Beautiful and Damned: Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

by Flapperjane

Copyright 2004 by Sarah Baker.  All rights reserved.


Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, circa 1918.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the muse of the Jazz Age. She was the embodiment of all things modern and new, the prototype for every flapper to follow. She described herself as “without a thought for anyone else…I did not have a single feeling of inferiority, or shyness, or doubt, and no moral principles.” She was a “Barbarian Princess of the South,”[i] long before she met and married the prophet of the Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda was Scott’s personal inspiration, the model for almost every fictional heroine he created. Reflecting on their relationship in later years, Scott wrote, “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be…I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.”[ii]

The Sayre-Fitzgerald marriage was a celebrity unto itself. Everyone vaguely familiar with the 1920s has heard the stories—Zelda receiving guests in her bath, Zelda and Scott jumping into the Union Square Fountain, riding on top of taxis, passing out together after getting plastered at a party. They were the golden couple of a golden age, so famous that every exploit was printed in the paper, so famous that their Union Square adventure was painted on the curtain of the 1922 Greenwich Village Follies. Zelda described the whirlwind: “Spinach and champagne. Going back to the kitchens at the old Waldorf. Dancing on the kitchen tables, wearing the chef’s headgear. Finally, a crash and being escorted out by the house detectives.”[iii] But the party life would take its toll on Scott and Zelda—Scott became a confirmed alcoholic as Zelda began her descent into schizophrenia. At the end of the Jazz Age, Scott wrote, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”[iv] 

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, circa 1918.

Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama on July 24, 1900. Her father, Anthony, was a judge, and her mother, Minnie, was a housewife and nonconformist, who encouraged her four children to express themselves freely. The Sayres were Southern aristocracy, so while Zelda ran wild she could take shelter in her family’s reputation and remain above reproach. And run wild she did.  She became a champion diver and swimmer, always diving fearlessly from the highest boards. She wore a flesh-colored one-piece swimsuit that, from a distance, made her appear nude.[v] She bucked custom at every opportunity, refusing to cross her legs at the ankle, staying out late with boys, saying whatever she felt. Her childhood friend Eleanor Addison recalled, “By day she was healthy and hoydenish, a veritable dynamo, by night a beautiful enchantress…When she commandeered a streetcar and went clanging down Court Street with the befuddled motorman practically hanging on the ropes, the town criers lifted their eyes to the heavens and said, ‘disgraceful.’ When she danced like an angel in a pink ballet costume at some charity affair, the same town criers murmured, ‘beautiful.’”[vi]

Zelda had begun dancing lessons in earnest in 1917, studying ballet with a local Montgomery teacher, Professor Weisner. She was very much in demand for local charity events, and often dreamed of becoming a performer. However, she seemed to prefer the dances at the Old Exchange Hotel, where soldiers from nearby Camp Sheridan and Camp Taylor gathered to socialize with Montgomery girls. Zelda was the belle of both camps.  Aviators from Camp Taylor flew stunts over her house until they were banned by the commanding officer; infantrymen from Camp Sheridan executed a drill in her honor.  While Zelda adored the attention, she never fell seriously in love until she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed at Camp Sheridan, at a dance in April 1918. It was a tumultuous courtship, a harbinger of their marriage to come, and Zelda often wrote to reassure Scott that she loved him alone, despite her flirtatious ways: “Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered—and I was delivered to you—to be worn—I want you to wear me like a watch-chain or button-hole bouquet—to the world.”[vii] The couple wed shortly after the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1920.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, 1921.

Paradise was a hit, and the attractive, lively, youthful Fitzgeralds instantly became a celebrity couple. But the strain of being Scott’s muse and the model for a new generation of women put tension on Zelda early in their relationship. Zelda was not content to be idolized simply because she was Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald. She wanted to express herself and be admired through her own merits. She would spend the rest of her life trying to get out of Scott’s shadow. Zelda first tried to express herself through writing. She had always kept a diary, which she showed to Scott while they were courting, and which Scott found so original that he used passages from it in both This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. Edmund Wilson agreed with Scott, saying, “I have rarely known a woman who expressed herself so delightfully and so freshly; she had no ready-made phrases on the one hand and made no straining for effect on the other.”[viii] Zelda collaborated with Scott on several short stories and articles, and wrote a few short stories and articles of her own, including Eulogy of the Flapper, A Couple of Nuts, The Girl the Prince Liked, and Southern Girl. The extent of Zelda’s collaboration with Scott and the number of things she wrote on her own may never be known, as some of her articles were published under Scott’s name to command a higher fee, and sometimes Scott’s name was added as co-author for the same reason. Scott approved Zelda’s writing and enjoyed the way she expressed herself, but at this stage in their marriage it was painfully obvious which Fitzgerald was the genius and which was the helpmate.  

Zelda then turned to dancing, which had always been a favorite hobby, and one in which Scott could not compete. She began ballet lessons with Madame Egorova, director for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, while she and Scott were living in Paris in 1925. Egorova felt that at twenty-seven, Zelda had begun ballet training too late to become a first-rate dancer; however, she felt Zelda had the talent to dance important roles with a small company. Under her encouragement and rigorous training, Zelda swiftly became obsessed with her goal. She described her obsession as an effort to “drive the devils that had driven her…in proving herself she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self.” Scott was at first tolerant of Zelda’s obsession but soon lost patience and belittled Zelda’s efforts. As Zelda threw herself into dance, Scott deteriorated into drunkenness, and their fighting was constant.  Zelda had her first breakdown in April 1930, after becoming overwrought that she would be late for a lesson. She was committed to La Sanitarium de la Malmaison outside Paris for psychiatric treatment. Zelda spent the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, fighting schizophrenia.

Jacket cover photo of Zelda Fitzgerald, from the first edition of Save Me the Waltz.

After her breakdown, Zelda was no longer allowed to continue her dancing lessons. She fell back on writing as a means to purge the past and give herself creative expression. She began writing an autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, which drew on her marriage to Scott, her obsession with ballet, and her nervous breakdowns. Scott was furious about Zelda’s novel, which he felt poached on his territory—he was using the same material for his latest novel, Tender Is the Night. Zelda prevailed but her novel caused a bitter rift between the couple, and it was not published until Scott approved major rewrites. As their daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald, explained, “He did raise a terrible row when she published her novel…But this sort of competition is traditionally the bane of literary romances.”[ix] Save Me the Waltz was published quickly, cheaply, and without fanfare in October 1932. Consequently, it sold very poorly. However unpolished it may be, Save Me the Waltz is Zelda’s side of the story, and her prose is dense, rich, and haunting. Zelda continued writing bits and pieces, including a play, Scandalabra, but her bitter fight with Scott over Waltz made her seek another means of expression, one that could not be governed by him and which allowed her full control.

Portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald by Harrison Fisher, 1927.  This portrait now resides in the Smithsonian Institution.

Zelda began painting two years later, in 1934. She worked in oils, pastels, and watercolors, often using dancers as her favorite theme. According to biographer Kendall Taylor, Zelda depicted dancers “with swollen joints and deformed legs in tortuous training, bodies so distorted they lacked gender.”[x] When asked why she painted the dancers this way, Zelda responded, “That’s how a ballet dancer feels after dancing. It wasn’t the dancers but the step itself that I wanted to paint.”[xi] An exhibition of Zelda’s work ran at Cary Ross’s Manhattan studio March 29—April 30, 1934.

When asked to summarize her famous parents’ marriage, Scottie Fitzgerald said, “It is my impression that my father greatly appreciated and encouraged his wife’s unusual talents and ebullient imagination….It was my mother’s misfortune to be born with the ability to write, to dance, and to paint, and then never to have acquired the discipline to make her talent work for, rather than against, her.”[xii] The greatest tragedy of Zelda’s life was that no matter the medium, she was never able to conquer those devils that drove her.

Scott, Zelda, and Scottie Fitzgerald in Paris, December 1925.

Zelda and Scott seldom lived together after her 1932 breakdown, although they remained married and Scott provided for Zelda’s care, until his death in 1940. They still loved each other even though it was a love tinged with bitterness and regret. As Scott explained, “Liquor on my breath is sweet to her. I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations.”[xiii]

Zelda died eight years later, in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.  Though she is gone, Zelda's spirit lives on in Alabama in Save Me the Waltz; Rosamond, Daisy, Nicole, and Gloria in Scott’s novels; in the canvases she painted to reflect her tortured training as a ballerina. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is the one of the most enduring, tragic, and legendary figures of the Jazz Age. As Zelda said to Scott in 1919, before they were married, “Why should graves make people feel in vain? Somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived.”[xiv]


To get the dope on Zelda Fitzgerald, click here.

For more information on the Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald Museum, click here.

For a more information on Zelda, including images of her artwork, Flapperjane recommends this website.

[i] Quote from Edmund Wilson.  Kurth, Peter.  Zelda an Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald.  New York, Harry Abrams, 1996, page 20.

[ii] Ibid., page 21.

[iii] Taylor, Kendall.  Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, A Marriage.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2001, page 21.

[iv] Kurth, page 22.

[v] Taylor, page 21.

[vi] Ibid., page 23.

[vii] Kurth, page 21.

[viii] Ibid., page 25.

[ix] Ibid., page 28.

[x] Taylor., page 288.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kurth, page 28.

[xiii] Ibid., page 22.

[xiv] Ibid., page 19.