F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of American literature’s most defining names. Nearly a century after being published, his novel The Great Gatsby is up there with the most famous books of all time. But many people may have forgotten about his wife, Zelda, who was equally as famous — and troubled — as her husband. In fact, her flamboyant personality and struggles with mental health inspired many of his most indelible characters. Many knew Zelda as her husband’s beautiful muse, but her own life was full of scandal, torment, and controversy.
Zelda came from a controversial family
Zelda was born into a privileged Southern family in 1900. Her father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre, was the Associate Justice in the Supreme Court of Alabama, her grandfather was a U.S. Senator, and her dad’s uncle also served six terms in the Senate. Unfortunately, her family also kept slaves prior to the civil war, and she grew up with a host of African American servants in the household.
She was a teenage rebel
Zelda, living a life of leisure but impacted by an emotionally cold father, became a teenage tearaway. Her family’s standing in the community meant she could do what we wanted without consequence, so she rebelled by smoking, drinking, and disobeying her parents to sneak out with boys. She also sought attention from the genteel society around her, namely by wearing a flesh-colored bathing suit to play into rumors that she swam in the nude!
She was only 18 when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald
At a country club dance in Montgomery in 1918, Zelda’s life changed forever. It was on that fateful night that the carefree 18-year-old met 22-year-old Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald, a volunteer in the U.S. Army and an aspiring novelist. While sparks instantly flew between them and they began courting, she kept her options open because she wasn’t sure of his financial prospects as a writer.
The heroine of Scott’s first novel was modeled after Zelda
The couple married after Scott published his first novel This Side of Paradise in 1920. Interestingly, he was so infatuated with Zelda’s spirit that he created the character of Rosalind in her image. This isn’t something critics and readers inferred, by the way — it’s a fact, backed up by one of Scott’s many letters to his wife. In 1918 he sent her a chapter and wrote, “... the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.”