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The legend of Zelda Fitzgerald

The legend of Zelda

A new TV series offers a positive portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfairly maligned wife

A new TV series offers a positive portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfairly maligned wife

Rachel Lloyd | January 31st 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald is fondly remembered as the chronicler of the Jazz Age and the author of “The Great Gatsby”, one of the greatest, and best-loved, novels of all time. Films about the Roaring Twenties portray him as brilliant and lovable, in spite of his womanising and alcoholism (Scott’s drinking led to his death in 1940, aged 44). Depictions of Zelda, his wife, have not been so flattering. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is not alone in typecasting her as a jealous madwoman. Scott’s novel “Tender is the Night” must bear some of the blame: it is a tale, laden with autobiographical detail, of “a woman who…decides to destroy [a man] by marrying him”.  

As Nancy Milford, Zelda’s first biographer, claimed, the public seems to know more about the heroines of Scott’s fiction than they do about Zelda Fitzgerald. Those accounts that do mention her have relied on the testimony of her husband (who once wrote that he “care[d] for nobody, generally including Zelda”) or Ernest Hemingway (a relationship of “mutual dislike”, at best). Consequently, they have focused on the Fitzgeralds’ tumultuous marriage, the paralysing effect it had on Scott’s writing, the schizophrenia that Zelda suffered from, and her suicide attempts. 

Nearly 70 years after she died in a fire at a hospital for the mentally ill, Zelda is undergoing a period of rehabilitation. A clutch of novels published in the last few years (including “Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler, “Call me Zelda” by Erika Robuck and “Beautiful Fools” by R. Clifton Spargo) aspire to a more nuanced portrayal of her. Therese Anne Fowler’s “Z” has been adapted by Amazon Studios into a television series; the first ten 25-minute-long episodes, which chart Zelda’s progression from spirited Southern belle to expectant mother, are available now.

For the first time on screen, Zelda (Christina Ricci) is the focal point of the narrative and not an inconvenient hanger-on. She is fleshed-out and given context: growing up with an authoritarian father (David Straithairn), she flouts the expectation that a woman should be demure. As a teen, she dances cheek-to-cheek with young men, kisses them in plain view and swigs corn liquor. She wears flesh-coloured swimsuits to give the illusion that she swims in the nude (which, on occasion, she does). When the ladies of New York poke fun at her provincial fashion sense, she loses the frills, bobs her hair and is transformed into – as Scott put it – “the first American flapper”. 

A woman with drive David Hoflin as Scott and Christina Ricci as Zelda

It is refreshing to see due attention given to Scott’s shameless plagiarism of Zelda’s writing. She was a keen diarist and letter-writer – material that, as Sarah Churchwell details in her book “Careless People”, was “plundered” by Scott for his novels. At first, Zelda delights in seeing her own words in “This Side of Paradise”. But it quickly becomes a source of frustration: Scott (David Hoflin) pours scorn on her “automatic writing”, all the while relying on it for plot ideas and characterisation. He blocks a suggestion that Zelda’s diaries be published. After a violent fight, Zelda ridicules Scott’s writer’s block: “do you need me to write this up in my diary for you, or do you think you’ve got this one covered on your own?” It is not easy to make questions of intellectual property exciting, but this series manages to.

While it is pleasingly faithful to the facts (there seems little need for embellishment given the drama of Zelda’s life), “Z” occasionally succumbs to the temptation to remake its heroine in the image of modern feminists. She may have been progressive by contemporary standards, but she was not a vocal supporter of women’s rights and did not, as this series claims, take part in suffragette rallies. Asked about Scottie, her daughter, Zelda said that she hoped she would grow up to be a “beautiful little fool” (a phrase which Scott co-opted for “The Great Gatsby”). 

It is also disappointing that the series opts for a conventional linear narrative: flashbacks or half-conjured memories would have made for more engaging television. Ricci has, so far, done a good job of conveying Zelda’s passion, boredom and betrayal; how she – and the film-makers – will cope with her declining mental health is yet to be seen. Yet despite its flaws, “Z: The Beginning of Everything” helps us to better understand a complex woman, and brings out her wicked sense of humour (she dismissed Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises” as “bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit”). 

Fans of Zelda can also look forward to a biopic, based on Milford’s biography. Currently in production, it will star Jennifer Lawrence, whose Oscar-winning portrayal in “Silver Linings Playbook” of a woman suffering from mental illness bodes well for the part. You can’t help feeling Zelda would have enjoyed all the attention. 

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