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.