During a Halloween party in 2013 I first noticed this phenomenon. I dressed as Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction and my boyfriend dressed as the deceased French writer Albert Camus although everyone thought he was Vincent Vega. While people were playing beer pong in the kitchen or smoking outside, my boyfriend and I sat on the couch making fun of culturally insensitive costumes like the shut-ins we were. Right after a short white man wearing a giant Native American headdress and body paint all over his chest, the couple of the night walked in.
The man wore a crisp blue suit with a skinny tie. He parted his hair down the middle and dramatically curled at the front. The woman wore a golden flapper dress that swayed and shimmied as she walked. Her hair was big and crimped, resting on her shoulders. She carried a long cigarette holder and a short martini glass.
It was clear to me they were F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and they were the life of the party. While the woman frantically talked to everyone in a thick but fake Southern accent the man stood in the corner and drank heavily calling everyone “old sport.” Now every time I see them on campus they are the Fitzgeralds.
The Great Gatsby was required reading for some of the students in my high school and after reading books like The Metamorphosis and The Stranger, most students were eager to read what they thought would be something a little less heavy. Although this wasn’t a required reading for my class I read it in a day and then bought everything else F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever written. Even coming into college I still searched second hand bookstores to find his writings. He was my guide into the Lost Generation. Through him I found the writings of Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein and the music of George Gershwin.
However, Zelda Fitzgerald was never mentioned in this crowd as a writer or an artist. The few references to her I found in Lost Generation writings were generally negative, inferring she was crazy and a distraction for the genius that was F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast he wrote this about her:
“Zelda was jealous of Scott's work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern. Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly. He would start to work and as soon he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off of another drunken party. They would quarrel and then makeup and he would sweat out the alcohol for long walks with me, and make up his mind that this time he would really work and start off well. Then it would start all over again” (178-179).
To be perfectly fair to Papa, in A Movable Feast he seemed a little more upset about losing his buddy than Scott’s writing career. I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to assume that Papa’s being self-serving here.
In recent pop culture she was portrayed as the crazy, suicidal, party girl in Midnight in Paris. Throughout the movie she is jealous and flighty seeming to take on roles as a writer, an artist and a ballerina. Hemingway is even seen criticizing her writing.
Numerous sources portray her as mentally ill. It is not hyperbolic to say she is depicted as crazy. In the case of her book Save Me the Waltz, I feel as if her case is a complete oversight of genius. If you haven’t read this book it is a veiled account of her life. It depicts a beautiful Southern belle, Alabama Beggs, first watching her sisters grow up and marry. She then marries an artist, David Knight presumably Scott’s character, who becomes successful. They move to Europe and her husband begins an affair as Alabama becomes a successful ballet dancer. The book shows their marriage deteriorating with jealousy, alcoholism and madness. Alabama’s father dies causing her to have a minor psychological crises while she tries to find meaning. The book ends with a final party and the couple returned to normal.
Although in its time her book was not well received (and to be fair The Great Gatsby was also not well received), the book is incredible. It is a beautiful picture of how jealousy can slowly ruin a relationship. Early in the novel and early in their marriage their jealousy is a benefit. They use it as a sign of endearment with one another:
““Do you mean to say you’re jealous of me?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course. Aren’t you?”
“Terribly. But I thought we weren't supposed to be.”
“Then we’re even.”
They looked at each other compassionately. it was funny, compassionate under their untidy heads” (65).
While later their jealousy is destructive. From pages 112 to 116, Alabama is jealous of the beautiful women surrounding him and how he is acting around them. She describes herself as sick to her stomach.
David is depicted as using her ideas for his own gain.
“Resentment flared in Alabama, he’d stolen the idea from her. She’d worn silk BVD herself all last summer” (112).
When she begins her career as a ballerina he disapproves and is cruel to her and of her career.
“Where are you going?”
“I'm going to the studio.”
“Yet you can't stay with me! What's the use of having a wife? If a wife is only to sleep with, there are plenty available for that —”
“What's the use of having a husband or anything else? You suddenly find you have them all the same and there you are” (126).
Their relationship dissipates into anger. As in real life David fell into alcoholism and Alabama fell into madness. She gives up being a ballerina for her child and David and it is apparent that she is depressed over this. Her life is now reserved to being the unhappy wife of an alcoholic artist.
“David’s success was his own—he had earned his right to be critical—Alabama felt that she had nothing to give to the world and no way to dispose of what she took away.” (145).
While cleaning up after the last parties she ends the book. Emptying the ashtrays is "very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labeled 'the past,' and having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue."
More than anything this book feels like a cry for help. Especially if you know the story behind the book’s publication. Zelda wrote the book while in John Hopkin’s Hospital to treat schizophrenia (although scholars now think it was bipolar disorder). She sent it to Scott’s publisher before sending it to Scott. When Scott finally saw the book he was upset because it was very similar to the book he had been writing (Tender Is the Night) while she was in the hospital. Scott forced her to rewrite large parts of the book and her original manuscript has never been found or published. In the end he approved it and sent it to be published.
He forced a clinically ill women to rewrite the book that had kept her going through her stay in the hospital and mental care. I will let you make your own conclusions on that.
If you look on the Wikipedia pages for the The Great Gatsby and Save Me the Waltz there is a dramatic difference on the way they are portrayed.
“By the 1930s, Zelda Fitzgerald had already been in and out of psychiatric facilities, and her husband was stalled writing his next work; he had not produced a novel since 1925's The Great Gatsby,” is the third line in her Wikipedia page.
“Considered to be Fitzgerald's magnum opus, The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and excess, creating a portrait of the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream,” is the third line in his Wikipedia page.
Scott tended to use their marriage as material for his books. He even used pieces of her diary to write his novels. Arguably one of the most famous lines from Gatsby: “I’m glad it's a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Zelda said this after giving birth to their daughter Scottie.
Another thing written on Save Me the Waltz’s Wikipedia page:
“She had been working throughout the fall of 1932 on a second novel, based on her experiences in psychiatric treatment. But Scott's reaction was unkind. In a fight before Zelda was readmitted to treatment, Fitzgerald said her novel was "plagiaristic, unwise in every way . . . should not have been written.”
While I agree the writings of Scott and Save Me the Waltz have parallel story lines to the Fitzgerald's real lives they are different stories in writing style and narrative. I don’t know about you but stealing pieces of someone’s diary seems a little more like plagiarism to me.
Apparently her response was this:
“Zelda asked, "Didn't you want me to be a writer?" Though Scott once had, he lashed out "No, 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." The psychiatrist agreed with Scott. Zelda was devastated; she never published another novel.”
Now isn’t that a lovely way to treat the mother of your child and wife? I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It is not only a fantastic piece of writing but a revealing piece of a broken, sometimes abusive marriage. It is one of the best novels written from the perspective of a ballerina and written against the stark and honest backdrop of a post-World War I world. The best way to describe this book is in the words of Henry Dan Piper: “It is a literary curiosity as well as a hidden masterpiece.”
Scott is a great writer and I would never say otherwise. His books helped define a generation and I would not hesitate to say he was a literary genius. Also I want to say Zelda and Scott love one another. If you wrote a whole book about someone (or in Scott’s case multiple books) wouldn’t you think you loved them in some way? To me it seemed that despite everything at one time they loved each other, but I have to remember that relationships look different to the people outside of them. He was a large part of what prevented Zelda from reaching her full potential. While he could go to college and have a real life as a writer, Zelda, just like her character Alabama, was only expected to marry well. I don’t know if Zelda could have been a great ballerina but she had the beginnings of a great writing career.
I want to assume the situation with Scott and Zelda was a situation unique to them but I think it is part of a greater problem. It has always seemed to me that women in history, whether they are artists, writers or public figures, that are mentally unstable are only really seen as mentally unstable, whereas men in this same position are tortured geniuses. In the case of Save Me the Waltz I am sure people were more likely to discredit her work because she was a southern belle and the famous wife of an alcoholic writer, where people could validate the writing of an ivy-league grad.
Mental illness is not a barrier to artistic genius, her own husband was a drunk and Hemingway ending up committing suicide. I believe the real reason she wasn’t taken seriously was because she was a woman in the 20th century. This phenomenon has taken place with countless women of the arts, especially ones connected to other famous artists. Simone de Beauvoir was always seen as the woman in Jean-Paul Sartre's shadow although she wrote things that surpassed and exceeded his own writings. Although Frida Kahlo is now arguably more famous than her husband Diego Rivera, during her life she lived in his shadow and his work was much more appreciated than hers. They weren’t taken seriously because they were women, not because their work was any less than their partners.
George Elliot the author of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda was really Mary Ann Evans. She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously because at the time female authors were known only for writing lighthearted romances.
Now, Frida Kahlo is an inspiration to female and surrealist artists alike. Simone de Beauvoir can be recognized with The Second Sex, displaying her work as a feminist and existentialist. Yet, in recent history J.K. Rowling changed her name to the ambiguous initials because her publishers told her no one would want to read a book by a man. A Nobel Laureate was just quoted as saying women in his lab are distractions and because of this they should not be in science. We must watch out for this ugly misogyny because it obviously hasn't ended.
I think it is time Zelda Fitzgerald should be appreciated for the artist she could have been. The artist that was stifled by her time and by her husband.