Zelda, the wild wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an "embodiment of the Jazz Age," writes Gigi Anders. Though it's been 65 years since Zelda Fitzgerald's death, this "delusional debutante" always seems to remain young and vital in the popular imagination. Her enduring appeal gets new life later this year in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby — featuring the Zelda-inspired character Daisy Buchanan. Originally published April, 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
Zelda Fitzgerald, about age 17
“To be young and beautiful for a long time,” Zelda Fitzgerald once said. “That’s what I want.”
And that’s what she got. The Montgomery, Alabama, native died on March 10, 1948, in a fire at a North Carolina mental hospital when she was relatively young — 48 — if not perfectly beautiful. She outlived her famous husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, by eight years. An alcoholic, he was only 44 when he died in Hollywood, broke, broken down, convinced he was a failure. But that’s another story.
You know about Zelda. Famous for being infamous, famous for whom she married. More captivating and fizzy than classically beautiful or professionally accomplished. The feminine embodiment of the Jazz Age here and a member of the Lost Generation abroad. The idealized golden girl who became Jay Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan in virtually every novel and story Scott wrote and in his life — just out of reach, reckless, romantic, entitled, carnal, willful, fragile, impossible. A delusional debutante nurturing illusions about her talents while spending most of the last two decades of her short life labeled as schizophrenic, draining her husband’s attenuating resources as he struggled to pay her private hospital bills and to stop drinking.
This is the season of Zelda. On stage, on screen, on catwalks.
“Zelda’s singular,” says Maureen Mueller, the actress-singer playing her in This Side of Paradise, a new off-Broadway musical about the Fitzgeralds, beginning April 14 at the Theatre at St. Clements in New York City. “She got the spotlight on her and had nothing to deliver, like so many young girls today who get arrested for being drunk and crashing up their cars. I think she probably would’ve been famous anyway, without Scott, just for being outrageous.”
The show and its music are based on jazz singer Nancy Harrow’s 2003 CD Winter Dreams: The Life and Passions of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Their story is relevant to today,” Harrow says, “when people are celebrity-conscious and want to be celebrities. And the tragedy about being part of an It Couple is that the only way to go is down.”
The childlike Fitzgeralds did have protracted and sad dying falls. But when they were young and life was gay (in the old-fashioned sense), they were something to see. They projected the dazzling if transitory power of creativity, beauty, money and youth. Never settling anyplace for long, they restlessly invented their personas moment by transcendent moment in New York City, Paris, the French Riviera, Baltimore and Great Neck, Long Island, where they threw wild parties and where Scott’s 1925 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, is fictionally based. Look at the glamorous Fitzgeralds in vintage black-and-white photographs. You can’t stop staring. Nor can you imagine one without the other, even in the afterlife — they’re buried side by side in Rockville, Maryland.
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921 (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
“You could say they were doomed or that they lived really well for a short time,” says a source close to The Beautiful and the Damned, a feature film about the Fitzgeralds now in pre-production, starring Keira Knightley as Zelda. “They were tragic but that’s the pay-off for the bright periods, the balancing part of it. You see it in Hollywood all the time.”
Indeed, the fearless Zelda loved nothing more than shocking people: She wore flesh-colored bathing suits to simulate nudity, tilted steering wheels toward cliffs’ edges while speeding down narrow roads, did cartwheels in hotel lobbies. In her Roaring ’20s prime, women copied her bobbed hair, bee-stung lips, and clothes. That Zelda style was recently reiterated in February at New York Fashion Week on the runways of Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui and Isaac Mizrahi, where models wore lustrous crushed panne velvet and elaborately beaded flapper dresses.
“As an influential fashion icon, nobody’s remotely comparable to what Zelda was then,” says the movie source. “Not since Jackie Kennedy. I’ve got costume designers fighting over that job.”
Zelda was more than a clotheshorse, though. She had the soul of an artiste — she wrote magazine and newspaper articles, short stories, and a novel, Save Me the Waltz; she danced ballet; she painted — but she was not gifted, disciplined or lucky. There was a strain of mental instability in her family, too — an older brother committed suicide — and she was always prone to being a little out-there.
Zelda Fitzgerald, about age 18 (Wikimedia Commons/Pantherpuma)
In 1918, at a Montgomery country club dance, when the flirtatious and exhibitionistic youngest of six children born to Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Dickinson Sayre, and his wife, Minerva, met the dreamy and charming 22-year-old Lieutenant Fitzgerald, it knocked them both over the edge in poetic and disastrous ways. The St. Paul, Minnesota-born Scott was a Princeton dropout who’d joined the army during World War I. Stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan, he was gorgeous and brilliant, obsessed with youth, love and class. He wanted Zelda and to become a legendary American author.
“Zelda could work a room,” says Rachel Moulton, the sunny actress-singer playing the young Zelda in the musical. “They locked eyes and there was this instant connection. Scott was a Yankee, he was different than the men she was used to. And she had a je ne sais quoi, a joie de vivre.”
In Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (St. Martins, 2002), it’s clear that both Zelda and Scott longed to leave the South and the Midwest, their respective provinces, and become part of the main social stream of America in the East.
“She talks about how she didn’t want a drab existence because he would love her less,” says the book’s co-editor Cathy W. Barks. “'Don’t worry about what you can’t give me, you’ve given me your heart and that’s all that matters.’ He had no money. His first book [1920’s This Side of Paradise] was being published, and it did make him rich and famous, but how many times does that happen?”
Didn’t matter; the way they blew through money, there was never enough. Married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1920, they had their only child, a daughter named Scottie, in 1921. And, thanks to the overnight success of Paradise, they became the 20th century’s most luminous literary couple, bona fide celebrities.
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921 (Hulton Archive/Archive Photos)
“They were both extremely public figures,” says Fitzgerald scholar and Dear Scott co-editor Jackson R. Bryer. “It was something they sought, but it also put a strain on their relationship. What attracted Scott to Zelda — she was racy and popular and represented something he aspired to — are the things that made their marriage difficult. I’m not sure he knew what he wanted her to be and do. He was supportive of her [artistic endeavors], but he wanted her to be his wife. It’s not an unusual ambivalence.”
The troubled marriage mirrored the nation’s troubles: the post-war excitement of the boom followed by the Crash of ’29 and the bust of the Depression, when Zelda had the first in a series of mental breakdowns, Scott’s drinking worsened, and money woes became constant. Between our current recession and the success of TV shows like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, the Fitzgeralds seem positively au courant. As for the “singular” Zelda, she’ll always be young and beautiful — in print. Go read any of Scott’s books. You’ll find her there, shimmering, elusive and immortal.