The love of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life

Mike Selby looks at the great author's troubled marriage

“I hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

It was the early 1920s when F. Scott Fitzgerald penned these lines for the first chapter of his seminal work, ‘The Great Gatsby’. Although a work of fiction, so much of the novel came from Fitzgerald’s life. Unfortunately for him, the quote above was far too real.

Fitzgerald first met his wife Zelda at a country club in 1918. She resembled a modern tabloid celebrity—the spoiled rich girl who is famous for only being famous; one who saw life as nothing more than one big endless party. Fitzgerald fell madly in love with her. And it seemed she was equally in love with him, until he asked her to marry him. Zelda refused; he had neither the wealth nor the fame she craved.

Fitzgerald sought to change that, and after Scribners published ‘This Side of Paradise’ in 1920, Zelda agreed to become Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their marriage heralded what would be called ‘The Jazz Age’ in the United States. Women were out of control—bobbing their hair, driving, smoking in public, getting drunk, and kissing men not their husbands—all while dancing the Charleston. None did any of this better than Zelda. Amused at first, Fitzgerald found Zelda’s behaviour exhausting. He began to drink heavily, and continued to write.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ was published in Collier’s magazine in 1922. The tale of a man aging in reverse, Fitzgerald based it on a remark by Mark Twain, who felt “it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” This was followed by two novels—’The Beautiful and the Damned,’ and ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Both books charted and explored his relationship with his wife.

Which by this time had become increasingly abusive and dysfunctional. Fitzgerald both loved and hated his wife. As her wild behaviour only seemed to increase, he began to grow suspicious of her. He turned more and more to booze, and began to write less and less. As the Depression killed off the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald was forced to face the truth about his wife: the party needed to end. There was something seriously wrong with her.

Diagnosed with what is now called bipolar disorder, Zelda spent the rest of her life in and out of psychiatric institutions.

During one of her stays, something odd happened. Zelda wrote her own novel. ‘Save Me the Waltz,’ was published in 1934. Her husband flipped. How dare she do this to him! He was the writer! Using anecdotes from their marriage as the book’s material, Fitzgerald felt his wife had effectively sabotaged his next book, ‘Tender is the Night.’

Zelda never wrote anything again.

Much like ‘The Great Gatsby,’ there is no happy ending here. Fitzgerald drank himself to death in 1940. Locked in a psychiatric treatment room awaiting electroshock therapy, Zelda burned to death in a hospital fire in 1948.

As he so eloquently wrote in Gatsby: “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library