Zelda Fitzgerald: Beneath the Glittering Surface

Zelda Fitzgerald (CSU Archives / Everett Collection)

Today, any mention of Zelda Fitzgerald's name is usually tinged with tragedy – the 1920s It Girl is remembered primarily for her dramatic fall from fashionable society to the hidden chambers of a Southern mental hospital. But in her glory days, she was known as a glittering, vivacious flapper who had all of New York City – and much of the nation – wrapped around her little finger. That's the image she put forth in the '20s when she and her husband, lauded author F. Scott Fitzgerald, were the toast of the town: a beautiful and irreverently silly young woman, prone to encouraging a scandal or starting a new fashion trend on a whim.

To list just a few of Zelda Fitzgerald's wacky characteristics and actions:

  • "She flirted because it was fun to flirt," Fitzgerald herself wrote in her essay "Eulogy on the Flapper."

  • She took a tipsy swim in the Union Square fountain in the heart of Manhattan.

  • She and her husband were kicked out of multiple hotels for their wildly drunken lifestyle.

  • She took up ballet at 27, determined to become a professional dancer despite the strong odds against anyone succeeding at a dance career after starting that late.

  • She went on wild shopping sprees, buying whatever struck her fancy.

  • Asked to contribute a recipe to a celebrity cookbook, she submitted: "See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy."

  • Dorothy Parker, herself a New York City luminary, said of the Fitzgeralds, "They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking."

Zelda Fitzgerald was fun, but she was unreasonable. She was rich, charming and luminous. She did things for the sake of whimsy alone. Probably most of us have known people like Zelda and Scott – the couple who are so much fun that they get invited to all the parties (and go to all of them, their manic energy lighting up the room). The modern-day Scott or Zelda probably has thousands of Instagram followers.

But as we know today, turmoil lurked beneath the glittery surface. The couple's marriage was far from perfect; in private, they fought. They had money troubles; Scott had affairs; and they both drank heavily, especially Scott, who had been an alcoholic since before they were married. And Zelda's attempts at creativity were neither valued nor supported. When Scott wrote his novels, he drew on aspects of their marriage for plot points and Zelda's life for character development – he even included bits of her diaries, lifted word for word and inserted into his text. But when Zelda wrote her lone novel, Save Me the Waltz, a fictionalized account of their marriage, Scott was livid. He accused her of plagiarism for drawing on their life story – even though he did the same and had planned to use some of the same source material for his own novel, Tender Is the Night. He demanded that she revise it. She did, and it was published in 1932, and that's when things got worse.

Save Me the Waltz was a flop – a massive flop. The critics disliked it just as much as Scott did, and the reading public was none too impressed either (that is, those who even bought it or heard about it at all – the Great Depression was in full swing, and novels were too much of a luxury for many). The book sold 1,392 copies, from a print run of 3,010, and Zelda earned a paltry $120 from it.

After that, Zelda didn't write anymore for quite some time. She painted a bit, as she had in the past, and she sought to have her paintings exhibited. When they were shown, in 1934, the public's response was just as dismal as the response to her novel.

Zelda had been in and out of mental hospitals before, but by the mid-1930s, she spent more time in than out. She endured electroshock therapy while attempting to write a second novel, one that would never see completion. Scott lived nearby, stationed within glamorous Grove Park Inn, but visited his wife infrequently. In 1940, he died of a heart attack at age 44. It had been years since he had visited Zelda in the hospital. Zelda followed suit in 1948. It wasn't her formerly wild lifestyle that got her in the end – it was a deadly fire at Highland Mental Hospital, where she was undergoing treatment. Locked in a room in preparation for an electroshock therapy session, she couldn't escape the flames.

Zelda died in relative obscurity. Her Jazz Age heyday must have seemed a lifetime past to late-1940s America, its whimsical spirit overtaken by the grim intensity of the Great Depression and World War II. But decades after her death, artists and biographers rediscovered Zelda's life. She was portrayed on film, and books were published about her. She even inspired the Eagles song "Witchy Woman." She became remembered as a tragic beauty, a Marilyn Monroe for the Jazz Age. Critics decided that her novel wasn't so bad after all, and feminists embraced her for her struggle against Scott's controlling tendencies.

Though Zelda's public persona had been an open book during her lifetime, it seems that the general public wrote its own sequel after her death.

Zelda Fitzgerald's story has evolved to reveal much more than the glitzy, fun parts – more, even, than the beautiful-but-doomed stereotype suggested by her struggle with mental illness. From the distance of decades, we can see beneath the sparkling surface to discover the whole person: the discouraged artist, the wife in the shadow of her husband's greatness, the sun-kissed party girl, the obsessive schizophrenic and the dancer-in-fountains.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.