Both of us are very splashy vivid pictures, those kind with the details left out,” Zelda Sayre wrote her fiancé, F. Scott Fitzgerald, two months before their wedding. “But I know our colors will blend….” And for the next decade they blended brilliantly as Scott and Zelda—perhaps the only literary couple known by their first names—burned their way through life on two continents until alcoholism and madness snuffed their partnership, but not their devotion. “Even in the darkest times,” says Eleanor Lanahan, 48, one of their three grandchildren, “Scott still loved her and still believed that they were one person.”
What ended in shadow began in the gaiety of a country-club dance in Montgomery, Ala., where Zelda, the 18-year-old town belle, met Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, 22, a green-eyed lieutenant from nearby Camp Sheridan. A descendant of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Scott was a Princeton dropout who was writing his first novel.
They married one week after the publication of that book, This Side of Paradise, on April 3, 1920, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Paradise quickly established Fitzgerald’s reputation as a writer and as a spokesman for the Jazz Age, a name he had coined. Always at his side was Zelda, whom he called “the first American flapper.” Together they looked “as though they had just stepped out of the sun,” said writer Dorothy Parker.
Scott and Zelda’s only child, Frances Scott, known as Scottie, arrived in 1921. “When my mother was born,” says Lanahan, an author and illustrator, “Zelda said, ‘Oh, God, I’m drunk. I hope she is beautiful, a beautiful little fool.’ Scott used those very words in The Great Gatsby. He recycled almost everything she said. He used her as a model for his heroines.”
In 1924, Scott, Zelda and Scottie moved to France so that he could work on Gatsby. Among their closest expatriate friends were Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose daughter Honoria, now 77, remembers the Fitzgeralds as “a very romantic unit. What stays with me is the way Scott looked at her with this totally admiring look on his face. And she did look ravishing. She always wore a peony on her left shoulder.”
Scott inscribed a book to Zelda, “my dearest, sweetest baboo,” and they called themselves the Goofos. But alcohol soon became a problem—and remained one. He was a steady drinker, preferring straight gin because he thought it couldn’t be smelled on his breath. Zelda often was drunk in public with her husband.
Scottie, who died in 1986 at 64, maintained that she knew little of her parents’ reckless lifestyle. “They were always very circumspect around me,” she said. “I was unaware of all the drinking that was going on. I was very well taken care of, and I was never neglected.” But it was a nomadic existence. Zelda “never liked a room without an open suitcase in it,” says Lanahan. “They traveled light.”
Seeking a creative outlet of her own, Zelda, at the late age of 27, took ballet lessons in Paris. For the next three years she often practiced eight hours a day. In 1930 she had her first breakdown—triggered, Scott felt, by her obsession with dance. She was hospitalized in Switzerland, where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Zelda spent most of her remaining years in mental institutions.
To help pay her medical bills, Scott defected to Hollywood as a screenwriter in 1937. There he took up with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Graham would later write a book about their romance, 1958’s Beloved Infidel, and it was she who was with him in 1940 when he collapsed of a heart attack while eating a chocolate bar and reading the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
But though Scott died with another woman, he and Zelda had never lost their bond. Until her death, in a 1948 fire at a hospital in Asheville, N.C., she wrote “beautiful letters to Scottie about him,” says Lanahan. “The tenderness is the point. That survived everything.”