Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, 1900-1948

Bryant Mangum
The Last Flapper (playbill)
Dawn Westbrook as Zelda
Barksdale Theatre


Many who have seen photographs of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald note that no two images of her resemble each other. She had many different, unforgettable faces, among them the polished and strikingly beautiful one which appeared on the cover of Hearst’s International magazine in the early 1920’s and which she referred to as her Elizabeth Arden face. But the different faces of Zelda, as the Fitzgeralds’ friend Sara Murphy observed shortly after Zelda’s first mental breakdown, had much less to do with subtle changes in makeup or lighting than with inner complexity and mystery that no one, not even her husband Scott, ever touched. There have been many constructions of Zelda Fitzgerald, all hinting at the complexity that Sara Murphy noted. But, not surprisingly, the various constructions like the various photographs of Zelda’s face rarely resemble each other.

From the actual Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama Scott Fitzgerald constructed a fairy princess, hidden away in a tower to be rescued from her provincial surroundings and taken by him into the more sophisticated world of Princeton and New York. She had been born July 24, 1900, the sixth child of Alabama Judge Anthony Sayre and his wife Minnie, who named Zelda after a gypsy queen in a novel she had read and spoiled her from the beginning, nursing her, some say, until she was four years old. By the time Fitzgerald arrived at Fort Sheridan, near Montgomery in his tailored Brooks Brothers uniform Zelda was, at eighteen, thought of as an original, a daring local beauty who was known not only in Montgomery but in most college towns in Alabama. She became not only Scott’s idealized version of the Southern Belle but also the incarnation of all that was desirable in woman. He went back to New York from Montgomery after the war was over, finished the novel that was to become This Side of Paradise, sent for Zelda, and married her in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The process of Scott’s invention and re-invention of Zelda, which had already begun with his creation of the heroine of “The Ice Palace,” set in a small southern town, would be repeated scores of times in the next two decades, among other places in Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned and in Daisy in The Great Gatsby. His two final fictional recreations of Zelda in fiction, as Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night and as Ailie Calhoun in “The Last of the Belles,” remain strong at the end, though the hero has lost the ability to sustain a romantic vision of her. Fitzgerald constructed and reconstructed Zelda for as long as he had the emotional vitality to do so. But after Zelda’s mental collapse, precipitated in part by her obsessive pursuit of ballet–in effect her obsessive pursuit of an artistic identity of her own that she could have separate from Scott’s imagined version of her–Scott began his descent into alcoholism. He left his capacity for hope, he said, on the road leading away from Zelda’s sanitarium.

Nancy Milford, Zelda’s first major biographer, constructs a Zelda shaped in large part by Scott’s exploitation of her, by his appropriation of her image and even of the prose from her diaries for the purpose of enhancing his own literary reputation. There was no room for two artists in the Fitzgerald household, as Milford’s description of the bitter conflict that surrounded the publication of Zelda’s 1932 novel Save Me the Waltz demonstrates. She was, as Scott reminded her, a third-rate talent. But his assault on Zelda’s self-esteem is only part of Milford’s picture of a self divided by internal forces beyond her control. Her entrapment in a world with little understanding or appreciation of her predicament makes Milford’s Zelda a symbol for our time, her death in 1948 by fire while locked away in the upper reaches of a mental institution dramatically underscoring the powerlessness of her plight. Sara Mayfield’s competing portrait of Zelda, who was Mayfield’s girlhood friend, depicts a southern belle whose major misfortune was her loss of the traditions of the genteel South at the hands Scott, who took Zelda from her home and set in motion the tragedy of two “exiles from paradise.” These are but two of scores of recreations of Zelda.

The actual Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is fragmented in the many constructions of her life that we have. Once in an attempt to establish the historical truth about Zelda’s role in Scott’s life and his role in hers, someone asked Scott for his analysis. He replied that if one asked Zelda’s friends, they would say that his drinking drove her to insanity. His friends would say that her insanity drove him to drink. But the truth, he noted, is that “liquor on my mouth is sweet to her and I cherish her wildest hallucinations.” And here we are back where we began. Historically Scott did cherish, celebrate, and enshrine as art Zelda’s wildest hallucinations, particularly during the decade of the Roaring Twenties, which marked the high point of their lives together. After the stock market crash of 1929 and Zelda’s first mental collapse which shortly followed it, Scott went through the motions of supporting her, among other things by paying her hospital bills, until his death in 1940.

But, in effect, Scott left Zelda in the mid-1930’s to herself and to the biographers, poets, and playwrights who continue to create versions of her from the known facts of her life, from the gallery of her paintings, from her scrapbooks, from her published and unpublished novels, stories, essays, and letters, and from their own imaginations. The Last Flapper is a recreation of Zelda based largely on her own writings, a platform from which she speaks through Dawn Westbrook for herself while our own constructions of Zelda are allowed, for the moment of the play at least, to rest in peace.

Bryant Mangum
Virginia Commonwealth University