As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s generation-defining novel opens in cinemas across the UK this week, it is impossible to escape the clamour for all things Gatsby. Like the soul-piercing eyes on the book’s original 1925 cover, Leo, Carey et al, luminous in their 1920s finery, stare out from posters in towns and cities. Magazine pages are filled with flapper fashions, jazz age jewellery, and a thirst for prohibition-era cocktail recipes. All are accompanied by an unlikely, yet ultra-hip soundtrack compiled of artists not usually associated with the great literary works of the 20th Century.
‘Can’t repeat the past…of course you can!’ says the film’s tagline, as the champagne-party being thrown in honour of not only Gatsby, but Fitzgerald also, shows no sign of winding down.
Yet the classic novel isn’t the only twenties icon in receipt of a do-over; as Luhrmann presents his 3D re-imagining of Jay Gatsby, several new titles offer an insight into the woman who made much of F Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction possible – the ‘heroine of (my) stories’: his wife Zelda.
Mrs Fitzgerald’s life-story is almost certainly worthy of the Hollywood treatment itself. She was the greatly admired Southern Belle who went on to become the Queen of the jazz age, envied and emulated by women the world over. She wrote short stories and magazine articles, painted and danced. She became the figurehead for flapperdom – a code of liberation for a generation of modern, self-assured young women, tired of going through life ‘…with a deathbed-air …or with martyr-resignation.’
But the tale was not to end well. As the decade with which she has become synonymous roared its last, and her hallowed lost generation packed up and went home to face the hangover of the Great Depression, Zelda suffered her first nervous breakdown. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was to spend the rest of her life in and out of institutions. In 1948, the hospital at which she was staying caught fire. Zelda was one of a group of women locked in their rooms on the top floor. Nine perished that night. Zelda’s body could only be identified by her charred slipper lying beneath it.
Readers of Scott Fitzgerald may be forgiven for thinking that the details of Zelda’s life are well-established. The carefree flapper, the careless wife and the woman who needed such care that her husband is driven to drink, are all characters in his repertoire. Scott withdrew heavily from the coffers of their union for his prose, and Zelda, with a few tweaks here and there, is to be seen in the majority of his work.
Indeed, the image of the spoiled, childish, reckless woman who was more distraction than muse to Scott is one that’s endured in popular culture. But that isn’t the Zelda making her début this year.
Three new novels about her life arrive in bookshops this month. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, a fictional first person account that follows Zelda from her first encounter with Scott at a dance in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, until his death in Hollywood in 1940; R Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools, set during the couple’s final holiday together in Cuba in 1939; and Erika Robuck’s Call me Zelda, told from the imagined perspective of Zelda’s nurse in the Phipps clinic, Baltimore where Zelda was a patient in the early 1930s. There is also Tiziana Lo Porto’s Superzelda, the first graphic novel chronicling Zelda and Scott’s tumultuous marriage. Each challenges the conventional characterisation of America’s original sweetheart.
‘Bold, unique females, particularly those ahead of their time, are always fascinating,’ says Call Me Zelda author Erika Robuck. ‘Daring women who live loud in search of high colour and memorable experiences captivate. Contemporary women continue to search for balance in life, art, work and family, so a woman like Zelda who struggled with those issues draws our attention.’
Robuck‘s interest in Zelda began when researching her previous novel, Hemingway’s Girl. Intrigued by Hemingway’s well-documented dislike of Zelda, and his assertion that her behaviour ultimately led to Scott’s downfall, Robuck felt compelled to offer up a different version of events.
‘So often in my research, I read about Hemingway’s hatred of Zelda. I could imagine her standing, tapping her ballet slippers with hands on hips urging me get her side of the story. So I did.’
The image of Zelda as inspiration for her husband’s most enduring (if not always endearing) characters: Rosalind Connage, Gloria Patch, Nicole Driver and of course Daisy Buchanan, is well known. However, this re-examination of her also points to the integral role she played in Scott’s writing process. Impressed by her humour and quick wit, Scott recorded her comments and observations in his ledger, took from her diaries and letters and reworked them into his fiction.
Her words at the birth of their daughter Frances ‘Scottie’ Fitzgerald made their way into the mouth of Daisy Buchanan, the heroine of The Great Gatsby.
When coming round from the anaesthesia, Zelda is recorded as saying: ‘I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool.’
In Gatsby, the famous line, currently adorning the posters of Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, reads: ‘I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
Initially, Zelda embraced this function in Scott’s fiction. In a 1922 review of Scott’s second novel The Beautiful and the Damned, published under her maiden name in the New York Tribune, she playfully teases:
‘Mr Fitzgerald – I believe that is how he spells his name – seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.’
In the same article Zelda also makes a reference to Scott’s use of her diary, which she says, ‘Mysteriously disappeared after my marriage.’
The thought that Zelda’s diaries remain undiscovered and unpublished is one that Robuck says she ‘became obsessed with’, and was subsequently a device explored in Call me Zelda.
‘I cross-referenced as many sources as possible. They all seemed to intersect at the night of a Fitzgerald party in Westport, Connecticut, when editor George Jean Nathan found the diaries in a basement, read them, and urged Scott to let him publish them. Scott grew angry and hid them after that, and the diaries don’t seem to surface again.’
Intrigued, she contacted the owners of the house in Westport, asking them to search the basement.
‘…they very kindly responded to my strange writer request that they had never found them. Wouldn’t it be a story if they had!’
Scott’s harvesting of his and Zelda’s life together for his novels would eventually take its toll on his wife. As her illness took hold, her appearances in Scott’s work along with arguments over who owned the artistic rights to their marriage became a source of constant friction. When Zelda’s barely disguised autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz was published in 1932, albeit with extensive revisions insisted upon by Scott, he felt that she was encroaching upon his creative territory.
‘My God, my books made her a legend,’ Scott wrote in a letter to Zelda’s doctor; ‘and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a non-entity.’
It is on this period in their lives that Robuck’s novel concentrates.
‘As his alcoholism worsened, and her emotional issues grew more problematic, it probably would have been best if she wasn’t portrayed on the page,’ she says. ‘At that point, however, it was the only way Scott and Zelda knew how to be married to each other, and thus it became toxic.’
We are not, however, witnessing a complete re-write of Zelda’s story. Much of the seemingly critical accounts of her erratic and often outrageous behaviour were entirely accurate.
‘I don’t know that she’s been portrayed unfairly, but just that her talents may be under-represented,’ Erika Robuck explains. ‘Her painting and dancing in particular, shone with brilliance.’
Willie Thompson, the director of Montgomery’s Fitzgerald Museum, the only one in the world dedicated to the couple, is in agreement. This is the Zelda lovingly honoured by the museum, which is located in their final home together, a few blocks away from where Zelda spent her childhood.
‘Partly due to her upbringing, her predisposition to mental illness, Scott’s literary prominence, and partly due to her own refusal to “act normal”, Zelda failed to reach the artistic professionalism she was capable of in her own time period,’ Thompson contends. ‘I do think we’re seeing people want to help her reach it now.’
Certainly, the current literary interest, in conjunction with the release of The Great Gatsby, has increased curiosity about the It couple of that decadent decade. According to Thompson, the museum’s headcount is already double that of the first quarter of 2012.
Unsurprisingly a draw to fans of the Fitzgeralds, the museum, nestled in the heart of the city’s Garden District, is host to the second largest collection of Zelda’s artwork (the largest is with her family), numerous first editions and manuscripts belonging to the couple along with original photographs and letters to each other, their daughter Scottie, and Ernest Hemingway.
‘The house is the most important artefact,’ Thompson points out. ‘The story started here (in Montgomery), and it continues to be remembered here.’
It’s a story that remains unquestionably relevant today in an era that draws remarkable parallels with the one inhabited by the Fitzgeralds. If Luhrmann’s re-telling of Gatsby is to serve as a fictional cautionary tale against the dangers of hedonism, the vacuous cult of celebrity and financial frivolity, then Scott and Zelda are the real-life definitive examples.
However, Zelda is more than just a warning against a life lived to excess. The renewal of interest in her, according to Italian journalist and author Tiziana Lo Porto, is long overdue. Along with illustrator Daniele Marotta, Lo Porto has created Superzelda, a graphic novel charting the life of its heroine from her birth at the turn of the 20th Century to her tragic premature death in 1948.
‘She’s an inspiring creature – she inspired and still inspires art. And that is a wonderful thing,’ Lo Porto enthuses. ‘She was an extremely authentic person, who tried to live her life, even the worst moments of it in her best way. It’s this way of being Zelda that makes her “Super”– she lived always being herself. And that is a great lesson for women and for men too.’
The text in the novel is made up from the Fitzgeralds’ own words in books, letters and interviews, and offers a candid insight into an initially beautiful yet damned relationship. Despite the less than happy ending – Scott died of a heart attack eight years prior to Zelda, aged just 44 – the deep love each felt for the other is evident throughout. Lo Porto herself describes Superzelda as a ‘biography, travelogue and love story wrapped into one.’
Back at the museum in Zelda’s hometown, their romantic legacy lives on.
‘I find it hard to focus on one without the other,’ says Willie Thompson of the couple.
Only one adaptation of The Great Gatsby was to grace the silver screen in the Fitzgeralds’ lifetime. Zelda was unimpressed by the 1926 silent offering; later writing in a letter to her daughter:
‘It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.’ (The capitals are Zelda’s.)
It’s impossible to know what she’d make of Gatsby’s latest outing, dubbed this week by The New Yorker as:
‘…lurid, shallow, glamorous, trashy, tasteless, seductive, sentimental, aloof, and artificial …an excellent adaptation …of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melodramatic American classic.’
But, as Erika Robuck maintains, one thing is for certain – Zelda would have loved the attention.