Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the representative couples for America between the two world wars. Both were beautiful and famous. He, a writer that made it young, even though he was not fully recognized by the critics for his real value. She, an ambitious woman, who desired an accomplished man. Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s good friend, didn’t like Zelda and blamed her for Scott’s failures. He wasn’t the only one. Often, however–especially during the last 20 years–Zelda Fitzgerald was considered a victim: a talented woman that lived in the shadow of a talented man. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a judge from Alabama, was a beautiful, ambition woman who, it seems, wasn’t lacking in literary talent. Her letters, a journal and a novel is all we have left from her: all of it included in the 480 page volume edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. The first biographers attributed to her a secondary role in Scott Fitzgerald’s literary career. In spite of this, Fitzgerald recognized that, aside from his own self, Zelda was his main inspiration. “I truly have married the heroine of my novels,” the author of The Great Gatsby confessed in an interview in 1921.
In 1917, F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled as a lieutenant, but he quickly realized that he wasn’t made for the army. During this period he wrote his first novel, named (in the first version) The Romantic Egoists, which later became This Side of Paradise. When the novel was published in 1920, the author was 23 years old. In 1918, he met Zelda at a ball close to Montgomery, Alabama. He asked her to marry him but she refused. To entice her, he tried to become rich and famous. It wasn’t easy. His first novel was refused by a big publisher because it was incomplete. He took a job at an advertising firm and created, for 90 dollars a month, slogans for various ad campaigns. Finally, the novel was published by the same publisher that initially refused it. This success won Zelda’s hand in marriage. She excitedly wrote to Scott: “Scott, my darling, Everything seems so easy and simple; this golden dawn. The fact I know I’ll be yours forever–that I belong to you–is truly liberating after all the tensions during the past month…. Waiting doesn’t seem so hard. I love you, my treasure…” Scott was in New York, where he was trying to become well-known to secure a decent living for his future wife. Zelda was still in Montgomery, so her enthusiastic tone can be partly explained by the distance that separated them.
Alexander McKaig, one of Scott’s friends, wrote the following observation in his journal about the new couple: “I visited Scott Fitz and his wife, a very dramatic, provincial Southern belle. She chews gum and shows her knees. I don’t think this marriage can last. Both of them get drunk. I think in a few years they’ll be divorced. Scott will write something important and die at the age of 23 in an attic…”. McKaig later wrote in his journal, after visiting the married couple: “Fitz should leave Zelda alone and stop chasing her…. The sad thing is that Fitz is completely overwhelmed by Zelda’s personality…. She’s the role model for all the feminine characters in his novels…”. Despite these critical remarks, even the author of the journal was eventually seduced by Zelda’s charisma: “She’s, without a doubt, the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’ve met”. Arriving in New York to be close to her husband, Zelda created quite a sensation among her husband’s acquaintances. The couple prospered, also thanks to Scott’s literary success.
In 1925, The Great Gatsby was published. This novel took care of the 7,000 dollar debt Scott owed, with which the couple travelled to Europe. The literary reviews weren’t exactly positive; on the contrary. The novel was received with reticence by the critics. To cover his debts, Scott wrote many short stories. Hemingway blamed his wife for the fact Scott become an alcoholic. He also thought Scott was wasting his talent on short stories because of Zelda, writing about his friend: “He represents the greatest tragedy of a talent in our cursed generation”.
In 1929 things didn’t look good for the Fitzgerald couple. Scott made slow progress on his fourth novel, which exacerbated his depression. He described this situation in a letter in 1929: “Even so, it’s possible, God willing, that the five years between my realease from the army and finishing Gatsby, thus the years between 1919 and 1924 during which I published three novels, approximately fifty short stories that sold well, a play, plus numerous articles and movie scripts, took everything out of me. On top of this, during this time we also mingled, with great energy, in the most entertaining social circles. … That’s what bothers me, au fond”. Zelda herself was affected by numerous psychological crises, which become more and more acute. She took refuge in art. She also tried to publish a few short stories. It seems that some of them were published in both her name and his. Several were signed by him alone, however, since those paid more. In 1930, the couple grew apart. Zelda isolated herself in her own world and behaved inexplicably, from Scott’s point of view. She couldn’t even bear to have Scottie, their daughter, around her anymore. In 1932, Zelda’s condition worsened. That same year her own novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published. In 1934, Zelda was sent, following a nervous breakdown, to a hospital near Baltimore.
It was the beginning of the end. Zelda remained hospitalized while, in 1940, Scott Fitzgerald died suddenly from a cardiovascular accident. He was 44 years old and left behind an unfinished novel, Another death in Hollywood. The author was buried discretely, in the presence of a few friends. On March 10, 1948, a fire burst out in the kitchen of the Highland hospital where Zelda was staying. Nine patients lost their lives, including Zelda.
The two of them remain, however, the mythical couple of America between the wars: “two people impossible to unite, whose bond can never be undone,” as Kyra Stromberg writes in her monograph, Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald, published by Editura Paralela 45 in 2004 (translated by Iunia Martin): a book that serves as the inspiration for the story I have told. Zelda is also the main character of Gilles Leroy’s French novel, Alabama Song, that won the Prix Goncourt in 2007 : a novel that brings to the forefront Zelda’s literary talent, which was long overshadowed by her more famous husband.
article by Adina Dinitoiu, Editor of Catchy.ro and of Observator Cultural
(originally published in Romanian on Catchy.ro):
translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici