The Whirlwind Dance of ZeldaThe caption below Zelda Sayre's high school senior photograph has the following words:
Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow
Let's only think of today, and not worry about tomorrow.
Her friend, Gerald Murphy, called Zelda "an American value." She was the first American Flapper and along with her husband, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, she epitomized the so-called "Jazz Age" generation of the 1920s. Growing up in the American South in an age when women were typically passive and submissive, Zelda was electric, bold and sexual.
She is more popularly known as Fitzgerald's crazy wife. She did spend most of eighteen years in various mental institutions. We see Zelda all over Fitzgerald's fiction. As the paradigm for Fitzgerald's "golden girl" the conclusion is that Zelda, like her fictional clones, represents the charming and beautiful but emotionally frigid and manipulative female.
That Zelda was a writer, a dancer, a painter gets lost in the shadows of her status as the wife of a writer. Zelda spent much of her life caught in those shadows.
Born in 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama she was the sixth and youngest child of Minnie Mochen Sayer and Anthony Dickinson Sayre. Zelda's mother has been described as "artistic," "creative," and "theatrical." Neighbors described Mrs. Sayre as a little odd. A general sensitivity appears to be in the genes on the maternal side of Zelda's family tree. Perhaps a predisposition to mental illness existed as well. Zelda's maternal grandmother committed suicide.
Zelda's father was a prominent, well-respected lawyer and judge in Montgomery. He was conservative in nature and emotionally reserved, even remote.
At nine years old, Zelda began taking ballet lessons. Dance would remain an important part of her life. In addition to dance, her interests were swimming and boys. When she graduated high school in the Spring of 1918 she was voted the prettiest and most attractive girl in her class.
When, in later years, Zelda described her childhood and adolescence she writes that she was
Independent, courageous, without thought for anyone else. 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 doubts, and no moral principles.
Though she was most likely unaware of it, the "moral principles" she mentions were themselves in a staggering state of cultural transformation as Zelda emerged from childhood into adulthood.
Zelda, age 16
Zelda met Scott Fitzgerald a little more than a month after her high school graduation in 1918. They met at a country club dance in Montgomery. She was almost 18 and he was near 22. Fitzgerald had dropped out of Princeton to join the Army. As a 1st Lieutenant in the 67th Infantry he was stationed at Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery. Nancy Milford, Zelda's biographer, writes that,Scott was a romancer who, never overly popular with men, was on the other hand completely at ease with girls.At the time he met Zelda, Fitzgerald had already written a version of his first novel, drawn from his Princeton experiences and originally called The Romantic Egoist. Initially rejected by Scribners it was later revised and published as This Side of Paradise.
Zelda, age 19
The romance between Zelda and Scott grew quickly and intensely during the summer of 1918. While Fitzgerald was not the only man romancing the beautiful and bewitching Zelda, he was the man that most captured her imagination. After a summer of talking about poetry and seduction and love, themes that would become central in his fictions, Fitzgerald wrote in his journal on September 7, 1918 that he was in love with Zelda.
Fitzgerald attempted to get a commitment from Zelda. But for her there were too many uncertainties about him and his future. He would soon be going off to war and might likely not return. Also, her father's dislike of Fitzgerald's drinking and her mother's worry that a writer's life might not provide a suitable lifestyle for her daughter kept Zelda from pledging herself completely to Fitzgerald. But there seems little doubt that she was in love with him.
Fitzgerald's orders to leave Camp Sheridan and head North to await transfer to Europe arrived and on October 26, 1918 he moved to Camp Mills on Long Island. That would be the closest Fitzgerald would get to the war. The Great War, known as World War I ended and in November Fitzgerald returned to Camp Sheridan to await his discharge from the army and to resume his love affair with Zelda.
Zelda seemed more committed to Fitzgerald now. But, ever the unconventional belle, she continued to see other men. Fitzgerald, of course, was mad with jealousy. He was discharged from the army on February 14, 1919 and four days later he moved back to New York to seek fame and fortune. Madly in love with Zelda he wrote that he was "in the land of ambition and success and my only hope and faith is that my darling heart will be with me soon."
For the next several months their love affair was carried on in letters. In March, Zelda received and accepted an engagement ring from Fitzgerald. Despite the "engagement" Zelda continued to date a variety of young men. In fact, during the spring of 1919 Zelda got involved with a golfer from Georgia Tech and attended a tournament in Atlanta with him. Curiously, Zelda's golfer paramour gave her his college pin, a symbol of love and connection. Zelda sent the pin back to the golfer with a note declining it. However she addressed the parcel inexplicably to Fitzgerald in New York. One imagines this mistake was contrived to inflame Fitzgerald. And it did. He immediately returned to Montgomery and begged Zelda to marry him. She refused. The engagement was over and Fitzgerald returned to New York in June with the engagement ring in his pocket. He would write, "I was in love with a whirlwind."
After Fitzgerald left, Zelda continued to be Zelda. She spent the summer of her 19th year swimming and attending various parties and balls. She continued to be unconventional. For example, she once stepped out of her bathing suit when preparing to dive into a pool. She dated a variety of men and perhaps thought of Fitzgerald, but she made no attempt to contact him. Fitzgerald left New York and returned to his home in St. Paul, Minnesota where he completed the final version of This Side of Paradise. In September the manuscript was accepted for publication by Scribners. In October, after five months of silence, Fitzgerald wrote to Zelda asking if he could come to Montgomery to visit her. She eagerly agreed and wrote, "I'm mighty glad you're coming- I've been wanting to see you (which you probably knew) but I couldn't ask you-...It's fine, and I'm tickled to death."
Zelda and Scottie
Fitzgerald arrived in Montgomery in November 1919 and by the time he left for New York in December, he and Zelda were re-engaged. The Sayres formally announced their daughter's engagement to Fitzgerald the following March. Zelda traveled to New York. On April 3, 1920 in the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral, with eight people in attendance, not including her parents, Zelda Sayre and Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald were married. Their marriage coincided with the launching of the "Jazz Age," an era they did much to define.
The 1920s were, of course, conditioned by the preceding decade. Most notably the aftermath of world War I left the world essentially traumatized. The traditions of the civilized world were being modified. The promise of the technology that defined the Industrial Revolution had become perverted as it became the dirty tool of power politics and mega-death and mass destruction. The speed of change further disoriented human consciousness. The "Jazz Age" concept became the narcotic of society used to cloud the perception of a world gone awry. As Zelda's high school yearbook caption suggests, it was time to live for the here and now. Who could bet on tomorrow ever showing up?
Zelda & Scott, 1921
Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald symbolized hedonistic youth. The novelist Glenway Wescott remarked that Fitzgerald became "a kind of king of American youth." This Side of Paradise was a critical and popular success and the Fitzgeralds became regular characters in the society gossip pages. Attending parties, drinking alcohol and performing wild acts became the normal routine for the newlyweds. Marriage did not slow down Zelda's penchant for flirting and neither did it quell Fitzgerald's jealousy. He would write that "jealousy is the great proof of and prop to love." John Tytell in his essay on Zelda and Scott in Passionate Lives writes that "There seemed to be a sort of festering sexual activity in the air around the Fitzgeralds." Friends began to notice cracks in the couple's happiness.
Their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald ("Scottie") was born October 26, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a long and difficult labor for Zelda who apparently gained a lot of weight during the pregnancy. On March 3, 1922 Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned was published to mixed reviews. The character of Gloria Patch is modeled after Zelda. John Tytell points out that like Freida Lawrence, Zelda was a "sort of collaborator, a feedback resource" for Scott. He relied on her input. As he did in his first novel, Fitzgerald actually incorporated Zelda's letters and diary notes into his narrative. It might very well have been Fitzgerald's appropriation of his wife's life and soul that began to drive Zelda crazy. Might Fitzgerald, tormented by his wife's flirtations and the wild jealousy it engendered, have found a way to neutralize the "whirlwind" in his fiction?
In the Fall of 1922 the Fitzgerald's moved back to New York into a rented house in Great Neck. Once back in New York, Zelda and Scott resumed their hedonistic lifestyle, leaving the care of their child to a nurse. Life was a series of parties as the couple attempted to live up to their billing as America's most "romantic" couple. Fitzgerald began working on his third novel, The Great Gatsby. But Zelda and Scott's excesses only increased the cracks in a marriage that both were describing as troubled. After a year and a half of living the high life in New York, the Fitzgeralds decided to return to Europe. In April 1924 they sailed to France.
The Fitzgerald's settled in the French Riviera at the suggestion of their new friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy. In his new home, the Villa Marie, Fitzgerald resumed work on The Great Gatsby and Zelda had an affair with the French aviator, Edouard Jozan. It is unclear whether or not Zelda and Jozan actually consummated their affair but it nevertheless created a crisis in Zelda's marriage and in her heart. The affair apparently ended in the middle of June and in September, 1924 Zelda apparently attempted suicide by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills.
In January 1925 the Fitzgeralds departed the Riviera for Capri to recuperate from life at Villa Marie. Zelda began to paint in Capri. They returned to southern France in April. The Great Gatsby was also published in April and while it was not the commercial success Fitzgerald had hoped for, it was a critical success. It was also at this time that the Fitzgeralds met Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley in Paris.
From the start, Zelda and Hemingway did not like each other. Hemingway's attitude is clearly presented in the essay "Hawks Do Not Share" from his collection of essays about Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.
Zelda was jealous of Scott's work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern. Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly. He would start to work and as soon as he was working Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party.
At a party with Zelda, Hemingway writes of her dementia.Her hawk's eyes were clear and calm...she leaned forward and said to me, telling me her great secret, "Ernest, don't you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?"
Nobody thought anything of it at the time. It was only Zelda's secret that she shared with me, as a hawk might share something with a man. But hawks do not share. Scott did not write anything any more that was good until after he knew that she was insane.
For her part, Zelda thought Hemingway was a big fake.
There were signs that Zelda was beginning to breakdown, physically and mentally. She began suffering from colitis, a painful digestive tract disorder that flared up periodically over the next several years. In August, 1925 during dinner at a restaurant in which the famed dancer Isadora Duncan was eating, Zelda flung herself down a stairway when Fitzgerald went over to Duncan's table. Gerald Murphy, with whom the Fitzgeralds were eating remarked, "I was sure [Zelda] was dead. We were all stunned and motionless." Zelda was not seriously hurt but it was a remarkable display of self-destructive behavior. In June 1926 Zelda had her appendix removed. Zelda's behavior that summer is described by her biographer, Nancy Milford, as becoming more "cryptic and destructive." At the end of 1926 the Fitzgeralds decided to leave France and return to the United States.
At this point, Scott and Zelda went to Hollywood, leaving Scottie in Washington, D.C. with a nanny. Scott had a job with United Artists writing screenplays. Scott met Lois Moran, a seventeen-year-old movie actress. His infatuation with the starlet inspired jealousy and anger in Zelda. By March 1927 the Fitzgeralds departed Hollywood en route back to the East coast. On the train ride, Zelda, in a fit of anger, threw out the diamond and platinum wristwatch which Scott had given her at the beginning of their courtship almost ten years earlier.
The Fitzgeralds rented a home near Wilmington, Delaware. Zelda began to write again (she hadn't written for nearly three years). The tranquil environment notwithstanding, Zelda, in her letters, reveals her unhappiness. A certain desperation was becoming apparent. She and Scott quarreled, drank, smoked. Everything they did they did excessively. In the middle of the summer of 1927, Zelda, increasingly sensitive to what she thought was Scott's disapproval of her lack of creative focus, started taking dance lessons in nearby Philadelphia. In the Fall, Zelda had her first bout with the uncomfortable skin condition, eczema. In February 1928, with relatives visiting, Zelda and Scott had an argument that resulted in Scott slapping Zelda in the face causing her nose to bleed. By the Spring, the unhappy couple was off on another visit to Europe, returning to the United States in September. As Zelda's biographer writes, "Their return to Wilmington brought them no more satisfaction than their period of departure had and the endless litany of their discontent continued." (Milford).
In the Spring of 1929 the Fitzgeralds, including Scottie, set sail for Europe. Physically estranged from each other, Scott and Zelda continued their descent into marital hell. As the marriage failed, Zelda became more remote from both her husband and her daughter. She exhibited signs of paranoia. Old friends were distrusted. Her behavior became impetuous and unpredictable. Zelda was losing her grip.
On April 23, 1930 suffering from "extreme anxiety," Zelda entered a hospital outside of Paris. Nine days later she left. On May 22, after hearing voices and exhibiting delusional behavior she entered a clinic in Switzerland. On June 5 she entered another hospital near Geneva, Les Rives de Prangins. At Prangins she was diagnosed by Dr. Oscar Forel as schizophrenic. Shortly after her institutionalization, Zelda suffered a severe bout of eczema which covered her face and neck.
On her admittance she had been exceptionally pretty-- now she was a living agonizing sore. All blood tests had failed to give a positive reaction and the trouble was unsatisfactorily catalogued as nervous eczema. For two months she had lain under it, as imprisoned as in the Iron Maiden. She was coherent, even brilliant, within the limits of her special hallucinations. (Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night)
Zelda was to spend most of the next ten years in institutions under the supervision of a variety of doctors implementing a variety of treatments for her persistent mental illness. After she was released from Prangins on September 15, 1931 she returned to the United States. On February 12, 1932 she entered the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of the Johns Hopkins University outside of Baltimore. It was during this stay that she wrote and completed her first novel, the quite autobiographical, Save Me The Waltz, published in October of 1932. Scott was furious at Zelda for having written a novel and insisted she not write anymore. She left the Phipps clinic in June 1932 but re-entered it in February 1934 following bouts of hysteria. In March she transferred to the private and expensive Craig House in New York. On May 19, 1934 she transferred to the Sheppard & Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore. She stayed at Sheppard-Pratt for almost two years before entering Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina in April, 1936. She left Highland four years later in April, 1940.
It should be noted that Zelda's institutionalizations were "voluntary" and that she was always legally free to leave the hospitals. However, there is no doubt that she suffered from deep and complex mental disturbances. Described variously as moody, hysterical, paranoid, catatonic, schizophrenic, manic and depressed, every improvement in her condition seemed matched with a notable downturn.
Mary Porter worked at Highland and was involved in Zelda's treatment. She described that experience in an interview with Zelda's biographer, Nancy Milford:We were very careful with Zelda; we never stirred her up. She could be helped, but we never gave her deep psychotherapy. One doesn't do that with patients if they are too schizophrenic. We tried to get Zelda to see reality; tried to get her to distinguish between her fantasies, illusion and reality. This is not easy for a schizophrenic. The psychotherapy was very superficial...She often rebelled against the authority, the discipline...She didn't like discipline, but she would fall into it."
What were the underlying causes of her mental disincorporation? Was she victimized by a culture that made women secondary and subservient? Jess Barron, creator of the Legend of Zelda website writes that "Zelda struggled to express herself creatively during a time when a woman's place in the intellectual world was precarious." Her marriage to Scott, inundated with a variety of jealousies, seems to be a major locus for her instability. Scott himself seemed to be looking for a more physiological explanation when he wrote that "I can't help clinging to the idea that some essential physical thing like salt or iron or semen or some unguessed at holy water is either missing or is present in too great quantity." Nevertheless, Scott depicts Nicole Diver, the Zelda character in his novel, Tender Is the Night as using her illness to manipulate people, especially her husband. Still, Zelda was in hell, and like any trip to hell, the reasons for it were complex. A variety of winds, no doubt, blew about in Zelda's mind.
When Zelda left the Highland Hospital in the spring of 1940 she returned to Alabama to live with her mother. Scott was in Hollywood. Zelda had not seen her husband for more than a year but he had written to her nearly every week. Scott's affair with Sheila Graham had already begun. But, suddenly in December, Scott died. He was buried in Rockville, Maryland but Zelda did not attend the funeral.
In 1942 Zelda began writing her never-completed second novel, Caesar's Things. Describing the unfinished novel, Zelda's biographer Nancy Milford writes that the novel's subject was "once again the story of Zelda's life. Only this time the reader confronts the rigidity of Zelda's psychosis head on...There is no sum of the parts of this novel, but only the parts themselves, truncated and wildly incoherent." Zelda spent the last six years of her life working on this novel. Years that have been described as consisting of "quiet balance punctuated by spells of relapse."
In August 1943 Zelda returned to Highland in Asheville for a six month stay. She became deeply religious and over the next couple of years her dementia began to express itself in evangelical terms. She went back to Highland in early 1946 for rest and recuperation and returned to Montgomery towards the end of the year. But the real world was a struggle for her. Friends and acquaintances recount a variety of odd behavior displayed by Zelda. During a dinner party, when her hosts suggested it was time to leave for the train station, Zelda replied that they could wait, the train would be late. She knew this because Scott had told her. "Can' t you see him sitting here beside me?" she asked her hosts.
In November 1947 Zelda returned to Highland for yet another stay. As the 47 year old Zelda prepared to depart Alabama for North Carolina she ominously told her mother, "Momma, don't worry. I'm not afraid to die."
On March 10, 1948 a fire broke out in the building where Zelda was staying at Highland. She was one of nine women trapped and killed in the blaze.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald's funeral was held on March 17, 1948 in Rockville, Maryland. She was buried, very appropriately, next to Scott. The whirlwind was finally at rest.
My Tribute to Zelda by Sara Megan Kay
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast. Scribners & Sons. 1964.
Nancy Milford, Zelda: A Biography. Harper & Row. 1970.
John Tytell, Passionate Lives. Birch Lane Press. 1991.