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 Scott 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.
… 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 best seen through her writings and her paintings. Her writings are now available in The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald, many of her paintings are reproduced in The Romantic Egoists, and many of her letters are collected in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
(Adapted from Bryant Mangum, “The Last Flapper Playbill.” For full article click here)