F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald at the AAPG Library
In Woody Allen’s latest film Midnight in Paris, a modern-day writer finds himself repeatedly traveling back in time to Paris at the height of the 1920’s. While there he meets a number of the period’s famous writers and artists, from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Seeing this film made me want to learn more about the fascinating lives of these people, so I decided to research Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who in the film introduce us to the world of Paris in the twenties.
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota. His early years were spent moving back and forth between Minnesota and New England. Scott started at Princeton in 1913, withdrawing in 1915 and retuning a year later only to withdraw again in late 1917 to enlist in the army for WWI. He never graduated from Princeton, and the war ended before his unit was sent overseas. While in the army he began working on his first novel The Romantic Egotist (later to become This Side of Paradise).
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born on July 24, 1900 to a prominent southern family in Montgomery, Alabama. Even in her teenage years, Zelda was known as a great beauty and also as a source of gossip due to her dramatic, sometimes scandalous behavior. Scott and Zelda met at a dance in Montgomery in 1918 while Scott was still in the army. Scott and Zelda began a courtship that continued over the next two years. In 1920, This Side of Paradise was published to much success and the two were married shortly afterward. Their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald (known as Scottie), was born in 1921, and in 1922 Scott’s second novel The Beautiful and Damned was published.
The Fitzgeralds left for Europe in 1924 where Scott worked on his next novel, The Great Gatsby. This novel was published in 1925, and a few weeks later the Fitzgeralds rented an apartment in Paris. While in Paris, Scott developed a particularly close and sometimes complicated friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway. However, Zelda strongly disliked Hemingway, and this friendship, along with an affair Zelda had on the Riviera in 1924 with a French pilot, contributed significantly to the growing amount of conflict and jealousy in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. Over the next five years the family traveled to various places, returning to Paris in 1930. While there Zelda, who had become increasingly unstable, had her first mental breakdown. She was admitted to a sanatorium and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Zelda spent time in many different clinics, and in 1932 while living in a clinic in Baltimore she wrote her novel Save Me the Waltz. During this period Scott was living in various cities, and his fourth novel Tender is the Night was published in 1934.
By the end of 1936, Scott and Zelda were living on opposite sides of the country and their marriage was essentially over, although they continued to exchange letters until Scott’s death. Throughout the late '30’s Scott suffered financial problems that forced him to work on short stories and Hollywood scripts to make ends meet. He was also working on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was published in 1941 after his death. He had a relationship in California with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham that lasted until he died from a heart attack on December 21, 1940. Zelda had entered Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina in 1936, and she was in and out of this hospital for the rest of her life. In March of 1948 a fire swept through the hospital, killing nine women, including Zelda. Known as literary celebrities in their lifetime, the Fitzgeralds remain today symbols of the jazz age and the Lost Generation.
The Library for the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery (AAPG) has several biographies on the lives of the Fitzgerald. The library also has a vertical file on Zelda and her artwork.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Prigozy, Ruth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Overlook Press, 2002.
Taylor, Kendall. Sometimes Madness is Wisdom. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman’s Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Bethany Gugliemino is a summer intern from the National Portrait Gallery interning at the Smithsonian American Art Museeum/National Portrait Gallery Library. She is a rising sophomore at the University of Florida.