Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Zelda Fitzgerald

Episode Summary

Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948) was a writer, artist and socialite, who became known as the muse of her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald and many of the men of the era. She is considered an icon of the Roaring Twenties.

Episode Notes

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s legend was a writer, artist and socialite, who became known as the muse of her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald and many of the men of the era. She is considered an icon of the Roaring Twenties. Let’s talk about Zelda Fitzgerald. 

Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1900. She was the youngest child of Minnie Machen and State Senator Anthony Sayre. Zelda came from a well-connected family. Both her great-uncle and grandfather served in the US Senate. 

As a child, Zelda learned to dance, and by her teen years, she was considered a “wild-child.” She drank, she smoked, and she snuck out of the house to meet boys. On one occasion, she even wore a nude-colored bathing suit to fuel rumors that she swam in the nude.

 Zelda’s daring behavior was considered especially scandalous at a time when women were expected to be gentle and proper. In 1918, Zelda graduated from high school. Her yearbook included a quote under her photograph stating: “Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow? Let's think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.”

Shortly thereafter met 22-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club. She was an audacious dancer and socialite, and he was a charming U.S. Army officer who had just flunked out of Princeton. F. Scott famously said, “I’ve fallen in love with a whirlwind.”

While F. Scott claimed that he would soon be prominent in the literary world, Zelda was skeptical and continued to pursue other men.

In 1919, Zelda rejected F. Scott’s first proposal. It was only after a publisher had purchased his debut novel, This Side of Paradise that Zelda agreed to marry him in 1920. His success was partly due to her— F. Scott plagiarized Zelda’s diaries in the novel and based a character after her named Rosalind Connage, a debutante who marries a wealthy man instead of main character Amory Blaine. F. Scott’s writing often included excerpts from Zelda’s journals and letters. 

The Fitzgeralds became overnight celebrities, fueled by the public’s interest in their literary romance. In the early 1920s, F. Scott and Zelda indulged in their stardom in classic flapper style. Their social life was fueled by alcohol and on two occasions, they were asked to leave luxury hotels for drunken behavior. 

On Valentine’s Day in 1921, Zelda learned she was pregnant and later gave birth to a girl named Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald. Shortly before Frances was born, F. Scott recorded Zelda saying, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful fool.” He echoed these words in The Great Gatsby, when Daisy Buchanan responded to the birth of her daughter saying, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” 

Zelda began to resent F. Scott’s copying and wrote a book review for The Beautiful and the Damned saying “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald…seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” Intrigued by her wit, Magazine offers came in and Zelda embarked on a writing career of her own. In 1922, she published “Eulogy on the Flapper.” She went on to publish more essays, many appearing under the byline “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.”  She and F. Scott co-wrote a play, The Vegetable. But it was unsuccessful and they soon fell into debt.

In 1924, the Fitzgeralds moved to France and Zelda became infatuated with Edouard S. Jozan, a pilot. When Zelda asked for a divorce, Scott refused and locked her in their house until she abandoned the idea. Zelda never saw Edouard again, and he later denied the affair.

As the decade wore on, the couple put on a good face, but never recovered their trust. F. Scott was resentful and maligned Zelda to Ernest Hemingway, and Zelda overdosed on sleeping pills in a possible suicide attempt. Jealousy persisted on both sides; Zelda accused F. Scott of having an affair with Hemingway, and she later threw herself down a flight of stairs when he ignored her at a party.

In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She would be in and out of clinics for the rest of her life, and it was in a psychiatric hospital that she wrote her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, which chronicled her tumultuous marriage.  F. Scott was upset by the novel, which drew upon shared history he wanted to use for his 1934 book Tender is the Night and forced her to take out parts. He blamed Zelda’s costly hospitalization for his inability to complete his own books. 

When the novel was unsuccessful, Zelda turned to stage writing, which also failed to garner public attention. When Zelda tried painting, she was again disappointed by the public response.

In 1934, F. Scott and Zelda separated, but they never divorced. As their fame faded, F. Scott’s alcoholism worsened, while Zelda became violent and withdrawn. They last saw each other on an ill-fated trip to Cuba in 1938. Despite their separation, they wrote to one another for the next two years, until F. Scott’s death in 1940. 

While Zelda was hospitalized, she began working on a new novel called Caesar’s Things, but it was never finished. In 1948, a fire broke out in the hospital’s kitchen, and eventually spread through the main wing. Zelda was locked in a room awaiting electroshock therapy and died, along with eight other patients. 

Today, Zelda Fitzgerald is mostly remembered for her influence on one of America’s great authors, but throughout her life, she fought to be remembered for her own merit. 

All May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

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