If you are a certain kind of woman- the kind of woman who has ever been told that she is crazy by an ex-boyfriend – then you are probably already familiar with Zelda Fitzgerald. And if you are that kind of woman – if you’ve ever screamed, or thrown things, and as a result decided your own neurosis will make you eternally unlovable – then her name radiates hope like the green light at the end of someone’s pier.
Because common wisdom is that Zelda is crazier than you will ever be, and it was great! It made her husband love her and be totally obsessed with her, and her sense of drama! It inspired him! If you’re a Zelda Fitzgerald type the worst thing that will happen is that your husband’s best friend will end up hating you, but his best friend will be a Hemingway type, who will hate a lot of women, including Dorothy Parker (that is a different story, but an interesting one. We cannot even talk about how Hemingway figures into this situation, because it would be another ten pages).
This outlook on Zelda’s role is reinforced in scenes like the one in Midnight in Paris where she’s seen trying to throw herself in a river because she’s jealous of “Scott and that beautiful Countess” and she’s assured by someone from the future that “Scott only loves you.” Then she calms down and goes back to be a delightful Southern belle. Who is bored. Sometimes.
Or in Suburban Girl – which I’ve seen mostly because it was based off of stories in A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (which is delightful like a bored Southern belle, you’d like it) – there is a scene where the protagonist gets drunk at a snooty society lady’s party, hits on a waiter, and yells at her older boyfriend – and the society lady turns to the protagonist’s boyfriend awestruck and exclaims “Marry her! She’s Zelda Fitzgerald!”
That is to say, Zelda is generally perceived as someone given to passing episodes of mania because she was so passionate and had so many feelings and it was inspiring! And great! It livened up stuffy society! And we should all jump in a fountain! BECAUSE IT’S THE JAZZ AGE!
Look: this is a false notion. Zelda was a schizophrenic (or possibly a manic depressive) who died horribly in a fire while awaiting electroshock treatment. Her husband was very good to her in some ways, and a complete shit in others. Her life wasn’t all fun and fountain jumping as it’s often made out to be. And while parts of her life do seem like a ton of fun, you really don’t want to be in her position.
But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t magnificent.
She was wonderful. She really was.
Zelda was born to an old Southern family in 1900, as if she was designed to usher in the new century. Even as a child she demonstrated the kind of moxy that would single her out as the flapper prototype. Do you want to know what a fun kid she was? She would dial the police station and tell them that there was a child in serious danger on the roof of a building. Then she would climb up to the roof and wait for the fire truck to come so they could rescue her and she could ride around in it.
She also used to steal her parent’s car and take it for joyrides. At 8.
The rest of her youth was dominated by ballet lessons, though she found time for scandal during her teen years where she insisted on going swimming in a nude bathing suit that made her look naked at the beach. She was popular, and well liked, and supposedly could get away with those things only because she came from such a good, old family. At her debutante party she described herself as being “so full of confetti I could give birth to paper dolls.”
That is such a good line. And she really was.
No wonder Scott fell in love with her.
They met at a country club dance where Zelda was performing “Dance of the Hours.” She was 18. Scott was 21, a lieutenant in the army, and an aspiring novelist. He used his signature line on her which was “what kind of a heroine would you like to be?”
Though in Zelda’s case it wasn’t just talk. She went on to inspire the heroine of This Side of Paradise (beautiful, witty, popular Rosalind, not beautiful, brilliant, insane Eleanor, in case you were confused). However, while Zelda continued to write to him and encourage him, she wasn’t sold on the idea of marrying a poor man. She wrote him that “I can’t be shut away from the trees and flowers, cooped up in a little flat, waiting for you. You’d hate me in a narrow atmosphere. I’d make you hate me.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because he re-used the line in This Side of Paradise. Still, she told one of Scott’s classmates “If Scott sells the book, I’ll marry the man, because he is sweet.”
Scott sold This Side of Paradise, and became famous more or less over night. The only person who seemingly didn’t like it was the dean of Princeton who said “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness.”
Zelda married him. And, upon marrying her, Scott told a reporter “I married the heroine of my stories.”
They promptly moved to New York where their antics became so legendary that William Randolph Hearst hired one reporter to follow them around full time. Scott wrote The Beautiful and Damned (my favorite book, also Serena van der Woodsen’s favorite book, either way, read it, read it) which Zelda reviewed in The New York Herald Tribune. She wrote:
“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, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
Hah! This isn’t an issue, yet. This is going to be an issue later, though, so hang in for that. She also designed a book cover for it that featured a picture of her, naked, staring over a champagne glass (I am not certain it is this one, but it certainly seems to fit the criteria):
At the time, things were wonderful. Zelda described her life during the 1920’s as “Spinach and champagne. Going back to the kitchens at the old Waldorf. Dancing on the kitchen tables, wearing the chef’s headgear. Finally, a crash and being escorted out by the house detectives.”
And presumably into the Plaza fountain.
Along the way, at 21, Zelda gave birth to a daughter, Scottie, who she said she hoped would be a “beautiful little fool.” Where does that line show up later? Let’s all shout it aloud together!
The couple began traveling and living out of hotels, making their way through the French Riviera. Zelda ended up having a brief fling – that may or may not have been consummated – with a French aviator. Fitzgerald told one mistress that be broke the thing up with a duel, but most sources say that he just kept Zelda under house arrest for a month until she lost interest in the aviator. Scott later claimed that he encouraged the affair before he crushed it – he needed to see how affairs worked so he could write one into The Great Gatsby.
That was a very good thing for literature, and a very bad thing for Zelda.
She responded first by despairing and begging Scott for a divorce, and then by becoming incredibly jealous of any of the women Scott talked to. Once, in 1927, when Scott exchanged professional advice with Isadora Duncan (she wanted to write a memoir) Zelda became so enraged that she threw herself down a flight of stairs. A witness to the event remarked, “I was sure she was dead. We were all stunned and motionless. I don’t remember what Scott did. The first thing I remember thinking was that it had not been ugly. I said that to myself over and over again. I’ve never been able to forget it.”
Another time, when Scott seemed infatuated with the 17 year old silent film star Lois Moran, Zelda responded by throwing the platinum and diamond wristwatch Scott had given her out a train window.
Eventually, Zelda began to berate herself for simply being Scott’s wife, and claimed that her true frustration was that she was, essentially, still something of an indulged child. “I don’t seem to know anything appropriate for a person of 30,” she moaned.
At 27 – much too late, it was commonly thought – Zelda decided that she would become a professional ballerina. She was shockingly good – so good that a company in Naples invited her to join its ranks despite her advanced age. However, Zelda turned them down, claiming that her dream was to join the Ballet Russes.
And she threw herself into her dream with a ferocity that seemed terrifying. She began practicing for 8 hours a day, often through parties being thrown at her home, and she stopped eating almost altogether. People who knew her commented that, while she’d always been mildly eccentric, she now seemed truly unstable. She spoke, obsessively, only of ballet. Scott claimed that her devotion to her teacher, Madame Egorova, was “abnormal.”
It seems, always, to me, fitting that Zelda took to ballet and not, say, macrame. There are a lot of stories out there about the peril of dancing through life – the puritans were on it! – but her fixation reminds me of a particular scene from one of my favorite movies, The Red Shoes.
A young composer asks an impresario the plot of the ballet he is working on. The impresario replies:
“The ballet of ‘The Red Shoes,’ is the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. And first all goes well, and she’s very happy. She tires, but the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forest, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”
“Then what happens?” The composer asks.
“Oh,” the impresario says with a wave of his hand, “In the end she dies.”
You see, Zelda’s first nervous breakdown occurred when she was on her way to ballet practice.
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.
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.
Zelda relented and the novel was published with Scott’s numerous edits. It was not well received by the New York critics, though it did somewhat better in London. The Times Literary Supplement called it “powerful and memorable with qualities of earthiness and force.” It does have that – though it seems to suffer somewhat from the fact that Zelda is trying so hard to write like her husband, when reading the first page of The Great Gatsby is enough to make any would-be novelist throw up their hands and say “well, I can’t do that, I’m off to be an accountant.” It’s a very nice novel by Zelda Fitzgerald, it’s just not a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And it does mirror his novels so closely. Consider the last line of the Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
And the last exchange in Save Me The Waltz:
“Alabama,” said David, “if you would stop dumping ash trays before the company has got well out of the house we would be happier.”
“It’s very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labelled ‘the past’, and, having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue.”
They sat in the pleasant gloom of late afternoon, staring at each other through the remains of the party, the silver glasses, the silver tray, the traces of many perfumes, they sat together watching the twilight flow through the calm living room that they were leaving like the clear cold current of a trout stream.
Still. It may not be a great book in the manner of The Great Gatsby, but I think it’s so remarkable that it’s a book at all.
Zelda’s character Alabama may have been able to dump out the past like so many ashes and move boldly into the future, but Zelda, herself, seemed borne back into the past constantly. She was shattered by the bad reviews, and suffered a series of further breakdowns for which there was no good treatment – though she underwent rounds of electroshock therapy.
She ultimately checked herself into the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Scott continued to pay her bills until then end of his life. She was in Highland when she heard of his death – he died in his ladyfriend’s apartment, reading about the Princeton football game.
Zelda became increasingly incoherent following his death, though she continued to occupy much of her time painting ballerinas, like these, some of which were bought by Dorothy Parker:
They were often distorted, with swollen limbs. When asked why Zelda painted them that way she replied, “That’s how a ballet dancer feels after dancing. It wasn’t the dancers but the step itself that I wanted to paint.”
Zelda died when she was trapped in a fire at the mental institution in 1948. She was waiting for another round of electroshock. Her body was ultimately identified only by the slipper caught beneath it.
What seems tragic, mostly, is that Zelda was the first of her kind. She might have done much better if she was the second, or third, or fourth.
But she lives on in Daisy, and Rosalind, and Gloria, and her own Alabama. Her legacy, in its own strange, rather whitewashed form, lives on, too, and maybe now she is the kind of heroine she’d like to be. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by. But those shoes? Those shoes go on dancing forever.