Zelda Wasn't 'Crazy': How What You Don't Know About Fitzgerald Tells Us Something About 'Crazy' Women, Then and Now

The "crazy" Zelda that has emerged in our popular imagination is as much Scott's making as The Great Gatsby itself. This is, in and of itself, part of the F. Scott legacy. His work depended on Zelda's silence.
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Co-Authored with Vali Forrister

The 1920s are back, and we can thank Baz Luhrmann's remake of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, The Great Gatsby. This telling of Fitzgerald's story of American Dream hustle, the decadence of the nouveau riche and the utility of deception is bursting with extravagant scenery and costuming, shot in 3-D and held together with opulent scenes capturing the drunken revelry of the Jazz Age. Luhrmann's frenetic style à la Moulin Rouge is particularly apropos given what we know about Fitzgerald's life.

There are the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unparalleled tolerance for alcohol. His relationships with Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker figure prominently into the ways he is remembered, too. But his marriage to Zelda Sayre is also part of Fitzgerald lore, notable for one fact in particular: Zelda was crazy. At least, that's how the story goes.

"Crazy" is a gendered trope. Arguably, calling women "crazy" is the most commonly-used strategy for stereotyping and devaluing us. (It's also a label that functions to stigmatize mental illness.) Consider Yashir Ali's "A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not 'Crazy.'" Ali explores gaslighting, a subtle process of emotional manipulation regularly used to convince women that our reaction is an overreaction. As Ali notes, "Whether gaslighting is conscious or not, it produces the same result: It renders some women emotionally mute."

Scott's biography regularly depicts Zelda as crazy. Even city tours of the Appalachian tourist destination Asheville, North Carolina, feature a drive past the Highland Mental Hospital historical site. Zelda died in a fire at the facility. Whether you'll hear that she was chained to her bed or clutching a pair of ballet slippers depends on which tour guide does the telling. The official medical report suggests that she was awaiting electro-shock therapy and could have escaped if she had not been sedated. A retrospective reading of Zelda's biography reveals what we might understand as gaslighting, but it demonstrates something more insidious, too.

Stories of Zelda's fragility, and ultimately her demise, leave out one critical fact: There is no F. Scott without Zelda. The historical record is clear. Scott's stories relied on Zelda's own writing, but Scott's role in Zelda's "crazy" is conspicuously absent from public memory. The "crazy" Zelda that has emerged in our popular imagination is as much Scott's making as The Great Gatsby itself. This is, in and of itself, part of the F. Scott legacy. His work depended on Zelda's silence.

There is no doubt that many of Zelda's behaviors violated societal norms of the day, specifically prevailing gender expectations. As she reveals in a high school journal,

I ride boys' motorcycles, chew gum, smoke in public, dance cheek to cheek, drink corn liquor and gin. I was the first to bob my hair and I sneak out at midnight to swim in the moonlight with boys at Catoma Creek and then show up at breakfast as though nothing had happened.

Some historical analyses have suggested that Zelda likely experienced bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It's also plausible that she was affected by consuming copious amounts of toxic industrial alcohol and bootleg moonshine. The experimental psychological and medical care she received had lasting impacts, too. But retrospective diagnoses of Zelda as mentally ill ignore the social and intimate context of Zelda's behavior. According to Zelda biographer, Therese Ann Fowler: "Zelda did suffer some mental health crises -- depression, primarily -- and was an uninhibited, uncensored woman who didn't always think before she acted, but she wasn't crazy. Unwise? Sometimes. Insane? No."

Indeed, while Scott may not have driven Zelda to madness, in a journal entry, Scott detailed a strategy for inducing Zelda's commitment: "Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result -- new breakdown."

Over and over again, Scott constructed scenarios that incited her distrust and rage.

In the early parts of their marriage, Zelda's charisma and originality as the quintessential flapper made the Fitzgeralds one of the most popular couples in America. The bustling social life Zelda made possible informed Scott's writing, but his close observation of Zelda functioned as research, too. As friend to the Fitzgeralds and fellow writer Lawton Campbell explains,

[Scott] would hang on her words and applaud her actions, often repeating them for future reference, often writing them down as they came from the fountainhead. I have seen Scott jot down Zelda's remarks on odd pieces of paper or on the back of envelopes and stuff them in his pockets. At times, his pockets were fairly bulging with her bon-mots and bits of spontaneous observations.

Scott modeled his female protagonist in This Side of Paradise on Zelda, quoting her verbatim to create dialogue. Scott even lifted entire sections of her diary for The Beautiful and the Damned. After sharing Zelda's diaries with editor and literary critic George Jean Nathan, Nathan expressed immediate interest in publishing them under the title "A Young Girl's Diary." Enraged, Scott refused, but Zelda did publish a review of The Beautiful and the Damned in New York Tribune that outed Scott: "Mr. Fitzgerald -- I believe that is how he spells his name -- seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.''

In 1927, Scott met Lois Moran, a 17-year-old silent film actress. Scott's affair with Lois was neither his first nor his last. In fact, Scott and Zelda had an established pattern of non-monogamy, but before meeting Lois, Scott had retooled their marital contract to insist on Zelda's fidelity. In a letter to Scott dated September 1930, Zelda writes, "In California, though you would not allow me to go anywhere without you, you yourself engaged in flagrantly sentimental relations with a child."

After Scott left for a dinner with Lois, Zelda filled a bathtub with her own clothing designs and set them on fire. Another confrontation with Scott over Lois unfolded when Scott announced that Lois and her mother would be visiting them. Zelda responded by throwing her diamond and platinum wristwatch, an engagement present from Scott, out the window of a moving train. Over the course of their affair, Scott steadily compared the two women. Even though Scott forbade Zelda from accepting a movie role offered to her, viciously panned her writing and blatantly discouraged her dancing and painting pursuits, Scott audaciously criticized Zelda's lack of ambition while applauding Lois' drive. And yet, Scott propagated stories that positioned Zelda's outrage as yet more evidence of Zelda's "crazy." He implicitly denied culpability.

Scott's ridicule fueled Zelda's artistic pursuits and desire for independence, but the strain eventually resulted in a breakdown. During the resulting hospital stay, Zelda began writing the semi-autobiographical Save Me the Waltz and sent a draft to Scott's editor, Max Perkins. Scott offered to edit the manuscript and promptly pilfered passages for his novel Tender Is the Night, so that when her first (and only) novel was published, reviews suggested that it was confused and insignificant. Zelda was left with a slow-growing but eventually all-consuming resentment about Scott's blatant cannibalization of her work and her very self.

Scott's career depended on Zelda. Yet, he systematically erased her contributions and undermined her autonomy and independent success. But, his manipulation of Zelda was more than misogynistic sport.

Scott benefited greatly from her eloquence and charisma, but Zelda's "crazy" also served his interests. This dynamic between Scott and Zelda is not unlike stories of women we know who in academic, professional and artistic contexts have been mentored to their peril. Affiliating with a seasoned professional may be "how you get started," but too often young women -- artists, graduate students and business professionals experience the uncanny moment of seeing our work presented with someone else's name attached. This relationship relies upon gendered patterns of socialization, which leave women less-equipped to be assertive, along with cultural tropes that label women "crazy bitches" for speaking up and demanding credit or fair compensation for our original labor.

Zelda and Scott's story speaks not only to interpersonal dynamics, but also to systematic patterns that continue to undermine contemporary women's lives. For example, universities across the country and the U.S. military are finally being held accountable for paltry enforcement of sexual violence policy. Women are, of course, leading these efforts. In relation to Occidental College's administrative approach, civil rights attorney Gloria Allred has suggested that the pattern of inaction and deferral of responsibility are emblematic of "deliberate indifference." The costs to women who traverse these hostile climates are real, and yet, both universities and the military continue to display rampant institutional indifference. Whether in the 1920s or in 2013, flagrantly repudiating responsibility is made possible by the smug knowledge that women are, generally speaking, less likely to be able to successfully make the case for liability -- due to economic inequality and durable cultural tropes. We're "crazy," after all.

For the pilfering mentor, the creativity and vision offered by the ingénue is highly valuable, but its value depends on the ease with which a mentee can be discredited and discarded. For the deliberately indifferent university, the energy and engagement of faculty and students helps to lend credibility to the university as a structure invested in cultivating citizenship. The military, too, transforms as women join the ranks. Greater inclusivity lends a kind of legitimacy to American democracy. But it's equally true that old patterns of sexism remain intact, as women who voice dissent or protest are reduced to irritating whiners or troublemakers, at best, and "crazy," at worst.

It's not that contemporary women are simply gaslighted, labeled as crazy, and then disregarded. It's that women from Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald to UConn student Carolyn Luby are ensnared in the same traps that limited Zelda. Women's talent and vision transforms the spaces we operate in, but the enduring legacy of women's unequal power and persistent cultural stereotypes converge to undermine women's value in the very spaces that depend on our labor and voice. It's enough to make anyone "crazy."

In 1934, the Cary Ross Gallery in Manhattan featured an exhibit of Zelda's paintings, a show she entitled "Parfois La Folie Est La Sagesse," or "Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom." As the release of The Great Gatsby ignites a resurgent celebration of all things F. Scott, the story of Zelda as a failed artist and deranged party girl will undoubtedly be recounted too, and that is "crazy."

Vali Forrister is the producing artistic director of Actors Bridge Ensemble, a theatre company in Nashville, where she recently collaborated on and produced the world premiere of OUTSIDE PARADISE, a new play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.


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