Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Zelda Fitzgerald Painter and Linguist (c) by Polly Guerin

Dear Zelda: So much noteriety has focused on the life you led with your husband, the celebrated author F. Scott Fitzgerald that you were seemingly cast in his shadow without the rightful recognition you deserve as an independent woman determined to succeed.

Christened the original flapper, your zany cavorting with Scott fed the scandal sheets with regularity. Friends and acquaintances were awe struck by your storied antics. You flouted convention but underlying your unbridled demonstrations was an unprecedented craving for attention, and something to call your own: painting and writing.
Perhaps that is why you had such urge to excel and as a child took ballet lessons. Later in life trying to claim something of your own you at age 27 you indulged in ballet with wild and unrelenting pursuit. Yet your role as an artist is one of your finest achievements. The watercolor paintings which you produced were well executed subjects that were charming, whimsical and sometimes absurd, but definitely worth discussing here. Zelda was a creative talent who was a dedicated artist, the one artistic expression that she practiced throughout her life. When the Fitzgerald’s moved to Paris in 1924 they became part of a circle of artists including Constantin Brancusi, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. It is at this time that Zelda began painting in earnest. Subject matter reveals her appreciation for landscape and flowers, and her unique and wonderful sense of fantasy and theatricality. A large group depicts fairy tales and reveals dynamic reinterpretations of traditional children’s stories. Zelda’s paintings are primarily from the 1930s and 1940s. These works were exhibited once in a New York Gallery in 1934 but were exhibited mostly in private showings. After Scott died in 1940, she created a sentimental series depicting places in New York and Paris. Rediscovering Zelda and her paintings began with a 1974 exhibition at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Later an exhibition of Zelda’s painting was circulated to museums across the United States under the auspices of International Artists, Washington, D.C.

You were a born original linguist. Many of your words and phrases found their way into Scott’s novels. These examples are a mere smattering of the breath of your contribution. In the conclusion of Scott’s “This Side of Paradise, the soliloquy of the protagonist Amory Blaine in the cemetery is taken directly from your personal journal. When you gave birth to your daughter, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, you exclaimed, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool---a beautiful little fool.” In “The Great Gatsby,” the character Daisy Buchanan expresses the same for her daughter. In the 1930s Zelda created some her best work, including the only novel, “Save Me the Waltz.” Your originality deserves kudos not given to you during your lifetime.

One need only refer to your undisciplined childhood that set the stage for outrageous adult behavior. Spoiled by a doting mother, Minerva “Minnie” Machen no doubt contributed to your willful conduct. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda Sayre (1900-1948) had a prestigious lineage starting with her father Anthony Dickinson Sayre who was a justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Sayre’s were a prominent southern family with relatives in the United States Senate, and a Montgomery newspaper editor. Despite this staid background during Zelda’s childhood she developed a distinct appetite for attention and scandalized conventional society by dancing the Jazz Age Charleston and fueled rumors that she swam nude by wearing a flesh colored bathing suit. Those were just a smattering of her antics that shocked Montgomery social circle. Always, her father’s reputation saved her from scandal. No wonder she stood out, southern women of the time were supposed to be delicate, obedient and accommodating.

There was no excuse for her scandalized behavior, but the more flamboyant her antics the more she fueled the gossip mongers in docile Montgomery society who were in for another surprise. At a country club event where she performed, “Dance of the Hours” for the social set the handsome first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald entered her orbit of entertainment. Courtship swiftly followed, but she only agreed to marry him once his first novel, “This Side of Paradise” was published. It is a known fact that Scott had ransacked Zelda’s diaries and letters for story and novel material and had used verbatim excerpts in his novels. Zelda had a natural talent for writing and Fitzgerald’s penchant for lifting works, written by Zelda, became routine. In fact Zelda was engaged in writing of her own but there was the touchy matter of by-line consideration. Often, therefore, Scott’s name appeared for publication, as his name was known to the reading public and would garner higher fees. There is no doubt, however, that Zelda had certain literary gifts. In the winter of 1928-1929 Zelda completed a series of stories for College Humor, and Scott signed his name to many of them. Zelda’s “the Girl with Talent” and “The Girl the Prince Liked” were inevitably drawn from her natural talent and original voice. She helped Scott write the play The Vegetable, but when it flopped the Fitzgerald’s found themselves in debt, so Scott wrote short stories with a frantic pace, but became burned out the depressed.

After the success of “This Side of Paradise,” Zelda and Scott became New York celebrities. The couple embodied the fun, exhuberance, and glamour of the 1920’s but their wild behavior and drunkenness led them to be evicted from both the Biltmore and Commodore Hotels. Their social life was flooded with alcohol and to their delight the New York newspapers had a field day reporting their escapades. They became the icons of youth and success. "Flappers," a term Scott Fitzgerald coined to refer to a new breed of modern, independent woman, was inspired in large part by the freethinking, strong-willed Zelda. Scott himself named the decade the "Jazz Age," when Flappers and their swains frequented speakeasies during prohibition home to drinking, dancing and swinging to the sounds of the Jazz Age

Sadly after a lifetime trying to succeed Zelda was driven to the heights of physical exhaustion. The histrionics and drama of Zelda’s life, and her grueling routine to become a ballerina resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1930. Zelda’s health slowly deteriorated and she was diagnosed as schizophrenic, thus spending 18 years of her life in and out of institutions. Despite her illness she spent the majority of her days painting. One wonders what amazing works of art she might have created had she not died tragically in a hospital fire at the age of 48.

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