Zelda Fitzgerald; America’s First Flapper – by Paula Matthews

Mention the Jazz Age writers and the mind will likely land right away on The Great Gatsby.

The novel, written by F Scott Fitzgerald has a lasting appeal and many readers are fascinated by the beautifully written Daisy Buchanan.

There are some who say that the poignancy in the writing of Daisy is linked to the complex and tragic relationship between Scott and his long time wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. Born on 24th July 1900, Zelda was referred to by her husband as ‘America’s first flapper.’ She was known for her fashion savvy and independent writing. She was also an acclaimed painter and trained as a ballet dancer.

She wrote the novel ‘Save Me the Waltz’ and was a columnist for fashion magazines. Zelda was a prolific socialite, forming friendships with people like Hemmingway and even visiting the Churchills, but the legacy she has left has perhaps largely related to the insight she has given us in to mental health.

Zelda is probably best known for the complex and tragic marriage she shared with F Scott Fitzgerald. Much has been written about the impact of this marriage on Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. Parallels have been drawn between Zelda and the iconic Daisy Buchanan character, with her enigmatic beauty and her fragility, which may have been influenced by Zelda’s enduring struggles with her mental health.

She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the Jazz Age, a time when understanding and treatment of mental health was limited. What it did mean was spending long periods of time in mental health institutions. Zelda wrote “Save Me the Waltz” whilst being treated at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Whilst this all happened during an era wherein people were naturally reluctant to share their experiences of mental health in public forums, the Fitzgerald estate have published an extensive selection of the letters which passed between Scott and Zelda during their long and complex relationship:

(See the link for information regarding the book – www.amazon.co.uk/Dear-Scott-Dearest-Zelda-Fitzgerald/…)

In this compelling collection the reader can see the deep sadness and frustration that Zelda experienced as a writer with mental health problems. She documents how she felt that Scott appropriated her writings in his novels and how she mourned for all that she lost as a consequence of being unwell. She felt that her career as a dancer and a writer had been compromised by her illness and she reflects on the long periods of separation from Scott as his career flourished.

The letters also show the reader something of the tragedy and complexity of life as an artist from Scott’s point of view as well, as he struggles with the depth of Zelda’s suffering and with an obvious concern for her wellbeing. It is reported that from the mid 1930’s, when Zelda was in her prime, she lived in various states of mental distress to the point that Scott placed her in a hospital in Carolina.

Despite the fact that Scott’s novels are recognised as some of the finest writing in the English language, he died believing himself to have been a failure, having taken a job writing for film studios.

F Scott Fitzgerald appears to have also suffered with some form of depression and it is believed that his early death aged just 44 was a result of alcohol abuse. Reading the letters sent to Zelda provided some insight into the pressures he faced as a socialite who was financially challenged as a result of the realities of being a writer.

Whether it is an act of appropriation or not, there is a symbiosis of some kind between Zelda’s letters and Scott’s writing. This relationship has left a lasting legacy on the world and has been dramatised by artists like Tennessee Williams.

Looking at the famous closing lines of The Great Gatsby and comparing them with Zelda’s writing, it is possible to see a connection between the pair. Even if this is just the result of the impact Zelda made on her husband, rather than direct appropriation, although she certainly felt the latter, the lasting sense of intimacy and depth of their painful relationship is evoked in the following:

Scott: So we beat on….

Scott: So we beat on …

Zelda: Forget the past….

Scott: Boats against the current….

Zelda: Turn about and sail back home to me….

Scott: Drawn back….

Zelda:..to your haven forever and ever…

Scott:  Ceaselessly…

Zelda: ..It may seem dark at times, and lit by torches of fury; but it is the best place for you…

Scott: Into the past.

Zelda:… turn gently in the waters through which you move, and sail back.

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