“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.”— Zelda Fitzgerald, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Zelda Fitzgerald was a novelist, socialite, and painter best known for being the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby—but she was actually so much more. One the youngest of five children born to Minerva Buckner and Anthony Dickinson Sayre, she grew up privileged. Never the typical delicate Southern girl, she became the muse for much of F. Scott’s work, and an icon of the roaring twenties. Below are 42 roaring facts about the original “It Girl”.
Zelda Fitzgerald Facts
42. Flouting Convention
Being a traditional Southern girl was not in Zelda Fitzgerald’s wheelhouse, and as a teenager, she was known to smoke, drink, and spend a lot of time with boys. In a time when girls were expected to be docile and delicate, she would dance the Charleston, wear flesh-colored skin-tight bathing suits to make it look like she was swimming nude, and do anything else that would defy the norm, making her the subject of local gossip.
41. Prominent Ties
Going against the norm is definitely easier when you have family members in the right places, and Fitzgerald was definitely connected. Her great uncle and grandfather were both US senators, and her father worked his way up from lawyer to Alabama Supreme Court Justice.
40. Not Quite a Fairy Tale
The ‘romance’ of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald was not nearly as much of a fairytale as some stories claim. Fueled by alcoholism and Zelda’s struggles with mental illness, their relationship was one of jealousy and infidelity on both sides. While they never officially divorced, they did end up separating.
39. Call Me When You’re Successful
For a year after they started dating, F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to find success in advertising. When F. Scott insisted that he needed Zelda by his side to be successful, she broke it off, insisting that he had to find success on his own first and not pin it all on her.
38. Living in the Moment
Zelda Fitzgerald was a well-known free spirit and wasn’t big on worrying about what lay ahead. After her high school graduation, she wrote “Why should all life be work, when we can all borrow? Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.” Que será, será!
37. It’s Time!
The success of This Side of Paradise made F. Scott Fitzgerald rich, and having now broken out of the struggling writer phase, Zelda was ready to marry him. They married one week after the book’s publication, giving her an escape from her small-town life, and a chance to be an icon of the world, not just Montgomery, Alabama.
36. Borrowed Words
Authors frequently base their work on real-life people and experiences, but F. Scott took it one step further. He copied Zelda’s diary entries word-for-word and used them in his books, leading Zelda to quip that her husband believes “plagiarism begins at home.”
35. Undermining Ambition
As far as supportive husbands go, F. Scott Fitzgerald ranks pretty low on the list. He was dismissive of Zelda’s literary ambition and accused her of using autobiographical details from their lives that he wanted to put in his novel Tender is the Night. He also claimed that she borrowed the name of one of her characters from one of his early protagonists. Tit for tat, right?
34. A Legendary Heroine
If you’re familiar with video games, you’ve probably heard of the classic game Legend of Zelda. The game’s designer Shigeru Miyamoto, was a fan of Zelda’s and decided to name his famous character after her. He said that from everything he’d heard of her, she was a famous and beautiful woman, and besides that, he liked the sound of her name.
33. A Writer’s Muse
Zelda Fitzgerald had a huge influence on F. Scott’s writing. She gave him a great deal of the material that he used for novels and short stories throughout their relationship, and she painted the cover of This Side of Paradise. She also drew the character image of Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, so she definitely played a large part in his success.
32. Artistically Inclined
In addition to being an aspiring writer, Zelda Fitzgerald was a talented artist. Nearly 50 years after her death, her granddaughter Eleanor Anne Lanahan gathered 140 illustrations and 80 of Zelda’s paintings and published them in a single volume titled Zelda: An Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald.
31. Noting her Achievements
The Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame honors the achievements of women associated with Alabama, and in 1992, Zelda Fitzgerald was inducted into the organization. She never achieved the success she’d hoped for while she was alive, but at least she has been recognized for her talents and her energy.
30. Light on Her Toes
As a child, Zelda Fitzgerald studied ballet, but let it go as she got older. At age 27, she rediscovered her passion for ballet and took it up again, hoping to become a professional dancer. Unfortunately, the intense work and the long rehearsals were too much for her, and she suffered a breakdown in 1930 which was diagnosed as nervous exhaustion.
29. A New Diagnosis
Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, Zelda Fitzgerald struggled with mental illness and was in and out of hospitals for much of this time. Though the diagnosis at the time was schizophrenia, her extreme mood swings between depression and mania suggest that she was more likely bi-polar.
28. Staying Distracted
During her hospital stays, Fitzgerald needed something to keep her mind occupied, and she used her painting and writing as creative outlets to stay busy. She worked on a second novel titled Caesar’s Things, painted scenes from Alice in Wonderland and the Bible, and New York scenes including landmarks like Times Square, Washington Square Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Talk about a productive output!
27. Zelda’s Song
Video game designers weren’t the only people inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald. Don Henley of Eagles fame wrote the song “Witchy Woman” about her after reading her biography in 1972. He stated that the song was an important one for him because it was the start of his career as a professional songwriter. Zelda would have been pleased.
26. Candle in the Wind
The demons that tormented Fitzgerald were partly a result of drug and alcohol use, and partly by personal circumstances that impacted her entire life. With all of that talent, she was, as the Elton John song goes, a candle in the wind whose life burnt out too soon.
25. Battery Park Turkey
From 2003 to about 2014, a female wild turkey named Zelda took up residence in New York’s Battery Park. She was given the name in honor of Zelda Fitzgerald, who, as the story goes, went missing during one of her nervous breakdowns and was found in Battery Park after having walked several miles downtown. Zelda the turkey died after being hit by a car but she still lived a great deal longer than the average turkey.
24. Featured Flavor
For a brief period in 2013, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams created a limited-edition collection of ice cream named the Zelda Collection. The flavors included blackberries and sweet cream, cognac and marmalade, dark chocolate rye, and Loveless biscuits and peach jam, all meant to reflect her life and the places she’d lived.
23. Together in Death
Despite having been separated from F. Scott at the time of his death in 1940, Zelda was laid to rest beside her estranged husband. Their tomb is engraved with the words “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” which is the final line from The Great Gatsby.
22. A New Type of Woman
In the 1920s, a new type of woman emerged in North America and Europe. These women wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz and wore excessive makeup, blatantly displaying their disapproval of what was considered acceptable for women at the time. They also drank, believed in casual sex, smoked, and drove cars, which was completely unheard of. F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed Zelda the ‘first American flapper’ for her free-spirited ways and defiance of convention.
21. Trapped in Her Own Myth
Despite having cultivated her “it girl” image, some biographers have suggested that it was the pressure of living up to her myth that caused Fitzgerald’s mental illness and her downward spiral.
20. Catching His Eye
In 1918, shortly after graduating from high school, Zelda’s future husband F. Scott Fitzgerald noticed her at a country club dance in her hometown of Montgomery and was immediately taken with her. Their first encounter was later fictionalized in the novel The Great Gatsby with Jay Gatsby and Daisy’s first encounter.
19. Les Enfants Terribles
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became quite the party people after they were married, and their wild behavior contributed to their celebrity status in New York. Zelda once jumped into a fountain at Union Square, and Dorothy Parker described finding them sitting on top of a taxi when they first met. Much to the delight of the New York newspapers, their drinking also led to some pretty nasty fights, making them all the more interesting and iconic. The paparazzi would have loved them!
18. Unsuitable Match
When Fitzgerald first met F. Scott, her parents disapproved of him for his lower social status and advised her not to get involved with him. Zelda, however, seldom did anything that she was told and defied her parents by doing exactly the opposite.
17. Other Priorities
Domesticity was not high up in Zelda Fitzgerald’s priorities, nor was housekeeping something she was especially interested in. The Fitzgeralds had a nurse for their daughter, a housekeeping couple, and a laundress. Once, when asked to contribute to Favorite Recipes of Famous Women, she demonstrated her lack of culinary knowledge by suggesting: “See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.” Thanks Zelda. That’s super helpful!
16. A Different Picture
Thanks in part to Ernest Hemingway, Zelda Fitzgerald has often been portrayed as a crazy alcoholic who wrecked her husband’s life, but in the recent Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything, Christina Ricci wanted to tell the story from Zelda’s point of view. According to Ricci, both of the Fitzgeralds were arrogant and narcissistic, but she was completely stifled by his refusal to allow her to be anything more than his wife, which was never going to be enough for her.
15. Hope for her Daughter
On October 21, 1921, Scottie Fitzgerald, the only child of F. Scott and Zelda was born. As she came out of the anesthesia, F. Scott recorded Zelda saying: “Oh, God, goofo I’m drunk. Mark Twain. Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” An interesting wish to say the least!
14. Invitation to Dance
For the few years that Zelda was able to seriously pursue dancing, she displayed quite a talent for it. So much so that she was invited to dance with the Royal Ballet of Italy in 1928. Zelda being the restless soul she was turned them down, wanting to spend time writing short stories instead.
13. Literary Talent
Despite F. Scott’s jealous criticisms of her only published novel, Zelda really was a talented writer. At age 18, she published a prize-winning story called The Iceberg which was published in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal. The story was recently discovered and republished in The New Yorker, much to the surprise of the Fitzgerald estate, who apparently never knew it existed.
12. The Friendship She Despised
Fitzgerald absolutely detested her husband’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway and accused them of having a homosexual affair. In response to her accusation, Fitzgerald promptly hired a prostitute to prove that he liked women, and Hemingway called Zelda crazy. It sounds like they both were!
11. The French Affair
In May 1924, the Fitzgeralds moved to the French Riviera so F. Scott could work on his novel and Zelda was frequently left by herself and ignored. The nearby airbase turned out to be a perfect distraction for Zelda, as she and her husband fascinated the young French aviators. One man in particular, Edouard Jozan, grew close to Zelda, and they started hanging out alone together. Ironically, F. Scott was so preoccupied with his work that he didn’t even notice their blossoming relationship until their friends pointed it out.
10. Merry Prankster
Ever the attention seeker, Zelda loved to play pranks. She once called the local fire department in Montgomery to falsely report her cousin was stuck on the roof, and then climbed up there herself to greet them when they arrived. She loved the prank so much she tried something similar in 1920 when she and Scott were living in Westport, Connecticut. This time, however, when the fire department arrived and asked her where the fire was, she pointed to her breast. They were not amused.
9. I Want a Divorce!
Living with F. Scott Fitzgerald was no picnic, and a few weeks into her alleged affair with Edouard Jozan, Zelda asked for a divorce. Rather than give it to her, F. Scott reportedly locked her out of the house until she gave up and stopped asking.
8. The O.D.
About a month after her divorce debacle, Zelda Fitzgerald turned up on the doorstep of their friends the Murphys, having overdosed on sleeping pills. Whether it was an intentional suicide attempt or an accident is unknown, but she survived the ordeal.
7. Writing Furiously
Zelda Fitzgerald’s only published novel Save Me the Waltz was written during one of her early stints at a psychiatric hospital where she would write for two hours a day. The novel was semi-autobiographical and based on events from her married life. The critical reception of the book was overall poor, calling the book overwritten, and the characters uninteresting. Although the reviews crushed her, Fitzgerald did take a stab at writing a second novel based on her experiences in psychiatric treatment, but both her husband and her psychiatrist told her she was a third-rate writer, and she was so devastated, she never published again.
6. It Runs in the Family
For all of the speculation about what caused Zelda’s numerous breakdowns, it can also be said that mental illness ran in her family. Her father had a mental breakdown and there were also the suicides of her brother and maternal grandmother.
5. Injured Pride
Zelda Fitzgerald did not take her husband’s wandering eye very well, and she was extremely irritated by his infatuation with a 17-year-old actress. In the heat of one of their arguments about the girl, F. Scott told Zelda that “at least the girl did something with herself, something that required not only talent but effort.” Being that she was already teetering on the edge, these were not the wisest words, and in a moment of fury, she piled up all of the clothes she’d designed for herself and burned them in the bathtub. Unfortunately for her, F. Scott was not moved by the display and called her childish.
4. Changing her Style
For a brief period after their arrival in Connecticut, Zelda Fitzgerald decided to change her style and try acting like a more conventional woman. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take, and their wild parties started up again much to the annoyance of the locals, whose peace they were disturbing.
3. Lock Her Up
After holding her first art exhibition in Paris, Ernest Hemingway warned F. Scott that Zelda was going to be more successful than he was and that he should lock her up. F. Scott took his advice literally, and shortly after started locking Zelda in their apartment for days at a time.
2. Jealous Behavior
A need for drama and mental instability are not a good combination, and F. Scott’s perpetual jealousy put a strain on Zelda’s mental health and led to some pretty crazy behavior. One night while having dinner at La Colombe d’Or Restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, F. Scott spotted the dancer Isadora Duncan and insisted on meeting her. When Zelda saw him on his knees with Duncan running her hands through his hair, she threw herself down a stairwell at the edge of the terrace. If attention was what she was after, I’d say her plan worked. She got the notice of everyone in the room!
Fitzgerald’s death at age 47 had nothing to do with her illness but was a result of a terrible accident. A fire broke out in the kitchen of the mental hospital where she was living at the time, and Fitzgerald was killed when the fire spread into the waiting room where she was locked in and sedated, reportedly waiting for electroshock therapy. Eight other women also died that day, but it was a tragic end to an even more tragic life.