The Case Files: Zelda Fitzgerald

Being a journalism major in undergrad, I heard (and read) about F. Scott Fitzgerald. No, I have not yet read “The Great Gatsby”. I keep starting it and I can’t get past the third chapter. Don’t judge me. I’m working on it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic and a fantastic writer (in my opinion). More importantly, he was married to Zelda Fitzgerald. Someone I have always found utterly fascinating and really wanted to know more about. Thank goodness for The Case Files!

First of all, this woman was gorgeous in that timeless sort of way. Rosebud lips, sparkly eyes, excellently coiffed hair, and apparently quite charismatic by all reports. I mean, her full name was Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (girl kept her maiden name, I like that) and her husband dubbed her “the first American Flapper”. Translation? This woman had style and flair.

She was also semi-royalty in the south. Her mother named her sixth child after two little-known stories which featured characters named Zelda who were gypsies. It was a delightfully quirky choice and ended up being quite the appropriate name for a girl who was primed to raise hell in Montgomery, Alabama.

You better believe she raised hell. Growing up on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, Zelda did a lot of things a proper southern girl shouldn’t do. Being guarded by her family’s reputation – mainly her father’s position as justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and her great-uncle’s six terms in the U.S. Senate – she did things like smoke and drink and spend time alone with boys. She swam in a nude-colored bathing suit to prompt rumors she swam naked. She learned the Charleston, which was known as black dance. She was a ballerina and enjoyed dancing and stirring up any and all gossip she could in Montgomery. If any of you have seen “The Help” I think of these women gossiping about Zelda… except with thinner eyebrows.

The quote she chose to sit under her graduation photo in the yearbook said, “Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow. Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.”

I have a feeling she would have been my friend.

Anyway, she met Scott at a dance and they had a pretty tumultuous courtship mainly because she continued dating other guys while he was trying to woo her into marriage. Eventually they married in 1920, becoming one of the hallmark couples of the Jazz age after Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” was deemed a success. They gallivanted around New York taking in “all the iridescence of the beginning of the world”. Of course, all the iridescence of the world included tons and tons of booze.

This led to some serious tabloid fodder, with Zelda and Scott at the forefront of the Jazz age. It also led to increasing fights between the two. Then – boom. Zelda got pregnant and gave birth to Francis “Scottie” Fitzgerald. As Zelda was emerging from anesthesia, Scott recorded her saying, ”Oh, God, goofo I’m drunk. Mark Twain. Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool”. Those of you who have read The Great Gatsby might recognize that line. Even I have gotten that far in the book.

As you might guess though, Zelda wasn’t really interested in being a mom. She apparently sucked at housekeeping and doing mom-type things. Then she got pregnant again and had an abortion. It’s suspected Scott was the one who encouraged this move, but of course no one can say for sure. What can be said for sure is that Scott based a lot of his female characters in his novels on Zelda and took excepts from her diaries for their dialogue. Not cool, Scott. Not cool. Zelda didn’t think so either and it further fueled the tension in their marriage, along with all that drinking.

The burned through most of their cash by partying. Zelda began to write short stories and Scott was writing so much to keep up with all the expenses he became burned out and depressed. After 4 years of marriage, they flocked to Paris. Usually a good idea, right?

Zelda fell in love with a sexy French man on the French Riviera. She asked Scott for a divorce. He responded by locking her in their house until she changed her mind. The fighting continued. Zelda overdosed on sleeping pills. They didn’t talk about it.

Then they met Ernest Hemingway. Scott loved him. Zelda hated him. She called Hemingway a “fairy with hair on his chest,” and he called her, “crazy”. Hemingway did quite a bit for Scott’s career and introduced the Fitzgeralds to many members of The Lost Generation. Zelda proceeded to do things like accuse Scott of being a homosexual with Hemingway. Scott got pissed and decided to sleep with a prostitute. Zelda found the condoms and went a little batshit. After that, Zelda threw herself down a flight of stairs at a party because Scott was ignoring her. Maybe Hemingway had a point about that whole crazy thing?

Yep. Zelda became obsessed with finding her own niche in the world that was outside of Scott’s writing. She began to take up ballet again at 27 and practiced obsessively, up to 8 hours a day. She was offered a position with the San Carlo Opera Ballet Company in Naples, but turned that down for an unknown reason. The Fitzgeralds kept partying and were utterly self-destructive. Scott was a blatant alcoholic and Zelda was on the fringe of a mental breakdown.

In 1930, Zelda was admitted to a psychiatric clinic and bounced around mental health facilities throughout Europe until she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She returned to Alabama in 1931 because her father was dying. Scott decided to take off for Hollywood during that time and while he was gone, Judge Sayre died. Zelda went back into psychiatric treatment in 1932.

In treatment, she had a moment of clarity and creativity and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called “Save Me the Waltz”. She sent it to Scott’s publisher and Scott got a little peek at it. He instantly became furious because she had used piece of their life he wanted to use in “Tender Is The Night,” which was supposed to come out in 1934. He made her change it, but the parallels were obvious. Sucks for you, Scott. Although, Scott was a worldclass jerkbag who basically berated her writing in the press and the book sales were poor. Zelda was devastated and made a $120 profit.

Zelda’s self-portrait she painted in treatment

Zelda was moved to a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina for treatment. The state of her relationship with Scott was toxic. Their daughter was kicked out of boarding school and Scott began an affair with a woman in Hollywood. Things spiraled out of control and Scott tried to return to Zelda. Her took her to Cuba where they drank, Scott was beaten up, and Zelda came back and re-entered treatment.

Scott eventually died from drinking. Zelda continued to pop in and out of treatment, trying to write, missing both Scott’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding. On March 10, 1948 Zelda was locked in a room awaiting electroshock therapy. A fire erupted. Nine women, including Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald died.

Zelda and Scott’s tombstone features the last sentence of The Great Gatsby. While Zelda believed herself a failure at the end of her life – having had little success at a career writing, painting, and dancing – she ended up being an eternal figure for devastating beauty. I think all of us know someone like that. The person who is just so filled with personality, they bubble over the brim and just down themselves. I think that’s what Zelda was like. Her daughter, Scottie, wrote the following:

“I think (short of documentary evidence to the contrary) that if people are not crazy, they get themselves out of crazy situations, so I have never been able to buy the notion that it was my father’s drinking which led her to the sanitarium. Nor do I think she led him to the drinking”.

Regardless of the level of crazy, be it schizophrenic or not, Zelda was a cool person. Completely unhinged and tragically trapped inside of herself, I still think she’s completely fascinating. Whenever I read things she has been quoted as saying, I think I would have liked her. I’m drawn to people who have a way with words and Zelda had no shortage for words. I think that’s why I find Fitzgerald’s female characters to be so intriguing. Don’t you?

Sources (1, 2)



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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Addiction, Couples, Mind, The Case Files
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.

  • Maureen

    Who needs reality TV with this sort of story?! I was completely engrossed in your blog post!

    • http://www.thepursuitofsassiness.com/ Jennifer Bingaman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Zelda certainly knows how to entertain, even in death!

  • Sari14

    FUCKING AMAZING! I seriously could not stop obsessing over it! Great great great job. Seriously, I feel like this is the shit I read about on TMZ only way more classy :)

  • noelani54

    That’s a really nice article about Zelda! Her life was both exciting and tragic. Her death was horrifying. I hope she and the others died of smoke inhalation and not burns. Today, she would have had kind treatment, with medication. The sanitariums of the past were torture chambers!

    I also wanted to point out that the picture of the girl on the bed with her leg up is not Zelda. That is actress Nancy Carroll. There is a closeup from the same photo shoot here http://stirredstraightup.blogspot.com/2009/11/nancy-with-laughing-face.html

    I’ve seen that photo elsewhere on the internet, also identified as being Zelda. I’ve checked with people I know who are classic film experts, and they have said that it is definitely Nancy.