The Bizarre, Misunderstood Afterlife of Zelda Fitzgerald

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Had she not perished in a fire that decimated the mental hospital where she was living in back in 1948, Zelda Fitzgerald (who would be celebrating her birthday as a spry 113-year-old today) would be having a really interesting 2013. Of course, she didn’t survive her time at Highland Hospital, and living that long is hardly plausible for a person who epitomized the raging ways of the Roaring ’20s, but Zelda Fitzgerald’s life was one full of what ifs and misconceptions. Speculating further doesn’t seem all that absurd.

2013 has been a banner year for her husband, with the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but F. Scott Fitzgerald, unlike his wife, has had it pretty good since his own passing, eight years before Zelda in 1940. He’s considered one of the greatest American writers ever, his works on every high school syllabus, and his name is the first one most of us associate with the decadent Lost Generation. Zelda is just thought of as his wife and muse, largely remembered as wild and unstable. Zelda, the proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, is thought to be the inspiration behind some of her husband’s most well-known female characters — even though that isn’t necessarily the case. While it’s impossible to look past the semi-autobiographical references to the Fitzgeralds’ marriage in books like The Beautiful and Damned and Tender Is the Night, as I’ve noted before, Fitzgerald’s most well-known female character and the personification of his obsession with wealth wasn’t his wife, but his first love, a Chicago socialite named Ginevra King.

People have always misunderstood Zelda Fitzgerald, her life as well as her legacy. Kate Zambreno’s book, Heroines, examines the lives of Fitzgerald and several other women who were married to well-known writers of the Modernist era, and how history has treated them. Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot, and others find their way into Zambreno’s manuscript, but Zelda Fitzgerald is the name the casual reader might be most familiar with. Zambreno writes: “She gives up her character, her conviction, freely to be documented, mythologized — as she (at first) wants to be famous.”

It’s “she (at first) wants to be famous” that best sums up Zelda Fitzgerald’s rise and fall to me. She was swept up in a life and lifestyle that eventually brought on her downfall. History prefers to remember her as a tempestuous alcoholic who both inspired and annoyed her husband. The dominant narrative of Fitzgerald’s life isn’t true, but she isn’t exactly around to defend herself.

Even though we continue to hold onto the wrong ideas about Zelda, her husband’s 2013 renaissance has helped to make this the closest thing to a good year for her, too — certainly a better one than 1972, when Don Henley wrote the song “Witchy Woman” with the late Fitzgerald in mind, because there are few fates worse than being the inspiration behind an Eagles song. This has been a better year for Zelda Fitzgerald because many of the things we associate with her are finally being cast in a positive light. Therese Anne Fowler released Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and Zelda even got her own line of ice creams thanks to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. At this point, it’s easy to imagine her hard-partying ways earning her a reference in a Ke$ha song.

Pints of cognac and marmalade, novels based on her life, and her own perfume line: 2013 might be a banner year for the late Zelda Fitzgerald, but that still isn’t saying much. These new chapters in the life of the woman born Zelda Sayre keep her penned in a sort of cultural purgatory that she probably doesn’t deserve, forced, like Jacob Marley, to spend her afterlife shackled to things she may or may have not done when she was alive. Fitzgerald was a talented and interesting person whose own semi-autobiographical 1932 book, Save Me the Waltz — while maybe not the greatest book ever written — makes for an interesting counterbalance to the Zelda we think we know. It also earned the following response from her husband: “I do not care whether you were a writer or not, if you were any good… you are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet” — a comment that aptly sums up the sort of jealous person F. Scott Fitzgerald could be, and suggests some blame on his end for the rocky, possibly abusive relationship had with his wife.

I’m not necessarily trying to absolve Zelda Fitzgerald of her hard partying ways, or propping her up as some Jazz Age martyr. Rather, I’d like those who profess to understand or celebrate Zelda to put down the champagne and take the day to get to know her a little better.