Thursday, March 10, 2011

Zelda Fitzgerald: Her marriage to Scott and her mental illness


Anyone who met the beautiful, young Zelda was immediately struck by her spirited self-confidence, energy, and determination; a person so absolutely sure of her herself that anything seemed possible. Spontaneous and exciting, she shone in any situation. With talent and the will to succeed, she should have accomplished much. How was it, then that in an age of opportunity she failed to find her own voice?

 - Kendall Taylor
From Sometimes Madness is Wisdom - Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage

Zelda circa 1918

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were the golden couple of the Jazz Age. Together they were the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties. In an age of prosperity, they were young, talented, wealthy and brash. Scott referred to Zelda as “the first American flapper” and the New York newspapers adored them. Behind the scenes, however, things were not as rosy. Today, on the 63rd anniversary of the death of Zelda Fitzgerald, let us explore how and why everything went so wrong.

Born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama on July 24, 1900, she was the youngest of six children. Her father, Anthony Sayre, was a highly respected judge of the Alabama Supreme Court. Soon after finishing high school, Zelda met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a dance in Montgomery during the summer of 1918. World War I was still raging and Fitzgerald, a northerner from St. Paul Minnesota, had left Princeton University to join the U.S. Army. He was stationed at a training camp in Montgomery when they met.

Zelda was very popular and had many suitors, but Scott was different from her Southern beaus. He was an aspiring writer and he oozed Ivy League charm. Still, Fitzgerald faced much competition for Zelda’s attention and affection. After his discharge from military service in February of 1919, he returned home to Minnesota to rewrite the manuscript of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which dealt with the post-World War I flapper generation. With This Side of Paradise slated for publication by Charles Scribner and Sons in the spring of 1920, Scott was able to achieve the measure of financial success needed to persuade Zelda to accept his marriage proposal.

The wedding took place at Manhattan’s St. Patrick Cathedral on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1920. On October 26, 1921, their only child, a daughter, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. They named her Frances Key Scott Fitzgerald, but she was commonly called “Scottie”.

This Side of Paradise became a bestseller and the Fitzgeralds spent the early part of the 1920s as literary celebrities in New York. For some time they settled in Long Island, the setting for Scott’s acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby. They lived extravagantly and held lavish parties in a fashion similar to the characters in his 1925 classic.

Later in the decade, Scott and Zelda relocated to Europe and became representatives of the celebrated “Lost Generation” of that era. They moved to France and socialized with other expatriates such as author Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. Spoiled and self-indulgent, by 1924 the Fitzgeralds were living like royalty on the French Riviera.

The marriage of Scott and Zelda was tempestuous and filled with jealousy and acrimony. Scott had always been a heavy drinker and his increasing alcoholism put additional strain on their relationship. Throughout her life, Zelda sought to establish an identity of her own. Through the years, she wrote many articles, short stories and a novel, most of which were published in the 1930s. She also enjoyed painting which she found it to be relaxing and soothing. Her art was displayed in museums and sold to friends.

Scott and Zelda

While in France, Zelda Fitzgerald rediscovered her love of ballet. She had danced as a child, but quit at the age of 17. In 1925 she signed up for lessons with Lubov Egorova (Princess Nikita Troubeska) who had opened a studio in Paris. By 1927, ballet had become Zelda’s obsession. She practised incessantly to the point of exhaustion.

As the years passed, Zelda’s behaviour became increasingly unstable and erratic. In April of 1930, at the age of 29, she had a complete mental breakdown in Paris. She was hospitalized and diagnosed as a schizophrenic. In July of 1931, after Zelda’s release from Prangrins, a clinic in Switzerland, the Fitzgeralds returned to the United States permanently.

Back in the U.S., Zelda Fitzgerald continued to struggle with mental illness and was confined to sanatoriums for the rest of her life. She had a second breakdown in February of 1932 and was admitted to the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While at Phipps, Zelda wrote her only published novel, Save Me the Waltz. She completed the semi-autobiographical novel in just six weeks and sent it to Scott’s publisher, Maxwell Perkins. Scott was incensed at the manner in which his wife’s book portrayed their marriage and their personal lives. He drastically altered the novel and forced her to leave out the section which portrayed him as an alcoholic. Save Me the Waltz arrived in bookstores in October of 1932 and quickly fell into obscurity.

Fitzgerald, however, went on to publish his own thinly-disguised account of their marriage in Tender is the Night, his fourth novel. Published in 1934, Tender is the Night it is the story of Dr. Dick Diver, a promising young psychoanalyst whose wife, Nicole, suffers from mental illness. It was written at a dark time in Fitzgerald’s life and often reflects a bleakness of outlook. Experiencing financial difficulties at the time, Scott was forced to borrow money from his editor and agent. During this period, he also wrote short stories for magazines in order to raise money.

After a third breakdown in 1934, Zelda became a patient at the Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. In April of 1936, she was transferred to the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Scott eventually moved to Hollywood and became a screenwriter. It was there that he began a romantic relationship with the movie columnist Sheilah Graham. In November of 1940, Scott suffered a minor heart attack in Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard. On December 20, 1940, after attending the premiere of a film with Graham, he experienced a dizzy spell. He decided not to see a doctor because he had an appointment with his physician the next afternoon. The following morning, however, he collapsed to the floor and Graham called the fire department.

F. Scott Fitzgerald died in Hollywood of a massive heart attack on December 21, 1940 at the age of 44. His final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, about the Hollywood motion picture industry, was unfinished at the time of his death. Literary critic Edmund Wilson edited the manuscript and it was published as The Last Tycoon in 1941.

On the night of March 10, 1948, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the main building of the Highland Mental Hospital. The flames spread rapidly to every floor of the premises. Despite the efforts of firefighters to evacuate everyone from the building, nine women perished in the fire. Among them was Zelda Fitzgerald who was identified by her slipper. She was 47 years old at the time of her death.

Frances Scot Key “Scottie Fitzgerald” became a writer and journalist for such publications as the Washington Post and The New Yorker. Scottie had four children with her first husband, Samuel Jackson “Jack “ Lanahan, whom she married in 1943 and divorced in 1967. In 1975, her eldest son Thomas (known as Tim) committed suicide at the age of 27. The surviving children are Jack Jr., Eleanor (Bobbie), an artist and writer, and Cecilia. Scottie’s second marriage to C. Grove Smith ended in divorce in 1980. The daughter of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald died of esophageal cancer on June 16, 1986 in her mother’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. She was 64.


On May 10, 1934, the Toronto Maple Leafs achieved the longest undefeated streak in home games in their history – 18 games. The 18-game streak began on November 28, 1933 and consisted of 15 wins and 3 ties.

- Joanne

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