Z has been hitting the tops of bestseller lists across the board since it was released on March 25th. It appeals to, yes, fans of The Great Gatsby, but contemporary revisits of the ladies of the roaring ‘20s with titles like The Paris Wife and Hemingway’s Girl show that there’s something sexy and alluring about the muses behind these golden-age men to modern readers as well.
We’re lucky to have Therese guest blog for Reader Store on a topic that we’ve found so irresistible we dedicated an entire collection to it (Roaring ‘20s Collect at Reader Store). What caused Zelda’s reputation as “crazy? And do we see hints of her in Fitzgerald’s work? See what Therese has to say on these questions and beyond.
Therese Anne Fowler on Capturing the Golden Age
Understanding Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald, their incredible rise, their tragic fall, means understanding the Jazz Age, an era that fascinates us today almost as much as it fascinated the people who came of age at the time. With the end of WWI in 1918, the conservative Edwardian era ended, too. Suddenly it seemed that none of the old rules applied and, as is often true when one extreme has dominated behavior for so long, a new extreme must take its place before balance is restored.
To tell Zelda’s story, I needed to contrast the world she came from—the post-Civil-War South—against the world she inhabited after marrying Scott in April of 1920, before she was even twenty years old: the New York City of speakeasies, the Paris of artists and expatriates, the Hollywood of “talkies,” all places where the rules of appropriate behavior were not just being broken but simply no longer applied.
Initially, though, I was reluctant to write Zelda’s story. When the inspiration struck, all I knew about her was the caricature she’s been turned into by popular culture. She was, I believed, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crazy, disruptive wife, the architect of his ruin. The idea to write about her had arrived quite suddenly, and I was ready to dismiss it as quickly—except that I also thought, “What if I’m wrong? Suppose there’s more to it than that? Suppose there’s a compelling story there?”
And so there was.
Zelda was an uninhibited, unconventional, spirited young woman whose interests ranged from ballet to painting to swimming to theater. She never lacked for attention from girlfriends and suitors, both. A natural ringleader, she was a teenager fresh out of high school when she met Scott, who was in Montgomery with the Army training for the war. He aspired to be a novelist and a working writer—neither of which was a recognized, reliable occupation at that time. What’s more, he was a Yankee. Zelda was keen on him anyway. Her parents felt entirely opposite.
Zelda’s letters to Scott, exchanged during their two-year courtship, show all the energy, angst, affection, and charm of her vivacious youth. Twenty years later, her letters to him had a far different tone, though the affection was still there in spades. What happened to them and between them during those two intervening decades? What caused Zelda’s reputation as “crazy?” What led to Scott’s well-known alcohol dependency, his apparent ruin? These were the questions that motivated me, that helped me shape the story I would tell. Their answers ultimately gave me the Zelda who would narrate her own remarkable tale.
Three influential works, beyond the numerous biographies about the Fitzgeralds:
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