What Price Zelda? The extraordinary afterlife of an ordinary writer

Sixty-nine years after her death and 85 years after the publication of her only completed novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald is still making news. Z: The Beginning of Everything, a soap-opera-ish 10-installment Amazon TV series in which Christina Ricci plays the ill-fated wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, began airing earlier this year. It was based on Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling 2013 novel about the Fitzgeralds, the latest of a long string of fictionalized portrayals of the best-remembered married couple of the Roaring Twenties. Most of them, Z included, proceed from the premise that Zelda, who spent the second half of her life shuttling in and out of mental institutions, was a major artist in the making whose gifts were crushed by an uncaring husband who refused to admit that she was his creative peer. No one seems to have thought any such thing in Zelda’s lifetime, and for long afterward. Ring Lardner, who knew both Fitzgeralds well, summed up the case for the prosecution when he wrote in 1925 that “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.” But he penned those words before Zelda had written anything other than a handful of short stories and prose sketches. In those days, she was still seen as a clever, beautiful pendant to her husband, who by then had written three novels, one of them a masterpiece, and dozens of short stories, not a few of the latter of the highest possible quality.

It was not until the publication in 1970 of Nancy Milford’s Zelda: A Biography that people began to write about Zelda Fitzgerald as something other than Scott’s glamorous but mad spouse. And while Milford was inclined to romanticize her subject, she was still judicious in appraising Zelda’s slender body of work, not exaggerating its literary merits but arguing that it was of continuing value as a document of a strongly individual personality who was interesting not merely as the wife of a major American author but in her own right.

But Milford also reminded a new generation of readers of something long known to Fitzgerald scholars, which is that Scott had made use of Zelda’s diary and correspondence in writing several of his own works—most notably Tender Is the Night (1934), his fourth novel, a semi-autobiographical roman à clef whose central characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, are based in large part on the Fitzgeralds themselves. The fact that he had quarried Zelda’s life and work (such as the latter was) for inspiration was no secret. As early as 1922, the New York Tribune published Zelda’s quasi-review of Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in whose pages she correctly and wittily claimed to have found fragments of her own unpublished writings: “Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

But what was regarded in the ’20s and ’30s as novelistic business as usual would come to be viewed in a more lurid light by later feminist commentators. Ever since the publication of Zelda, it has been widely taken for granted that its subject was a victim avant la lettre of the nefarious doings of what is now known as the “patriarchy.” This point of view was crudely summed up in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview with Mark Gill, the president of Millennium Films, which is developing a biopic in which Jennifer Lawrence will play Zelda: “She was massively ahead of her time, and she took a beating for it. He stole her ideas and put them in his books. The marriage was a co-dependency from hell with a Jazz Age soundtrack.” Between Gill’s film, Z: The Beginning of Everything, and yet another big-budget movie about the Fitzgeralds that will star Scarlett Johansson and be directed by Ron Howard, it seems safe to say that we have not heard the last of the legend of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Part of what makes it hard to separate legend from fact is that we know almost too much about the Fitzgeralds. They have been written about endlessly and (sometimes) well. Scott has been written about virtually from the outset of his career and Zelda since 1970. Thus, it is necessary to cut through a great deal of biographical chaff to get to the heart of the matter.

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