April 10, 2013

The reemergence of Zelda Fitzgerald


Zelda Fitzgerald

93 years ago last week, the newlywed Fitzgeralds were thrown out of The Commodore Hotel, having already been booted from The Biltmore. The charge? Raucous drunkenness on the occasion of their honeymoon. They were married on April 3, 1920. He was 23, she 19.

Lately Zelda Fitzgerald has garnered more attention, with four novels based on her life coming out this year, which take another look at someone routinely seen as a “madwoman in the attic” figure.

According to received literary lore, Zelda was the vixen wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a mediocre talent married to a much more significant one, who served as both muse and siren, inspiring her husband while simultaneously dragging him into a mire of alcoholism and profligate overspending, before winding up in a mental institution herself. She famously incurred the wrath of Ernest Hemingway, who blamed Zelda for Scott’s failures.

Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, describes the generally accepted perception of her thusly: “…this Zelda person was not a sympathetic character—even if her famed exploits (dancing on table tops, diving naked into fountains, riding on the roofs of New York cabs) were entertaining.”

But when Fowler started investigating, she realized how wrong the traditional perception was. She continues:

“As I dug through material, I got to know a woman who not only wasn’t crazy but was far more intelligent, talented, and clear-thinking than popular culture would have us believe…The trouble lies in the diagnosis she was given in 1930: ‘schizophrenia’. While today we know it to mean severe mental illness requiring delicate and often lifelong treatment with medications, therapies, and sometimes institutionalisation, in Zelda’s time it was a catch-all label for a range of emotional difficulties. It was often applied to women who suffered depression or exhaustion brought on by impossible circumstances. Zelda did suffer some mental health crises—depression, primarily—and was an uninhibited, uncensored woman who didn’t always think before she acted, but she wasn’t crazy. Unwise? Sometimes. Insane? No.”

Their story has long been told in Scott’s favor, partly because he insisted on appropriating their joint experience as his exclusive writing material. Toward the end of their marriage, a stenographer recorded an argument they had in the doctor’s office. The transcript goes on for a full 114 pages.

Confined to a mental hospital, Zelda wrote a novel about her breakdown, Save me the Waltz, which she finished in a mere two months. She sent it off to Scott’s publisher without telling him. When Scott found out, he was enraged. He had been writing a novel about her breakdown himself, Tender is the Night.

“Everything we have done is mine,” he told her. “If we make a trip…and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” He insisted that she remove the overlapping sections of her novel.

“What’s left of Save Me the Waltz is a jagged, unfinished book. We don’t know what it could have been,” says Sally Cline, who wrote a biography of Zelda in 2002.

We don’t know what Zelda could have been, but at least these novels shed some positive light on her talent and potential. She died at the age of 47, trapped on the top floor of a North Carolina mental asylum as it burned to the ground.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.