There are dozens upon dozens of remarkable couples from history, and lately, the media has been consumed with resurrecting a few of them for exploration in fictional adaptations. Among the most notable, are Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a couple that has been loved by the world ever since they married and were thrust into the spotlight in New York City during the roaring twenties.
Their romance began in 1918, at a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama, frequented by the popular and witty Zelda Sayre. She was only 18 at the time and was known around Montgomery to be beautiful, charming, and impulsive. There was never a dull moment around Zelda, who would do cartwheels on the dance floor or go for a fully-clothed swim in the lake if the dance got boring or if the evening got too warm.
Scott, who was in Alabama before being shipped off to fight in World War I, was immediately smitten. He proposed to her as soon as he was discharged from the Army in 1919, but Zelda had her doubts about him. And she was wise to worry: during that era, it wasn’t considered proper for a woman to work, so her livelihood depended on the skills and talents of her husband. And Scott, though a promising young novelist, had recently had a manuscript rejected from Scribners (can you imagine, rejecting a novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald?) The couple remained separate for some time after the proposal.
Determined to win over the woman of his dreams, Scott buckled down and got a “real job” in advertising. He hated the gig, and he wasn’t particularly great at it, all things considered. His apartment was a dump, he loathed his place of employment, his book had been rejected, his short stories weren’t selling, and the woman he loved had rejected him outright until his prospects improved.
So he did what any dreamer would do: he packed it all up, quit his job, and moved home to St. Paul, to his parent’s home, to rewrite the novel and win back the girl.
The book turned out to be highly-influenced not only by his life experiences but by the letters and diary passages written by Zelda Sayre. This Side of Paradise, the book he returned home to work on, told the story of a wildly handsome and remarkably talented young Princeton student who drops out of school, joins the Army, sees no combat, and falls in love with a woman who was obviously based on Zelda Sayre. And, as luck would have it, his Hail Mary worked: The book was published to great success, and Zelda accepted his marriage proposal.
In fact, the turnaround was remarkably quick: the novel was published on March 26, 1920, and by March 30, Zelda arrived in New York City to marry him.
The two of them were thrust immediately into the limelight, first because of the huge success of Scott’s novel, and then because of Zelda’s fashion sense, and their combined antics. Their relationship was profoundly romantic — at first. They celebrated with New York’s elite, they drank the night away, they threw lavish parties. Scott said that Zelda was the “first American Flapper”, and was the inspiration for the short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair. They were thrown out of several hotels for excessive drinking, and they squandered the small fortune that Scott had amassed after the publication of his debut.
It was in 1921 that Zelda gave birth to their baby girl. And he recorded her saying, “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” Which, of course, was the inspiration for one of Daisy Buchanan’s famous lines in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world-renowned and beloved novel, The Great Gatsby.
Zelda was restless at home; she was never particularly domestic and showed little interest in child rearing or housekeeping. In fact, when she was approached to contribute to Favorite Recipes of Famous Women, all she could offer was “See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”
The pair became expatriates, moving to Paris where they became close with such luminaries as Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. They spent much of their marriage separated, in part because of Zelda’s diagnosis of manic depression and Scott’s alcoholism. Theirs is not a relationship anyone should want to emulate; it was dangerous, reckless, and wild.
What they had that no one could deny, however— true love.