Zelda Fitzgerald was a writer, dancer, and Jazz Age celebrity who struggled on and off with mental illness. Her husband, famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, called her the first American flapper, and she became a 1920s icon thanks to her vivacious nature and bon vivant lifestyle. Here’s what you need to know about her.
July 24, 1900, Montgomery, Alabama
March 10, 1948, Asheville, North Carolina
'Save Me the Waltz' (novel)
1. Zelda Fitzgerald’s family members held prominent positions in the U.S. government.
Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900. Her father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre [PDF], worked as a lawyer, representative in the Alabama state legislature, state senator, city judge, and justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. Additionally, both Zelda’s great-uncle and grandfather served in the United States Senate.
2. She was a wild child.
In high school, Zelda’s desire to be unconventional and rebellious meant that she smoked, drank alcohol, and snuck out of her parents’ house to spend time with boys. Her friends described her as fearless, daring, and attention-seeking. Later, when she was living with her husband in New York, her carefree spirit and profligate behavior (such as jumping into fountains fully clothed) became a symbol of the 1920s.
3. She trained to be a professional ballerina.
As a child, Zelda had taken ballet lessons, but her interest in dance was renewed in her late twenties while the couple was living in France. Hoping to become a professional ballerina, she took ballet lessons in Paris with Russian dancer Lubov Egorova. Zelda trained obsessively for a few years, spending all day practicing until her dancing dreams ended when she suffered a mental breakdown in 1930.
4. Her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald was tumultuous.
Zelda met her future husband—then an officer at nearby Fort Sheridan—at a country club dance in 1918 when she was just 17. According to Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald: An American Woman's Life, she caught the 21-year-old’s eye while performing a ballet solo, but Zelda initially wasn’t interested; they wouldn't marry until April 1920, after Scott’s first book, This Side of Paradise, was published. They had a daughter in 1921.
Their marriage was reportedly a toxic one, complete with alcoholism, mutual infidelity, and jealousy. Zelda accused her husband of having a relationship with his friend and fellow writer Ernest Hemingway, and she had nervous breakdowns throughout their marriage. Although they never divorced, the couple was estranged when F. Scott died in 1940.
5. Both F. Scott and Zelda accused each other of plagiarism.
Scott based some of his characters on Zelda, and he adapted his real-life interactions and experiences with her into his novels. He also copied, verbatim, entries from Zelda’s journals and put them into his books, blurring the line between fiction and reality. In a review she wrote for The New York Tribune, Zelda poked fun at her husband, saying that he “seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
On the flip side, Scott dismissed and undermined his wife’s literary ambitions. He criticized her novel Save Me The Waltz, Zelda’s only published work, accusing her of using autobiographical details of their lives that he was going to use in his novel Tender Is The Night and borrowing a character’s name from one of his early protagonists.
6. Writing and painting were her creative outlets during her treatment for mental illness.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Zelda was in and out of mental hospitals. Although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, her fluctuations between depression and mania would most likely get her a bipolar diagnosis today. During her time in these hospitals, Zelda kept herself creatively occupied by writing and painting. She worked on her second novel, called Caesar’s Things, and she painted scenes from Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, and New York locations like Times Square, Washington Square Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
7. Her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, was largely panned.
Zelda began writing her semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz—about a Southern belle named Alabama Beggs who longs to be a ballerina and marries an army-officer-turned-successful-painter—in early 1932 and finished it in under a month after she entered the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, to receive treatment for a breakdown.
“I am proud of my novel, but I can hardly restrain myself enough to get it written,” she wrote to her husband. “You will like it—It is distinctly École Fitzgerald, though more ecstatic than yours—perhaps too much so.” She sent the manuscript to Scott’s editor, Max Perkins, without showing him first: “Scott being absorbed in his own [novel] has not seen it,” she wrote, “so I am completely in the dark as to its possible merits, but naturally terribly anxious that you should like it.”
When he found out she had sent the manuscript to his editor without showing him first, Scott was furious (the fact that she had used material from their own lives was also a sore point). After getting a look at it, he wrote to Perkins that one section would have to be “radically rewritten,” and though at first she refused to make any revisions, Zelda eventually came around, “changing what was rather flashy and self-justifying ‘true confessions’ that wasn’t worth of her into an honest piece of work.” Perkins essentially left the novel as it was, but Scott made Zelda edit it down even more before it was published by Scribner’s in October 1932. The publisher had advanced Scott so much money for his own novel that, according to A. Scott Berg in his biography of Perkins, “they arranged for half of Zelda’s royalties to be applied against Scott’s debt until $5000 had been paid back.”
Unfortunately for them all, Save Me the Waltz didn’t sell well (Zelda earned just $120.73), and was largely panned by critics. “It is not only that her publishers have not seen fit to curb an almost ludicrous lushness of writing,” the New York Times review of the book noted, “but they have not given the book the elementary services of a literate proofreader.”
After that, Zelda turned to writing plays and exhibiting paintings, but didn’t see success there, either.
8. She was killed in a fire at Highland Hospital.
During the 1940s, Zelda worked on writing a novel and lived intermittently in Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. On March 10, 1948, a fire started in the hospital’s kitchen. Reportedly, Zelda was scheduled for an electroshock therapy session and was sedated and locked in a waiting room. Regardless of where exactly she was, the fire spread through the floors of the building via the dumbwaiter shaft, and Zelda was killed along with eight other women. She was 47.
9. The Legend of Zelda video game is named after her.
In the mid-1980s, Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto needed a name for his new Nintendo heroine, and Zelda had just the right ring to it. “She was a famous and beautiful woman from all accounts, and I liked the sound of her name,” Miyamoto has said, and thus he called the princess in his fantasy game Zelda. The game was an immediate hit.
10. The Eagles wrote “Witchy Woman” after being inspired by Zelda’s biography.
After reading a biography about Zelda, Don Henley of the Eagles wrote the 1972 song “Witchy Woman” about her. It was “an important song for me,” Henley said, “because it marked the beginning of my professional songwriting career.” Describing her as a restless spirit in the song, Henley also referred to her use of absinthe (“she drove herself to madness with a silver spoon”).
11. Zelda’s story has been adapted into books, plays, shows, and movies.
In the years since her death in relative obscurity, Zelda has returned to the icon status she enjoyed in her 1920s heyday—and served as inspiration for filmmakers and other writers. The Last Flapper, a play by William Luce based on Zelda’s writings and billed as “the definitive portrait of Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald,” premiered in 1990. Natasha Richardson played Zelda in a 1993 TV movie about her life, and Theresa Anne Fowler published Z: The Beginning of Everything, a novel about Zelda’s early life and marriage to Scott, in 2013. The novel was later adapted into a show starring Christina Ricci for Amazon. Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson have both been attached to films about Zelda, too.
12. Zelda has been immortalized in dessert, too, thanks to artisanal ice cream.
In 2013, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams offered a limited edition line of ice creams inspired by Zelda. Called The Zelda Collection, the sweet treats came in four flavors meant to reflect Zelda’s life from Alabama to New York to St. Paul, Minnesota (F. Scott's hometown). The flavors featured were blackberries and sweet cream, cognac and marmalade, dark chocolate rye, and Loveless biscuits and peach jam. Zelda, with her appreciation for delicacies, would likely have approved.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.