Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is a complicated woman, no matter how you slice it. She’s been painted as both the hawkish wife who is the downfall of her husband and the thwarted creative spirit; both the inspiration for the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and a victim of the patriarchal views of the time that frustrated her artistic endeavors. It’s clear somewhere between these two poles, the true Zelda lies — but the exact truth of the matter has made her a mesmerizing question mark, the answer to which is all the more tantalizing given that we’ll never really know.
She was born in Alabama in July of 1900, and she died in North Carolina in March of 1948. She lived a portion of her life as an expatriate alongside some of the finest minds of the Lost Generation, and has often been referred to as the First Flapper. In truth, Zelda is best known for her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the subsequent decadent, wild Jazz Age lifestyle the two led before they both sunk into their respective mental illnesses — he, into alcoholism, and she, into what’s now guessed to have been bipolar disorder. But to reduce Zelda to a cautionary tale, a stereotype that exemplifies the danger of the decadent and liberated woman is a mistake. To view her only in the tumultuous context of her marriage is to marginalize her as a writer, artist, and human.
Though at first, I admit to being drawn to the couple’s glamorous and then tragic story, what held my attention was the mystery of Zelda. F. Scott is a legendary American writer, make no mistake — but that’s a post for another time. Zelda had an under-appreciated magic that’s evident in the sensuality and dark, desperate joy of her writing, and it’s this that draws me in. There’s an evident creative intensity matched only by the frustration and consequent self-destruction of a woman who was tragically unable to achieve a perhaps unattainable artistic actualization.
I’m of the mind that Zelda should have been a poet, but that’s in part my own bias as a poet. In her style, I recognize concentrated, dreamy clusters of imagery that could be poems in themselves. When I read selections from her only published novel, Save Me the Waltz, I’m struck by both the musicality and the physicality of her imagery. It’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying — the gorgeous intensity of her work feels like it’s tearing itself to pieces as you read it, as if the magic of the words turns to ashes as your eyes flick through her sentences. Take, for example, her semi-auto-biographical character Alabama’s description of falling in love:
“So much she loved the man, so close and closer she felt herself that he became distorted in her vision, like pressing her nose upon a mirror and gazing into her own eyes. She felt the lines of his neck and his chipped profile like segments of the wind blowing about her consciousness. She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.
“She crawled into the friendly cave of his ear. The area inside was grey and ghostly classic as she stared about the deep trenches of the cerebellum. There was not a growth nor a flowery substance to break those smooth convolutions, just the puffy rise of sleek grey matter. ‘I’ve got to see the front lines,’ Alabama said to herself. The lumpy mounds rose wet above her head and she set out following the creases. Before long she was lost. Like a mystic maze the folds and ridges rose in desolation; there was nothing to indicate one way from another. She stumbled on and finally reached the medulla oblongata. Vast tortuous indentations led her round and round. Hysterically, she began to run. David, distracted by a tickling sensation at the head of his spine, lifted his lips from hers.”
The critics were harsh in their reviews of her novel, and F. Scott even harsher — Save Me the Waltz drew on material in their shared lives he had intended for Tender is the Night, and he had her make extensive revisions. She never published a second novel, though worked on one toward the end of her life entitled Caesar’s Things. Throughout her career she also published a number of articles in various magazines and journals, oftentimes with her husband’s name in the byline — his name meant the article fetched a wider readership and higher price. Her longing for a creative outlet all her own was evident through her various artistic pursuits. Throughout her life, Zelda was a writer, a ballerina, and an artist, not to mention an iconic figure in literary history, a dark muse of sorts, and a daring socialite. Though fascinating, her marriage, fall from the gilded Jazz Age pedestal she was placed on (though in some ways, perhaps she placed herself on it), and mental illness are the least important aspects of her life. It’s time we start recognizing her artistic career, and her influence as a female writer and artist who was both boldly feminine and brashly ambitious — perhaps her downfall in a society that considered the two qualities in opposition and irreconcilable.
In March 1948, her second novel left unfinished, Zelda died in a fire that broke out in a psychiatric hospital. I think the best way to end a brief musing on a writer with such a complicated history is to look at the last lines of her novel:
“Alabama,” said David, “if you would stop dumping ash trays before the company has got well out of the house we would be happier.”
“It’s very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labelled ‘the past,’ and, having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue.”
They sat in the pleasant gloom of late afternoon, staring at each other through the remains of the party; the silver glasses, the silver tray, the traces of many perfumes; they sat together watching the twilight flow through the calm living-room that they were leaving like the clear cold current of a trout stream.”
I can’t help but see the parallels between Zelda’s closing words and the last lines of The Great Gatsby, but I’m filled with a sense that her lines echo his purposefully, running as an unseen countercurrent. Buried underneath his famous lines, they glimmer nonetheless.