A new woman

Zelda Fitzgerald was the model and symbol of everything the 1920s stood for. Mary Galea Debono uncovers her fascinating life
Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald pose for a photo at the Sayre home in Montgomery, Ala., in 1919, the year before they married.

In the Western world, the 1920s were years of wide-ranging changes in art, culture and lifestyles in part due to greater economic stability after the ravages of World War I. Surrealism in the visual arts and literature, art deco and jazz, together with shorter skirts and drop waists in women’s clothes to allow for more freedom of movement, are a few of the signs of the time.

It was a decade that witnessed an increased awareness of women’s issues; one of the battles they won was the right to vote. In the process of fighting for their rights, women also shed many of their inhibitions and a New Woman emerged; one who was aware that she was the promoter, the protagonist and, ultimately, the beneficiary of this change.

The spirit of this decade was captured by Ernest Hemingway in his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast – a series of vignettes about life in Paris during the Années folles as the French chose to refer to these years. Among the American expatriates living there during this decade was Scott Fitzgerald – author of The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise – and his wife Zelda. Young, famous, dissolute, uninhibited, always in search of fun, Scott and his wife created an aura around them. They not only represented the hedonistic code, but actively sought to promote an image that was calculated to shock.

Zelda was the standard model and symbol of everything this decade stood for. She was a ‘flapper’ – a term used to describe the quintessential 1920s woman. Years later, a journalist of The New York Post, reviewing her exhibition of paintings, was still referring to her as “The Priestess of the Jazz Age”.

Although Hemingway had a great admiration for Fitzgerald and his writing, he was less enthusiastic about his wife. For him, Zelda was “crazy”, and he was not the only one to think so. Another American writer, John Dos Passos, who in the 1920s was part of the American colony in Paris, after meeting her, wrote: “Everything about her was very original and amazing, but there was also this little strange streak. Whatever she had said was completely off track, it was like peering into a dark abyss.”

Zelda was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900. Even as a child, she showed the traits that were   to remain the hallmark of her personality. Sure of herself and independent; lively and fun loving; fearless and daring, but also self-centred and, as she herself later admitted, without moral principles, it does not seem that there was anybody willing, or at least disposed, to rein her in.

Her mother was reluctant to admit there was anything wrong in her daughter’s behaviour and was always ready to find excuses for her misconduct. Her father, a judge of the Supreme Court of Alabama, was a conservative man and a model of respectability, but a solitary person, totally distant in his attitude towards his children. Even at school, which Zelda did not like, the teachers found her restless and difficult to discipline.

Her behaviour went beyond what was considered proper by the standards of the time; to the other girls of the same age and social class, it seemed there was no limit to the freedom she enjoyed. She did as she pleased; she smoked; she drank; she partied and danced all night; she dated a long list of young men with whom she believed she was in love. By flouting all the conventions of a conservative society in this southern state of the US, she was also challenging her father’s authority. Stories about her behaviour abounded.

In July 1918, Zelda met Scott at a country club; he was then a First Lieutenant in the 67th Infantry division stationed in the nearby camp. For Zelda, Scott, a very handsome man, had the added ‘attribute’ of coming from the North; for Scott, Zelda was totally different from the girls he had known. The attraction was mutual. Their relationship was interrupted when Scott was sent to New York, presumably on his way to join the fighting forces in France. But by the time he arrived in this city, the armistice had been signed and he never left the US.

Scott returned to Montgomery and proposed to Zelda, but she did not at first accept. Nancy Milford, who wrote her biography, believes that Zelda may have felt that at the basis of the proposal was failure; that “when everything … had failed him, his career and his writing, he turned to [her] with a proposal of immediate marriage made as much out of desperation as of love”.

Scott himself seems to have had some qualms about this decision especially because some of his friends had hinted that Zelda was not easy to live with. Yet in a letter to a friend, he confessed: “I fell in love with her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be…”

Zelda too changed her mind, and on April 3, 1920, they were married in the rectory of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The parents, who were not sure about the wisdom of this decision, did not attend the wedding.

Zelda had not had a good formal education, but she had a natural talent for expressing her thoughts in writing as can be seen in her many letters and in her diaries. Scott was to make ample use of these in his novels, sometimes lifting whole passages from them. But even more important for Scott as a writer was the fact that he was “absorbed in Zelda’s personality” and she became the inspiration of much of this fiction. The challenges their relationship posed were to provide him with many of the themes of his novels as in The Beautiful and the Damned, which explores the situations in a failed marriage. Zelda, it must be said, did the same thing in her book Save Me the Waltz, which she wrote and published years later.

Success as a novelist brought Scott not only fame but also fortune; the Fitzgeralds had a good standard of living and opportunities for travel. When their daughter Scottie was born, it also meant they could afford to employ a nanny. Zelda’s role as a mother left much to be desired and domesticity was anathema to her – visitors to their apartments invariably described them as unkept and disorderly. “Brimming over with life” she had very little to occupy her and not surprisingly boredom and restlessness set in.

To make up for her sense of unfulfillment, she embarked on a number of ‘projects’. In the summer of 1927, she experimented with writing, proving she did not lack talent. Later, she took up ballet, although it was quite obvious that she did not have the right figure for a ballerina as she was far too tall, her legs were muscular and it was too late to embark on such a career. She also took up painting, and when all these dreams evaporated, she turned to religion. They were all attempts at filling the void within her and giving a meaning to her life, but none of them worked.

Her relationship with Scott deteriorated; physical estrangement and Scott’s excessive drinking contributed to exacerbate an already difficult situation and their fights became violent. One day, in a fit of anger, Zelda threw out of the train window her diamond and platinum wristwatch. Scott had given it to her at the beginning of their relationship and it had had sentimental value. On another similar occasion, while Scott was driving on the narrow and winding road of the Grande Corniche, she grabbed the steering wheel of the car and tried to steer it off the cliff.

Zelda’s health continued to deteriorate; she began having nightmares and heard noises. She was incoherent in her speech and carrying out a simple conversation became a problem. Very often, she appeared distracted and in a daze. Her friends realised there was something seriously wrong with her.

In April 1930, she entered a clinic where she spent 15 months. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Zelda’s life changed; it followed a pattern that alternated between periods of relative tranquility, when she could live almost normally, and periods of depression, when she became hysterical, withdrew within herself and had to be institutionalised. In her moments of lucidity, she continued to write, and although her thoughts as expressed in her writing often seemed illogical, she still showed a certain amount of talent. Seeing this, her doctors encouraged her to jot down her thoughts instead of just talking about them to her psychiatrists.

During her long periods in hospital, Scott and Zelda would write long letters to each other in which they expressed their love and dependence on each other. Scott was half aware that his drinking may have had something to do with his wife’s condition, but he still acted the martyr; Zelda in her more lucid moments, knew that paying for her hospital fees was crippling her husband, who had grave financial difficulties. Their writing was another source of friction; they were jealous of each other’s creative work.

Doctors and nurses realised that when Scott came to visit, the tension and fighting increased. Today, Zelda would have been diagnosed as being bipolar, but very little was then known about mental illnesses. Concluding that visits from families upset the patients, medics discouraged frequent interactions. When Scott stayed away, Zelda felt even more isolated.

Because mental illnesses were not properly understood, there was a stigma attached to them, and this, together with the insensitivity generally shown towards such patients, often had a devastating effect on them. One day, while Zelda was staying with her mother, one of her male friends offered to take her to an exhibition. On their way to town, they came across three 10-year-old children coming from the opposite direction. One of the girls nudged her friend and whispered: “You see there, there’s that crazy woman mamma’s been telling us about.” Zelda who had been looking forward to the outing told her friend that she had changed her mind and wanted to go back home.

After Scott’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1940, Zelda, who lived with her mother when she was well, continued to write fragments of fiction that reveal her state of mind. In the beginning of 1948, after an earlier relapse, which had forced her to return to a clinic, Zelda wrote to her mother expressing her intention to return home. But it was not to be.

One of her last acts was a letter to Scottie, who, in 1943, had got married and had just had her second baby. That same night, a fire broke out in the main building of the hospital; it shot up through the lift shaft and Zelda and all the patients whose room was on the top floor were burnt to death.

Her charred body was buried with Scott at Maryland; at last, she could rest in peace.                   

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