Confined to a mental hospital, Zelda wrote a novel about her breakdown, Save me the Waltz, which she finished in a mere two months. She sent it off to Scott’s publisher without telling him. When Scott found out, he was enraged. He had been writing a novel about her breakdown himself, Tender is the Night.
“Everything we have done is mine,” he told her. “If we make a trip…and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” He insisted that she remove the overlapping sections of her novel. “What’s left of Save Me the Waltz is a jagged, unfinished book. We don’t know what it could have been,” says Sally Cline, who wrote a biography of Zelda in 2002.
It is the persistent, damning mischaracterisation of Zelda as “insane” that most needs undoing. The trouble lies in the diagnosis she was given in 1930: “schizophrenia”. While today we know it to mean severe mental illness requiring delicate and often lifelong treatment with medications, therapies, and sometimes institutionalisation, in Zelda’s time it was a catch-all label for a range of emotional difficulties. It was often applied to women who suffered depression or exhaustion brought on by impossible circumstances. 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.
Last week marked the 93rd wedding anniversary of the Fitzgeralds. Steve King reflects on their bittersweet union:
The Fitzgeralds’ personal life has the same sense of a long and irrecoverable springtime. The legendary champagne-and-dancing anecdotes begin with their wedding celebrations — the raucous party was forced out of two of New York’s finest hotels — and last for precisely a decade, until Zelda’s first mental breakdown in April 1930. The following letter is from April 26, 1934, Scott writing to Zelda with hopes for a new beginning even as she undergoes treatment for her third breakdown:
You and I have been happy; we haven’t been happy just once, we’ve been happy a thousand times. The chances that spring, that’s for everyone, like in the popular songs, may belong to us too — the chances are pretty bright at this time because as usual, I can carry most of contemporary literary opinion, liquidated, in the hollow of my hand — and when I do, I see the swan floating on it and — I find it to be you and you only…. Forget the past — what you can of it, and turn about and swim back home to me, to your haven for ever and ever — even though it may seem a dark cave at times and lit with torches of fury; it is the best refuge for you — turn gently in the waters through which you move and sail back….
In an echo of the closing to The Great Gatsby (April 1925), the two would be borne back ceaselessly to only the most troubling and trying aspects of their past.
Mike Springer takes the above video with a grain of salt:
We’re not sure, for example, that the clip purporting to show Zelda being “very lively in a street” is actually of her. It appears to show someone else. And one of the captions claims that Fitzgerald is pictured writing The Great Gatsby, but according to the University of South Carolina’s Fitzgerald Web site, the sentence he is writing on paper is: “Everybody has been predicting a bad end for the flapper, but I don’t think there is anything to worry about.”