ixty-nine years after her death and 85 years after the publication of her only completed novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald is still making news. Z: The Beginning of Everything, a soap-opera-ish 10-installment Amazon TV series in which Christina Ricci plays the ill-fated wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, began airing earlier this year. It was based on Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling 2013 novel about the Fitzgeralds, the latest of a long string of fictionalized portrayals of the best-remembered married couple of the Roaring Twenties. Most of them, Z included, proceed from the premise that Zelda, who spent the second half of her life shuttling in and out of mental institutions, was a major artist in the making whose gifts were crushed by an uncaring husband who refused to admit that she was his creative peer. No one seems to have thought any such thing in Zelda’s lifetime, and for long afterward. Ring Lardner, who knew both Fitzgeralds well, summed up the case for the prosecution when he wrote in 1925 that “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.” But he penned those words before Zelda had written anything other than a handful of short stories and prose sketches. In those days, she was still seen as a clever, beautiful pendant to her husband, who by then had written three novels, one of them a masterpiece, and dozens of short stories, not a few of the latter of the highest possible quality.
It was not until the publication in 1970 of Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A Biography that people began to write about Zelda Fitzgerald as something other than Scott’s glamorous but mad spouse. And while Milford was inclined to romanticize her subject, she was still judicious in appraising Zelda’s slender body of work, not exaggerating its literary merits but arguing that it was of continuing value as a document of a strongly individual personality who was interesting not merely as the wife of a major American author but in her own right.
But Milford also reminded a new generation of readers of something long known to Fitzgerald scholars, which is that Scott had made use of Zelda’s diary and correspondence in writing several of his own works—most notably Tender Is the Night (1934), his fourth novel, a semi-autobiographical roman à clef whose central characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, are based in large part on the Fitzgeralds themselves. The fact that he had quarried Zelda’s life and work (such as the latter was) for inspiration was no secret. As early as 1922, the New York Tribune published Zelda’s quasi-review of Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in whose pages she correctly and wittily claimed to have found fragments of her own unpublished writings: “Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
But what was regarded in the ’20s and ’30s as novelistic business as usual would come to be viewed in a more lurid light by later feminist commentators. Ever since the publication of Zelda, it has been widely taken for granted that its subject was a victim avant la lettre of the nefarious doings of what is now known as the “patriarchy.” This point of view was crudely summed up in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview with Mark Gill, the president of Millennium Films, which is developing a biopic in which Jennifer Lawrence will play Zelda: “She was massively ahead of her time, and she took a beating for it. He stole her ideas and put them in his books. The marriage was a co-dependency from hell with a Jazz Age soundtrack.” Between Gill’s film, Z: The Beginning of Everything, and yet another big-budget movie about the Fitzgeralds that will star Scarlett Johansson and be directed by Ron Howard, it seems safe to say that we have not heard the last of the legend of Zelda Fitzgerald.
art of what makes it hard to separate legend from fact is that we know almost too much about the Fitzgeralds. They have been written about endlessly and (sometimes) well. Scott has been written about virtually from the outset of his career and Zelda since 1970. Thus, it is necessary to cut through a great deal of biographical chaff to get to the heart of the matter.
In addition, it is equally necessary to peer through a scrim of outdated psychiatric diagnoses to understand the exact nature of the mental illness that brought about Zelda’s various institutionalizations (all of them voluntary). Her own doctors thought her to be “schizophrenic,” a term whose latter-day meaning has little in common with the way in which it was used in the ’30s. It now appears far more likely that she suffered from what is known today as bipolar disorder or manic depression, a mental illness marked by wide, sometimes incapacitating mood swings that was essentially untreatable during Zelda’s lifetime.
As for Zelda’s early life, we know a vast amount about it. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900, she was the sixth and last child of a distinguished but socially conventional lawyer and a southern-belle mother who spoiled her to a fault. Outgoing and capricious, she grew up in a social set that put the highest possible premium on “proper” behavior, and while she studied ballet as a girl, she seems to have showed no interest in becoming a writer. What she wanted was to be swept off her feet by a glamorous, ambitious man who would take her far from provincial Alabama. Her wish came true when, in 1918, she met Scott, a Princeton graduate and U.S. Army volunteer stationed at Camp Sheridan, not far from Montgomery. Hard at work on his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), Scott fell in love with the flapper-to-be. They were married in New York two years later, a few days after the book came out.
The success of This Side of Paradise made it possible for Scott to publish short stories in the Saturday Evening Post, then America’s highest-paying magazine. He and Zelda thereby acquired the financial wherewithal to set themselves up as a high-living celebrity couple whose flashy doings were regularly chronicled in the popular press. Within a few years, they were living exemplars of the excesses of the era to which Scott gave a name in the title of his second story collection, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). They also acquired a reputation for being heavy drinkers, and Scott soon became dependent on alcohol in order to function, remaining so for the rest of his life.
Even so, he believed that he had it in him to be not merely a successful writer but a great one. While he aimed most of his magazine stories at a popular audience, the best of them already had a finish and clarity of purpose that set them apart from his lesser efforts. And with the publication in 1925 of The Great Gatsby, it was evident to (among others) T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton that he had turned himself into the wholly serious artist he had always longed to be.
Zelda’s life, by contrast, had become less fulfilling. She took no particular pleasure in raising Scottie, her daughter, who was born in 1921, nor did she have the slightest wish to be a traditional homemaker. Instead, she started writing short stories and light essays, most of them about her life with Scott, making no attempt to produce anything more ambitious. In 1925, she also began to paint, turning out colorful but technically naive cityscapes that were derivative of the work of the American post-impressionist artist Maurice Prendergast. Her marriage grew more troubled, and later that year she developed colitis, an inflammation of the colon that can be aggravated by emotional stress.
Starting in 1927, Zelda decided to study ballet again, this time with the intention of becoming a professional dancer. Later on she would come to see herself as a potentially important painter, exhibiting her work in Manhattan in 1934. In both cases, she showed signs of talent but was far too old to launch a professional career. In retrospect, her serial plunges into art appear to have been manifestations of the onset of mania, and several of her friends already had their doubts about her mental stability. In due course, mania was followed by depression, and Zelda entered a French sanatorium, where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and moved to a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland. She was released in the fall of 1931 so that the expatriate Fitzgeralds could return to the U.S., but her condition worsened and she became a patient at the Phipps Clinic of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital the following year.
Zelda wrote Save Me the Waltz at the Phipps Clinic in a six-week-long explosion of manic energy, then sent the manuscript to Maxwell Perkins, Scott’s editor at Scribner’s. While Perkins was willing to publish it, doubtless in part because she was the wife of one of his most admired writers, Scott was furious to learn that it was a transparently autobiographical novel in which she described events that he had intended to put into Tender Is the Night. Zelda acquiesced and cut the sensitive passages, and the book was published in 1932, receiving middling reviews and selling 1,392 copies, less than half of the first and only printing.
By then it was clear to all who met her that Zelda was mentally ill, so much so that Scott found it difficult to write seriously, cranking out shallow Post stories to pay her medical bills instead of finishing his long-stalled novel. It was around this time that the unhappy couple was interviewed by a Johns Hopkins therapist in the presence of a stenographer. According to the transcript, Scott said bluntly that his ability to produce was being undermined both by Zelda’s continuing illness and by her insistence on pursuing careers for which she was not equipped. “It is a perfectly lonely struggle that I am making against other writers who are finely gifted and talented,” he told her. “You are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer. . . . I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you.”
This 1933 confrontation appears to have been the last straw for both Fitzgeralds: Zelda’s work would see print only twice more in her lifetime, while Tender Is the Night, which came out the following year, was no more than modestly successful, forcing Scott to work even harder to support his family. He went to Hollywood to write screenplays for MGM in 1937, embarked on an affair with a movie columnist, and started work on a novel about the movie business. He never saw Zelda again after 1938, though they continued to correspond. Two years later he died suddenly, leaving The Last Tycoon incomplete.
As for Zelda, she lived on alone, continuing to paint, attempting without success to write a second novel, succumbing to religious mania, and finally entering a mental hospital in North Carolina, where she died in a fire in 1948, all but forgotten save by her family and a few friends.
ost of Zelda’s published writings were collected in 1991 in a one-volume anthology. Many female critics and scholars made unequivocal claims for their excellence, with Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reserving her highest praise for Save Me the Waltz: “That the novel was written in two months is amazing. That for all its flaws it still manages to charm, amuse, and move the reader is even more remarkable.” Certainly it is the only work of prose by Zelda that is substantial enough to give any indication of her potential, but those who read Save Me the Waltz knowing nothing of its author are more than likely to find it fragmentary, unpolished, and awkwardly florid, containing as it does such sentences as this: “She had a strong sense of her own insignificance; of her life’s slipping by while June bugs covered the moist fruit in the fig trees with the motionless activity of clustering flies upon an open sore.” The book is what Fitzgerald said it was, the work of a talented amateur who never put in the hours of dogged struggle without which no writer, however gifted, can hope to become a true professional.
Fitzgerald himself had done just that, and succeeded beyond all imagining. It was this struggle to which he referred when he told Zelda at the end of his life that “sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” That had been the reason for his harsh dismissal of her work: knowing as he did the difference between his iron determination and her dilettantism, he could not pretend that Zelda, as much as he loved her, was anything other than what she was.
As for the increasingly strident claim that Scott “stole [Zelda’s] ideas,” one can only reply that all imaginative writers are thieves, ruthlessly taking whatever they find and transforming it into art. And while Scott’s conduct was far from impeccable in this regard, the fact remains that it was he, not Zelda, who was prepared to do whatever was necessary for him to become the artist that he became—and in so doing to earn the money that paid for her care.
Might Zelda have become an equally great artist under more favorable circumstances? It is unlikely on the face of it. Other women of her generation, after all, somehow managed to produce novels, stories, and paintings of distinction in spite of similar cultural obstacles. And while Scott could surely have been more supportive of her inchoate ambitions, one is left in the end to ask a pair of cruelly hard questions: What was his duty to Zelda, and how does it weigh in the balance against the value of his own work? Nothing can now be done for her, after all, save to claim that she was something she wasn’t. Meanwhile, we have Gatsby and “The Rich Boy” and Tender Is the Night. Who shall say that Zelda Fitzgerald’s happiness—assuming that she was capable of being happy, much less productive—was more important?