book review

“Zelda: A Biography” by Nancy Milford

Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography
New York: Harper & Row, 1970
Paperback, 426 pages
ISBN 0-060-91069-0

They were among the most beautiful people of the Jazz Age: the dashing young writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his striking young bride Zelda. Fitzgerald christened the era the Jazz Age, and he made his wife its first Flapper.

Zelda Sayre was born in 1900 and grew up as a Southern belle, the youngest child of a respected judge and his wife in Montgomery, Alabama. Mrs. Sayre was 40 when Zelda was born, the Judge 42. Zelda’s siblings were too much older to be true companions to her, and she was doted on and pampered by her parents, particularly her mother. By her teens Zelda had become a striking blonde beauty who had developed a reputation for “cheekiness” around Montgomery. 

The summer after Zelda’s high school graduation in 1918 a young infantry lieutenant assigned to nearby Camp Sheridan saw the beautiful young woman and was instantly drawn to her. The “strikingly handsome” young man was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who had dropped out of Princeton in the fall of his senior year to join the army. By the time he left Princeton he had decided to become a writer and was determined to write the story of his generation.

Nancy Milford tells the story of the courtship, marriage, and subsequent life of these two people, who, many of their contemporaries felt, were destined for each other, in exhausting yet fascinating detail. Scott and Zelda shared a complex relationship involving love, competition, and what we would now call co-dependence. When Scott befriended and began spending a lot of time with an up and coming writer named Ernest Hemingway, Zelda became jealous. She decided that she, too, should write and began working on stories of her own.

The Fitzgeralds’ relationship was further strained by the need for money to maintain their lifestyle among the rich and famous in New York, Paris, and the French Riviera. When they needed money Scott would write essays and stories that brought in needed cash but that he felt were hack work, not the kind of material a serious literary writer should be producing. He resented having to do this kind of writing at the same time that he enjoyed the life that necessitated it. Sometimes when they needed quick cash Scott reworked stories that had been originally written either by Zelda and himself or by Zelda alone. Because he was the well known writer, these rewrites were usually published under his name alone.

Zelda provided the raw material for much of Scott’s best work. Even the onset of her schizophrenia was a significant source for him. The occurrences of 1932 illustrate the complexly contentious nature of their relationship. At that time Scott had been struggling for some time with a new novel (the eventual Tender Is the Night). Zelda, after an earlier bout of mental illness in Europe, was hospitalized at the psychiatric clinic of Johns Hopkins University. One component of her treatment was a rigid schedule meant to keep her busy. She used that time of enforced activity to write a novel, which she sent, unbeknownst to either her doctor or her husband, to Scott’s editor. The novel was a thinly veiled autobiographical account of her life, including her illness.

When Scott Fitzgerald found out what she had done, he was furious. The content of Zelda’s manuscript was his material, he insisted. He had been using Zelda as the prototype for the female character in his novel, and he didn’t want Zelda stealing the material from him. He insisted on helping Zelda rewrite her novel, and, greatly revised, it was published under the title Save Me the Waltz in October 1932; it sold 1,392 copies. Later, much of Zelda’s experience was evident in the characterization of Nicole in Tender Is the Night

Throughout their marriage Zelda kept searching for something that she could do, something that would be hers alone. She had studied dance as a child, and as an adult she decided to try to become a professional ballerina. She worked herself to exhaustion, but, although she was a talented amateur, she had started too late to become a professional dancer. She continued to write, and her work became increasingly more bizarre. She also drew and painted and, according to Milford, was fairly good at these activities.

Zelda spent the last years of her life in and out of a psychiatric hospital. When she was not hospitalized, she lived with her mother in a small house in Montgomery.  She died in a fire at a hospital in North Carolina in March 1948 and was buried next to her husband in Maryland.

Nancy Milford explicates the lives of both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald through extensive use of their correspondence and diaries, interviews with people who knew them, and close readings of portions of their published work. Zelda: A Biography is an accomplishment of literary scholarship, a picture of an historical era, and an examination of the lives of two creative and talented yet tortured people.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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