More Than A Muse: Zelda Fitzgerald Was The Unsung Hero of Her Husband’s Novels

“She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.”

I’ve just completed season 1 of the Amazon Prime Video series Z: The Beginning of Everything. Amongst bringing Zelda Fitzgerald‘s exhilarating foray into high society–on the verge of the Roaring Twenties–to life, focal points over the ten episodes, in which she was portrayed by Christina Ricci, was her tempestuous marriage to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Playful insouciance that shocked and fascinated New York City’s upper echelon (though at the same time, was the one place she could demonstrate irreverence and earn a round of applause). As well as her rapacious desire to become a star. (Zelda and F. Scott were arguably the 20th century’s first true celebrity, A-list couple. But roadblocks would yield every time she could’ve had her name in lights. Or gain a byline).

She is a pop culture icon. But despite fictional cameos in films like 2011’s Midnight In Paris by Woody Allen and plenty of research books about her notably full life, she’s remained one of the less majorly talked about figures of the lofty title. Z: The Beginning of Everything materialized because Ricci read 2013’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler. The semi-fictionalized account of the Fitzgeralds moved the iconic child actress and she wanted to share and delve further into Zelda’s story and undervalued legacy as an artist and writer.

Zelda was vivacious and regaled the arts. She was also complex. While fellow flappers and snap the fingers type dames were equally as recalcitrant, Zelda was not at all one-dimensional. Even by 2017’s “Feminist As Fuck” standards, her unpredictability was fascinating. That layer of indecisiveness likely came from constantly trying to identify herself in a big city and marriage that controlled as much as it comforted. Andy Warhol would’ve adored her.

As suggested, Zelda loved a good party. But she was also a gifted diarist. (A complete dichotomous move from being the life of the party. Her antics and anguish, however, provided the kind of material one maintaining a diary is eager to interpret in hindsight).

A shocking discovery for The Beginning of Everything viewers will be is that F. Scott transcribed parts of Zelda’s diary entries into some of his later works verbatim, post his debut of This Side of Paradise. As a skilled writer himself, this is pretty lame and a stain on his history as he is regularly listed as one of the greatest authors. Proof of this honor is most evident in the canonical The Great Gatsby. 

Like most Jazz Age writers, Zelda’s writing was honest and direct (no old ye English here) and unmistakably romantic.

Just recently, The Washington Post published an overview of the F. Scott biography Paradise Lost by David S. Brown. The Post praised Brown’s appreciative history of F. Scott’s life and Brown was quoted in exalting him as “a national and even an international interpreter in the company of such contemporaries as Gertrude Stein, John Maynard Keynes, and Pablo Picasso.” Zelda in that same article was regulated as the “flirt[y] and free spirit” of a soon-to-be wife. In a later paragraph, she was further subjected as “suffering a series of breakdowns in the 1930s and was eventually institutionalized.” (Here’s hoping that inside Paradise Lost‘s pages, a lot more respect was handed to Zelda and the influence she had on F. Scott).

The Beginning of Everything displayed the emotional infographic of how Zelda at first was flattered and wanted to help her husband be great in his writing (her diary giving him the push he needed for further ideas or dialogue in a novel). But how she grew to resent how controlling he became over her artistic merit, opportunities to excel and through the same work and personal history he had chosen to co-opt in his novels. This certainly wasn’t the first or last time a man took credit for the talent and hard work accomplished by a woman or his wife. In the 2014 film Big Eyes, the case of how Walter Keane took credit for his wife Margaret Keane‘s paintings (that famously featured animals and humans with big, innocent, tearful eyes) in the 1950s and ’60s was analyzed and further cemented the ugly reality that women were expected to work but not lead.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a classic man in not just suit and tie, but his male ego. He was enthralled and threatened by Zelda’s sheer, natural “take me as I am” approach to life and writing ability. It seemed in so many ways, she was what he wanted to be all along, even though they were both rebellious and awfully jealous and co-dependent on each other. (Not to mention, keen on alcohol).

The beating heart of Z: The Beginning of Everything is the inconvertible fact that Zelda was not as notable for her talent (writing, painting, pianist) as she was her social life. (This will likely be discussed more in season two, recently commissioned by Amazon). She did release one novel in her lifetime, Save Me The Waltz, in 1932. All other work was published posthumously.

The period drama does have its pace and production flaws throughout season 1. As Variety stated: “Ultimately, however, this uneven series lacks the kind of melancholy fire that marked both writers’ finest works.” This is true. The first few episodes are exciting for Zelda is introduced as a Southern belle (of Montgomery, Alabama), but a belle with a fiery zest for bigger dreams. Once in New York City, married to F. Scott at the age of 20, and initiated into the cocktail laugh lifestyle, an awkward “hurry up” arises in the middle of Z for about two episodes. But “Playing House” reignites interest as the Fitzgeralds go from moody lovebirds away from the city (and debt) to upstate New York, live as argumentative frenemies, infidelity makes is debut (watch out for a hilarious reference to fellatio from Zelda), and a trip back to Montgomery where Zelda realized: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same. Feels the same. Even smells the same. You realize what’s changed. It’s you.”

Vogue was fair in its review, ahead of a Ricci Q&A: “But as the skies darken over the Fitzgeralds’ charmed life, the show becomes an unremitting examination of a complicated marriage in the early stages of curdling, and a kind, but not wholly apologetic spotlight on Zelda…”

Acting-wise, there shouldn’t be any complaints. Ricci is admirably agreeable as the socialite-writer-rebel. It may be her feistiest, true character driven role since her on-site iconic turn as Wednesday Addams in 1991’s The Addams Family and its sequel in 1993. Her earnest Southern accent is also a lot of fun to hear.

Ricci’s co-star David Hoflin is commendable in making F. Scott’s man-child genius behavior tolerable, sometimes humorous, and his outbursts unveiling of the unintentionally haughty demeanor all talented but all too in their heads writers have in spades.

In a behind the scenes featurette on Amazon, Ricci believed that “Zelda wouldn’t be surprised at all about a television show being made about her. She really thought that she was going to be famous.” 

Zelda (née) Sayre held all the components of  a personality primed for stardom: unique style, risque behavior, able to maintain a sincere conversation. If only history had remembered her beautifully written words and talents as much as they did her paint the town red proclivities from her historically iconic hey days.

“Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”

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