Zelda: Tragic American Muse

(CW: mental illness, manipulation, self-harm, death)

“When I was a little girl I had great confidence in myself, even to the extent of walking by myself against life as it was then. I did not have a single feeling of inferiority, or shyness, or doubt, and no moral principles.”

- Zelda Fitzgerald

The continued fascination with artists and muses pops up over and over again in fiction and history. The artist - inspired by a consuming passion, distilling raw emotion into works of art, and the muse - the object of desire and the prism who reveals some transcendent truth. The active male voyeur and the passive female aesthetic object. In fiction, this trope can be a useful way to illustrate a gendered dynamic that is baked into our culture. In reality, to be a muse is a double-edged sword; and those who fall into the role tend to suffer within it.

Zelda Fitzgerald settled into this stifling, manicured role with ease, despite her bold and unpredictable personality. There was an intoxicating quality about her, a spark of life that most people deprive themselves of. Everyone wanted a taste; from the unofficial fan club who stalked Zelda through her teenage years, to the future author of the Great American Novel. None of Zelda’s many admirers knew what to do with the actual living, breathing, vulnerable woman underneath the performance, and she became neglected, lost among the glamour and gossip.

Art by Meredith Waugh

As a teenager, Zelda was cheeky, clever, and stubbornly independent. She had good grades, but stuck out as a troublemaker, and had a habit of rushing through homework during class. During those years, Zelda’s daytime wardrobe was haphazard at best. She wore the right things but in the wrong way- uneven, slip showing, notoriously careless. At night, however, Zelda outshined everyone at the country club. One of Zelda’s friends said, “Mrs. Sayre had an unerring sense of what would make her beautiful daughter glamorous and could turn out dresses of tulle and organdy that turned Zelda into a fairy princess.” In 1916, Zelda danced a ballet solo at a recital in the Montgomery City Auditorium. In the eyes of the audience, she completed her metamorphosis into a young belle. From that point forward Zelda would enjoy a healthy pool of admirers. In a personal scrapbook, she kept a clipping from a local paper, The Advertiser, from around that time. Under a photo of Zelda in profile, it reads,

“You may keep an eye open for the possessor of this classic profile about a year from now when she advances just a little further beyond the sweet-sixteen age. Already she is in the crowd at the Country Club every Saturday night and at the script dances every other night of the week.

“She has the straightest nose, the most determined little chin and the bluest eyes in

Montgomery. She might dance like a Pavlowa if her nimble feet were not so busy keeping up with the pace a string of young but ardent admirers set for her.”

Zelda had a strong sense of self but struggled to adapt to social life. It seems that her primary interactions with others were performing on stage and entertaining suitors. She developed an adversarial relationship with other women. Rather than negotiate with the roles assigned to her and her peers, Zelda saw herself as the exception to the rule. Sadly, Zelda’s commitment to existing as an ideal further removed her from close friends and family. It was on this shaky foundation that, one month after graduation, Zelda met the man who would change her life forever.

Art by Meredith Waugh

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a hopeless romantic. He had a slightly removed preoccupation with sexuality that reflected in his repressed protagonists who rarely got the girl, and never kept her. Just as Zelda was more popular with boys than girls, Scott was inept and unconcerned with male friendships but a skilled womanizer. Scott met Zelda at the country club, where she was entertaining a handful of other soldiers. He was immediately taken with her and asked to be introduced. From their first dance onward, Scott and Zelda, a cocktail of idealism and dysfunction, were irrevocably linked.

At the beginning of Scott and Zelda’s relationship, the former was living in New York City as a bachelor novelist. Despite their unclear relationship status, Scott showed an early devotion to Zelda. He enclosed unpublished chapters in letters to her for notes and visited Montgomery whenever he had the time. They spent long afternoons discussing poetry, love, and sex in Zelda’s regular haunts, then drank gin and made out at vaudeville shows. Eventually, the couple’s frequent letters grew more and more committed. Zelda was anxious to leave her provincial life and join Scott in the city, but he dragged his heels, breaking off their first engagement. Finally, when Scott’s novel This Side of Paradise was published, he felt financially secure enough to propose for good. The pair wed in 1920, marking the beginning of their golden decade.

With Zelda’s natural magnetism, Scott’s connections, and a carefully curated image, they quickly became the new, mysterious it-couple. They were recklessly indulgent and would carry momentum until they flew off the rails. Zelda became known as America’s first flapper, and she fully embodied this glamorous, seductive character. She and Scott drank heavily, acted out, and often ended the night fighting. The fights were private, though, and they were still sought-after party guests. This era established a passionate and dizzying domestic dance that Zelda and Scott would continue for the remainder of their marriage.

Zelda was a prominent influence in Scott’s work, to the point that he plagiarized her diary and her love letters multiple times. Zelda laughed off one instance in her review of The Beautiful and the Damned, “It also 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.” Even though Zelda indicated that she was “in on it” she didn’t always approve of how her image was used. In the same review, Zelda takes issue with her fictional counterpart, Gloria; “I think the heroine is most amusing. I have an intense distaste for the melancholy aroused in the masculine mind by such characters.” Zelda was sick of male writers using one-dimensional female characters to serve their fantasies. As Scott’s wife, she was in the spotlight, but she was only ever seen or understood through him. The role became stale and unfulfilling for Zelda, and she more or less went out of fashion over time.

By 1924, partying, overspending, and public life had worn away at Zelda and Scott and put them in a financial bind. In an attempt to escape bankruptcy and their insufferable friends, the Fitzgeralds rented out their New York home and fled to France. Maybe through sheer force of will, Zelda and Scott were themselves again; carefree, radiant, en vogue. They went from Paris to the Riviera, an idyllic ex-pat colony in the south of France. There, the couple spent most of the day apart; Scott writing what would become The Great Gatsby, and Zelda swimming, tanning, and staying active. Eventually, Zelda’s routine became monotonous, and her swimming shifted from leisurely to compulsive. The excitement in life came from socializing with other people passing through. One such person was a French aviator named Edouard Jozan, who became Zelda’s friend and regular swimming partner.

Jozan never admitted to anything inappropriate with Zelda, but their friendship drove a wedge between her and Scott. It all culminated in an emotional confrontation when Zelda told Scott that she planned to leave him for Jozan. It is unclear what happened next, but an entry in Scott’s Ledger reads, “The Big Crisis - 13th of July… Zelda swimming every day.” Zelda was never seen with Jozan again. The Fitzgeralds kept up appearances until Zelda took an overdose of sleeping pills. The incident was quickly swept under the rug, and the Riviera lost its appeal. They returned to Paris, where Scott met and instantly clicked with Ernest Hemmingway. Zelda and Scott’s fights became longer, pettier, and far more cruel. Zelda accused Scott of cheating on her with Ernest. On one occasion, Scott hired a sex worker to prove his heterosexuality. On another, Zelda threw herself down a flight of stairs, while Scott pointedly ignored her. Zelda’s stunts lost their charm, and Scott began to take them seriously as nervous outbursts.

Art by Meredith Waugh

The Fitzgeralds moved a few more times, chasing job opportunities for Scott. At this point, Zelda was looking for something to devote her time to. She didn’t have the passion to pursue painting professionally, and she was insecure about her writing, especially compared to Scott. In 1927, a decade after she debuted at the recital in Montgomery, Zelda decided to take up ballet. Scott liked that she had something to occupy herself, and thought it strategic to develop a skill in case she ever had to “earn her keep.” Unfortunately, writing was not going well for him. Tensions rose between the two as their lives grew more disparate. Scott continued to struggle with writer’s block and alcoholism, and Zelda danced more frequently, for longer hours. Friends who watched Zelda perform were unsettled by the intensity and grotesque strain that she put her body through.

During another trip to France, Zelda was not herself... emotionless except in abrupt spasms of unnatural laughter. She kept up her dance lessons and was even offered a spot in the San Carlo Opera Ballet Company. For some reason, she declined. Friends noted that she seemed distant and sometimes spoke to no one in particular. Ballet went from a much-needed release to yet another way that Zelda was running her body ragged. No amount of fresh air, or change of scenery, or new activity could end the self-destruction she seemed to be stuck in. In 1930, Zelda checked into inpatient care for the first time.

From that point forward, Zelda’s relationship with Scott became her primary connection to the outside world. She was in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life, dependent on Scott in ways she never signed up for. He corresponded with and advised her doctors, he paid for everything and made all the decisions. Scott tried his best to cooperate and help with Zelda’s treatment, but his own ills and delusions got in the way. At times when Zelda was not institutionalized, her doctor suspected that Scott’s drinking had a negative impact on her healing. Scott disagreed. Years of isolation did not help Zelda to reintegrate into society.

In her later life, Zelda would write to old friends, reconnect with Montgomery, and develop a relationship with her daughter for the first time. Scott and Zelda continued their weekly correspondence until he died, though without a hint of romance. During this time, Zelda flirted with religion and slipped fully into her inner world. Her last project was a book called Caesar’s Things, a largely autobiographical work bogged down with themes of fate, trauma, and the sublime. The manuscript was never finished, and the state she left it in is convoluted and incomprehensible. It feels like an attempt to sort through a lifetime of events, with an ominous sense of fatalism hiding behind every vignette. In 1948, a fire broke out in Highland Hospital where Zelda was staying. Unable to escape, she perished along with seven others. She was buried next to Scott on a beautiful sunny day.

Some say that Zelda possessed a magical, intoxicating quality that eluded photographs. A mere reproduction could never do her justice. In the same way, to remember Zelda Fitzgerald only as her public-facing persona would be a cruel misrepresentation. Zelda knew what parts of herself people wanted to see, and she learned early on to take solace in isolation. In her writing, there is an uncomfortable, definite sense of inevitability. Her characters are passive, full of life but with no control over it. To her, the world was a place to conquer when you’re young, and to slowly die in. The empowered femininity that Zelda exuded was a sad half-truth. She became the era’s romantic ideal and inspired a generation of flappers, but her story was never in her own hands. The role of muse gave Zelda the illusion of agency as it exploited her gifts, her name, and her image, giving her nothing in return. There is no way to know what potential was lost in the destructive cycle that plagued Zelda’s life. All we can do is learn from her experience as a cautionary tale.

Source: Zelda by Nancy Milford


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