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.
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.
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.
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.