Day 1208: Zelda

Cover for ZeldaZelda is Nancy Milford’s famous biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. It is meticulously researched and beautifully written. The book was Milford’s dissertation for Columbia University, and she later went on to write other noted biographies, such as Savage Beauty about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Zelda’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald is legendary, and I was happy to finally learn the truth of it, as I’ve heard half-truths for years and read them in fiction. I was especially interested to contrast this biography with Z, Therese Ann Fowler’s novel about Zelda.

One of the fundamental problems of the Fitzgerald’s relationship was Zelda’s feeling of a lack of purpose combined with Scott’s breathtaking assumption that her entire life could be co-opted for his fiction. Early in their marriage, Zelda had an opportunity to publish her diaries, but Scott claimed them, saying he needed them for his fiction. Later, when she began writing, he feuded with her over her right to her own history, telling her that he was the professional, she just an amateur. Of course, he did not cause all their problems. There was his drinking and her crippling mental illness. But I could see why Zelda would feel like she was being erased.

Although the biography contained a little too much quoting from their fiction for my taste—points were made over and over—still, this is a truly revelatory biography and well worth reading if you have an interest in these people or their time.

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Day 1060: Literary Wives: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Cover for ZToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I reviewed this novel about a year and a half ago, and I don’t want to repeat my review except as it applies to our subject. Overall, I thought that novel was interesting and painted a devastating picture of the Fitzgerald’s marriage. Here is my original review.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Although the Fitzgeralds start out with a loving relationship, their marriage goes sadly awry, mostly because of Scott Fitzgerald’s insecurities. A life full of drunken parties doesn’t help, nor does Fitzgerald’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway.

Fowler depicts Zelda as a creative woman whose work is robbed from her by her support for her husband. His “assistance” to her career of publishing several of her stories under his own name turns out to be a trap, whether planned or not. Afterwards she is unable to publish because her work is perceived to resemble Scott’s too much. When she finally writes a novel, he takes it over in the editing stage and butchers it.

Ernest Hemingway dislikes Zelda and feeds on Fitzgerald’s insecurities to destroy their marriage. Although Fitzgerald was an established author and Hemingway a newcomer when they met, Fitzgerald seems unsure about his own abilities. He starts out by taking Hemingway under his wing, but Hemingway pays him back by telling him that Zelda is ruining his life. At first, Scott dismisses such ideas, but after a while, he begins to believe them.

Being Scott Fitzgerald’s wife starts out fun but turns into a horrible life for Zelda. She struggles to express her own creativity. Aside from undercutting her career opportunities as a writer, when she is offered a lead role in a ballet, he threatens to take her daughter away from her. He returns her support by being a drunk, an unfaithful one, and by trying to control her. She finally ends up in a mental institution when she actually has nothing wrong with her mind.

Moral of the story: don’t marry insecure authors.

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Day 756: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Cover for ZTo write a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler had to make many decisions between competing sources. Historians and biographers are sharply divided between those who think Zelda ruined Scott’s life and those who think Scott ruined Zelda’s life. Fowler ends up coming in pretty firmly on Zelda’s side. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast said nasty things about both of them, but many of those things have been found to be exaggerations or outright lies. In any case, I’ve always thought Hemingway was a jerk.

This novel begins when Zelda, fresh out of high school and a popular debutante, meets Fitzgerald, at that time in the army and due to ship out to Europe and World War I. It ends shortly after Fitzgerald’s death. It paints a vivid portrait of Zelda, a woman trying to find a purpose in her life beyond being a wife.

If Fowler has made the right choices, the novel creates a devastating idea of Fitzgerald, insecure, unfaithful, controlling, and alcoholic. He undercuts Zelda in every way possible, publishing her stories under his own name, taking control of her published novel in the editing stage and butchering it, being generally nasty, and threatening to take away her daughter Scottie when she wanted to accept a solo role in the ballet in Naples. His friendship with Hemingway especially drove them apart, as Hemingway was relentless in accusing her of being selfish and ruining Scott’s career, and Scott began to believe it. Note that Hemingway is the same person who did all he could to halt his own wife’s career as a war correspondent.

I was completely absorbed by the novel, which strongly characterizes Zelda and to a lesser extent, Scott. My only criticism, besides a few too many descriptions of clothes, is that most of the other characters are only sketchily drawn. A great many characters appear in these pages, and I can’t say that I had much of an impression about any of them, to the point where I couldn’t remember whether some were friends or relatives. With such vivid personalities as Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, H. L. Mencken, and Hemingway appearing in the novel, more could have been done with them.

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