Classics Club #1: Nancy Milford’s Zelda

I really enjoyed Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Sayre, the wife of one of my favorite writers, F.S. Fitzgerald. This is a tragic story of a woman who realized that being nothing but a wife even to the most brilliant, fascinating, adoring and faithful man in the world (because Fitzgerald was all that to Zelda) is not enough to fulfill a human being.

At first, Zelda was very happy in her marriage to Scott. They were the most glamorous couple of the twenties, admired and celebrated by everybody. Gradually, however, Zelda started to realize that her life lacked meaning. Scott had his work while she had nothing of her own. She was too smart to be content with living her life as an appendage to a famous writer.

Zelda’s dream became to excel in something and manage to make her own living. However, she had no education and lacked the simple knowledge of how much work and effort one needed to invest to become even just simply mediocre at anything.

At first, she decided to become a ballet dancer but the need to practice on a regular basis was too much for her, and Zelda ended up at a clinic with a nervous breakdown. Then, she chose the career of a writer. The problem with that plan was that the only material she could write about was her life with Fitzgerald, and he’d already written about that with the skill he’d acquired from the regular practice of his craft. Zelda simply could not compete, which made her suffer. Later on, Zelda tried her hand at painting. The perseverance and strength needed to practice any of her chosen professions were not there, though.

Every time she failed, Zelda withdrew deeper into mental illness. She spent years going from one institution to another. Scott, who loved her passionately, struggled to pay for her expensive medical care, for their living expenses, and for the education of their daughter for whom he was the only actual caretaking parent. Having seen what a lack of an education and a career had done to his wife, Fitzgerald was obsessed by offering his daughter Scottie the best education he could.

Milford’s biography of Zelda is very well-researched and offers a very convincing and poignant story of the horror implied in the “two people, one career” model of a romantic relationship.

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15 comments on “Classics Club #1: Nancy Milford’s Zelda

  1. It’s been awhile since I read this book when I went through a stage of reading about many of the writers living in Paris in the 1920′s. I haven’t thought to re-read the book, although I still have it. I wonder how I would interpret it now, given how one’s perceptions tend to change through their own life experiences. The story was tragic, despite his success. I also recall feeling that jealousy may have existed between them, which would undermine their relationship. It’s been awhile, so I know what I’m writing is vague. One wonders if she had lived now how she would have fared–how the both of them would have survived.

  2. You rock for already reading one of your books! I feel inspired.

    The book sounds very interesting. Of course, Nancy Mitford is wonderful. Did you already know that that was the kind of life that Zelda had, that she was just an appendage of her husband and his career? Or was it all a surprise to you when you read it? I didn’t know that about her.

    What are your favorite books/stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald?

    • Thank you!

      The book was very unexpected for me because the story I’d heard about FSF and Zelda is that he drove her to insanity. I started the book prepared to feel very sorry for her and very indignant towards him. But what I learned from the book was very different.

      The Grat Gatsby is an absolute masterpiece. Maybe I need to write a review of it, as well.

      • I just found it interesting that her scenario aligned so perfectly with your views (that you can’t find happiness and fulfillment living vicariously through someone else, etc.). I wondered if perhaps that had spurred you to read the book in the first place.

        From your review, it still seems that you feel sorry for her. Do you? Was her lot tragic or just pathetic? You seem very compassionate and understanding about her situation. It sounds like a cautionary tale. What a bind she must have been in. Surely she was able to enjoy and feel intellectually stimulated by her husband and their socializing, but I suppose that in the end it only served to make her feel more miserable and superficial without being able to be in some kind of productive capacity. The fact that she was so miserable shows that she probably was very intelligent indeed. How sad that she wasn’t able to channel that into a pursuit that interested her (or that yielded appreciable returns in the short term).

        Did you feel sorry for her husband? It sounds like everyone was to be pitied here and hardly anyone to be blamed. How unfortunate. Thank God times have changed (even though many people live as if they haven’t).

        I’d like to read it. And, yes, I’d enjoy reading a review of The Great Gatsby if you feel up to it.

      • I know, it’s weird! I’m reading the second book on my list right now (by Alberto Moravia), and it’s on the same issue! Which I in no way anticipated.

        I spent most of the book feeling very annoyed with Zelda because she is so self-destructive. And also I really disliked her attempts to undermine FSF because she was competing with him. I have a painful personal experience with a partner competing with me and reading such stories is always painful. But in the end, poor woman! She really suffered.

        FSF blamed Zelda’s upbringing for her problems. Milford doesn’t explore that a whole lot but there are definite indications that Zelda was trained to be a Southern Belle but was not given any useful habits. The first time FSF visited her at home, Zelda’s father got annoyed with something and started chasing her around with a carving knife. One can only wonder what went on when no strangers were present.

        I knew nothing of this before reading the book, which is good because I like being surprised.

  3. Cool. Thanks for writing a review. I look forward to reading all the others!

    Have you ever written here about that experience of your former partner competing with you? If you have, could you provide me the link?

    • “Have you ever written here about that experience of your former partner competing with you? If you have, could you provide me the link?”

      - Not yet. But you are not the first person to ask for that story, so maybe I should. :-)

  4. I wish I could find the book that Zelda’s best friend wrote about her and Scott. In her eyes this was a classic case of abuse on his part. He broke her spirit. I can’t remember the author’s name, sadly.
    I will try to find this biography, though, because it completely refutes everything people say about Zelda, who was railroaded by Scott and his friends, stuck away in an asylum, and who eventually burned to death in a home. A yet everyone sympathized with Scott!! Those were the days when “great men” could get away with torturing women in the service of their art.

    • There are endless quotes from Zelda’s letters in this biography and from them FSF really doesn’t come off as a villain. From those letters, if anybody broke anybody, she broke him. Remember that the guy worked to keep them all in the midst of the Great Depression. In the meanwhile, she did not contribute anything. And she was abusive to her daughter (according to her own words) while FSF was the only real parent.

      It is not surprising that FSF died long before Zelda did since his life had been much harder.

    • Zelda was also never “stuck” in an asylum. She checked herself in every single time, while FSF was stuck with huge bills. Nobody prevented her from leaving and making her own living.

      My sympathies will never lie with people who are kept.

  5. Pingback: Classics Club « Clarissa's Blog

  6. Could you write about his novel, “The Great Gatsby”, please? I just finished reading it and would love to hear your pov.

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