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Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
and the Jazz Age

Following World War I, the United States entered the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties, symbolized by the emancipated American woman—the flapper. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the exuberant and rebellious Montgomery teenager who married the aspiring novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, became America's image of the flapper and the glamorous life of the 1920s. The Twenties, however, were not as carefree, as prosperous, or as simple as the symbols would indicate; neither was the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. Known primarily as the beautiful and eccentric wife of a talented writer, Zelda's search for her own identity was tangled in the web of a disintegrating marriage and a downward spiral into mental illness.

Born in 1900 in Montgomery, Zelda—named for a gypsy queen in a novel read by her mother—was the youngest of five children. Her mother hailed from a distinguished Kentucky family and her father, who was an Alabama Supreme Court justice and served in both houses of the state legislature, was from an old Montgomery family with strong Confederate ties. A conservative, Episcopalian, upper middle-class family, they embodied the tradition and conservatism of the South and reflected the general mores of Montgomery at the turn of the century.

Later observers of the Fitzgeralds often credited Scott with the creation of Zelda's personality, but her antics and rebelliousness were legendary in staid Montgomery long before she met him. As she grew into a teen-age beauty with red-blond hair and blue-gray eyes, she bobbed her hair, shortened her hemlines, smoked, danced the wild new dances, and necked with her many beaus. Clad in a clinging one-piece, skin-colored bathing suit, she rode down Dexter Avenue with her legs dangling over the back of a rumble seat, waving to her "jelly beans" as she called the adoring young men. Zelda ventured far outside the bounds of behavior for a traditional belle.

When World War I began, Zelda was a senior at Sidney Lanier High School. The young aviators stationed at Taylor Field and the officers from Camp Sheridan vied for Zelda's attention at parties and country club dances. Shortly after graduation she met Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald, an aspiring writer who was stationed at the army training camp. After a two-year tumultuous courtship, Zelda and Scott married in New York City on April 3, 1920. A year later their only child was born. As Scott became a rising star in the literary world with the publication of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned in the early 1920s, the flamboyant couple and their extravagant behavior epitomized the Jazz Age in a glamorous and public setting.

The inspiration for many of the women in Scott's novels and short stories, Zelda represented the flapper of the Roaring Twenties to the American public. The flapper—with her bobbed hair, rouged cheeks, and short skirts—symbolized the revolution in manners, morals, and values of the post-war era. Zelda's publicity and fame as the wife of Scott and freedom from the constraints of the conservative Southern milieu did not satisfy her. She struggled to find her own identity outside that of her husband. At various times in her life she threw herself into three creative avenues: writing, dancing, and painting—all areas where she had exhibited talent in her youth.

She first displayed her writing ability in her diary and letters. Scott appears to have used portions of her early personal writings in his first novels. In a mock review of The Beautiful and the Damned in 1922, Zelda, perhaps not totally in jest, wrote:

It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.

With her husband's guidance, Zelda began to write and publish essays and short stories that appeared under a joint byline or sometimes under her husband's name, probably because his name resulted in higher payment from the periodicals. Some have concluded that tension and an element of competition crept into the relationship as Zelda's proficiency as a writer grew. The occasional magazine articles and essays, generally with themes of youth, flappers, and the Jazz Age, continued over several years. In a 1922 article Zelda claimed that "flapperdom" was originally a "philosophy":

The flapper awoke from her lethargy of subdebism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle. She flirted because it was great fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn't need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring.

The public idealized the Fitzgeralds as a happy couple, but under constant public scrutiny and beset by personal problems, Zelda and Scott struggled with a disintegrating marriage. Scott's search for artistic greatness led him into depression and increasingly heavy drinking. During the 1920s and early 1930s the restless Fitzgeralds moved frequently, often joining the group of expatriate literary and artistic figures in Europe that included such famous figures as Ernest Hemingway. Zelda turned to a former interest, ballet, in a continuing search for an arena of personal accomplishment. But as with her writing, and later with painting, ballet became an unhealthy obsession.

By the spring of 1930 Zelda was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion and suffered the first of numerous mental collapses. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, she would spend much of the rest of her life in hospitals and sanatoriums under the care of psychiatrists. Writing, and later painting, became part of her therapy; her doctors decided that dancing was too destructive. Nancy Milford, Zelda's biographer, said Zelda used her writing to understand her own condition. During periods of hospitalization, Zelda wrote several works of fiction, including "Miss Ella" and "A Couple of Nuts," well-received short stories. She completed her only novel, the autobiographical Save Me the Waltz, while in a Baltimore clinic after her second breakdown.

Zelda submitted Save Me the Waltz for publication without Scott's knowledge, and his reaction was initially one of fury. Although he eventually helped her with revisions, he felt that Zelda's use of autobiographical material had infringed upon his literary resources. He made it known to Zelda and her doctors that hers was the "lesser" talent and any future writing must be done on his terms. Increasingly using painting as her creative outlet, Zelda returned to nonfiction essays and one light drama for her subsequent writings. Save Me the Waltz received mixed reviews when published in 1932; it has, however, had a better reception since being reissued in the late 1960s and has earned Zelda a place in American literature other than just as the wife of a famous author. Some critics now characterize her novel as an important work about the search of the modern American woman for an independent and satisfying life outside of the subordinate and traditional domestic circle.

Following Scott's death in 1940, Zelda continued to suffer episodes of mental illness and hospitalization followed by more peaceful periods when she lived with her mother in Montgomery. In 1948 she died in a fire while hospitalized at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.