Frequently overshadowed by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was a writer, dancer, and painter who suffered from many demons. Her work in all three art forms was an attempt to establish her own identity. Born to a prominent family in Montgomery, Alabama, beautiful Zelda Sayre was the proverbial belle of the ball. She met Lieutenant Fitzgerald at a country club dance while he was stationed at Camp Sheridan during World War I; they wed in 1920. The author once declared, “I married the heroine of my stories.”
The Fitzgeralds maintained a highly visible and glamorous lifestyle throughout the 1920s and came, in the eyes of many, to embody the Jazz Age; Zelda was often described in newspapers of the day as the quintessential flapper. The couple’s routine was also itinerant: New York hotels; a summer rental in Westport, Connecticut; family visits to Montgomery; a rented estate near Wilmington, Delaware; transatlantic trips with stays in Paris, the French Riviera, Rome, and Capri—moves motivated alternately by work opportunities, social invitations, or recurring financial difficulties. Their circle of associates included Gertrude Stein, Romaine Brooks, Ernest Hemingway, and Sara and Gerald Murphy. In the late 1920s, Zelda rekindled her youthful passion for ballet and studied in Paris with a Russian woman affiliated with the Diaghilev troupe, but the physical and mental demands eventually took their toll. She suffered her first breakdown in April 1930 and spent the next several months in and out of hospitals near Paris and in Switzerland. Her diagnosis, contested by some, was schizophrenia. In the fall of 1931, the couple returned permanently to the United States.
Despite being institutionalized intermittently, Zelda Fitzgerald wrote and painted. In 1932, she published Save Me the Waltz, a heavily autobiographical novel, similar in approach to Scott’s Tender is the Night, which was issued two years later. She also authored a play, articles, and short stories. She had her first painting lesson at age twenty-five, exhibiting a good deal of natural talent. Stylistically, Fitzgerald’s paintings display the influence of modernism in their abstraction and an awareness of surrealism in their fanciful quality. When she introduced figures—both human and animal—she tended to exaggerate their muscularity, inspired perhaps by her interest in dance. Ethereal flowers, probably initiated while in Capri, are the focus of many watercolors, and sometimes are highlighted with gouache. Regrettably, many of her paintings have been lost or destroyed.
Zelda Fitzgerald spent months hospitalized in Baltimore, New York, and Asheville, North Carolina, although she did experience lucid periods. She was never committed, but chose to submit herself for treatment. She died at the Highland Hospital in Asheville in a fire caused by faulty wiring. A figure of perennial popular fascination, Zelda Fitzgerald has been the subject of several novels and books. The Montgomery Museum of Art holds a number of her works in its permanent collection.