Popular understanding of Zelda Fitzgerald has her pegged as something between two of F. Scott’s notorious female characters: devastating Rosalind from This Side of Paradise and vacuous Gloria from The Beautiful and Damned. Add a dollop of insanity, and that’s our Zelda. But as Therese Anne Fowler reveals in her new novel, Z, that’s not the whole story.
F. Scott’s legendary wife, as defined by media, literature and time, is less a real woman and more a mythical flapper creature. She is remembered as impulsive, usually drunk and eventually schizophrenic, and together she and Scott ruled the Jazz Age as American royalty. That’s the myth, and when Fowler first considered writing Z, it was all she knew.
“All I thought I knew about her was that she was Scott’s crazy wife,” Fowler says from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I just couldn’t imagine that writing about a crazy person would be very interesting except in a Mommie Dearest sort of way.”
As it turns out, Zelda wasn’t crazy. She was probably misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and more likely suffered from bipolar disorder. Her wild behavior in New York has also been exaggerated over time (though she did jump from a table down a flight of stairs). “She’s made out to be this sort of diva,” says Fowler. “I have included some of those incidents, but I think they do not stand out quite as vividly because I’m offsetting them with day-to-day truths of her life, the struggle.”
That’s the side of Zelda that has been forgotten by history, memorialized only in letters—her diaries cannot be found—and resurrected now in fiction: She was a mother and a wife, grappling with an identity separate from her marriage, split between the Southern sensibilities of her youth and the modern, feminist ideas she encountered in Paris. “Zelda is sort of hamstrung by being raised a traditional Southern girl, and then she lived in this world of rapid women’s rights developments and never seemed to be able to be one or the other of those women,” Fowler explains. “She would’ve been much happier if she’d identified one way or the other.”
This humanized Zelda is markedly less glamorous and therefore less of what we might want her to be. But Fowler maintains that the inexperienced, lost Zelda depicted in Z is much closer to the truth. “I have not taken liberties with the story or characterization in any case, in any character throughout the book,” Fowler says. “[The story] that pop culture has shown [readers] previously is an over-hyped misrepresentation. Zelda will get the fair shake that she didn’t get in her own lifetime.”
Zelda tells the story in her own words, in what could be called a “fictional memoir” that begins with a siren call: “Look closer and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we have seemed.” From there, Zelda takes readers to her childhood home in Alabama, where she first meets a dashing young F. Scott, and then to New York City, where they decide to act like characters from his first novel to draw the public eye, thus beginning their scandalous reign over NYC.
It is not until they move to Europe that the label of “wife” starts to conflict with Zelda’s own aspirations, but when she seeks careers in dance, art and writing, Scott’s jealousy creeps in. Throughout her life, Zelda’s identity is inextricably aligned with Scott’s career—Scott defined the Jazz Age as a whole, and Zelda’s identity in particular, and she could never disconnect from that. This is her great tragedy.
Juicy scenes, such as boozy stunts and rumors of an affair between Scott and Hemingway, add spice to a relatively simple story of a disintegrating marriage. Perhaps the only scene in which Fowler takes fiction’s liberties is when Hemingway propositions Zelda.
“[That scene is] deductive based on everything that I could find about their relationship,” says Fowler, who could find no historic evidence as to why Zelda and Hemingway never got along. “I wasn’t ramping it up, so to speak, for the purpose of story. I thought, ‘This is just something this guy does.’ ”
Z introduces an arguably more flattering Zelda, but Scott loses his golden-boy veneer (as Hemingway does in Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife). At his worst, he is an obtuse bully and an insecure fool. “We have these preconceived ideas of him partially based on anecdotal stuff . . . and also [from] reading his work,” explains Fowler, who filtered Scott’s worst out of the book. “We see this thoughtful, compassionate, tender person behind the story. Nobody who writes the kinds of things he wrote could be otherwise, but the truth of it is, he was a man of the times and he did have some struggles.”
While Fowler blames neither Scott nor Zelda for the ruin of their marriage, she has found that readers often take sides, and she expects criticism from “Team Scott.”
“For me to tell this story and to give it the verisimilitude that it deserved, if I wanted to stand up against the critical eye that’s going to be brought to it, I couldn’t make it a polemic in the way biographers seem to get away with,” Fowler says. “I didn’t think that would be fair to either of them.”
No matter which side they’re on, readers will find Z to be an intimate look at the collapse of a fascinating celebrity marriage through the eyes of a woman who defies expectations. “Her voice, her letters, her essays and her short fiction were all so clear and accessible and humorous and wry,” Fowler says. “She wasn’t out there trying to be anyone’s hero except maybe her own, and not doing such a great job at that, either. I think she fought the good fight in the end. I think that’s one of the reasons I admire her.”