Ah, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I idolized him in high school, had his audio books so that I could listen to his talent wherever I went, had posters of the the covers of his books and wished someday to be as great as he was. Did he have a wife? Back then I knew he did. I knew he had a wife named Zelda, and I remembered this only because I was also a video game nerd and had been playing Legend of Zelda games since I was given a nintendo 64 for my 7th birthday. I never really thought much about her, and why would I? She probably cooked and cleaned, and maybe hosted a wild prohibition era party occasionally.
I was wrong on two fronts. Zelda was not the housewife I thought her to be, and Scott was not the hero I imagined him to be. He was a literary vampire, plagiarizing his wife’s works to improve his own and she was a truly remarkable writer.
She was born July 24, 1900, to Minnie Buckner Machen Sayre, and her husband Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Dickson Sayre. Straight from the womb, she was vivacious and magnetic, causing envy, happiness, chaos, or some combination wherever she went. One popular rumor states that when she was ten, she called the fire department and reported that there was a little girl stuck on a rooftop. She gave the fire department her address, hung up, then climbed onto the roof and waited to be rescued. By her teens she was the star of everything she did, be it ballet, entertaining her friends, or attending dances.
It was at one of these dances that she met Scott, then a 21 year old lieutenant in the Army. He tried to impress her with his talent as a writer, telling her about the success he was sure was coming. She was…unimpressed. She, and her family, thought it unwise to accept a proposal from a man so clearly financially challenged. Scott was, as most put it, heartbroken. I, however, think the term ‘butt-hurt’ is a little more actuate. Her rejection of him would lead to a literary career centered around men pining after silly, unattainable women. Scott wrote to Zelda obsessively, and what began as a flirtatious exchange soon became something of a long distance relationship. It was only after Scott published his first article, This Side of Paradise, that she agreed to visit him. They married, and immediately tumbled into a lifestyle of jealousy, acclaim, and theft.
Without Zelda, there would be no Scott. He used their relationship, her sayings, even her writings to fuel his works.
Perhaps one of the first times Scott lifted lines from his wife’s mouth was when she gave birth to their son. In a pain and drug fueled haze, she muttered “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool, a beautiful little fool”. Does that ring a bell with any fans of The Great Gatsby? But that wasn’t enough for Scott. Were his motives seated in a lack of belief in his own talent, or an obsession with his wife? We’ll never know, but we do know that he read and plagiarized his wife’s personal diaries. “It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. Mr Fitzgerald…I believe that is how he spells his name…seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home…” Said Zelda in one interview, regarding her husband’s newest book, The Beautiful and the Damned.
She was growing tired of this stunt, just as she grew tired of Scott’s alcoholism. This didn’t seem to deter her husband. They decided to collaborate on a book of short stories. However, when published, Scott’s name had been added to stories that only Zelda had produced, and worse, some of the stories she’d had collaborated on were whipped free of her name.
Zelda, desperate to let out her feelings wrote Save Me the Waltz, which became enormously popular. Scott, however, was furious. How dare his wife draw inspiration from their life together to write a book? In the very definition of a double standard, Scott was using lines and themes lifted from Zelda’s letters to him to fuel his book Tender is the Night, and also to fictionalize Zelda’s mental illness.
In 1930 Zelda was admitted to a ‘sanitarium’ (read: asylum) and diagnosed as schizophrenic. However, it is commonly believed today that she was suffering from bi-polar disorder (manic depression for you older folks) and not schizophrenia. She would be in and out of these asylums for the rest of her life, her manic delusions fueling the incorrect diagnosis. When home, she was reclusive and prone to violence by all accounts. By this point the Fitzgerald’s were not the popular couple they once were. Instead they were rude, moody, and plagued by their friend Hemingway’s success.
After years of alcoholism, Scott died on December 21st, 1940. Zelda did not attend his funeral. In fact, very few people attended his funeral. At the time of his death, Zelda was working on a last sadly unfinished novel, Caesar’s Things. She’d been admitted to yet another hospital, and was working away. One night the kitchens of the hospital caught fire. The inferno moved through the dumbwaiter shafts. Zelda, locked in her room, burned to death.
Zelda and her husband died believed themselves failures. However, interest in their works boomed after their deaths, mostly centered around Scott.
Yet Zelda has developed a following. It’s not large, but I hope it will grow. For all you writers out there, here’s an extremely talented woman. Check out her works.