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10 Roaring Facts About Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald was a writer, dancer, and Jazz Age celebrity who struggled on and off with mental illness. Her husband, famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, called her the first American flapper, and she became a 1920s icon due to her vivacious nature and bon vivant lifestyle.

1. HER FAMILY MEMBERS HELD PROMINENT POSITIONS IN THE U.S. GOVERNMENT.

Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1900. Her father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre [PDF], worked as a lawyer, representative in the Alabama state legislature, state senator, city judge, and justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. Additionally, both Zelda’s great-uncle and grandfather served in the United States Senate.

2. ZELDA WAS A WILD CHILD.

In high school, Zelda’s desire to be unconventional and rebellious meant that she smoked, drank alcohol, and snuck out of her parents’ house to spend time with boys. Her friends described her as fearless, daring, and attention-seeking. Later, when she was living with her husband in New York, her carefree spirit and profligate behavior (such as jumping into fountains fully clothed) became a symbol of the 1920s.

3. HER MARRIAGE TO F. SCOTT FITZGERALD WAS INCREDIBLY TUMULTUOUS.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with their daughter, Scottie. Getty

Zelda’s marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald was reportedly a toxic one, complete with alcoholism, mutual infidelity, and jealousy. Zelda accused her husband of having a gay relationship with his friend and fellow writer Ernest Hemingway, and she had nervous breakdowns throughout their marriage. Although they never divorced, the couple was estranged when F. Scott died in 1940.

4. BOTH F. SCOTT AND ZELDA ACCUSED EACH OTHER OF PLAGIARISM.

Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

F. Scott based some of his characters on Zelda, and he adapted his real-life interactions and experiences with her into his novels. He also copied, verbatim, entries from Zelda’s journals and put them into his books, blurring the line between fiction and reality. In a piece she wrote for The New York Tribune, Zelda poked fun at her husband, saying that he “seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” On the flip side, Scott dismissed and undermined his wife’s literary ambitions. He criticized her novel Save Me The Waltz, Zelda’s only published work, accusing her of using autobiographical details of their lives that he was going to use in his novel Tender Is The Night and borrowing a character's name from one of his early protagonists.

5. SHE TRAINED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL BALLERINA.

As a child, Zelda had taken ballet lessons, but her interest in dance was renewed in her late 20s while the couple was living in France. Hoping to become a professional ballerina, she took ballet lessons in Paris with Russian dancer Lubov Egorova. Zelda trained obsessively for a few years, spending all day practicing until her dancing dreams ended when she suffered a mental breakdown in 1930.

6. WRITING AND PAINTING WERE HER CREATIVE OUTLETS DURING HER TREATMENT FOR MENTAL ILLNESS.

Zelda Fitzgerald's "Fifth Avenue." Penn State via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Zelda was in and out of mental hospitals. Although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, her fluctuations between depression and mania would most likely get her a bipolar diagnosis today. During her time in these hospitals, Zelda kept herself creatively occupied by writing and painting. She worked on her second novel, called Caesar’s Things, and she painted scenes from Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, and New York locations like Times Square, Washington Square Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

7. SHE WAS KILLED IN A FIRE AT HIGHLAND HOSPITAL.

During the 1940s, Zelda worked on writing a novel and lived intermittently in Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. On March 10, 1948, a fire started in the hospital’s kitchen. Reportedly, Zelda was scheduled for an electroshock therapy session and was sedated and locked in a waiting room. Regardless of where exactly she was, the fire spread through the floors of the building via the dumbwaiter shaft, and Zelda was killed along with eight other women. She was 47.

8. THE LEGEND OF ZELDA VIDEO GAME IS NAMED AFTER HER.

In the mid-1980s, Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto needed a name for his new Nintendo heroine, and Zelda had just the right ring to it. "She was a famous and beautiful woman from all accounts, and I liked the sound of her name," Miyamoto has said, and thus he called the princess in his fantasy game Zelda. The game was an immediate hit.

9. THE EAGLES WROTE "WITCHY WOMAN" AFTER BEING INSPIRED BY ZELDA'S BIOGRAPHY.

After reading a biography about Zelda, Don Henley of the Eagles wrote the 1972 song “Witchy Woman” about her. It was "an important song for me," Henley said, "because it marked the beginning of my professional songwriting career." Describing her as a restless spirit in the song, Henley also referred to her use of absinthe ("she drove herself to madness with a silver spoon").

10. SHE HAS BEEN IMMORTALIZED IN DESSERT TOO, THANKS TO ARTISANAL ICE CREAM.

In 2013, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams offered a limited edition line of ice creams inspired by Zelda. Called The Zelda Collection, the sweet treats came in four flavors meant to reflect Zelda’s life from Alabama to New York to St. Paul, Minnesota (F. Scott's hometown). The flavors featured were blackberries and sweet cream, cognac and marmalade, dark chocolate rye, and Loveless biscuits and peach jam. Zelda, with her appreciation for delicacies, would likely have approved.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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