of This Side of Paradise Zelda and Scott were married on 3 April 1920. It was from the very beginning a rather unsettled marriage. The acceptance of This Side of Paradise made the young couple instant celebrities. They drank to excess, behaved irresponsibly, and found themselves cast as models for the new worship of youth. Fitzgerald nicknamed his bride “the first American flapper”. They were symbols of success and wild extravagance and burst into prominence as icons of the Jazz Age.
On 26 October 1921 their daughter Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald was born. Zelda was quoted as saying, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool.” These words found their way into The Great Gatsby as Daisy talks about her baby daughter: “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, – a beautiful little fool.”
Zelda became pregnant again in early 1922 but it is suspected that she had an abortion. Again Fitzgerald used the situation in the first draft of The Beautiful and Damned where Gloria Gilbert, the heroine of the book, thinks she is pregnant. Gloria Gilbert was Scott Fitzgerald’s most complete debutante – the Jazz Baby, “the beauty of succulent illusions”. Later he admitted to Edmund Wilson, the noted American literary and social critic (1895-1972) that the most enormous influence on him in the creation of Gloria Gilbert was Zelda’s “fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness”. He said too that Zelda always wanted to be very young and always very irresponsible …“she considers pregnancy to be a crowning indignity.” When Zelda was asked to do a review of her husband’s book for the New York Times she wrote:
“It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home”.
The stolen material became the source of bitter acrimony but it also resulted in Zelda receiving invitations to write for several magazines. “Eulogy on the Flapper” was published in Metropolitan Magazine. It was a defence of her own code of living.
“The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure … she was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart.”
In an effort to get away from the endless round of parties in Great Neck, New York, the young couple fled to St. Raphaël in the South of France. There the inattentive Scott worked tirelessly on his Gatsby manuscript while Zelda swam and played tennis.
Eventually the inevitable happened – Zelda first flirted with and then became totally enamoured with a young French aviator, Édouard Jozan. In the end a desperate Fitzgerald confronted Jozan which prompted Zelda to demand a divorce. She then tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Jozan soon left the South of France but the marriage was never the same again. Zelda’s infidelity prompted Fitzgerald to completely change his Gatsby manuscript. It is obvious now that the Gatsby romance had its roots in Scott and Zelda’s own life and the story of The Great Gatsby grew out of his disenchantment with Zelda and his marriage. Zelda was to him what Daisy was to Gatsby.
Once again she had inspired Scott Fitzgerald with material for what would become the most read and best-loved American novel. Years later Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook “That September 1924, I knew that something had happened that could never be repaired.” The couple stayed together and seemed happy and in April 1925 The Great Gatsby was published. That same month, in Paris, the couple met Ernest Hemingway. Scott introduced him to Max Perkins at Scribner’s and did much to promote his early career. They became friends. But Zelda disliked Hemingway instantly, calling him a “bogus fairy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway in turn detested Zelda and thought her ever-demanding attitude and jealousy of Scott’s fame prevented Scott from writing. It was through Hemingway that the Fitzgeralds met other American expatriates in France like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. At one point in their deteriorating marriage she accused her husband of having homosexual tendencies. Fitzgerald then, to prove his heterosexuality, started sleeping with a prostitute. Zelda found the condoms he was using, causing further fights and more jealous tirades. She threw herself down a flight of stairs.
In the late 1920s they returned to the United States and Zelda became obsessed with ballet which she had studied as a child.
Although she had some talent she was never able to attain the professional level she craved. Practicing daily – sometimes as much as eight hours a day – she drove herself to exhaustion – exacerbating her mental condition. In April 1930 Zelda was placed in a sanatorium in France where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She was moved to a clinic in Switzerland and later when she was released in 1931 they returned to Montgomery, Alabama where her father, Judge Sayre, was dying. By then the marriage was in total disarray and when Scott was offered a script-writing job in Hollywood – he left. Her mental state continued to deteriorate and in February 1932 she was forced again to return to a psychiatric clinic – this time the Phipps Clinic at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There Zelda, amazingly in a matter of only six weeks, wrote her one published novel Save Me the Waltz. Without letting her husband know she sent her manuscript to Max Perkins at Scribner’s. When Scott found out about the book – a thinly disguised autobiographical account of their marriage, he was furious and accused her of using material that he intended to use for his planned novel Tender Is the Night. He forced Zelda to revise her novel and removed certain “shared material”. Nevertheless Save Me the Waltz was published on 7 October 1932.
Save Me the Waltz is a chronological narrative of four periods in the lives of Alabama and David Knight. The parallels to the Fitzgeralds’ own lives are obvious. Alabama Beggs, a Southern girl, marries a twenty-two year old artist, David Knight. Knight becomes a successful painter, and the family moves to the Riviera where Knight begins an affair with an actress. Determined to be successful in her own right, Alabama decides to become a ballet dancer, eventually achieving success. Though outwardly successful, Alabama and David are miserable. At the novel’s end they return to the South when Alabama’s father dies.
Fitzgerald’s book Tender Is the Night, published in 1934, is the study of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychoanalyst and his wife Nicole, who is also one of his patients. Nicole is a victim of incest, raped by her father. She is a schizophrenic. Clearly Nicole is the fictional portrait of Zelda. The novel mirrors exactly the last days of Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda, as she is put back into mental care and he starts his descent into alcoholism. The two books Save Me the Waltz and Tender Is the Night are startling contradictions of the Fitzgerald marriage.
To Zelda’s concern her novel only sold 1392 copies for which she earned $120.73. However William McFee, in the New York Sun wrote: “ … there is the promise of a new and vigorous personality in fiction.” Fitzgerald jealously said that the novel was:
“ … plagiaristic, unwise in every way … should not have been written,” and further berated Zelda … “you are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet (dancer).” Zelda was devastated.
From the mid 1930s Zelda Fitzgerald spent most of her life in various stages of mental distress. Without her knowledge Scott began a serious relationship with Sheila Graham – a gossip columnist in Hollywood. In 1938 Zelda and Scott made a brief trip to Cuba together – but the journey was a disaster. Scott, on his return to the U.S. was hospitalised for alcoholism and Zelda returned to her mental institution. They never saw each other again.
Fitzgerald died in Hollywood of a heart attack in 1940. On the night of 10 March 1948 a fire broke out in the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Zelda was locked there in her room awaiting electro-shock therapy and could have escaped had she not been sedated. Nine women including Zelda died in the fire.
Sally Cline, biographer of Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise has written: “Recently myth has likened Zelda to those other twentieth-century icons, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. With each she shares a defiance of convention, intense vulnerability, doomed beauty, increasing struggle for a serious identity, short tragic life and quite impossible nature.”
Whatever the truth about the bruised tumultuous life of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, one thing is absolutely certain – and that is that Scott Fitzgerald is unlikely to have achieved his literary fame without Zelda. He married his creative muse and included material of her and by her in his best works – particularly The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. He relied too on Zelda’s own writing and his work may have depended on her silence. She was labelled schizophrenic, but is much more likely to have been affected by drinking large amounts of toxic industrial alcohol and bootleg moonshine. C. Lowton Campbell, the author and playwright and at Princeton (Class of 1916) has written in his article “The Fitzgeralds Were My Friends”:
“I have seen Scott jot down Zelda’s remarks on odd pieces of paper or on the back of envelopes and stuff them into his pockets. At times his pockets were fairly bulging with her bon-mots and bits of spontaneous observations. … Zelda was absolutely essential to him … she was both his inspiration and his anathema.”
Scott was gifted and clever – but he needed Zelda. And when she wasn’t there his work suffered. Tender Is the Night is almost certain to contain the passages he deleted from Save Me the Waltz. A resentful Zelda was left with a cannibalised manuscript.
The argument will continue and literary scholars will always debate the roles that Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald played in stifling each other’s creativity. In the end, however, they were not divided. They are buried together in Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland. Inscribed on their tombstone is the final sentence of The Great Gatsby.
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman