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The Myth of Zelda Fitzgerald

A new Amazon show is the latest take on a troubled writer turned fashion and feminist icon. Why are we so fascinated with Zelda?

(Amazon)
(Amazon)

First, it must be said: Christina Ricci looks nothing like Zelda Fitzgerald. From the opening scene of Amazon’s Z: The Beginning of Everything, one can’t help but chart the differences. Ricci has eyes too big and expressive, and she doesn’t have Zelda’s tiny mouth and oddly sturdy frame. The one quality the two women could be said to share is a kind of otherworldly look — beautiful but different.

Ricci doesn’t act much as I’ve always understood Zelda to act, either. In the first episode of 10, out Friday, she’s indistinguishable from every plucky Southern belle we’ve ever had onscreen, going right back to Scarlett O’Hara. She is pretty. She doesn’t listen to her daddy. She likes to dance. It’s a bad sign that these are the things the writers found most important to tell us about Zelda in the pilot, which ends at the ball where Zelda first met F. Scott Fitzgerald. Any sense of creative aspiration, or eccentricity, or even just a sense that she is totally, unresolvably not like other people — traits we know, from her writing, that Zelda Fitzgerald had by the time she met Scott — is absent.

There are a lot of Zelda Fitzgeralds, to be fair, and the show has simply chosen among them. Too bad they picked the bland one of Therese Anne Fowler’s 2014 novel, Z. In spite of its airy tone, the novel is a cagey bit of work. It was published after the great success of The Paris Wife, a novelization of the life of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. After that book went everywhere, there was an appetite in publishing for books about tormented writers’ wives. Dutifully, Fowler’s Z became a best seller without much critical enthusiasm behind it. Zelda narrates the book, and her tone is glamorously world-weary as she describes her troubled marriage and her Left Bank antics. She often pauses to tell us what dress she has on at the moment, or what she intends to change into, but her time in a mental hospital is condensed to one cursory chapter. Her suffering is present but not particularly serious. In other words: The book was a good template for Hollywood, which, as it happens, has two dueling Zelda biopics in development, one starring Jennifer Lawrence and the other Scarlett Johansson.

Johansson, to my eye, is a little bland, and Lawrence too much like a best friend, to capture Zelda. The trouble in either eventuality is that Zelda was not a breezy fit for likable best-sellerdom. Over the years people have seen a lot of different things in Zelda: a starlet, dead weight, a feminist heroine, an artist, and a tragedy. (Or an excuse for a party.) She is a cultural icon into which people poured a lot of ideas about what it was like to be a woman of the world. But now, it often feels like we have poured them back out. Everyone knows that Zelda is synonymous with glamour. But glamour is a description of surface. It doesn’t give much of a glimpse of the contents inside.

Zelda Sayre was born in 1900, the third daughter of a judge in Montgomery, Alabama. She met Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald in 1918, at an officer’s ball. She married him in 1920, after he’d published a tremendously successful first novel, This Side of Paradise. A version of Zelda is in that novel as the charming, flighty Rosalind. That’s not a biographer’s inference, by the way, but intentional fact: In a 1918 letter to Zelda, enclosing a chapter of the manuscript, Scott wrote, “… the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.”

From the start, then, there were two Zeldas in the Fitzgerald marriage. There was the living, breathing person, and there was the Zelda that Scott kept putting on the page. He did this over and over again throughout the marriage. When Daisy Buchanan, in The Great Gatsby, says, “I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” she’s famously speaking Zelda’s words at the birth of their daughter, Scottie.

Zelda was also a marketing asset, both in and out of the books. As early as 1922, she was asked to write a review of The Beautiful and the Damned, his second novel. The tone was tongue-in-cheek, but she also wrote that she:

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Zelda also gave interviews on Scott’s behalf when he had a book out. To the Baltimore Sun in 1923, she bragged about Rosalind’s basis in her experience and also called herself Scott’s “official critic.”

When Nicole Diver of Tender Is the Night begins to break down, that’s Zelda too: In Scott’s archives is a chart he’d made while sketching out the novel, laying out the precise similarities and differences between his character’s medical history and his wife’s. Zelda was hospitalized for the first time in France in April 1930; she’d spend the rest of her life in and out of clinics and hospitals. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, though most people seem to agree that she likely had something more like bipolar disorder, a term unknown at the time.

Scott and Zelda remained married throughout her hospitalizations, but the marriage was among Zelda’s troubles. There were mutual infidelities and vicious fights and cuts and bruises, mostly inflicted on Zelda. Zelda was in a Johns Hopkins clinic when things got a whole lot worse, for a very unusual reason: She’d written a novel. She’d always written short stories and magazine articles, but this was the first book-length manuscript she’d ever completed, finishing it in March 1932. She was proud of it. She called it Save Me the Waltz.

Scott had always encouraged Zelda in her writing, though he liked to point out to her doctor, and other correspondents, that her talent did not approach his own. After reading the novel, he was furious about its impact on his own long-delayed novel. Zelda had read a large portion of his book, he wrote to her doctor, and “literally one whole section of her novel is an imitation of [my novel], of its rhythm, materials.”

Though she heard from her doctor about Scott’s concerns, Zelda was not particularly apologetic. “I was also afraid we might have touched the same material,” she wrote from the clinic. Later, she would even get defiant. It had “cost me a pretty emotional penny to amass” the experiences she described in her book, she told him, and she would use them as she felt she must.

That was the firecracker moment when the idyll of being the “Fitzgeralds” completely fell apart. It was also the moment when the myth of Zelda Fitzgerald began to take shape, because the mutual dispute about plagiarism led the world to recalibrate its views of Scott and Zelda. Gradually an idea emerged that Scott was the thief and Zelda the victim, and once that idea got started, it never stopped.

Save Me the Waltz would eventually be published by Scott’s own publisher and editor, Max Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Scott supported it. But by then his own star had fallen, the U.S. was in the depths of the Depression, and no one wanted to hear about the Jazz Age.

The midcentury view of Zelda instead was shaped by that noted friend to women Ernest Hemingway, a protégé of Scott’s who gradually came to be more successful. But Hemingway had never liked Zelda. She was “jealous of Scott’s work,” he’d claim in A Moveable Feast. She distracted him from writing. She had even, Hemingway said, made Scott feel bad about the size of his penis. Hemingway had this only secondhand, for it was what Scott had told him: “Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally.” Hemingway claims he checked out the package himself and it was “perfectly fine.”

Is it possible that in the ordinary course of a marriage, Zelda had complained about this matter? It is. Was this incontrovertible evidence, as Hemingway claimed, that “Zelda just wants to destroy you”? Probably not. But by the time A Moveable Feast was published in 1964, it was in line with what was known and thought about Zelda. Scott’s early biographers had reiterated over and over that he loved Zelda, and to the extent they addressed themselves to her at all it was to detail the obstacles she represented for him, rather than her own experience of the marriage.

The Zelda of our current imagination was created in 1970, when a then-unknown academic named Nancy Milford published Zelda: A Biography. Milford was a fundamentally mild-mannered writer, and in that sense an odd candidate to write a transformative work of feminist literary biography. But that is what she did. “She was the American girl living the American dream, and she became mad within it,” Mildford wrote. From there Milford traced the arc that had been long understood, from the glitter of Jazz Age New York to the ruins of North Carolina’s Highland Hospital, where Zelda died in a fire in 1948. Milford, though, improved on the account with a simple baseline criterion: She took Zelda’s ambitions seriously, even when their results were not always what might have been hoped. “Yet as eccentric a novel as it is,” Milford wrote of Save Me the Waltz, “as uneven and flawed, it is nonetheless charged with her own fictional energy and voice.”

(Amazon)
(Amazon)

From there, a certain feminist view of Zelda emerged. Maybe she was a little off-kilter, maybe even a little crazy, but ultimately her talent was suppressed and even extinguished by heartless Scott, who thought only of himself. That last bit was overreading Milford, who was determined to expose Scott’s selfishness but never seemed quite convinced that he was irredeemable due to it. But the reception of the biography in the nascent feminist mood of the 1970s was rapturous. “I still recall the shock of [Milford’s] book, though as a Scott Fitzgerald fan I had thought I knew the story … Smart, stylish, funny, unmoored, Zelda had always seemed the figurehead of a lost generation, but in 1970 she became the symbol of lost women,” the academic Nina Auerbach later wrote in the London Review of Books.

The Zelda of Z takes only the glossiest parts of this interpretation. The book, and so far the show, are not alone in this selective memory; both Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald are understood now mostly as synonyms for glamour and glitz. There is a reason that people throw Great Gatsby–themed parties, and it is not because Gatsby’s lie is exposed at the end of the story. Before that, it’s about gorgeous outfits and beautiful people. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation, for example, teemed with sparkle, but it couldn’t achieve the dramatic punch of Gatsby’s death. The ersatz riches, the spangles and tinsel of his mansion in West Egg, were his ruin as much as they were his triumph. They were Zelda’s ruin too, and this is something that the Z of book and movie form does not seem to understand.

It’s upsetting to think about the conundrum of Zelda, the fact that she was suffering already in those pretty dresses and that her talents might not have matched the hopes she had for herself. Most of us intimately know some version of that story and live it ourselves. It’s not what we go to the movies for; it’s not what we watch television for. It’s not even what we read books for. And so with an eye toward making this sad story a little more palatable, we’ve stripped out a lot of the complications.

Ultimately, Auerbach’s term is probably the fairest way to describe Zelda: She was lost. This seems to have been clear from the get-go. Read her letters to Scott and you find her not particularly dedicated to developing her craft, rarely talking of writers or painters she’s studying. Read her early interviews and you find her saying amusing but excessively stupid things. For example: She told that Baltimore Sun reporter that she did admire Becky Sharp, the social climber at the heart of the novel Vanity Fair. “Only, I do wish she’d been pretty,” Zelda said. Most Zelda scholars, the ones who went through her archive and read her novel, seem to admit that she was a person who didn’t do the work. She didn’t have the discipline to sit down and revise. She wasn’t particularly good at telling a story. The thing she was good at was describing things. In Save Me the Waltz, for example, red roses are “black and velvety as an insect wing.”

But writing description is not unlike getting dressed up: You’re decorating the object with baubles and lyric phrasing. And it often seems like wanting to justify a life of dress-up has been behind this whole Zelda affair. She was so beautiful, after all. That’s the main reason we’re interested in her and the main reason, I suspect, the show is too. Christina Ricci may not resemble — not in the least — the woman she’s playing. But she does look really great.

Michelle Dean is a writer based in New York.