Today is the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was married to F. Scott Fitzgerald; the two met at a dance in July 1918. Zelda had performed “Dance of the Hours” for the whole crowd at the country club in Montgomery, and Scott was smitten and asked her to dance. She was smitten, too, and later described that first night they danced: “There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention.” That quote haunts me almost daily. I want to be that man, for myself if not for someone else.
They went on their first date on this day, her birthday, in 1918. She later wrote to him about it, saying:“You were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn’t I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best.”
Zelda’s family was wary of their union, and Zelda wouldn’t marry him until his first novel was actually published. After he finished the manuscript, Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher asking him to speed up the publication of the book. He wrote, “I have so many things dependent on its success — including of course a girl.” The book was published on March 26, 1920. A few days later, Zelda and Scott moved to New York City and got married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April 3rd, — just one week after This Side of Paradise appeared in print.
They became known as the quintessential Jazz Age couple, the enfants terribles of New York City: beautiful, flashy, with money, and often drunk in public. They were so famous that William Randolph Hearst hired a reporter whose only job was to cover their activities. She was an icon of the 1920s—dubbed by her husband “the first American Flapper”. When writer Dorothy Parker first encountered the couple, they were sitting on top of a taxicab. Parker wrote that they both looked “as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking.”
Zelda was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great muse and more: He not only modeled many of his characters after Zelda, he also used lines she’d written in letters to him. He even lifted things verbatim from her diary, including Amory Blaine‘s soliloquy, which comes at the end of This Side of Paradise.
The New York Tribune literary editor asked Zelda if she wanted to write a “cheeky” review of her husband’s latest novel. She wrote: “To begin with, every one must buy this book for the following aesthetic reasons: First, because I know where there is the cutest cloth of gold dress for only $300 in a store on Forty-second Street, and also if enough people buy it where there is a platinum ring with a complete circlet, and also if loads of people buy it my husband needs a new winter overcoat, although the one he has has done well enough for the last three years. … It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
Zelda suffered from schizophrenia and spent the later part of her life in and out of mental hospitals. F. Scott Fitzgerald had first placed her in a hospital in 1936, after she had become violent and delusional. He wrote a friend, “Zelda now claims to be in direct contact with Christ, William the Conqueror, Mary Stuart, Apollo, and all the stock paraphernalia of insane-asylum jokes. … For what she has really suffered, there is never a sober night that I do not pay a stark tribute of an hour to in the darkness.”
She died at age 47 after a kitchen fire in the psychiatric hospital spread all over the building. She and other women on the upper floors could not escape because the fire escapes were made of wood and had gone up in flames.