They looked, wrote Dorothy Parker, "as though they had just stepped out of the sun". The gifted writer F Scott Fitzgerald and his beautiful wife Zelda were icons of the Jazz Age who partied with abandon but gradually furious rows, fuelled by alcohol and sexual jealousy, became common, and both of them would die young. Emily Hourican recalls their doomed lives and, in the light of new stage and film versions of 'The Great Gatsby', writer Jay McInerney reflects on what the tale reveals about the American psyche
F Scott Fitzgerald may indeed have had "talent ... as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust of a butterfly's wings", as Hemingway put it, but without the influence of his wife Zelda, whose capacity for romantic recklessness matched his own, that talent would not have found the exquisite form that made him one of the great modern novelists.
Zelda was the model for nearly all of Fitzgerald's complex, ultimately unknowable heroines, from Rosalind in This Side of Paradise, to Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Nicole Driver in Tender is the Night; those girls with luminous eyes and delicate grace, capable of being inexplicably moved to tears by the cut of a dinner jacket or the curve of a man's cheek.
Zelda Sayre was the youngest of six children, born to a prominent Southern family, and grew up spoiled and rich in a pre-war America that was the peak of civilised refinement; an era of cool drinks on shady porches, of dances, dalliances and seemingly inexhaustible wealth, when youth was a golden, indulged time.
And Zelda was, in Fitzgerald's eyes, a golden girl. Precocious and attention-seeking, she was also beautiful. Photographs show an almost childish face, with large, far-apart eyes and a small, full mouth. But she also looks brooding, even sullen, almost never pictured smiling. From a young age, she was smoking, drinking and hanging around with boys -- along with Tallulah Bankhead, a childhood friend. Her various scandalous escapades included dancing the Charleston and wearing a flesh-coloured swimsuit; Alabama society described her as an "enchantress" and a "disgrace", often almost in the same breath. Fitzgerald, then a 21-year-old army recruit from a well-established though far from wealthy Irish Catholic Minnesota family, took one look at her during a country club dance and was besotted; "I love her, and that's the beginning and the end of it," he said.
At the time, he was a Princeton-educated struggling artist, working on his book This Side of Paradise ("all criticism of Rosalind ends in her beauty", he wrote of the character inspired by Zelda). He certainly wasn't rich or established enough for Zelda, who had various other suitors, but something in his ambition, romanticism and, particularly, his belief that life should be lived freely, as a work of art, appealed to her. Nevertheless, she broke off the engagement at one point, and flirted seriously with other men, which incensed Fitzgerald."I wouldn't care if she died, but I couldn't stand to have anyone else marry her," he told a friend. His book was published, and became an instant success. Fitzgerald and Zelda married, and became the golden couple of 1920s New York.
Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker described them as looking "as though they had just stepped out of the sun". They drank and partied with abandon, true to the tenets of their faith in life -- daring, dashing and reckless. She received friends in her bath, together they splashed fully clothed in the fountain at Union Square, got banned from hotels, rode on top of taxis and passed out, drunk, in each other's arms at parties.
But gradually the dream of glamour turned increasingly sordid. Furious rows, fuelled by alcohol and sexual jealousy, became common. Zelda had a daughter, Frances, known as Scottie, just over a year into the marriage, remarking at her birth, "I hope it's beautiful and a fool -- a beautiful little fool"; words that anyone who knows The Great Gatsby will immediately recognise as said by Daisy.
There were to be no more children, a second pregnancy ended in probable abortion, and Zelda was far from domesticated. She had a nanny for Scottie, two housekeepers and a laundress for her fabulous clothes. Asked by Harper & Brothers to contribute something to Favorite Recipes of Famous Women, she wrote: "See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily..."
In an attempt to live more cheaply, the Fitzgeralds moved to France, and divided their time between Paris and Antibes, where they hung out with Picasso, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway. Zelda had an intense affair with a French aviator, Edouard Jozan, and demanded a divorce. Fitzgerald responded by locking her in the house until she changed her mind. He continued writing, often lifting passages wholesale from Zelda's letters and diaries, as well as copying her turns of phrase -- "Mr Fitzgerald ... seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home," she once wrote in a cheeky review of The Beautiful and the Damned for the New York Tribune, but pretty quickly the plagarism became a source of bitterness between them, especially as Zelda more and more wanted to stop playing the passive role of muse, and write herself.
While visiting Gerald and Sara Murphy, who lived at the Hotel du Cap, Zelda swallowed a large, but not fatal, dose of sleeping pills. Both she and Scott denied it was a suicide attempt, but their antics were increasingly dangerous -- such as coming home from parties drunk, then diving in darkness from 35ft rocks into the sea. When Sara Murphy remonstrated with her, Zelda responded with, "Didn't you know? We're not into conservation." Later, at a clifftop restaurant, Zelda threw herself down a flight of stairs because Fitzgerald was kneeling at the feet of Isadora Duncan and ignoring Zelda.
Still desperate to find her own creative outlet, Zelda became obsessed with ballet, which she had been good at as a child. She began practising eight hours a day, becoming anorexic and exhausted; "All I do is dance and sweat ... I look like hell, feel like hell, and act like hell," she told a friend. She also became obsessed with the notion that Fitzgerald was having an affair with Hemingway -- homosexual crushes were a feature of both their lives, though there is little suggestion that anything came of these.
Worn out, she was admitted to a sanitorium and diagnosed as schizophrenic. It was to be the beginning of a pattern of breakdown and short-lived rehabilitation that dogged her for the rest of her life.
She did finally write a novel, Save Me The Waltz, which told the story of the couple's disintegrating marriage from her perspective and incensed Fitzgerald, although he had been rather cynically using her thoughts and speech-patterns for years.
Save Me The Waltz sank almost without trace on publication and her attempts at a second novel were thwarted when Fitzgerald ordered her to stop writing, to simply swim and paint. Then he published Tender is the Night, with its devastating portrait of mental illness, and left Zelda reeling at the betrayal.
She had another, more serious, breakdown, and was hospitalised again, this time hearing voices. From then on, any periods outside hospital were limited. Scottie was sent to boarding school and parcelled out among various relatives, something she doesn't seem to have resented, saying once, "I don't consider I had a very difficult childhood at all. In fact, I consider it a rather wonderful childhood." She grew up to write for the Washington Post and the New Yorker, as well as writing comedies about the Washington social scene.
Scott moved to Hollywood, where he began an affair with celebrity columnist Sheilah Graham, although he and Zelda continued to correspond to the end. His most moving epitaph on the relationship was, "We destroyed ourselves. But in all honesty, I never thought we destroyed each other".
In Hollywood, he tried writing for movies, work that he found degrading and tolerated only for the money he increasingly needed. Bullied by studio producers, unfit for the work in hand, and believing himself a literary failure, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44. Eight years later, Zelda died in a fire at the hospital in which she was residing -- locked into her room, awaiting electric shock treatment.
It was a horrific end for the girl who once had the young men of two army camps fighting for her attention, flying stunts over her house until banned by a commanding officer and executing drills in her honour. The year before Fitzgerald died, she wrote to him: "I am always loyal to the concepts that held us together so long ... Nothing could have survived our life." Probably she was right.
"Sometimes I don't know whether Zelda and I are real or are characters in one of my novels," Fitzgerald once said. Both, is the answer, and it is because of the fluid line between the two that his novels are so moving, filled with a romantic aspiration as irresistible as charm itself. The innocence and loss of innocence that runs through all his best work was mirrored in the desperately yearning, ultimately doomed, lives he and Zelda led.