Shelved Dolls: Zelda Fitzgerald – Just A Total Mess Or What?

She’d been in a taxi cab and was stuck in a traffic jam. Overwhelmed with fear that she was going to be late, she dove out of the taxi into oncoming traffic and proceeded to run through it in her ballet outfit.

Zelda was institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia (though modern reports suggest that she may have in fact been a manic depressive). She was given a series of drugs including morphine, belladonna, potassium bromide and horse serum (which is made from the blood of a horse). She was also given insulin shots which induced significant memory loss. In spite of that, she wrote a somewhat autobiographical novel entitled Save Me The Waltz, which roughly mirrored some of the themes found in Tender is the Night.

While it’s not, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s worth pointing out that in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait Dan Piper note that Save Me The Waltz “was one of the first and is still one of the best stories that has been written by an American about the career of a ballerina.” Take that, Bunheads! Oh, of course it was about ballerinas.

Piper goes on to remark that: “It was a desperate attempt to give order to her confused memories. It was also a bitter attack on Fitzgerald, who was thinly disguised in her manuscript as “Amory Blaine.” [Ed note: Amory Blaine is the protagonist of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise]. She had sent it to Max Perkins in March without Fitzgerald’s knowledge, and Perkins was enough impressed with it to be willing to publish it.”

Save Me The Waltz begins with the line: “Those girls” people said, “think they can do anything and get away with it.”

Those girls seemingly did not have F. Scott as a husband.

Scott was furious and told Max not to publish the book. He wrote “ My God, my books made her a legend and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a nonentity.”

Scott furthermore accused her of stealing his material. In Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, Sarah Cline writes:

Scott could not contain himself. “So you are taking my material, is that right?”

“Is that your material?” Zelda asked. “The asylums? The madness? The terrors? Were they yours?”

Scott then told Zelda that, in addition to being a terrible ballerina, she was “a third rate writer.” Zelda told him that, “It seems to me that you are making rather a violent attack on a third-rate talent then,” and that she wanted a divorce.

Take a moment to clap for Zelda.

Okay. Done?

Scott proceeded to outline his divorce strategy in his journal. “Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result – new breakdown.” So, Scott’s strategy was to gaslight her into having another nervous breakdown. Also, something about showers.

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    • lucygoosey74

      Oh Zelda, you poor lost soul, I feel your pain. I’m bipolar and it is anything but glamourous. I can’t imagine being in the public eye during one of my episodes.

    • Sarah!

      I love this series so much! Thanks!!

    • kjon

      Wow, I am very much loving these series! Those ballerina paintings at the end are very, very interesting and her death was so disturbing. That’s some great story telling, Jen!

      Excuse the subject change, but please send positive thoughts and/or prayers to my home state of Colorado for the horrible fires! My childhood/parent’s home – as well as thousands of others’ homes – are in serious danger from the Waldo Canyon fire but there are many others’ homes in danger around my state and some have even already lost their homes.

    • Eileen

      This is really only tangentially related, but it’s a fun story.

      There was this guy I was into once. After some ill-fated hookups, he explained to me that he was avoiding dating because he tended to put women on a pedestal. I made an F. Scott Fitzgerald/Great Gatsby comment. He didn’t get it, which should have been my first clue (“You graduated high school in the United States without reading Gatsby???”)

      I explained that Scott loved Zelda, put her on a pedestal, and then proceeded to “sell out” so that he could spend more and more money on her psychological treatments, eventually becoming very unhappy and drinking himself to death. He said, “Wow. I need to find someone who’ll do that for me.”

      That was my second clue, and it kicked me in the ass. That is not the moral of the story.

    • Laura

      I love this series so much!

      Zelda fascinates me, even though I’ve never taken to throwing things. Her moxie is amazing. And she’s from my home state, yeah!

      Another amazing shelved doll? Tallulah Bankhead. I can’t wait to read more of these, great writing, great articles!

    • Adrienne

      I am also loving this series! Please keep this series going.

      Very much looking forward to reading about the next “doll”.


      • Jennifer Wright

        I’m thinking next week might be Dorothy Parker. She’s another one of my favorites. Also, any suggestions on people you love?

      • Nancy

        I love this series, too, and you are a great writer Jennifer! I LOVE Dorothy Parker, I can’t wait to read your next one!

        My favorite poem by her:
        “He sickens of the calm, who knew the storm”

        Tru dat. <–why I'm not a writer

      • Fabel

        Dorothy Parker, yes, yes!!

      • Elizabeth

        Mabel Normand.

    • Allison

      Jennifer, this was excellent! I stopped reading midway to order “the beautiful and damned.” I’ve read Tender is the Night and the Great Gatsby, but nothing else.

      This was beautifully written. I didn’t really know much about Zelda before, and I plan on going through those links you have at the end.

    • Juli

      Thanks again for a truly juicy read, you bring these women back to life for the rest of us

    • Danielle

      Clearly, you loved writing this piece, which is part of why it was such a joy to read.

      I vote Joan Crawford next; like Zelda history cast her as the crazy bitch, but she was incredibly smart and knew how to manipulate and persuade journalists. Her old interviews in Photoplay are kind of fascinating.

      • Jennifer Wright


        Okay, there was this documentary about her where one of the men speaking mentioned that, when he was young, he was working on one of her movies. He went into her dressing room, and she leapt out at him, naked. “It was absolutely shocking! I was just shocked!” he said on the documentary, and then he paused for a second and said “so then I slept with her, and I was married at the time, and, you know, that probably wasn’t a good idea.”

        Because it was Joan Crawford. Of course he slept with her. Because she was Joan Crawford. Joan Crawford is the only person who can just totally pull that off.

    • Lori

      Thank you for this piece. I have been Zelda obsessed since my early teens and have read her book, several biographies and most of F. S. Fitzgerald’s work. I love the Jazz Age and can’t get enough of articles like this one!

      I would also cast a vote for Dorothy Parker as a subject. Louise Brooks would be another interesting choice. She lived a vivid/tragic life and the world was also not quite ready for her sensuality and intellect.

    • Janine

      I read your article following a link my friend posted on Twitter, & really I am glad to have read this. Truly throughout reading your article I could tell you feel really passionate about Zelda’s life, & wanting to share & make her story known to people like me that have read The Great Gatsby but were unaware of the fact she inspired the character of Daisy. I read that book in school of course, & enjoyed it. I am also looking forward to the film. Now I am wishing to read The Beautiful & Damned. Thank you for writing such a lovely article.

    • Elizabeth

      I am loving this series. {Also, the Beautiful and the Damned is my favorite, too.}

    • Kj

      FUCK YEAH ballerina at age 27. Nothing pisses me off than “older” dancers just being written off. Argh. Good on you, Zelda.

    • H.

      “But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t magnificent.”

      Nor does it mean that people who have their wits about them are not magnificent themselves.

    • Melanie the Constant Reader

      We had a couch named after Zelda Fitzgerald in my college dorm. It was old and wide and long and every time I went through the lobby I wanted to catch her napping on it in her pointe shoes.