Review of "Zelda"

By Nancy Milford
Harper Perennial, 2001
Review by Kathryn Walker on May 4th 2002

The story of the Fitzgeralds, of Scott and Zelda, ranks high on the list of the twentieth century's great love stories.  It has all the essential ingredients, passion and pain, betrayal and beauty, tenderness and tragedy.  In fact, the true story itself stands its own, maybe even out-shadows its fictionalized incarnations in Scott Fitzgerald's work: Tender is the Night, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and the Dammed. 

Zelda, a southern belle, overflowing with life, never paying heed to the proprieties of her debutante caste, and Scott a dashing lieutenant, met in Montgomary during the summer heat of 1918.  They fell in love and spent the next few years claiming, and establishing their love through written correspondence.

In the twenties the two were married.  In New York, young and beautiful—Zelda herself the original flapper—they defined the Jazz Age.  As the twenties slowed into the depression, things became heavier for the Fitzgeralds.  In the thirties, living intermittently in the American south, then Paris, then the French Riviera, they moved around a lot.  And in this time their once youthful carefree love became marred with Scott's drinking, with the responsibility of their child Scottie, and by Zelda's affair with a French aviator.

By the mid-thirties the difficulties in Zelda and Scott's relationship reached a climax with Zelda suffering a manic episode.  Zelda situated next to Scott's talent and fame had been desperately trying to carve out for herself some creative space of fulfillment.  She turned to ballet and practicing for eight hours a day, barely eating or sleeping she worked herself furiously.  Zelda spent the next fifteen months in Prangins, a Swiss sanatorium.  She was diagnosed as schizophrenic

Zelda's difficulties with mental health would continue to plague her for the rest of her life.  In the years following her release from Prangins, the relationship between Zelda and Scott, with Zelda's recurring mania and Scott's alcoholism, would its-self pass though varying degrees of health.  They continued to move frequently, constantly trying to find the most stable environment for Zelda.  Zelda continued to have breakdowns and returned to mental asylum safety several more times. 

Finally Zelda settle at the Highland Hospital in North Carolina.  Through all the years of Zelda's mental illness, despite the difficulties in their relationship, Scott always insisted that her care be of the best quality.  Throughout these hard times their correspondence, first begun when they were young and in love, was a constant pillar of their relationship and love for one another.  Even when Scott, living in Los Angeles, writing screenplays established a romantic relationship with writer Sheila Graham, the correspondence between Zelda and Scott continued.  In 1940 Scott at his home in L.A. died of a heart attack.  Eight years later, March 10 1948, Zelda only 48 years old, died in a fire at the hospital. 

Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda's life, beautifully, presents the story of Zelda's life, her relationship with Scott, and her struggle with mental illness.  Milford's account incorporates the letters of Scott and Zelda and in so doing throws its reader into the emotion of story itself. Milford's presentation of Zelda's breakdowns, for example, do not read like clinical or historical objective reports, but rather situate the reader at the center of the tumult and confusion of Zelda's illness.

Milford's work tangentially puts forth the question of the relationship between art and life.  Not only was the relationship between Zelda and Scott itself, was a constant negotiation of art and life—Scott's work drawing directly from his relationship with Zelda, and Zelda herself continually turning towards art, to dance, to writing, to painting, in order to establish her own existence. But Milford's work itself is both a factual account of real life and a work of art.  


© 2002 Kathryn Walker

Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.


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