She’s the real-life rebel who launched a thousand literary anti-heroines but only now, almost 70 years after her death, is Zelda Fitzgerald getting the limelight she deserves
Words: Anna Hart, Alexandra Jones
It’s 1921 and Manhattan’s new literary hotshot F Scott Fitzgerald and his young bride, Zelda have just rolled up to a party on the Upper East Side. Onlookers (including poet Dorothy Parker) are gaping in their direction. For although their cab is a standard New York yellow, driven by a capped chauffeur, rather than peering out from inside, Zelda is sprawled languorously on the hood and Scott is hanging off the roof. “They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking,” recalled Parker later of the bright young lovers. As well as the Jazz Age they would come to epitomise a new breed of paparazzi-tracked celebrity. But while her husband went on to be at the forefront of the world’s literary stage for almost a century, it’s Zelda who’s now about to re-enter the limelight in a spectacular way.
In fact, a whole year before the 70th anniversary of her death, not one, nor two, but three A-lister-infused dramatisations of the socialite’s life are due to hit screens over the next few months. The race to document her tumultuous personal story kicks off in two weeks with Amazon Prime’s lavish new series Z: The Beginning Of Everything, which sees Christina Ricci as a doe-eyed Zelda, cavorting through New York’s high society – cracking open champagne bottles at every turn. Later this year, Jennifer Lawrence is slated to take on the same role in a Ron Howard biopic based on Nancy Milford’s famed Zelda: A Biography, depicting the inner conflicts of a woman struggling to find her own voice as her husband’s star rises. And Scarlett Johansson is due to star in The Beautiful And The Damned, Scott’s novel based on the early days of his marriage, in which passages from Zelda’s journals are printed verbatim.
So why is Zelda’s legacy suddenly such a source of inspiration? “She’s particularly relevant now that our own cultural party seems over,” explains Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People Murder, Mayhem And The Invention Of The Great Gatsby – lending weight to the theory that while Zelda may have been overlooked for the latter half of the last century, that’s all about to change. “She and Scott both symbolised a moment that parallels strongly with ours: the boom and parties of the Twenties, the depression, which all played out for them on a personal as well as a national scale.”
Of course, stories of Zelda cavorting in fountains, running down 52nd Avenue dragging her husband behind her, even reportedly throwing herself down a marble staircase when she felt he was flirting with dancer Isadora Duncan all raised eyebrows and made headlines at the time. But now a fresh focus on her beautifully tragic dilettante life – lived out (with what some historians have called a proto-feminist disregard for good manners), is set to introduce her to a new generation and permanently shift Zelda from myth to legend.
A life in literature
A rebel from the start, Zelda Sayre was born in 1900 to a prominent Southern family in Montgomery, Alabama. Together with her childhood friend and future starlet Tallulah Bankhead, she developed a taste for attention, glibly telling a local reporter that she cared only about “boys and swimming” and wearing a flesh-coloured bathing suit to fuel rumours that she swam naked.
But it was only at the age of 18, when Zelda met Francis (soon to be ‘F’) that her charismatic trail of chaos came to embody the Gatsby era of wilful frivolity. A Princeton graduate and army volunteer who felt – rightly, as it turned out – destined for fame, fortune and literary greatness, Fitzgerald reportedly asked the object of his affections “What sort of heroine would you like to be?”
It proved to be a fateful question. In fact, Fitzgerald rewrote the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side Of Paradise in Zelda’s image. The novel, published in 1920, became an instant hit and propelled the Fitzgeralds to the centre of New York’s literary scene. “I married the heroine of my stories,” Fitzgerald told a reporter at the time.
From then on Zelda became his ultimate muse. He wrote short stories about the new breed of “flapper” girls while Zelda wore the clothes, held parties in hotel suites and defied the rules. Life was a merry-go-round of bars, clubs and the drawing rooms of the glittering classes. And through characters such as Rosalind and, perhaps most famously, the wan Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald cemented Zelda’s place in literary history and celebrity culture. By the time The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, Zelda was considered sufficiently sensational for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to hire a reporter to trail her and Fitzgerald round-the-clock.
Push for freedom
There was often plenty to report on. Living post-World War One, Zelda was part of the first wave of women to bob their hair and abandon constrictive corsets in favour of looser, shorter, more boyish styles.
In fact, Zelda’s personal style has proven to be so pervasive that in 2012 – more than 60 years after her death – Time magazine named her one of their All-Time 100 Fashion Icons. As fashion historian Amber Butchart, author of The Fashion Of Film: How Cinema Has Inspired Fashion observes, it is often “Zelda’s image [that] we call to mind when we think of the quintessential ‘flapper’.
“That the Twenties was a period of political liberation for women (they had, after all, just got the vote) has ensured that it has a legacy in the world of design.”
But it wasn’t just through her personal style that Zelda pushed for freedom. She continually refused to play the role of a dutiful novelist’s wife, and when asked in 1925 by Harper & Brothers to contribute to “Favourite Recipes of Famous Women” she wrote, “See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in.”
“Young women at the time modelled their behaviour on her: as the prototypical flapper, she encouraged them to throw off the shackles of Edwardian behaviour,” adds Churchwell. As Zelda herself once wrote, “I did not have a single feeling of inferiority, or shyness, or doubt, and no moral principles.”
Zelda and her set – “artists and writers that we would today think of as tastemakers,” explains Butchart – were the pioneers of a new spirit. “The associations we have with freedom and hedonism from the Jazz Age have proven to be a heady mix for fashion designers, authors and filmmakers to draw on [ever since].”
Zelda’s efforts, though, were often thwarted. “Like many women who lived in the same period, Zelda was considered secondary in every way to her more famous husband,” explains Dr Sally Cline, associate research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University and author of the biography Zelda Fitzgerald.
The frustration Zelda felt at being considered little more than a glittering appendage to a great man can be seen in her desperation to cultivate her own artistic life. At the age of 27 she took up ballet with an obsessive fervour. She would practise for eight hours a day, and two years later, in 1929, had improved to such a degree that she was offered a place at San Carlo Opera Ballet Company in Naples. “At this point she was trying to do something meaningful with her life,” says Churchwell. “Unfortunately due to her mental health, she never succeeded.”
Due to exhaustion, as well as her and Fitzgerald’s increasingly destructive drinking – as Fitzgerald once said, “parties are a form of suicide,” – she never took up the offer. Instead, in 1930 she was admitted to a sanatorium in France and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Zelda spent the latter half of her life living in mental institutions, though she continued to write and paint, often much to Fitzgerald’s chagrin. “She rebelled,” explains Cline. “For instance by using Fitzgerald ’s own publisher to publish her novel Save Me The Waltz, which covered similar territory to his works. He punished her by gaining control of her manuscript and cutting and scrambling it unrecognisably.”
By the time she died in 1948 (in a fire at a mental institute in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was awaiting electric shock therapy), Zelda was considered by critics a literary and artistic failure (a 1934 The New Yorker review of her only exhibition called her artworks “paintings by the almost mythical Zelda Fitzgerald; with whatever emotional overtones may remain from the so-called Jazz Age”).
But if anything, this just makes Zelda’s story resonate even more in 2017. “On the one hand, Zelda represents high glamour,” explains Cline. The more glittering aspects of her life ensure designers continue to emulate her and authors continue to write about her. “But on the other,” says Cline, “she represents women’s marginalisation and virtual imprisonment for not being the ‘right kind’ of wife and mother.” Ultimately, her fragility humanises the myth – we relate to her drive for individuality. “We can’t help but feel affection for Zelda,” adds Cline. “Because, under the glitter, she was one of us.”
Z: The Beginning Of Everything is available on Amazon Prime in January
Photography: Alamy, Getty Images, Rex Features