Zelda Fitzgerald died 66 years ago to the day, in 1948. She had been a patient at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, off and on for nearly a dozen years. On March 10, fire spread through the hospital and burned nine women alive, including Zelda, who was on a locked ward awaiting electroshock treatment. As much for her turbulent lifestyle as for her horrific death, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald continues to serve as a tragic muse for contemporary novelists.
Therese Anne Fowler brings to life in wondrous historical detail Zelda’s Alabama upbringing, Scott’s early courtship, and her ambitions for writing and dancing in her novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, now out in paperback. This first-person account is deliciously juicy: there’s an incipient affair with a French aviator and even a possible homoerotic relationship between Scott and Ernest Hemingway (whom Zelda detested). Beneath the glittering surface of extravagant parties, cocktails, and Parisian sojourns, however, Zelda and Scott were both prey to deep sadness: “There was no escape for either of us, no escaping our bad blood, our bad fate, those moody ghosts that had followed one or other of us all our lives.”
Nowadays doctors would diagnose Zelda as bipolar. Melancholy seemed to run in her family, with one brother succumbing to suicide. On the day of his funeral, Fowler’s Zelda takes the grim February setting as a general symbol of depression: “Gray, cold day, gray, cold month, gray, cold life.” Briefly hospitalized on a trip to Switzerland, she again used that language of pallid malaise: “‘Pas de couleur,’ I told one of my doctors. No color.” In her medical records, a Swiss doctor rather heartlessly reduced her to “A jazz-age train wreck in slow motion.”
Z is terrific historical fiction, yet somehow, despite the intimacy of its first-person narration, I came away with no real feeling for Zelda’s inner life—and, crucially, no sense of her madness. Moreover, Fowler misses a trick with her choice of framing device: the novel begins in 1940, with Zelda back at her family home in Montgomery and about to receive the news of Scott’s death. Why not open, instead, with Zelda in the asylum? What a climactic, Jane Eyre-like moment that would be: the heroine caught in a fire, having flashbacks to her earlier life. Fowler also passed up an incredible opportunity by creating her own letters between Zelda and Scott, when there was in fact a trove of historical letters she could have referenced.
Zelda made a number of other fictional appearances last year: in Erika Robuck’s Call Me Zelda, R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools, and Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth (set at the Highland Hospital). Zelda’s own semiautobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, is still available from Vintage Classics, and the Fitzgeralds’ history informs two nonfiction studies also published last year: Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, and Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 Gatsby film is another sign of our ongoing fascination with the Jazz Age—and with the simultaneous glamour and disaster the Fitzgeralds represent.
Ernest Hemingway was a serial womanizer whose many romances inspired several recent novels. First was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (2011), a portrait of the slow collapse of his first marriage to Hadley Richardson. As in Z, Hadley narrates her own sad story, though a few chapters—distinguished by italics and a third-person perspective—reveal details of Hemingway’s extramarital affairs (and may well be a pastiche of his style). The novel surveys Hemingway and Richardson’s beginnings in the Midwest and their European travels, but is best when conveying the energy and sophistication of the Hemingways’ Parisian milieu. This brilliant summary of the superficiality of life in Paris surely echoes Zelda’s experience:
Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if you were lucky as we were. Just have your drink, then, and another and don’t spoil it.
“Papa’s” various liaisons have also been explored in Hemingway’s Girl (2012) by Erika Robuck, set in Depression-era Key West, and Mrs. Hemingway, coming in May from Naomi Wood, which expands on McLain’s material through sections covering all four Hemingway marriages.
Another side to the story
In an April 2013 article for London’s Sunday Times entitled “The Real Mrs Fitzgerald,” journalist Patricia Nicol noted that these Fitzgerald- and Hemingway-themed novels seem to form “an emerging subgenre that takes a sideways look at the lives of great men by examining them from their wife’s or companion’s perspective.” Indeed, each of these books speaks to a conviction that the women have all too often been left out of the story – and it’s high time for novelists to, at least imaginatively, redress the balance.
Zelda Fitzgerald Portrait: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zelda_Fitzgerald_portrait.jpg
Fitzgeralds’ Grave: Rebecca Foster
Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ernest_Hadley_and_Bumby_Hemingway.jpg
Zelda Fitzgerald Signature: http://blogs.lib.unc.edu/ncm/index.php/2007/03/01/164/
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald: http://www.npr.org/2013/09/03/216164420/for-f-scott-and-zelda-fitzgerald-a-dark-chapter-in-asheville-n-c