If creativity and madness are two sides of the same coin, it is well exemplified in the life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. She was a painter and writer whose best work was done within the confines of psychiatric institutions, where she spent most of her adult life. Some called her illness Bipolar Disorder. Others thought she was a schizophrenic. But at John Hopkins, doctors thought she had no mental illness but her mental state of mind was due to a destructive relationship with a paranoid alcoholic husband. It was probably his subversive tendencies that added to her syndrome of schizophrenia. Zelda wanted to be a writer, painter and dancer. Her husband Scott Fitzgerald discouraged her creativity. He was domineering and jealous and tried to restrict her movements.
Zelda was the daughter of Judge Antony Dickenson Sayre a prominent judge in Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda therefore belonged to the higher echelons of society. She was named after a gypsy heroine portrayed in a novel of 1874. The quirks in her character were evident even as a teenager. She would smoke, flirt outrageously with anyone she fancied, and loved to dance, sometimes in the nude. She was the darling of the Jazz Age and her friends even formed a fraternity called Zeta Sigma, where they took an oath of devotion to her.
Scott Fitzgerald was in the Army in 1918 and was 21 years old when he met Zelda Sayre all of 17 years and just out of school. She was beautiful, feckless and undisciplined. But he married her in 1920 as soon as he was discharged from the Army. He took up a job in a New York advertising firm, and also started writing in earnest. His first book “This side of Paradise” brought success and social exposure. Their all-night parties and drinking sessions led to debts but Scott blamed this on Zelda’s poor housekeeping. As he progressed in his writing, they moved between America, Paris and the Riviera. Theirs was a rocky marriage from the start. Scott wanted seclusion for his writing but Zelda craved for the good things of life. There were times when he locked her in their house because of her erratic behaviour. Some suspected him of domestic violence. His alcoholism increased. How he managed to write his famous novels including ‘The Great Gatsby’ in his state of mind is quite surprising. Though he blamed Zelda for his alcoholism, he was already an addict when he married her.
Zelda accused him of stealing her diaries and using her dialogues in his novels. She was the inspiration for many of his heroines, and the remarkable lines she uttered were appropriated from her diaries. She fuelled his insecurities because he was always afraid that she would expose him. She called it ‘plagiarism at home.’
Zelda wrote many short stories but authored only one full length novel ‘Save me the Waltz.’ It was published by Scribner in 1932. Scott tried to prevent this ‘autobiography of an unstable marriage’ from being published, but didn’t succeed. However, the book didn’t make headlines.
Though they were estranged in 1934, they were never divorced. Zelda spent the last years of her life, between 1936 – 47, as an inmate of the Highland Hospital, Ashville in North Carolina. Various therapies were tried out on her with little success. Due to the shock therapy she received, she had no recollection of her early years. She continued to alternate between periods of depression and spells of high energy and creativity. Her best paintings belong to this period. Unfortunately several of them were destroyed by fire.
Zelda outlived her husband by seven years. She died at the Ashville Hospital on March 10th 1947. Pluto called creativity ‘Divine Madness.’ Byron said, “Creativity and genius feed on mental turmoil,” which is very true of Zelda’s life.
The couple had one daughter Frances Fitzgerald in 1921. But the marriage of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald was taken right out of the Devil’s Dictionary.
“They stood before the altar and supplied
The fire themselves, in which their fat was fried.”
The Scott and Zelda Museum in Montgomery is an interesting place to visit.