The names, "Scott and Zelda," have become immediately
recognizable to people throughout the world, many of whom have never read any of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's fiction. They have become a fabled couple, legends of a
bygone era, the embodiment of the triumph and tragedy that afflicted the decade
with which they are most associated, the 1920s.
That they were charming and extraordinarily beautiful
has added a tragic dimension to their story; like the subjects of one of
Fitzgerald's novels, they seem the embodiment of "the beautiful and damned."
That Fitzgerald achieved a posthumous resurrection as a great American novelist
does not make the sadness of their lives any the less poignant. Indeed, if
anything, it etches ever more clearly in our minds, the pathos of their last
This brief look at their lives may help us to
understand this extraordinary couple, their lives, their work, their great love
for one another, and their legacy to future generations.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born at 481 Laurel Avenue, in
St. Paul, Minnesota on 24 September 1896. His parents were Edward and Mollie (McQuillan).
The Fitzgeralds had lost two children in infancy before their son was born, and
Fitzgerald recalled his mother's anxiety concerning his health throughout his
childhood. (His mother was notably eccentric in dress and mannerisms, causing
young Scott some distress during his childhood.) His father's family was
originally from Maryland, but settled in St. Paul after the Civil War. His
mother's ancestors were Irish immigrants who settled in the St. Paul area and
became wealthy as wholesale grocery merchants.
Fitzgerald was proud of his mother's family
connection to the Scotts and the Keys because it made him a distant relation of
Francis Scott Key, composer of the American national anthem. Edward Fitzgerald
failed as a businessman and returned with his family to St. Paul, from Buffalo,
New York, where he had worked for Proctor and Gamble. His own furniture business
in St. Paul had failed.
Mollie's family provided support for the family
during the author's childhood. Indeed, although his family did not own their own
home, they lived in a middle-class row house in the Summit Avenue section of St.
Paul - an area inhabited by the wealthiest residents of the city. Thus, as a
young boy, Fitzgerald's close friends were drawn from the city's richest
residents - they were his dancing school partners, his drama club colleagues,
and fellow guests at parties which he attended regularly.
He lived close to all of the wealthy St. Paul
families, and could not help but notice the mansion belonging to railroad
tycoon, James J. Hill, in walking distance from his own modest home. He wrote
that he felt like an outsider throughout his childhood, for although he lived
among them and socialized with them, the rich inhabited a different world. That
idea would find its way into his fiction--notably The Great Gatsby and Tender Is
Fitzgerald was small, blond-haired, and handsome, and
from the beginning was determined to be popular. Although he played football
when he was young, he was never tall enough to be selected for the team when he
grew older; he retained his love for the game throughout his life, and his
inability to achieve fame on the football field was a lifelong regret.
He was enrolled in the St. Paul Academy where his
first story was published, in 1909. He then attended the Newman School in
Hackensack, New Jersey, where he became fascinated with Broadway theater,
especially the musicals. He entered Princeton University in 1913, and struck up
friendships with Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He participated in
literary activities, but his major efforts were in writing lyrics for the
Triangle Club shows - musical comedies produced by Princeton undergraduates -
which then toured the United States. He published songs, poetry, lyrics and
stories in the Princeton Tiger and the Nassau Literary Magazine. Because of his
extra-curricular activities, he neglected most of his classes and was in danger
of flunking out of Princeton.
In 1914, while on a Christmas holiday, he met a
beautiful young debutante, Ginevra King, from Lake Forest, Illinois. They would
see each other and correspond until she ended the relationship in 1917. He would
always remember Ginevra as his first love.
After dropping out of school in 1915, he returned in
1916, planning to graduate in 1918. But with the advent of World War I, he
joined the army as second lieutenant in 1917, and was sent to Fort Leavenworth,
Kansas, for training. There he began to work on a novel, The Romantic Egotist.
After several transfers, he was sent to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama,
where he would meet the popular young belle, Zelda Sayre, who would soon become
the most important person in his life.
Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an
Alabama Supreme Court Associate Justice, met in July 1918 at a dance at the
Montgomery Country Club. By September, Fitzgerald declared that he was in love
with her, ironically, the same month that his first love, Ginevra King was
Zelda was a natural beauty, with red-gold hair, fine
features, and a graceful body. But what distinguished her from other young women
was her spirit - playful, often rebellious, and even reckless. She was
undoubtedly the perfect girl for Scott at that time, eager for success, a member
of a prominent (but not wealthy) family, independent, and beautiful.
Zelda was much younger than her three sisters, and
her mother treated her with loving permissiveness, allowing this youngest child
the freedom she craved from her earliest years. She was defiant, fun-loving, and
even reckless (qualities that she would exhibit as a woman). When just a child,
she once sat behind the wheel of her father's car and calmly drove off for a
short and exciting ride. On another occasion, she telephoned the local police to
inform them that a child was in danger-on the roof of a building. Then she
climbed to the roof of her home and waited in anticipation of their arrival. Her
antics made her well-known in Montgomery, and as she grew up, a date with Zelda
promised an evening of excitement, hilarity, and even mystery - for it was
impossible to anticipate her next escapade.
There was always psychological instability in her
family: her father's nervous breakdown, and suicides by her maternal grandmother
and later her brother. Many questions have been raised about Zelda's later
mental breakdown in light of her family history.
Although she was truly in love with Scott, she
refused to commit herself to him, for his economic prospects were not promising.
He had to leave Alabama, and was finally discharged from the army. He moved to
New York City and worked briefly in advertising.
When his first novel was rejected by publisher's
Scribner's, he decided to return to St. Paul to work on it in the hope of having
it accepted and then persuading Zelda to marry him. His dream came true when
Scribner's accepted This Side of Paradise for publication. His confidence
restored, he also sent out several short stories which were also accepted by
His first Saturday Evening Post story, "Myra Meets
His Family," was published in March of 1920 - the start of a long and profitable
relationship for Fitzgerald with that magazine. Upon learning of his novel's
acceptance, he wired Zelda, and she agreed to marry him; they were wed in the
rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on 3 April 1920, and spent
their honeymoon at a succession of New York hotels. And thus began their life
together - the fabled couple who embodied the fun, the wildness, the brilliance
and glamour of the era which Fitzgerald named The Jazz Age.
In these early days, their exploits were recounted to
friends, reported in newspapers, and repeated in popular magazines which printed
photographs of the handsome pair. They quickly became the symbol of the era,
their exploits - jumping into the Plaza Hotel's fountain fully clothed, riding
in an open car through the streets of the city, enjoying drunken revels at
parties that seemed never to end - becoming the stuff of legends.
Zelda saw herself as the new woman - the flapper, and
exploited her own image in the media. Of course, Scott's work was interrupted by
the incessant party-going; they soon began to quarrel, for their life together
lacked any semblance of order. But they were riding the crest of success and
enjoying the fame that his novel had brought. This Side of Paradise, about young
Amory Blaine who is searching for meaning in his own life, became a statement
for the post-World War I generation whose foundations seemed to crumble in the
aftermath of that bloody struggle.
After a summer in Westport, Connecticut, and then a
brief return to New York City, they learned that Zelda was pregnant, and they
embarked for Europe in 1921 hoping to relax for a few months before the birth of
They met interesting writers in England, but were
soon bored (they particularly disliked Italy), and returned to St. Paul to await
the birth of their child.
Frances Scott Fitzgerald (called Scottie) was born on
26 October 1921, and the family soon left for Great Neck, New York, a community
located about 25 miles from New York City. Here, they became friendly with
writer Ring Lardner, and Scott observed the life that he would incorporate into
his novel, The Great Gatsby (Great Neck is the model for West Egg).
The Fitzgeralds' finances were always shaky. Scott
was forced to write short stories for the Post and other magazines, and decided
that it would be financially advantageous for them to return to Europe in 1924.
They lived for a time on the French Riviera, where
Fitzgerald continued work on The Great Gatsby. Perhaps because she was lonely
while he was working - perhaps continuing her reckless pattern from her youth -
Zelda began a relationship with a young French aviator, Edouard Jozan, whom they
had both met at the beach. It was probably no more than an infatuation,
unconsummated, but Fitzgerald was angry when he learned about it.
Both of them would incorporate elements of that
affair into their written works, Zelda into Save Me the Waltz and Scott into The
Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night where the theme of betrayal is constant. In
his Notebooks, he wrote, "That September of 1924, I knew something had happened
that could never be repaired."
That same summer, the Fitzgeralds met Gerald and Sara
Murphy, who would become lifelong friends and would serve as models for Dick and
Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night. The Murphys were wealthy and at their
parties, the Fitzgeralds met Picasso, Cole Porter, Fernand Leger, Philip Barry,
John Dos Passos and other luminaries of the arts.
In may of 1925, Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway in
the Dingo Bar in Paris, and their relationship would be marked by conflict -
from closeness and mutual support at the outset, to tension and eventual
estrangement by the end of Fitzgerald's life. Fitzgerald offered Hemingway
financial and artistic support - recommending that Scribner's publish
Hemingway's novel, offering valuable criticism of Hemingway's work (which the
latter accepted without acknowledgment), sending his friend checks in the early
days of the friendship when Hemingway and his family needed financial help and
Fitzgerald's own income from his short stories had increased substantially. But
help from any quarter notoriously offended Hemingway, and their friendship
suffered when he referred to Fitzgerald pityingly in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro,"
as "Poor Scott Fitzgerald." Hurt by what he perceived as betrayal, Fitzgerald
wrote to his friend, "Please lay off me in print," Ultimately Hemingway changed
the name of the character to "Julian." But Hemingway's star began to rise as
Fitzgerald's fell, and the two could no longer communicate as they had in the
early days in Paris.
Scribner's had brought out three collections of
Fitzgerald's short stories by 1926 - each of them achieving respectable sales.
They moved from Paris back to the Riviera, settling for a time in Juan-les-Pins.
Fitzgerald was working on another novel, Tender Is the Night, but increasing
drinking and too many distractions - as well as the need for money through
writing short stories - prevented him from making progress on that work.
Both Scott and Zelda had entered a new period in
their lives: both drinking heavily, and seemingly to dare each other to ever
more reckless and outrageous acts. In the summer of 1925, the Fitzgeralds and
the Murphys went for dinner at the Colombe d'Or restaurant in St. Paul de Vence,
a hilltop village outside of Nice. The dining terrace was built some two hundred
feet above the valley, and there was a sheer drop from its outer walls. They sat
with their backs to a parapet and a series of ten stone steps. After finishing
their meal at about 10PM, they noticed the famous dancer, Isadora Duncan sitting
at an adjacent table. Scott had never met her, so Gerald Murphy took him over to
her and introduced him, at which point Scott sunk to his knees at her feet.
Always dramatic, Duncan ran her fingers through his hair and called him her
"centurion." Zelda, who had been watching the encounter silently, stood upon her
chair and leaped across the table into the darkness of the stairwell. When she
emerged, Sara Murphy ran to her and wiped the blood from her knees and dress.
Gerald Murphy later said, "I was sure she was dead. We were all stunned and
motionless. I've never been able to forget it."
They both dived into the Mediterranean from a great
height, and drove their car too fast along winding roads. Once, after a fight
with Scott, Zelda threw herself under the wheels of their car and dared him to
run over her - and he even started to move the car.
Their marriage was subject to continued stress from
their drinking, his tension about his work, her feelings of neglect, and their
constant worry about a sufficient income.
They returned to the United States, first to
Montgomery, and then to Hollywood, where Fitzgerald was invited to work on a
screenplay. Here he met a beautiful young actress, Lois Moran, whom he admired
(she was the basis for the character, Rosemary Hoyt, in his new novel, Tender is
the Night). Jealous of his attentions to Lois, Zelda collected jewelry from
guests at a party and threw them into a pot of boiling water - to make soup. She
also threw all of the clothes she had brought with her for the trip into the
bathtub and set fire to them. When they left California, she threw a platinum
wristwatch that Scott had given her years ago out of the window of the train, so
angry was she over his admiration for Lois Moran.
At the suggestion of Scott's friend from Princeton,
John Biggs, they rented the estate, "Ellerslie," a nineteenth-century Greek
revival mansion on the Delaware River near Wilmington, Delaware. They loved the
wide lawns stretching down to the river. Because the rooms were enormous, Zelda
ordered custom-made, oversized furniture from a Philadelphia manufacturer. The
giant couches and chairs made those sitting them appear child-like, but it was a
novel solution to the problem.
The mansion was so large (27 bedrooms), Scott and
Zelda developed a series of audible signals to let each other know in which part
of the house they were in. Fitzgerald started once again to work on his novel.
Zelda took ballet lessons in Philadelphia and their relationship was still
strained. He invited Lois Moran and her mother for a weekend visit, which passed
pleasantly - Zelda concealing whatever anxiety she might have felt.
They again began to throw parties, with the
centerpiece often the singing of bawdy duets while one of the guests accompanied
them on the piano. But soon, the parties began to take on a strange aura. Zelda
had bought a gigantic gilt mirror (Scott called it "a regular Whorehouse
mirror") and had a ballet practice-rail installed in front of it. During the
parties, Zelda would spend the entire evening practicing her ballet routines to
the tune of "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" playing on her Victrola. Scott
later said that this melody was engraved on every organ he possessed. She would
practice almost ten hours a day, seven days a week. Family physician, Dr. Lefty
Flynn, was called in to treat her - often bed-ridden--for exhaustion. He
observed both the Fitzgeralds wearing themselves out, and friends observed that
Zelda had grown quiet, clearly no longer the exuberant flapper of just a few
They decided to return to Paris in order for Zelda to
study ballet with Madame Egorova, an outstanding teacher. Scott continued to
write short stories which provided their major income. Zelda worked intensely at
ballet, while Scott continued to drink and twice landed in jail.
They returned to America until the Spring of 1929
when their lease ran out and again they moved to Paris and vacationed once again
on the Riviera.
Back in Paris, Zelda's ballet practice assumed an
abnormal intensity, so much so that friends thought she might have a breakdown.
On April 23, 1930, Zelda experienced her first breakdown in Paris. On her way to
ballet lessons in a taxi, she changed into her ballet practice clothes. The taxi
became caught in a traffic jam, and worried that she might be late for practice,
she jumped out of the taxi and ran through the streets of the city to Madame
Egorova's studio in her ballet clothes.
She entered Malmaison clinic outside Paris, and
discharged her self in early May, but her condition worsened and she was
admitted to clinics in Geneva, Switzerland. Their life together was essentially
over, for Zelda would spend the rest of her days in and out of psychiatric
hospitals and Scott would work to support her and their child, all the while
drawing on his own diminishing physical reserves.
Although they returned to the United States after
over four years abroad, their difficulties did not abate. They lived in a home
on the Turnbull estate at La Paix, in Maryland, where Zelda took up painting -
and continued to practice ballet. Fitzgerald would be admitted to hospitals for
alcoholism and other ailments.
Zelda was admitted to Sheppard-Pratt Hospital near
Baltimore after her condition worsened and she became catatonic. From 1934, they
would never live together again. But their love was enduring. From the hospital
she wrote him letters filled with memories of their happier days - and his
devotion to her care never wavered. Even though he raged at her using material
in her novel, Save Me the Waltz, which he was using in Tender Is the Night, even
though she sent it to his editor without telling him, they nevertheless remained
linked to one another for the rest of their brief and tragic lives.
By the mid-thirties, Fitzgerald's health was fragile,
his alcoholism had taken a toll, and he had, what he called a "crack-up," which
he used as the subject of three essays published in Esquire magazine in 1935.
Tender Is the Night, published in 1934, did not sell
widely, and another collection of short stories did not provide sufficient
When he received an offer to work for
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood, with a generous salary, he accepted
the offer and moved to California in 1937. Scottie was in private school, and
spent time with the family of his agent, Harold Ober. Once in California, she
visited him on school vacations.
In Hollywood, he met Sheilah Graham, an attractive
gossip columnist who reminded him of Zelda. With Sheilah's help, he started to
bring some order into his life, although he did not stop drinking completely
until his last year.
He began a new novel about Hollywood - posthumously
published as The Last Tycoon, and wrote short stories about a Hollywood hack
writer, Pat Hobby, which were published in Esquire, by that time his main outlet
for his stories. He no longer could write the kind of stories that the mass
magazines wanted, and he would not have been able to survive on the money from
his Esquire work.
He had one film credit in Hollywood, Three Comrades,
released in 1938 to excellent reviews. He was disappointed in his effort on the
film because the producer, Joseph Mankiewicz, had made many changes in his
script. But his contract was renewed and he continued to work in Hollywood.
He was hired by Walter Wanger to write a screenplay
with a young writer, Budd Schulberg, about the Dartmouth College winter
carnival, but was fired from the project for a disastrous alcoholic episode when
he and Schulberg were visiting the New Hampshire college.
He refused to move Zelda to a state institution or to
make Scottie attend a private school (she was enrolled at Vassar, a prestigious
college for young women in New York State), and somehow, by borrowing, paying
back, and earning money from screenwriting, he managed always to meet his
Scott and Zelda would meet once more before his death
in 1940, and it would prove to be another mutual disaster. In April 1939, he
took her out of the sanitarium (she was allowed to spend time with her family in
Montgomery on several occasions), and they traveled to Cuba. He began to drink
almost immediately, and was badly beaten up when he tried to break up a cock
fight. They returned to the United States, and would never see one another
Fitzgerald stopped drinking during the last year of
his life, and his secretary, Frances Kroll, reported that his health was visibly
failing. He took to writing in bed during the day, and later dressing to go out
to dinner with Sheilah.
He suffered a heart attack in November of 1940, and
moved into Sheilah's apartment so that he would not have to climb stairs. He
felt weak after a movie premiere on December 20, and the next day, while waiting
for the doctor, he died in Sheilah's living room. At his death, he had paid off
most of his debts, the remainder covered by the insurance policy.
Zelda was heartbroken at the loss of the man whom she
considered her best friend. In the next few years, she lived in her mother's
home in Montgomery, returning periodically to Highland Hospital in North
She had become very religious in her last years, but
she still wrote (Caesar's Things, an unpublished novel) and continued to paint.
In 1947, she felt unable to live outside the hospital
and returned to Highland from Montgomery.
Just after midnight on a night in March, she was
locked in a room on the top floor, awaiting electroshock treatment the next day,
when a fire broke out. She was one of the nine women who died as the fire swept
through the building.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald left a legacy that
continues to enthral us today: their spirit, their love, and their creative
energies still fascinate us.
Fitzgerald is recognized as a genius, the author of
perhaps the greatest - and certainly the best known and loved - American novel
of the twentieth century. Zelda is a tragic figure: a woman who throughout her
life tried to become an artist, but was thwarted by uncontrollable personal
Together they created their own world of enchantment,
but that world quickly crashed, and they would not live to know how much they
would be treasured by future generations.
They left us gifts that continue to enrich our lives.
Professor Ruth Prigozy
Executive Director, F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.