Zelda Fitzgerald (1900–1948) endured a tumultuous marriage to Jazz Age writer F. Scott Fitzgerald that proved debilitating to her mental health. While her husband was a gifted writer and drew often, and deeply, from the well of their lives for his fiction, Fitzgerald was also a prose stylist of some merit. Early in their marriage, she voiced her objection to his habit of taking her words and inserting them into his own novels.
An archetype of the lovely and rebellious Southern belle often appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories, and this character is based on Zelda Fitzgerald. Born Zelda Sayre on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Alabama, she was the daughter of a respected lawyer and judge who was appointed to the bench of the Alabama Supreme Court the year she turned nine. The Sayres had been among the first newcomers to Alabama when it entered the union in 1819, and Fitzgerald's Kentucky-born mother Minerva came from a similarly old-South family.
Minnie Sayre was an indulgent, doting parent to Zelda, who was the youngest of her five children. Curious, quick-witted, and vivacious, Fitzgerald graduated from Sidney Lanier High in 1918 and met her future husband just weeks later at a country-club dance. A Princeton dropout who was then serving in the U.S. Army and stationed near Montgomery, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was then 22 years old; his name honored a distant relative, the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Raised in a Roman Catholic family in St. Paul, Minnesota, he harbored literary ambitions and was instantly smitten by Fitzgerald.
As 1918 drew to a close, World War I ended, which saved Lieutenant Fitzgerald from combat in Europe. He found a job with a New York City advertising agency and conducted a ferocious correspondence with Fitzgerald, who maintained an active social life despite their longdistance engagement. When she at one point broke up with him, her spurned ex-fiancé channeled his energy into revising an earlier manuscript that had been rejected by a New York City publisher. He redrafted one character, that of beautiful socialite Rosalind Connage, to more closely resemble Fitzgerald's spirited personality and alluring beauty, and this new manuscript became his sensational debut novel, This Side of Paradise. “She is one of those girls who need never make the slightest effort to have men fall in love with them,” the novel asserts by way of introducing Rosalind and her first meeting with Princeton graduate Amory Blaine.
Fitzgerald joined her fiancé in New York City just days after This Side of Paradise was published and the couple was married a week later at St. Patrick's Cathedral, on April 3, 1920. The newlyweds spent the summer at a rented house in Westport, Connecticut, where Scott—as he was known to friends and family—worked on his next novel. In late 1921 their daughter Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald was born, but the addition of a child to their household did little to rouse Fitzgerald's interest in domestic chores.
Although a nationwide ban on sales of wine, beer, and liquor had gone into effect in 1920, this governmentenforced Prohibition exacerbated the already alcoholfueled social habits of the Fitzgeralds’ generation. Almost as much a celebrity as her writer husband, the new Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald became the focus of print-media attention and was treated as the epitome of the Jazz Age flapper. Given the opportunity to review Scott's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, by a stunt-seeking editor of the New York Tribune, she gamely rose to the challenge. “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,” she wrote, according to Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald … seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
Following that 1922 review, Fitzgerald published other essays, and she collaborated with Scott on a play that received such atrocious reviews in Atlantic City previews that it never made it to its scheduled Broadway opening in late 1923. This theater debacle was financially ruinous and left the Fitzgeralds deeply in debt. By this point, they were living in a splendid Mediterranean-style villa in Long Island's affluent Great Neck Estates. Scott famously wrote of this period in a frank essay that ran in the Saturday Evening Post on April 5, 1924, under the title “How to Live on $36,000 a Year.” He credited his wife for suggesting the essay's title and subject: their comically inept attempts to live on a budget and within their means.
In the spring of 1924, the Fitzgeralds moved to France, where Scott worked on his third novel, The Great Gatsby, a story of aspirational Jazz Age self-saboteurs that was not recognized as an American literary classic until well after his death. In the south of France and elsewhere across Europe, the couple's marital problems grew more pronounced, compounded as they were by infidelities and alcohol abuse. Fitzgerald sought her own artistic outlets, first in painting and then in resuming the ballet lessons she had begun as a teen. Practicing for up to eight hours a day, her grueling regimen left her physically and emotionally debilitated. Letters to family members reveal her despair, too, regarding her husband's long absences, his hangoverblighted tetchiness when he was at home, and his general air of callous indifference to her and Scottie.
By the spring of 1930 the Fitzgeralds were living in Paris and Scott was hobnobbing with a host of hard-drinking fellow expatriate writers, among them Ernest Hemingway, who viewed Fitzgerald as unstable. This view of Scott's wife was shared by playwright Michael Arlen, with whom Scott was drinking one day when Arlen suggested that the distraught Fitzgerald was in need of professional help. After days more of furious rows, she acquiesced to a stay at a Paris psychiatric hospital, but she signed herself out several days later.
In June, while the couple was traveling in Switzerland, Fitzgerald once again became distraught over her husband's refusal to curb his alcohol intake, and she was judged mentally unstable enough to merit a second hospitalization. A French doctor diagnosed her with schizophrenia, characterizing her agitated state regarding Scott's drinking, her seemingly unrealistic expectation at hiring on with a professional ballet company, and her total indifference to housework as signs of a disordered feminine mind. She spent 15 months at the posh Prangins Clinic, on the shores of Lake Geneva, while Scottie was cared for by a governess in Paris. One of Fitzgerald's sisters, Rosalind, was living in Belgium at the time and helped in some decision-making regarding her mental-health treatment. Rosalind rebuked Scott for his inability to stay sober and suggested that Scottie live with her in Brussels. Within months, Scott had drafted a barely disguised venal version of his sister-in-law in his famous short story, “Babylon Revisited,” in which a recovering alcoholic widower seeks to regain custody of his young daughter.
After her discharge from the sanitarium at Prangins, Fitzgerald returned to the United States with her husband and child. When her father fell ill, the family relocated to Alabama, and then Scott took a job in Hollywood with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. She endured another breakdown in early 1932, three months after her father's death, and signed herself in to the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore. While there, she produced a novel, Save Me the Waltz, that caused another deep rift in her marriage. Scott forced her to rewrite parts of it that he judged too close in plotting and character development to his yet-to-be published fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which would be published in 1934, nine years after The Great Gatsby.
Critics savaged Save Me the Waltz when it was published in 1932, and she wrote little after that, save for letters. She attempted to channel her creative ambitions by painting, although she felt that her efforts here were also overshadowed by her husband's waning celebrity. The prevailing sentiment in American letters of the day was that F. Scott Fitzgerald had been one of the most luminous new voices of his generation, but he pickled his talents in alcohol for over a decade and now resorted to penning tawdry scripts for cheap mass-entertainment movies.
In 1930, Fitzgerald had already produced what may have been the literary tour-de-force of her life in an epic letter to Scott written from the Prangins Clinic. An exhaustive chronicle of their decade-old marriage replete with places, events, and names of friends and foes, it also delivered a concise rebuke to Scott for his years of emotional neglect. “You didn't work and were dragged home at night by taxi-drivers when you came home at all. You said it was my fault for dancing all day,” she wrote, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. “You brought drunken undergraduates in to meals when you came home for them, and it made you angry that I didn't care any more.” In her narration of their multiple upheavals over the years—from Long Island to the south of France and elsewhere in Europe, all interspersed with unhappy visits to respective families in Minnesota and Alabama—she faulted Scott as the ultimate architect of their declining fortunes. “You left me more and more alone, and though you complained that it was the apartment or the servants or me, you know the real reason you couldn't work was because you were always out half the night and you were sick and you drank constantly.”
Fitzgerald spent 18 years in and out of hospitals while her husband worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and produced a trove of short stories. Some of his income went to pay for his wife's treatment at Highland Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Asheville, North Carolina, which she entered in 1936. Their daughter Scottie, who spent long stretches of her teens years living in Westchester County with Scott's literary agent and his family when not in boarding school, went on to Vassar College. Fitzgerald and her estranged husband continued their prolific correspondence, which while preoccupied with financial concerns, also displaying a harmonious affection and mutual respect they had difficulty achieving in person. “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known,” he wrote to her in 1939, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. “But even that is an understatement because the length that you went to there at the end would have tried anybody beyond endurance.”
In April of 1939 Fitzgerald was disappointed to have missed out on a planned trip to Cuba arranged for Highland Hospital patients. Her estranged husband flew to North Carolina after a professional setback and subsequent argument with his paramour, the journalist Sheilah Graham. Scott was reportedly drunk on the plane and turned up at Highland Hospital with the idea that he and Fitzgerald would leave together and catch up with the Cuba travel group. Upon reaching Havana, he left her alone in their hotel room and went drinking for hours, at one point being accosted by some men on the street after an absurd argument over cockfighting. Fitzgerald brought Scott to New York City for another doctor-supervised dry-out and then returned to Highland Hospital. Discharged a year later, she moved in with her elderly mother in Montgomery and wrote him in September of 1940, “I dont [sic] write; and I dont [sic] paint: largely because it requires most of my resources to keep out of the hospital,” she reflected, according to Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda.
On December 21, 1940, Scott died of a heart attack at age 44 while in Graham's living room, reading the latest issue of the Princeton alumni magazine. Fitzgerald did not attend his funeral, nor did she attend her 21-year-old daughter's wedding in February of 1943. She was by then living in reduced circumstances, and mother and daughter quarreled over financial matters related to the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary estate. In late 1947 she returned once again to Highland Hospital.
Fitzgerald suffered a ghastly death on March 10, 1948, after Highland Hospital staff members locked her in her room for the night. A fire broke out in the kitchen and spread through the institution's food-service shafts to the wings housing patients. One of nine women to die in the conflagration that night, Fitzgerald was buried next to Scott in a Maryland cemetery plot. Their gravesite bears the final sentence from The Great Gatsby as an epitaph: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Cline, Sally, Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, Arcade Publishing, 2002.
Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks, St. Martin's Griffin, 2003.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, edited and annotated by Matthew J. Bruccoli with Judith S. Baughman, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, This Side of Paradise, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.
Mitford, Nancy, Zelda: A Life, Harper Perennial, 1970.❑