Zelda_Fitzgerald,_1922

 

Her thin lips are curved downward. Her hair is perfectly coiffed. The year is 1930 so she is fashionably donning a thick fur coat that drapes down to her calves. Because the gorge of Constantine in Algeria is cold in February, her arms are wrapped tightly around her torso, a thin clutch tucked into her armpit. On vacation, the woman is living up to her extravagant reputation: she is Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald.

Born in 1900 as the youngest child to an Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Zelda was spoiled and vivacious, according to Nancy Milford’s 1970 revolutionary feminist biography. It recalls her as a teenage Southern Belle, spending her time pulling pranks by wearing nude bathing suits when she wasn’t breaking some boy’s heart. With her charm, she was considered a local celebrity.

“Why should all life be work, when we can all borrow,” it says printed below the picture of a high school Zelda, who was voted The Prettiest and The Most Attractive of Sidney Lanier High School’s Class of 1918. “Let’s only think of today, and not worry about tomorrow.”

But tomorrow would bring her future husband, American literary legacy F. Scott Fitzgerald. The couple became the living image of glamour and tragedy of the “Roaring Twenties,” with Zelda herself as the golden girl. Eventually she succumbed to mental illness, breaking down and losing her grandiose reputation in the process.

A month after her high school graduation, a restless Zelda met Scott. He was a Princeton dropout in Alabama as a first lieutenant for World War I. They were drawn to each other, Milford notes.

While Scott tried to make it in New York, their flip-floppy engagement was filled with Zelda’s external flirtations and Scott’s jealousy – behaviors that’ll plague the couple in the future.

“All this acting out is indicative of a desire to break out,” says Willie Thompson, executive director of the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. “It wasn’t until his novel [“This Side of Paradise”] not only came out but was successful that Zelda agreed to marry Scott.” Zelda’s parents never attended the wedding, Thompson says. But no matter, she made it to New York.

“The Fitzgeralds will be forever associated with ‘The Jazz Age’ or ‘Roaring Twenties,’ representing the era’s glamor, excess, and ultimately self-destructive recklessness,” says Michael Nowlin, professor of English at the University of Victoria and editor of the Broadview edition of “The Great Gatsby”. “But despite this attraction to…fame…Scott seems also to have had from an early age the ambition to be a “great” writer — a writer whose work would live on and stand beside the classics of English and even world literature. There’s little evidence for the same kind of ambition in Zelda.”

One of Scott’s close Princeton friends, Alexander McKaig reported Zelda saying she merely wants to live a life of an “extravagant,” and that the couple are notorious for being “so publicly and spectacularly drunk.”

Clifton Spargo, writer of the novel “Beautiful Fools”, an imagined narrative of the Fitzgerald’s trip to Cuba, calls Zelda, “the kind of person who just lives life itself as an artistic performance. But she didn’t really have any practical ambitions for her talents.” He calls Zelda a woman “raised to be decorative.”

“Scott’s celebrity has grown so great that she can’t come out from under and a large part of that’s where the tension lies,” Thompson says of the couple’s frequent company with infamous creative minds like Ernest Hemingway, Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos. “I think you’re dealing with someone who she was a big fish in a small pond and then all of a sudden after she marries Fitzgerald and he becomes this great writer; she realizes that she’s now a small fish in a big pond.”

By the latter half of the decade, Zelda attempts to foster her own artistic identity; she begins to paint; her 1934 gallery showing is called her “latest bid to fame” by “Time,” Curnutt notes. She is obsessed with ballet — a hobby from her youth — but her older age is too much a hindrance to really succeed. She also writes, often collaborating with Scott. But sometimes his name is added to her byline to increase reader appeal, like in “A Millionaire’s Girl.”

Using fights and diaries, the couple inspires characters in each other’s writings, sometimes causing territorial tension, such as in Zelda’s both poorly received and edited “Save Me a Waltz” versus Scott’s “Tender is the Night”. Her book earned a scant $120 in royalties, according to Curnutt.

The Fitzgeralds began to crumble in the 1930s, parallel to the Great Depression. People noticed a change in Zelda. According to Milford, Zelda attempted suicide after a broken affair with Edouard Jozan in 1924. She becomes suspicious of her friends, hears voice and has strange dreams. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her mental breakdowns become often, as does her institutionalization. Scott’s self-destructive alcoholism equally grows.

Zelda’s 1931 release from a Swiss mental hospital was accompanied by a case summary stating she had “feelings of inferiority (primarily towards her husband).”

Both die young, tragically, and off the map — Scott of a heart attack in 1940 and Zelda in a mental hospital fire in 1948. She was 48 years old.

But there’s an undeniable fascination with the couple’s short-lived glamour and literary contributions; Scott’s “The Great Gatsby” was recently remade as a big budget film, and Zelda has been featured in many new books, such as Spargo’s.

“At least 50 percent of the people that walk through our doors come here to learn about Zelda,” Thompson says of the museum’s patrons. “She is absolutely at this point in time on par with Fitzgerald on terms of people’s interest; I think that is sort of the great triumph of Zelda because during her lifetime she desired it so much.”