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Beautiful - and damned: the tumultuous marriage of F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda


Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan in 'The Great Gatsby', 2013.

Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan in 'The Great Gatsby', 2013.

F Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda on the lawn at her mother's home. 
Photo: Getty

F Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda on the lawn at her mother's home. Photo: Getty

F Scott Fitzgerald in 1925

F Scott Fitzgerald in 1925


Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan in 'The Great Gatsby', 2013.

She was the first 'nice girl' he had known… He found her excitingly desirable. He was at present a penniless young man without a past… but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail… She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby - nothing… Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor."

All his life, F Scott Fitzgerald mined his affairs for material. Indeed, his biographer Matthew J Bruccoli maintains that everything Fitzgerald wrote was "a form of autobiography". As such, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby are an imagined version of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda at the pinnacle of their existence: young, wealthy and beautiful. As always with Fitzgerald, he at once idealises a thing and simultaneously reveals its flaws; what Jay Gatsby worships reveals itself to be shallow and selfish, and his own methods of achieving wealth have been corrupt to say the least. In the dark conclusion of his novel, Fitzgerald revealed a certain prescience when it came to his own marriage. Scott and Zelda's persona as the golden couple of the Jazz Age was merely one facet of a marriage that would suffer alcoholism, mental illness and infidelity, and which would end with the pair separated, Fitzgerald an unemployed alcoholic living in Hollywood, Zelda a long-term inhabitant of psychiatric institutions who would die in her sleep eight years after her husband, in a fire in the hospital she was then living in.

Like Gatsby and Daisy, F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre first met during the First World War; he was an officer in training, having left Princeton after unsuccessful academic results. Born on September 24, 1896, exactly 120 years ago this week, Fitzgerald was good looking and charming. He was the son of Catholic parents of straitened means, spoilt by his mother, who had possibly, biographer Arthur Mizener suggests, given him unrealistic expectations of life. "He knew the injury that ... a mother (can do) to a son by attaching them too closely: afterwards, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life," Fitzgerald later wrote.

Zelda was the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, the prettiest belle in Montgomery, Alabama. "I've fallen in love with a whirlwind," declared Scott after the pair's first meeting at a country club dance. Her parents did not welcome the prospect of marriage with Fitzgerald, and advised against the match. It was a strategy unlikely to succeed with one as naturally headstrong as Zelda, remembered by fellow debutantes as swimming with boys in a scandalous flesh-coloured bathing suit, and smoking in public. A courtship ensued, interrupted by Scott's departure to France - the war was over before he arrived - and his efforts to get his writing career off the ground in New York.

Correspondence between them from the time reveals their dynamic, with Zelda, who broke off the engagement at one stage, taunting Scott with stories of other suitors. "I used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers," he wrote in desperation. "Scott, you've been so sweet about writing, but I get so damned tired of being told that - you've written that verbatim, in your last six letters," was the unimpressed response.

It was not until Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was accepted by publishers, and he was "the man with the jingle of money in his pocket" as he wrote, that she consented to marriage, and in 1920, a week after the book was published to huge acclaim, they wed.

It is said that those who survived the war suffered from survivors' guilt, and the upper classes of Manhattan, whom Fitzgerald described as "a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken," began to party with almost manic determination. Almost instantly, the Fitzgeralds embodied this new age, he its creator and chronicler, she the first flapper, embracing the new freedoms of the age: smoking and drinking in public, adopting the shorter lengths in fashion, bobbing her hair, dancing on tables and naked in fountains, as legend has it. "It bore him up, flattered him, and gave him more money than he had dreamed of," Scott wrote of the Jazz Age. Dorothy Parker wrote of the couple that they "always looked as if they had just stepped in out of the sun".

Biographer Andrew Turnbull describes how the writer and his wife "surrendered to impulses which wouldn't even have occurred to more prosaic souls. The two of them taking hands after a concert and running like the wind - like two young hawks - down crowded 57th Street, in and out of traffic … Scott and Zelda at the theatre sitting quietly during the funny parts and roaring when the house was still … going to a party, one of them on the roof of the taxi and the other on the hood."

In his essay My Lost City, Fitzgerald, with typical nostalgic wistfulness, describes a taxi ride through New York where "I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again." All around were new possibilities, at least for the wealthy. But the Fitzgeralds didn't have the huge wealth that shored up many of their contemporaries. Much has been made of the Fitzgeralds' fascination with the moneyed classes. He once wrote in frustration "riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction. I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich."

It was not money for its own sake he envied, but the ability to not have to try, to take things for granted, that real wealth bestowed - the thing Gatsby, his most famous creation, so desperately tried to ape. He viewed such beings with, he wrote, the "smouldering hatred of a peasant".

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The Fitzgeralds played to a fantastical notion of themselves, losing sight of the reality, that they were a couple of limited means. "We tried to manage without a butler, but Zelda cut her wrist on a can of baked beans," he recalled. In order to fund their lifestyle, Scott was forced to divert his time from working on novels to producing short stories for magazines, highly paid but with little creative credibility. His astounding natural abilities in this field - 160 published in his lifetime, produced despite constant drinking and debauchery - led many to underestimate the genius of the man; he made it look too easy. Money worries and heavy drinking led to regular rows between the pair. A Princeton friend of Scott's who visited around this time noted: "I do not think marriage can succeed. Both drink heavily. Think they will be divorced in three years. Scott write something big - then die in a garret at 32." The couple's only daughter, Francis Scott ('Scottie'), was born in 1921. "It was typical of our precarious position in New York that when our child was to be born we played safe and went home to St Paul - it seemed inappropriate to bring a baby into all that glamour and loneliness," wrote Fitzgerald. "But in a year we were back and we began doing the same things over again and not liking them so much." Diary entries of Fitzgerald from July 1923 read: "Tootsie arrived. Intermittent work on novel. Constant drinking. Some golf. Baby begins to talk. Party at Allan Dwan's. Gloria Swanson and the movie crowd. Our party for Tootsie. The Perkins arrive. I drive into lake." Increasingly frustrated, he moved his family to Great Neck, New York, a wealthy enclave of the new rich on Long Island that would provide the inspiration for Gatsby's West Egg. Here, they rented a house and Scott worked on The Great Gatsby, although he failed to finish it, unsurprising given that he was working in a house one of whose rules was "visitors are required not to break down doors in search of liquor." It was decided that the family would move to France, and in 1924 the pair set sail with their daughter Scottie.

Of course, this being Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, France meant Paris and the Riviera, the Cap d'Antibes, Cole Porter, Hemingway, Picasso and Chanel, the clubs of Montmartre and the Left Bank. Scott worked furiously on The Great Gatsby, and Zelda was left to her own devices, lonely and at a loss. There was an entanglement with a French pilot, quite how far this went is unclear. When dancer Isadora Duncan spent too long talking to her husband one night, she threw herself down a flight of stairs.

As much as they had embodied the wild excesses of the 1920s, when the crash came in 1929, the Fitzgeralds also began to implode. "The most expensive orgy in history was over," Scott wrote. In April 1930, Zelda was committed to a clinic in Switzerland, having suffered a breakdown brought on by her efforts to become a ballerina. She would spend the remainder of her life largely in psychiatric institutions. Her treatment included electric shock therapy, and the administering of drugs including morphine, belladonna and horse serum - she deemed it "a sort of castration". In 1932 she began her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz, an event that was to cause a major breach in the relationship. Scott was incensed that she was using the same material - their marriage - that he was plundering for his book Tender is the Night, a book so long in the works his wife joked it should be serialised by the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is possible he felt threatened by his wife's literary efforts. Her letters of the time reveal a growing desire to be independent of her husband.

In May 1933, the couple sat down with Zelda's doctor. In the transcripts of the meeting, Scott refers to his wife as "a third-rate writer," a "useless society woman". Zelda requested a divorce. A diary entry of Fitzgerald's from the time outlines his plan if she insisted on continuing to write: "Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result - new breakdown." As Zelda herself noted, it is a shockingly aggressive approach for one whose talents he labelled so negligible. Zelda relented, and the novel was published with several cuts.

As the 1930s went on, she developed religious mania and sank into a deep depression. Scott's novel, Tender is the Night, was published in 1934. Where Jay Gatsby yearned for the beautiful rich Daisy to cement his sense of identity, Dick Diver sees in his wife Nicole, a wealthy mental patient, his undoing. It reflects the disintegration of the Fitzgerald marriage, with some passages taken almost directly from letters from Zelda to her husband. "Mr Fitzgerald … seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home," Zelda once wrote in a mock review of one of her husband's books. In the throes of empathising with his wife at the maternity hospital years before, he had whipped out a notebook, muttering, "I might be able to use this."

Money was tighter than ever, with his wife's medical bills and their daughter's education - Scottie was largely being brought up by family friends - to think of. In Babylon Revisited, a short story published in 1931, Fitzgerald tells of a man who has lost his family due to the excesses of the previous decade. He looks back with disgust at the antics of his younger self. "How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility."

Years later he would write to his daughter saying she had earned him some money that week by the sale of Babylon Revisited, in which she was a character, as a movie script. "All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realised the meaning of the word 'dissipate' - to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something" is a quote from the story.The character remembered "thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab. But it hadn't been for nothing. It had been given... as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember - his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont." In 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with MGM as a scriptwriter. His success was limited, and he died suddenly in 1940, at the home of his mistress, Sheilah Graham, not under contract, and believing he had squandered all his gifts: youth, talent, wealth. "I had only been a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent," he wrote in The Crack-Up.

The great tragedy of Zelda's life was that she was defined by her husband; as muse, a role that left little room for her own creative expressions, then as crazy wife. More recently, her reputation has undergone a rehabilitation, from that of the mad troublemaker to a talent in her own right, as an author and painter, who pushed against the restrictive roles of wife and muse. As such, Fitzgerald's reputation has taken a hit. Hemingway, Fitzgerald's great friend and drinking partner, saw Zelda as a drain on her husband, his nemesis. Others paint Scott as tyrannically repressing her efforts at independence. In all likelihood, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and the couple, lauded as one of the great romances of the early 20th century, in fact shared a self-destructive bond.

"You were going crazy and calling it genius - I was going to ruin and calling it anything that came to hand," Scott once wrote to his wife. She had a somewhat more forgiving take on their marriage, writing to her husband, "Dearest: I am always grateful for all the loyalties you gave me, and I am always loyal to the concepts that held us together so long: the belief that life is tragic ... that we shouldn't hurt each other. And I love always your fine writing talent, your tolerance and generosity: and all your happy endowments. Nothing could have survived our life."

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