Zelda Fitzgerald was an icon of the Roaring Twenties. A socialite, painter, novelist, and the wife of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald's audacious spirit captivated those around her and she was a muse for much of her husband's literary work. Their famously turbulent marriage was fraught with alcoholism, violence, financial ups and downs, and Zelda's battle with mental health issues. Her own artistic endeavors include a semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, a play entitled Scandalabra, as well as numerous magazine articles, short stories and paintings. She died tragically on March 10, 1948 in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
Early Life and Marriage
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born in Montgomery, Alabama on July 24, 1900. The daughter of a prominent judge, Anthony Dickinson Sayre (1858–1931), who served on the Supreme Court of Alabama, and Minnie Buckner Machen Sayre, she was the youngest of five children and lived a youthful life of privilege. As a teenager, Zelda was a talented dancer and socialite who challenged the gender norms of her time by drinking, smoking and spending much of her time with boys.
In 1918, she graduated from Sidney Lanier High School and soon after she met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in Montgomery. He was captivated by Zelda’s audacious spirit and brash risqué demeanor, but due to his inferior social standing, the debutante declined his initial marriage proposal in 1919. Later that same year, Zelda accepted F. Scott’s marriage proposal after Scribner’s agreed to publish his book, This Side of Paradise. The couple married on April 3, 1920 in New York City—just one week after his first book hit the market. Due to the instant success of This Side of Paradise, the duo became overnight celebrities and indulged in the exuberance of the Roaring Twenties.
On Valentine's Day in 1921, Zelda learned she was pregnant. On October 26, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota, the couple welcomed Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald to their family. Soon after, the family moved to Long Island, New York, but faced with financial ruin due to their excessive spending habits, the family moved to France in 1924 where F. Scott composed The Great Gatsby and Zelda learned to paint. The family briefly returned to America and spent time in Wilmington, Delaware, but ever-eager for a change of pace, in 1927, Zelda added ballet to her list of talents and when they traveled back to Paris, she was invited to dance with the Royal Ballet of Italy in 1928—an offer she declined in lieu of writing short stories.
Zelda was a muse to F. Scott and her characteristics are prominently featured in some of his most notable works including This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. F. Scott even went so far as to steal verbatim excerpts from Zelda’s personal diary and incorporate them into his novels—a tactic that began a downward spiral in their dysfunctional marriage fraught with alcoholism, violence, and mental health concerns.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, their over-the-top lifestyle of travel and indulgence collapsed and they were left in financial ruin. In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent her remaining years in and out of various mental health clinics. The family was hit hard by The Great Depression and left penniless. In the end, Zelda’s marriage to F. Scott was nothing more than a façade. F. Scott died from a heart attack at the age of 44 on December 21, 1940.
Due to Zelda’s failing health, she was unable to attend her daughter’s wedding in 1943, but after the birth of her grandson, Zelda was reinvigorated and began to paint again in the last years of her life in Montgomery at her family’s homestead. Ultimately, however, her mental health began to fail and, on March 10, 1948, she died tragically in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. She is buried with her husband in Old Saint Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. She was working on her second unfinished novel, Caesar's Things, at the time of her death.
Despite her tumultuous marriage and difficulties with mental health issues, Zelda’s creativity was inspirational. Her artistic endeavors include a semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, based on her troubled marriage, a play entitled Scandalabra, as well as numerous magazine articles and short stories. A talented painter, her oil paintings are now prominently featured in the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1992, Zelda was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame and, in 2017, her life was dramatized in the TV series Z: The Beginning of Everything, starring Christina Ricci. Although she served as a muse to her husband, it is clear that she was also a creative force to be remembered.
(Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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