Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald - An American Woman's Life by Linda Wagner-Martin

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, the couple, is a phenomena, belonging to the roaring twenties and the jazz age. For most people, I think, they symbolise the young, beautiful, successful couple, moving in the jet-set world of the time, from one party to the next, with a glass of champagne in the hand… or, something stronger. The couple has always fascinated me, so when I was offered a review copy from Endeavour Press, I accepted. Especially, since I did not know very much about Zelda. Scott was the successful writer and she the beautiful wife supporting him. As well all know; all is not well in the fairy tale world.

The Content Reader

Linda Wagner-Martin is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and among her fifty edited and written books are also biographies of Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, and Barbara Kingsolver. The biography of Zelda is very well written, well researched and with a lot of references to letters and other personal papers. The Fitzgerald papers, are held at Princeton University Library (Scott Fitzgerald studied there), and contains "original manuscripts, working drafts, corrected galleys, personal and professions correspondence, autobiographical scrapbooks, photographs, and other original material of F. Scott Fitzgerald." Linda Wagner-Martin has obviously gone through this treasure, and the material is well integrated in the story or in the foot notes through out the book. Writing a book about one partner of a 'non separate' couple or entity as they were, and has become, can easily make the author sympathise with this partner, in this case Zelda. However, Wagner-Martin manages to keep the neutral line all through the book. In tight, complicated and very sensitive situations she manages perfectly to follow Zelda, and still include a perspective from Scott's point of view. She lets the reader vouch for him/herself and to form a personal opinion on what their lives were like.

It s a very engaging book. Maybe not surprising with such engaging people. It might therefore come as a surprise that Zelda and Scott were not very happy. But let's start from the beginning. Zelda grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, as the youngest of five siblings. As she was entering the family at a time when they thought there would not be more children, she was somewhat spoilt. Her mother doted on her and she had a very traditional childhood. She was born in 1900, so there was still a touch of the old south where she grew up, and a traditional, old fashioned view on girls and their behaviour. Girls grew up to be wives and mothers. Zelda was very beautiful and considered a 'Southern belle’, and very popular with the young men. She enjoyed partying and dancing. In 1917 soldiers came to stay close to Montgomery. It was all very exciting for the young women in the area, and Zelda became particularly interested in one of them, F. Scott Fitzgerald. She had other admirers and even received an offer of marriage, but in the end, Scott was the one that captured her heart. Scott was for yours older than Zelda, but much more experienced. Already at this time he was a heavy drinker and smoker, which did not go down very well with Zelda’s family, who were quite restricted and old fashioned. But, Zelda had made her choice and they married an moved north to New York.

Zelda wanted something more with her life, and a glorious one. A friend of hers became a movie star and she also had ambitions to do something creative. She was good at dancing, had taken ballet lessons for many years, and was thinking of an acting career. However, as Zelda soon discovered; to be married to Scott meant to give up your own life and act as his beautiful, adoring partner. She was quickly introduced to Scott’s life of parties and drinking. At first she was fascinated with a world so different from her own one, but very soon she discovered that there was not that much in it for her.

Scott started his writing career at this time, and made a hit with his first book This Side of Paradis. He was the young up-coming writer, with a beautiful wife. Moving around in artistic circles, visible around town and enjoying life. No wonder they became the glamorous, iconic couple representing the jazz age. Behind the scenes it was not that glamorous. Zelda had discovered that Scott was very jealous, he totally dictated both their lives and Zelda had no freedom to pursue her own interests. Scott was the star in the family and everything should evolve around him. In 1921 their lives changed slightly when daughter Frances Scott (Scottie) was born.

The Fitzgeralds moved all their lives from one place to the other. During the 1920s they spent several years in Europe and became part of the 'Lost Generation' crowd that stayed in Paris at the time. The Fitzgeralds kept a summer house at the French Riviera, ‘Villa Paquita’ in Juan-les-Pins, invited their friends, and made this part of France a posh place to be.

Yet in 1925, none of their friends made any effort to find help. If Scott were already offensive because of his constant drinking, then Zelda might well have become an object of sympathy. Why she did not was probably because she appeared to go along with Scott‟s unseemly manners: she was considered a co-conspirator. As John Peale Bishop wrote several years later to Allen Tate:   'One must always remember that the life of the Fitzgeralds was a common creation. They collaborated, even on Scott‟s drunkenness. And either, I think, might have emerged from their difficulties alone, but never together.'

Zelda was all her life struggling for an identity of her own. She did not want to be only a ‘femme inspiratrice’. In Paris she continued her ballet lessons for a famous Russian teacher. Obviously she was very good, worked very hard and was offered to dance in Milan. This offer was never taken up, and there are no written evidence on why not. She wrote herself through the years, but everything she wrote was published under both their names, although most of the stories were written by Zelda. Later on she also wrote a book about her life Save Me the Waltz, which was considerably edited by Scott, who did not like it. Probably, too close to their own life, but from a different angle that he wrote himself. She took up painting and was good at that as well, even had an exhibition a couple of times. She was trying to make something of her life, but was restricted by the influence of Scott. Here we come to the crux of their marriage.

The therapeutic role of words was to come later for Zelda. Once she had written her own story, in the novel Save Me the Waltz and probably in the seven or eight short stories she wrote at about the same time (stories now lost, except for their summaries in her agent‟s file), she might have had some chance at reclaiming her story. The irony of the Scott-Zelda relationship from the start, however, was that Scott regularly usurped Zelda‟s story.
Footnote Clearer in hindsight, this process has been labeled injurious by all of Zelda‟s biographers, and others. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, “Zelda‟s greatest gift to Fitzgerald as a writer was her own startling and reckless personality and his almost paralyzing love of it” (Elizabeth Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal (1974), p. 96). More explicitly, Carolyn Heilbrun refers to what she calls Fitzgerald‟s “assumption that he had a right to the life of his wife, Zelda, as an artistic property. She went mad, confined to what Mark Schorer has called her ultimate anonymity - to be storyless ... [Fitzgerald] had usurped her narrative” (Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman‟s Life (1988), p. 12). 

At about this time Zelda had various break downs and from here on she stayed frequently in different clinics. It was not that she was forced to hospitalisation, but she choose herself to go into a clinic to get help. Scott was a very jealous, demanding man. Zelda was his wife and she should abide to him. She was never allowed to shine above him, although talented herself. One theory of the author is that she was so persistent with her ballet lessons, since this was a field where Scott could not compete. The rest was a competition and since Scott always had to come out on the top, Zelda had no chance. She was pushed back and down, and her only relief it seems, was to enter the psychological clinics, where she spent most of the rest of her life. There she could pursue her writing and painting without the interference of Scott. However, it is not entirely true, because it seems that during many of the years she was hospitalised, he directed the doctors about her treatment.

The first years in Switzerland and in an expensive clinic in the US, it was almost like a 'holiday' home. There were treatments intertwined with free private time where the patients could pursue their interests. However, later on when money got scarce, the institutions were less free and she was put through some serious drugs and electric shocks that forever changed her. In the 1930s there was a lot of testing of new drugs, which later was discovered to make more harm than good. Unfortunately, this is the time when Zelda stayed in the institutions.

Collected throughout his notebooks, too, were the kind of often anguished statements that readers claimed not to recognize when they read the essays. For instance, Fitzgerald on gender: When I like men I want to be like them — I want to lose the outer qualities that give me my individuality and he like them. I don't want the man [sic] I want to absorb into myself all the qualities that make him attractive and leave him out ... When I like women I want to own them, to dominate them, to have them admire me.  
For the Fitzgerald in the notebooks, ownership was visceral: “The feeling that she was (his) began between his shoulders and spread over him like a coat going on.”Once man and woman comprise a family, however, Fitzgerald assesses: Family quarrels are bitter things. They don't go according to any rules. They're not like aches or wounds; they're more like splits in the skin that won't heal because there's not enough material. 

In later years they mostly stayed in different places. Scott continued his life with his various mistresses. Already from the beginning of their marriage it seems that he was unfaithful. He died in 1940 from his drinking. Zelda went to live with her mother and her life was very quiet. She continued to go back and forth to various clinics and died in 1948 when the house where she was hosted in a clinic caught fire. She is buried with Scott in Rockville Maryland. On the grave stone is engraved the last line from The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

All in all it is a sad story of talented people who were lost both with and without each other. You wonder how it was for their daughter to grow up in this powerful family. Zelda loved her daughter very much, and through the book there are quotes from letters she wrote. Beautiful letters which show the love she felt for her daughter. Scottie became a journalist and writer herself, was married twice and had four children.

Dolan's comment about “The Crack-Up” essays is that they are strangely unpopulated. Neither the author's wife nor his child is mentioned: instead he clearly situates himself alone in the small Southern town. Yet it is at this period in Fitzgerald's history that he is realizing the great, and permanent, loss of Zelda. (As George Jean Nathan was later to write, “Zelda's illness left Scott in a state from which he never fully recovered.”) 

The above quote from the book is from the later writings of Scott. The quote by George Jean Nathan above and the extract from Scott’s diary above, give us a clue to Scott’s behaviour, as well as the question why Zelda did not leave him.  They were, in spite of everything, not capable or did not want to cut the bonds with each other. Even in later years when they most of the time lived in separate places, the bond, the love was there. They could not live with each other, but neither without each other.

A fascinating story, and I highly recommend Linda Wagner-Martin's biography. There are more biographies to look forward too as well. And a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I happen to have on my shelves. It is by Andrew Turnbull, from 1962.


  1. I have often wondered about Zelda and the real woman that lurked behind the legend. I have been reluctant to re-read Tender is the Night until I read Zelda's novel, so many books not enough time. This does sound like a biography worth reading.

    1. I have not read many of Fitzgerald's books, but just finished 'The Great Gatsby'. Review to come. I did read another one, but can't remember the name. Could have been 'This Side of Paradise'. It is more interesting to read the books, when you know something of their own story. So much more for this couple, who seemed to live their own legend and put it down in their books. It would also be interesting to read Zelda's 'Save me the Waltz'. In the end, and this is what is somewhat a lasting impression of her life, it is all very sad.