Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was an icon and martyr of the early feminist movement. The wife of the Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was the author of the masterpiece The Great Gatsby, in that role Zelda embodies the fate of the talented woman of her day and many thousands of days before: She was indoctrinated throughout her youth to play the role of wife and mother while remaining a frivolous Southern Belle. The mighty river of her own talent became a tributary that fed into the ocean of her husband’s genius, where it dissipated, unnoticed.
An earlier, but now politically incorrect view of Zelda’s life, was that she was a mental case (literally) who, though providing Scott with a role model for his deathless heroines (most memorably Daisy from The Great Gatsby), was herself a mediocre would-be artist who envied his success and the attention it brought him, and blamed him for her failure to become a star in her own right.
Ironically it was F. Scott Fitzgerald himself who said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I think both versions of Zelda’s life are true, and I can still function. More or less.
Zelda Fitzgerald published one novel, Save Me the Waltz, and it is not a well-written book. Whether she could have become a good novelist eventually is unknown, but Save Me definitely challenges the belief that her husband plagiarized her work, as she claimed, though he might indeed have quoted from her diary – but show me the novelist who hasn’t reproduced the dialogue of his family and/or friends.
At the height of the Zelda cult, some even maintained that she ghostwrote Scott’s fiction. Apparently she did publish several short stories under his name. Why? Maybe it was because Scott was so threatened by her gift (there’s plenty of testimony that he was jealous and possessive of her, and liked the spotlight for himself) that he would only “permit” her to publish if he got the credit. But I see at least one other possible reason: that the stories were only publishable under the name of an established author, and that he was letting her use his reputation to help her gain some recognition
Whatever you or I feel about Zelda, we’d probably agree that hers was a tragic life, ending at 48 in a fire in one of the mental institutions in which she spent many of her later years. And yet, even as I write “hers was a tragic life,” doubt creeps in. Zelda was a legend in her own time, often enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, moved in the highest literary circles and was adored by a handsome, famous man. Wouldn’t some of us make a Faustian bargain, trading in our minivans and snack week sign up sheets, for a couple of decades of the life she lived?
I said that Save Me the Waltz is not a well-written novel. It is, however, an autobiographical one – so much so that today’s publishers might suggest she turn it into a memoir. And late in the book when Zelda’s alter ego, Alabama (the character is named for the state of her birth), develops an interest in ballet dancing, the book suddenly comes to life. In the parlance of the high school creative writing class, she begins to “show, not tell.”
Zelda found work.
I read Save Me the Waltz during my high school Hemingway/Fitzgerald phase. I did not make the connection between what Zelda described and why, in later years, I would be so grateful that I had been born in the second half of the 20th century and not the first. If I’d been born very much earlier I would have been a casualty like my mother and grandmother: women whose work eluded them. Yes, many women found recognition in many fields long before Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Margaret Bourke-White come to mind, since they were more or less contemporaries of Zelda’s. But they had far more than the average share of courage and self-esteem. Most of us come closer to what the Wizard of Oz says about himself in Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked, “I knew what I was/One of life’s dime-a-dozen mediocrities.”
“Mediocre” is too harsh a word. Most of us just aren’t geniuses. But we deserve work, too.
Work didn’t save Zelda Sayre. It was too little, too late, and with too many forces already fighting against her from within and without. But it can save a lot of us. As they say in the A-1 Sauce commercials, “Yeah, it’s just that important.”