Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen and Zelda Fitzgerald would have to be my top three favorite all time authors. I’m sure this seems typical as it seems almost everyone is into Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson but Zelda Fitzgerald not so much. Zelda isn’t typically the first name one thinks of when they hear the name “Fitzgerald” in conjunction with famous authors, no, I would wager that Scott Fitzgerald is what springs to most peoples mind first.
While being categorically different from Dickinson and Austen, Zelda makes my favorites list for more than just her craft. Her ability to write, paint and dance while dealing with a crippling mental illness makes her soar to the top of my favorites list.
Zelda’s life was full of drama right up until her death. She came from a family with significant social influence holding prominent positions in American government. She was a wild child to say the least and meeting Scott Fitzgerald would eventually set her world afire, sending her down a dramatic path in life.
Zelda and Scott’s courtship was full of passionate and tumultuous love letters followed by an equally tumultuous marriage riddled with alcoholism, infidelity and jealousy. Eventually to couple separated, though the couple never divorced. Scott died in 1940, Zelda was in the midst of her mental illness.
Writing wasn’t Zelda’s only passion in her life, so was painting and a foremost her desire to become a ballerina. Zelda practiced tiredly until she realized her dream would never come to fruition which lead to her first mental breakdown, which at first was thought to be a result of physical exhaustion. Later, in the years to come, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and would spend the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions suffering from her crippling mental illness.
Zelda had her one and only child, a daughter, with Scott Fitzgerald and named her Scottie after her father. Scottie was raised predominately by Scott as Zelda was often too ill to be home.
This isn’t to say that Zelda didn’t have periods of times where she was highly functional. She was a poet, an avid painter and it was during her stay at John Hopkins that she wrote Save Me The Waltz. However, the book was not well received selling only 1,392 copies for which Zelda earned $120.73.
The failure of Save Me the Waltz combined with Scott’s scathing criticism—he called her “plagiaristic” and a “third-rate writer” – crushed her spirits. Save Me The Waltz was the only novel Zelda ever published. Additionally, she wrote 11 short stories and 10 articles during her lifetime.
In 1934 Zelda’s paintings were put on display with an outcome reminiscent of when she published her only novel. The New Yorker described her paintings merely as “Paintings by the almost mythical Zelda Fitzgerald; with whatever emotional overtones or associations may remain from the so-called Jazz Age.” This review reportedly cut like a knife making Zelda violent and reclusive. By 1936 Scott Fitzgerald had admitted her to Highland Hospital.
Sadly, Zelda’s life ended at Highland Hospital in North Carolina. She had lived there intermediately from 1936-1948, checking herself in and out of the hospital as she continued to deal with her mental illness. However, on March 10, 1948, a fire broke out in the hospital’s kitchen. The fire spread through the floors of the building via the dumbwaiter shaft, and Zelda was killed along with eight other women. Zelda was reportedly awaiting electroshock therapy in a locked room when the fire broke out. Her body was unrecognizable and she was identified only by her slippers. She was 47.
This women’s life, her relationship with Scott F. Fitzgerald along with her childhood upbringing played out like a novel all it’s own. One lived, not written. This is what makes her so identifiable for me, so distinguishable from all the rest. She had a remarkable story and that story was the very breath she breathed.