Zelda Sayre was born in Alabama in 1900, 6th child of a prominent Southern family. She was an active child who studied ballet, was a bright but indifferent student, and in high school developed a reputation as a “speed”, the antithesis of the demure belle she was expected to be.
In 1918, Zelda performed “Dance of the Hours” for the crowd at her country club, among whom was a 21-year-old first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed nearby. Fitzgerald asked her to dance, and they were immediately entranced with one another. He began to call her daily, visiting on his days off. Lt. Fitzgerald talked of his plans to be famous, and sent her a chapter of a book he was working on, telling her “the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.” He was not the only man courting Zelda, and the competition only drove him to want her more. The following year, Fitzgerald was discharged from the service and moved to New York City to establish himself as a writer.Zelda and Scott corresponded by mail, and in March, they became engaged, against the wishes of her family. Among their objections to Scott was his religion (Catholic) and his excessive drinking. Zelda continued to flirt with other men, and, accidentally, she was to claim, she mailed to Scott a gift she meant to return to one of her other suitors. The engagement was broken, but only for a time. The couple married in April, 1920.
Zelda was now expected to be the witty and charming wife of an up-and-coming writer. After the publication of This Side of Paradise, the media focused attention upon the couple’s flamboyant life style. Zelda became jealous of her husband’s success, and Scott of the male attention directed toward his wife. Their drinking often caused their arguments to get out of hand. Their partying affected their health as well as their relationship, and they spent as much money as Scott could earn.
The birth of their only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald in 1921 did little to change their lives, and although Zelda was fond of her daughter and wrote to her frequently, Scottie was cared for by nannies. The following year, The Beautiful and the Damned was published, and Zelda accused Scott in print of plagiarizing material that she herself had written. Zelda had a strong desire to develop her own talents. She wrote a number of short stories, several of which were published in Scott’s name. As Zelda’s discontent grew, she encouraged the attentions of other men. She also became obsessed with ballet, practicing 8 hours a day, which Scott considered a waste of time.
As Fitzgerald’s literary fame increased to international proportions, they moved to Paris, where they socialized with such celebrities as Ernest Hemingway and Isadora Duncan. The attention Scott devoted to his friends increased Zelda’s sense of isolation and envy. Her dancing fixation contributed to her exhaustion, and she began to exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. She was admitted to a hospital in France, where she was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Returning to America, Zelda continued to receive psychiatric treatment. While in the hospital, she wrote a novel of her own, submitting it to Scott’s publisher. The book was a semiautobiographical account of their marriage, and Scott was incensed, as he planned to use the same material in his upcoming Tender is the Night. He forced Zelda to revise her text, which was published in 1932 to little notice. Scott deeply wounded her by calling her work third rate.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was mentally ill for the rest of her life, although she did outlive her husband. Scott did not remarry, although he had a love affair with columnist Sheila Graham while working on a screenplay in Hollywood. Zelda died in North Carolina in a hospital fire in 1948.
The Fitzgeralds are buried together in his family plot in Rockville, MD. The closing line from The Great Gatsby is carved on their stone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”