Zelda Fitzgerald — Talented, Troubled Wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, around 1919

Zelda Fitzgerald (July 24, 1900 – March 10, 1948), known for her beauty and personality, made a name for herself as a socialite, novelist, dancer, and painter.

She was far more than merely the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who called her “the first American flapper.”

Born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, she was the youngest of the children of a prominent couple: Anthony Dickinson Sayre (an Alabama Supreme Court Justice) and Minnie Buckner Machen Sayre, both descended from unfortunate Confederate roots. Zelda was the youngest of their five children.

Zelda enjoyed a privileged upbringing, and from adolescence on, always made a splash in Montgomery’s social scene. She was the belle of country club dances who flaunted conventions by smoking, drinking, and flirting. She starred in ballet recitals, in which she displayed talent.

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Meeting Scott Fitzgerald

The summer after graduating high school, 18-year-old Zelda first met Scott Fitzgerald, then 21, at a country club dance in 1918, when he was stationed outside of Montgomery during WWI. He was immediately taken by Zelda, and their passionate and tumultuous relationship began.

Scott was immediately drawn to Zelda’s beauty and spirit. The following year, he proposed marriage, but Zelda at first declined. As a very young aspiring writer, Scott’s financial prospects were hazy, and besides, he was a Yankee who brought little social status to the relationship.

Although friends and family were not necessarily in favor of their match, Zelda strung the enamored Scott along while entertaining other suitors. She was skeptical of his prospects as an author and of his ability to provide financial  stability.

The Encyclopedia of Alabama states, “Zelda’s tactics fueled Scott’s insecurities, and the motif of a young man pursuing an elusive and conniving woman would later come to define his fiction.”

When Scribner accepted Scott’s first book, This Side of Paradise, he finished it in the fall of 1919 and urged his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to hurry the release. Scott’s prospects rose, and Zelda agreed to come to New York City and marry him.

This Side of Paradise was published March 26, 1920, and the couple was married on April 3rd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The book was an immediate success, making the couple instant celebrities. The Roaring Twenties were just getting underway and no one typified its spirit and overindulgence more than Scott and Zelda, who did everything — including spend money — to excess.

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Zelda and scott fitzgerald in 1920

Zelda and Scott in 1920
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Fitzgerald’s early successes, and a daughter

This Side of Paradise not only sold its initial 3,000 print run, but two subsequent runs within a month, and with that success, Zelda and Scott became celebrities and icons of the Jazz Age. 

It has long been assumed that Zelda was the inspiration for Rosalind Connage, the cruel and selfish flapper in the story. how much so is debatable, as it would have been terrible for Scott to have such a dim view of his new wife so early in the marriage.

On October 26, 1921, Zelda gave birth to their first and only child, Francis “Scottie” Fitzgerald. As Zelda emerged from anesthesia, Scott recorded her saying of her daughter, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool — a beautiful little fool.”

He later paraphrased this quote in his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, having Daisy Buchanan say after giving birth: “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

After the publication of Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, the New York Tribune asked Zelda to write a review of her husband’s book. The piece led to other offers from magazines, including the 1922 “Eulogy on the Flapper” for Metropolitan Magazine

Zelda eagerly supplied her views on love, romance, marriage, and family to a media eager to capitalize on her husband’s growing celebrity. It was The Beautiful and the Damned that fueled speculation that Scott had lifted passages from Zelda’s diaries to use in his own work. 

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zelda and Scott fitzgerald

Zelda and Scott in  the early 1920s
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An American flapper

By the early Roaring Twenties, what was considered a new kind of woman emerged. She was defined by her youthfulness, energy, and spirit. She had a streak of independence, wore short skirts, and had her hair bobbed.

By the early 1920s, Zelda came to epitomize such a woman, although she was very much connected to her husband. In October of 1923, a syndicated article was picked up by dozens of papers, pondering the question, “Is she his model?” — referring to Scott Fitzgerald:

Is Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, wife of Scott Fitzgerald, author of flapper fiction stories, the heroine of her husband’s books? That’s what a lot of “bestseller” patrons have been wondering.

If so, was she the living prototype of that species of femininity known as the American flapper? If so, what is a flapper like in real life? Here is a tabloid picture of Zelda Fitzgerald:

Flappers — she likes them reckless and unconventional, because of their quest in search of self-expression. Sports. Golf and swimming. Jazz music, “because it is artistic,” and dancing for its sheer abandon. Not ambitious to be a “joiner”— just to enjoy life to the full. 

Large families, “so children have a chance to be what they want to be.” Wants her own daughter to be “rich, happy, and artistic.”

If she had to earn her own living would go in for the ballet or movies. Failing in that, she would try writing. Home is the place to do what you like to do — not to live by the clock in a conventional way.


Breakdowns of marriage and mental health

In 1924 the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris, having burned through their money. Some sources have claimed that Zelda began an affair with a French pilot, Edouard S. Jozan, and asked Scott for a divorce, although Jozan denied that there ever was such a liaison. Amid their marital drama, Scott finished The Great Gatsby

In Paris the following year, Scott became friends with Ernest Hemingway, although Zelda and Ernest openly detested one another.  Zelda continued to be a muse for Scott, even as their marriage continued to deteriorate.

Aspects of Zelda’s persona — and sometimes her very words — continued to ripple through Scott’s novels — the aforementioned This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby; also The Beautiful and the Damned and later, Tender is the Night.

As the 1920s progressed, their relationship was strained and their creativity was hurt by mental and emotional struggles and addictions. Their partying had turned self-destructive toward the end of the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 impacted their over-the-top lifestyle as well.

Craving outlets for her  creativity, Zelda turned to two of her longtime passions — dance and art. Attempts to become a professional ballerina proved difficult as she headed into her late twenties.

In 1930 Zelda was admitted to a sanitarium, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Contemporary scholars have disputed this diagnosis. For more than a year, she lived in a clinic in Nyon, Switzerland, after which the couple returned to the United States.

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Save me the waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

See also: Save Me the Waltz and Other Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald
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Save Me the Waltz

Zelda and Scott moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where they rented  a house in the Old Cloverdale  neighborhood (the house is now the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum). Returning to familiar grounds did nothing to improve the marital situation; Scott was soon off to try his hand at working in Hollywood, and Zelda was admitted to the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

While at this clinic, Zelda wrote a novel called Save Me the Waltz in six weeks. She sent the thinly veiled autobiographical novel about the dissolution of the marriage to Maxwell Perkins, Scott’s publisher at Scribner’s.

When Scott found out about the novel he was furious. He blamed Zelda for his difficulty to finish Tender is the Night, blaming her mental health struggles for his financial burdens and accusing her of stealing his plotlines.

However, the widespread belief that he forced her to rewrite parts of the novel the considered too autobiographical, and to take out parts that he planned on using in Tender is the Night (which would be published in 1934) have been debunked by scholars.

The original manuscript was found relatively recently, proving that the printed version was only minimally revised, not rewritten as previously thought.

The first edition of Save Me the Waltz was published October 7th, 1932 in a print run of just 3,010 copies. It sold only 1,392 copies for which Zelda earned $120. Between the poor sales and her husband’s criticism of the work, it would be the only novel she would ever have published. 

Apparently not entirely disheartened, Zelda wrote a stage comedy titled Scandalabra. It was staged in Baltimore in 1933 to little fanfare. An art exhibit of her paintings the following year didn’t fare much better.

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Zelda Fitzgerald's watercolor of the pantheon & luxembourg gardens
See more of Zelda’s artwork
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Spiraling downward

By 1934, Zelda and Scott had separated (though they never divorced). Scottie, their daughter, was now in her mid-teens and at boarding school. Nannies had overseen much of her childhood.

From 1936 to 1940, Zelda resided at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a place she would return to on and off for the remainder of her years. There, she pursued many of her own artistic ventures.

She painted and continued to take dance lessons. Despite the initial failure of Save Me the Waltz, she eventually attempted another novel titled Caesar’s Things (which was never finished nor published).

Though it’s hard to believe now, Scott’s reputation in the literary realm declined precipitously. And as it did, he continued to drink more. He moved to Hollywood to work in the film industry and began an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

Scott had grown bitter toward his wife, blaming her for his failures. Yet despite their troubles, the couple took a trip to Cuba together in 1939. Unsurprisingly, it proved  disastrous.

When they returned to the states, Scott went back to Hollywood and Zelda returned to Asheville. They never saw one other again. F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four in 1940. That same year, Zelda moved back in with her mother in Montgomery, seeking treatment at Highland Hospital for her darkest depressive periods.

On March 10th, 1948, a fire broke out at Highland Hospital when Zelda was in residential treatment. She died in the fire along with eight other female patients. Zelda is buried next to Scott in Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetary in Rockville, Maryland.

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Save me the waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald original edition
Save Me the Waltz, original edition
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A reconsideration

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s reputation began to revive in the late 1940s or so, which, had it happened while he was alive, may have mitigated his self-destructive tendencies. Zelda, meanwhile, pretty much disappeared from view after her death.

Hemingway’s depiction of Zelda in the memoir of his Paris years, A Moveable Feast (1964) did little for her reputation; he depicted her as something of a shrew who had ruined her husband’s life and career.

She received a kinder reconsideration in Zelda, Nancy Milford’s 1970 biography, which was more sympathetic to her struggles as a frustrated creative artist. In the decades to come, there have been at least a couple of novelizations of Zelda’s life and her tempestuous marriage to Scott, including the immensely entertaining Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (2014).

Scholars, too, have been taking a more serious look at Zelda as a woman whose not inconsiderable talents were overshadowed by her husband’s. Save Me the Waltz has enjoyed renewed interest, and Zelda’s art has been shown across the U.S. Her talent as a painter is now more appreciated in displays in the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery as well. 

In 1992, Zelda was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. A dramatization of her life titled Z: The Beginning of Everything, was produced for television, starring Christina Ricci, first aired in 2017.

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dear scott, dearest zelda

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Contributed by Amy Manikowski: Amy has worked in books her entire life, starting at the David A. Howe Public Library in Wellsville, NY. In college, she began working in a bookstore, a career that lasted fifteen years. She received her MFA in creative writing from Chatham University in 2004. Since graduate school she has been in love with traveling and writing about the South, moving first to Savannah, GA, then Kentucky and South Carolina, before setting in 2011 in Asheville, North Carolina. Amy blogs at Daily Inspiration for Writers.  

This article from which this one was adapted was originally published as Zelda Fitzgerald — the First American Flapper on biblio.com. Reprinted with permission.

More about Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Novel & other writings

  • Save Me the Waltz (1932)
  • The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, ed. by Matthew Bruccoli (1991)

Novelizations by other authors

  • Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck: This novel is set in a Baltimore Psychiatric hospital in 1932 where a nurse befriends Zelda and gets drawn into her tumultuous world  (2013).
  • Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler: A biographical historical novel about the life of Zelda (2014).

Biographies and letters

  • Zelda: A Biography, the first book-length treatment of Zelda’s (1970) was written by Nancy Milford when she was in graduate school. It was a bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. 
  • Zelda: An Illustrated Life, the Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald, ed. by Peter Kurth, Jane S. Livingston, and Eleanor Lanahan (1996)
  • Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: The twenty-two-year love story between Scott and Zelda is documented through their correspondence. This 2003 book includes 333 letters illustrated by photographs.
  • Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise by Sally Cline: (2003) — a “Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess.”
  • The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald weaves the story of Scott and Zelda through their personal scrapbook and photo albums (2003)
  • Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman’s Life by Linda Wagner-Martin (2004)
  • Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: This 2013 publication focuses on Zelda and Scott’s 1939 trip to Cuba, the last time the couple saw each other. It describes their last attempt to grasp at love and happiness.

More information

2 Responses to “Zelda Fitzgerald — Talented, Troubled Wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald”

  1. After visiting the Fitzgerald Museum — Zelda’s art was a revelation! — I read Save Me the Waltz. I found the middle of the novel a slog, but it was fascinating.

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