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Zelda Fitzgerald – the first American flapper

Zelda Fitzgerald was born Zelda Sayre on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Alabama. She was known for her beauty and personality and made a name for herself as a socialite, novelist, and painter, and the ‘first American flapper’ – far more than merely the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Zelda met Scott at a country club dance in 1918, when he was stationed outside of Montgomery during WWI. He was immediately taken by her and their passionate and tumultuous relationship began, as did Scott’s liberal borrowing of material from Zelda’s letters and diaries for use in his own works. 

Although friends and family were not necessarily in favor of their match, Zelda agreed to marry Fitzgerald once his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published. He finished it in the fall of 1919 and urged his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to hurry the release. This Side of Paradise was published March 26, 1920, and the couple was married on April 3rd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise not only sold its initial 3,000 print run, but two subsequent runs within a month, and with that success, Zelda and Scott became celebrities and icons of the Jazz Age. 

On October 26, 1921, Zelda gave birth to their first and only child, Francis “Scottie” Fitzgerald. As Zelda emerged from anesthesia, Scott recorded her saying of her daughter, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool,” which he later used in his most famous novel The Great Gatsby.

After the publication of Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, the New York Tribune asked Zelda to write a review of her husband’s book. The piece led to other offers from magazines, including the 1922 “Eulogy on the Flapper” for Metropolitan Magazine. 

In 1924 the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris, having burned through their money. Zelda began an affair with a French pilot, Edouard S. Jozan, and asked Scott for a divorce. In the midst of their marital drama, Scott finished The Great Gatsby and Zelda attempted suicide with sleeping pills. 

In Paris the following year, Zelda’s husband became friends with Ernest Hemingway, although Zelda and Ernest openly detested one another. 

Zelda pursued many of her own artistic ventures. She was a painter and later became obsessed with ballet, dancing up to eight hours a day. Scott was dismissive of her goals and wrapped himself up in writing and alcohol. As the 1920s progressed their relationship was strained and their creativity was hurt by mental and emotional struggles and addictions. Their partying had turned self-destructive toward the end of the 1920s, and in 1930 Zelda was admitted into a sanitarium in France, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

While admitted to another clinic in 1932, Zelda wrote a novel called Save Me the Waltz in six weeks and sent it to Maxwell Perkins, Scott’s publisher at Scribner’s. When Scott found out about the novel he was furious. He forced her to rewrite parts of the novel that he considered too autobiographical, and parts that he planned on using in Tender is the Night, which would be published in 1934. 

copies of Save Me the Waltz for sale
First edition of Save Me The Waltz listed by Appledore Books, ABAA

The first edition of Save Me the Waltz was published October 7th, 1932 in a print run of just 3,010 copies. It sold only 1,392 copies for which Zelda earned $120.73. Between the poor sales and her husband’s criticism of the work, Zelda’s spirit was crushed. It was the only novel she would publish. 

As her paintings and other hobbies were also not well received, Zelda became more reclusive and mentally unstable. In 1936 she was admitted into Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a place she would return to on and off for the remainder of her years. 

One of Zelda’s paintings of Washington Park

In 1937 her husband moved to Hollywood to work in the film industry and he began an affair with movie columnist Sheila Graham. Scott was bitter toward his wife, blaming her for his recent failures. Despite their troubles, the couple took a trip to Cuba together in 1939. It was disastrous, and when they returned to the states Scott went to Hollywood and Zelda returned to Asheville. They never saw each other again. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of forty-four in 1940. That same year, her daughter Scottie was married.  Zelda missed both events. 

On March 10th, 1948 a fire broke out at Highland Hospital where Zelda was in residential treatment. She was locked in a room for electroshock therapy and unable to get out, she perished in the fire along with eight other patients.

In 1970, a graduate student named Nancy Milford wrote the first book-length treatment of Zelda’s life. Zelda: A Biography was a best-seller and a finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. 

Other books about Zelda:

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

This biographical historical novel about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald was published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 2014.

Guests on Earth By Lee Smith

This novel by author Lee Smith is set in Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina from 1936 – 1948, during the years Zelda was a resident and was killed in a fire.

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

This novel, first published in 2013, is set in a Baltimore Psychiatric hospital in 1932 where a nurse befriends Zelda and gets drawn into her tumultuous world.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda : The Love Letters of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

The twenty-two-year love story between Scott and Zelda is documented in this work through their own letters. It includes 333 letters illustrated by photographs.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise by Sally Cline.

Zelda Fitzgerald, by Sally Cline, published by Arcade Publishing in 2003, is described as a “Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess”.

The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2003, The Romantic Egoists weaves the story of Scott and Zelda through their personal scrapbook and photo albums.

Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald

This book, published in 2013, focuses on Zelda and Scott’s 1939 trip to Cuba, the last time the couple saw each other. It describes their last attempt to grasp at love and happiness after the brightness of their earlier star had faded.

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