The Life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the Other Fitzgerald Writer

A Jazz Age icon overshadowed by her famous husband

Portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald
Portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, circa 1921 (photo credit: Hulton Archive / Getty).

Born Zelda Sayre, Zelda Fitzgerald (July 24, 1900 – March 10, 1948) was an American writer and artist of the Jazz Age. Although she produced writing and art on her own, Zelda is best known in history and in popular culture for her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald and her tumultuous battle with mental illness.

Fast Facts: Zelda Fitzgerald

  • Known For: Artist, author of Save Me The Waltz, and wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Born: July 24, 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama
  • Died: March 10, 1948 in Asheville, North Carolina
  • Spouse: F. Scott Fitzgerald (m. 1920-1940)
  • Children: Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald

Early Life

The youngest of six children, Zelda was born to a prominent Southern family in Montgomery, Alabama. Her father, Anthony Sayre, was a powerful justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, but she was the darling of her mother, Minerva, who spoiled young Zelda. She was an athletic, artistic child, equally interested in her ballet lessons and in spending time outdoors.

Although she was a clever student, Zelda was mostly uninterested in her studies by the time she reached high school. Beautiful, spirited, and rebellious, Zelda became the center of her young social circle. As a teenager, she already drank and smoked, and enjoyed causing minor scandals by doing things like dancing “flapper” style or swimming in a tight, flesh-toned bathing suit. Her brash, daring nature was even more shocking because women of her social status were expected to be genteel and quiet. Zelda and her friend, future Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead, were frequently the topic of gossip.

As a girl or a teenager, Zelda began to keep diaries. These journals would later prove to be the earliest signs of her creative mind, containing much more than a rote record of her social activities. In fact, excerpts from her early journals would eventually appear in iconic works of American literature, thanks to her relationship with a soon-to-be legendary novelist: F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Fitzgeralds

In the summer of 1918, Zelda first met the 22-year-old Scott when he was stationed on an Army base just outside of Montgomery. Their first meeting, at a country club dance, would later be the basis for the first meeting between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Although she had several suitors at the time, Zelda quickly came to favor Scott, and they grew close over a shared worldview and their similarly creative personalities.

Scott had big plans, and he shared them with Zelda, who became equal parts muse and kindred spirit. She inspired the character of Rosalind in This Side of Paradise, and the novel’s closing monologue is taken directly from her journals. Their romance was interrupted in October 1918, when he was reassigned to a base in Long Island, but the war soon ended and he returned to Alabama within a month. Scott and Zelda became deeply involved, and wrote to each other constantly after he moved to New York City in early 1919. They married in 1920, despite some objections from Zelda’s family and friends over his drink and his Episcopalian faith.

That same year, This Side of Paradise was published, and the Fitzgeralds became notorious on the New York social scene, embodying the excesses and brilliance of the Jazz Age. In 1921, just before Scott’s second novel was finished, Zelda became pregnant. She gave birth to their daughter, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald in October 1921, but motherhood did not “tame” Zelda into a quiet domestic life. In 1922, she was pregnant again, but the pregnancy did not make it to term.

Over the next couple of years, Zelda’s writing began to appear as well, mostly sharply-written short stories and magazine articles. Although she joked about her writing being “borrowed” for Scott’s novels, she did resent it too. After their co-written play The Vegetable flopped, the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris in 1924.

Together in Paris

The Fitzgeralds’ relationship was in a complicated state by the time they reached France. Scott was absorbed with his next novel, The Great Gatsby, and Zelda fell for a dashing young French pilot and demanded a divorce. Zelda’s demands were met with dismissal from Scott, who locked her in their house until the drama passed. In the months following, they returned mostly to normal, but in September, Zelda survived an overdose of sleeping pills; whether the overdose was intentional or not, the couple never said.

Zelda was often ill around this time, and in late 1924, Zelda was unable to continue her traveling lifestyle and instead began painting. When she and Scott returned to Paris in the spring of 1925, they met Ernest Hemingway, who would become Scott’s great friend and rival. Although Zelda and Hemingway loathed each other from the start, Hemingway did introduce the couple to the rest of the "Lost Generation" expat community, such as Gertrude Stein.

Increasing Instability

Years passed, and Zelda’s instability grew – along with Scott’s. Their relationship turned volatile and more dramatic than ever, and both accused the other of affairs. Desperate for success of her own, Zelda took up the reins of her ballet studies again. She practiced intensely, sometimes for up to eight hours a day, and while she did have some talent, the physical demands (and the lack of support from Scott) proved too much for her. Even when she was offered a spot with an opera ballet company in Italy, she had to decline.

Zelda was admitted to a French sanatorium in 1930 and bounced between clinics for physical and psychological treatments for around a year. When her father was dying in September 1931, the Fitzgeralds returned to Alabama; after his death, Zelda went to a hospital in Baltimore and Scott went to Hollywood. While in the hospital, however, Zelda wrote a whole novel, Save Me The Waltz. The semi-autobiographical novel was her biggest work to date, but it infuriated Scott, who had planned to use some of the same material in his work. After Scott’s forced rewrites, the novel was published, but it was a commercial and critical failure; Scott also derided it. Zelda didn’t write another novel.

Decline and Death

By the 1930s, Zelda was spending most of her time in and out of mental institutions. She continued to produce paintings, which were tepidly received. In 1936, when Zelda seemingly disconnected from reality, Scott sent her to another hospital, this one in North Carolina. He then proceeded to have an affair in Hollywood with columnist Sheilah Graham, bitter about how his marriage to Zelda had turned out.

By 1940, though, Zelda had made enough progress to be released. She and Scott never saw each other again, but they corresponded until his sudden death in December 1940. After his death, it was Zelda who became an advocate for Scott’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon. She was inspired and began working on another novel, but her mental health declined again and she returned to the North Carolina hospital. In 1948, a fire broke out at the hospital, and Zelda, in a locked room awaiting an electroshock therapy session, did not escape. She died at the age of 47 and was buried alongside Scott.

Posthumous Discovery

The Fitzgeralds had been on the decline when they died, but interest quickly revived, and they became immortalized as the icons of the Jazz Age. In 1970, historian Nancy Milford wrote a biography of Zelda that suggested she had been every bit as talented as Scott, but had been held back by him. The book became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and it heavily influenced future perceptions of Zelda.

Save Me The Waltz subsequently saw a revival as well, with scholars analyzing it on the same level as Scott’s novels. Zelda’s collected writings, including the novel, were compiled and published in 1991, and even her paintings have been re-appraised in the modern era. Several fictional works have depicted her life, including several books and a TV series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. Although perceptions continue to evolve, the Fitzgerald legacy – of which Zelda is most definitely a huge part – has become deeply engrained in American popular culture. 

Sources:

  • Cline, Sally. Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise. Arcade Publishing, New York, 2003.
  • Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. Harper & Row, 1970.
  • Zelazko, Alicja. "Zelda Fitzgerald: American Writer and Artist." Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zelda-Fitzgerald.