The beautiful and damned

The still-mysterious inferno that claimed the lives of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and eight other women at Asheville’s Highland Hospital in 1948 was only the physical manifestation of an incendiary torment that had stalked her, like a relentless suitor, for nearly two decades.

But a violent death in a madhouse before the age of 50 was not the fate most would have predicted for the young woman whose Montgomery, Ala., high-school yearbook heralded her as “The Prettiest, Most Attractive and Ideal Senior Girl.”

Zelda: The Life and Art of Zelda Fitzgerald, now on display at the Asheville Art Museum, offers a compelling look into the deepest regions of this complicated woman’s pschye.

Born on July 24, 1900 to a prominent Montgomery family, the teenaged Zelda Sayre was routinely described as nothing less than the most spectacular Southern belle ever to sip a mint julep — an impossibly luminous, creamy-skinned golden girl. “She has the straightest nose, the most determined little chin and the bluest eyes in Montgomery. She might dance like Pavlova if her nimble feet were not so busy keeping up with the pace an unending string of young but ardent admirers set for her,” gushed the society page of the Montgomery Advertiser the summer Zelda turned 16.

When the golden — but, from all accounts, wilder than hell — girl met a dreamboat military man named F. Scott Fitzgerald (who just happened to be a writer) at a Montgomery country-club dance in 1918, neither could have predicted the symbiotic disintegration that came to mark their relationship.

But that was later, explained Eleanor Lanahan, the couple’s granddaughter, in a recent phone interview from her home in Vermont. “They both — together, as a team — gave America a very joyful identity to look to that it didn’t have before,” said Lanahan. Zelda and Scott, she noted, were one of “the earliest celebrity couples in America. They were so welcomed as icons, especially Zelda. They lived in the era when writers were wildly popular, like the movie stars of today. In a strange way, they gave America a real sense of innocence and possibility.” Lanahan — whose mother, Scottie, was the Fitzgeralds’ only child — regrets never getting to meet her grandmother; she was only two months old when Zelda died.

A fiercely talented (if idiosyncratic) writer, artist and ballet dancer in her own right, Zelda saw her lot in life change after her marriage to Fitzgerald in 1920. She became, in some sense, a helpmate to a brilliant, powerful man whose career went on to eclipse hers many times over.

Yet without Zelda, Scott’s celebrated career might never have soared to such prodigious heights. Even before their marriage, he “used” Zelda — often literally — as fodder for his fiction. In The Debutante, an early novel Scott wrote while attending Princeton, called , a character he named “Rosalind” closely mirrored his soon-to-be wife; portions of her letters and diary entries were inserted verbatim. Ditto for the Nicole Diver character in Tender is the Night, and Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned.

Zelda was asked by the New York Tribune to review the latter book. Lanahan reads me the review over the phone. The piece begins with a hysterically funny plea for people to “buy this book for the following aesthetic reasons: First, because I know where there is the cutest cloth of gold dress for only $300 at a store on 42nd Street. And also, if enough people buy it, where there is a platinum ring with a complete circlet. …” After citing a few more choice items that might come her way if the book sold well, she ends with a playful (or maybe not) admonition to her husband: “It … seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that’s how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

Lanahan, however, goes on criticize the common assertion that Scott was a hindrance to Zelda’s own considerable talents — literary and otherwise. “There’s a huge misconception that Scott didn’t encourage Zelda’s own creativity,” she relates. “Yes, there was one point where he forbade her to write, because she wanted to write about her own illness. Scott was writing about it in Tender is the Night, and he was the bill payer at that point — so it was understandable they had an argument about that. But he always encouraged her to paint and got her her first exhibition. And he encouraged her short stories and was instrumental in helping her sell many of them, and encouraged her later on with [Zelda’s only published novel] Save Me the Waltz. He did tend to supervise. But on the other hand, he was very good at structure, and that wasn’t one of her strong points. They were truly in it together.”

Indeed, they were in it together on nothing less than a mythological scale; their love affair was as volatile as it was tender. Spanning New York City, St. Paul (Scott’s hometown), Montgomery, Paris, Provence, Nice, the Riviera, North Africa — and even Asheville (Scott lived at the Grove Park Inn off and on for years; Zelda was hospitalized at Highland numerous times, beginning in 1936) — the couple’s prodigious appetites for booze, parties, bitter quarrels and just-as-intense reconciliations often left a wake of unholy havoc. And though, as Lanahan points out, they were widely held up as the perfect couple of their time — the gloriously decadent, glitteringly beautiful personification of the Jazz Age — Zelda, haggard and in middle age, reportedly told a friend, “We were great showmen.”

By 1930, Zelda had suffered what has been called her first mental breakdown, requiring hospitalization in Paris (meanwhile, Scott was deeply embroiled in a wrenching love affair with alcohol). Three years earlier, at the age of 27 (ancient, in the dance world), Zelda had decided to rekindle a youthful passion for ballet — studying with the famed Madame Lubov Egorova. She practiced obsessively, eight hours a day, until extreme anxiety and exhaustion caught up with her, resulting in that first stay in a mental hospital. Scott blamed the breakdown on what he considered Zelda’s unrealistic fixation on becoming a prima ballerina; she blamed it on his by-then-legendary alcoholism.

But that first hospital stay was a short one — though it set the stage for a paralyzing pattern of countless long confinements in a host of other mental institutions. In 1932 her first and only novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published. It’s the highly autobiographical tale of a would-be ballerina named Alabama. And what the book lacks in narrative structure is made up for by Zelda’s often heartbreakingly gorgeous prose. “She was a fountain of poetry, she really was,” notes Lanahan quietly. Early in the novel, Zelda writes: “Her eyes trailed in embarrassment over the vacant lot next door that lay like a primrose dump through the windows. The vermilion hibiscus curved five brazen shields against the sun; the altheas drooped in faded purple canopies against the barn, the South phrased itself in engraved invitation — to a party without an address.”

As for Zelda’s paintings, tragically few of them have survived — or can be found. As Lanahan — a talented painter and illustrator herself — reveals, “Zelda was a very generous, sweet woman, and she gave away an awful lot of her art to fellow patients and friends.” After her death, Zelda’s mother and sister cleared the Montgomery studio in which she’d been working just before her final hospitalization at Highland — and held a yard sale. According to a wall text at the Asheville exhibit, Montgomery art dealer Louise Brooks bought a delicate floral painting titled “Japanese Magnolias” that lay atop a stack of other works. The next day, Brooks came back to purchase more of Zelda’s paintings, only to find that the rest of the stack had been burned by the family. No explanation was given.

Zelda: The Life and Art of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald showcases the widely diverse artistic styles Zelda employed. Influenced by the modernist approaches of Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse, she nonetheless looked deeply inward for inspiration.

Many of the pieces in the show are undated. Although her work was exhibited as early as 1934, Zelda began pursuing painting single-mindedly in 1940. That was the year Scott died of a heart attack, at age 45, while working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter (he was also embroiled in a love affair with Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham). Walking into the third-floor gallery that houses the Asheville show is a little like entering an elegantly appointed Southern parlor, only to realize — on closer inspection — that something is unnervingly amiss.

The exhibit is pervaded by dreamlike floral studies (including “Japanese Magnolias”), done mostly in shades of white and the palest of pinks. These gouache and watercolor works evoke Zelda as a dainty flower of the Old South. But even these seemingly representational works take on a vaguely abstract quality — as if the subject were viewed through a heavy mist.

Then “Red Poppies” seethes into the line of sight. This is one of several works in the show that capture the other Zelda: raw, sometimes unhinged, no stranger to raging demons — but clearly a talent to be reckoned with. In stark contrast to the wispy, ghostlike works that gracefully haunt the same side of the gallery, this oil-on-canvas practically leaps from the wall — dominated by jagged, brilliant-red flowers that clash violently with a stormy, gray-blue background. Lapping skyward like merciless flames (the obvious analogy is too overpowering, in this piece, to resist), the poppies become a visceral mirror of a psyche in turmoil.

“The Lobster Quadrille” — one of a series of paintings influenced by Alice in Wonderland — is also a bit unnerving. Marked by fanciful pinks, blues, greens and oranges, the work features at its center a dancing cadre of marine life — lobsters, snails, turtles, starfish — against the background of a highly stylized cityscape. In the midst of this aquatic tableau, a distortedly muscular ballerina is caught in midgesture. The figure seems oddly out of place — a “fish out of water,” if you will — and it distinctivly bears the face of a young Zelda.

The artist’s more mature face appears in some of the paper dolls she initially began creating for Scottie. Several of these dolls were later framed as works of art, including the weirdly disconcerting “Hansel and Gretel.” In this set of two framed pieces, the Hansel and Gretel figures are placed in the center, wearing only undergarments. On either side dangle peasant garb and a ballet costume, like strange, faceless marionettes. Oranges and pinks dominate the tableau, and the bodies of both characters reflect the same almost grisly attention to exaggerated musculature. The figures’ feet seem disproportionately large, and there’s an almost palpable tension in the well-defined muscles and joints of the figures. The face on the Hansel doll, particularly, resembles Zelda’s. Adding to the oddly androgynous, sexually ambiguous feel of the works is the ballet costume Zelda has created for Hansel: an impossibly frilly pink confection — complete with a large pink, bow-festooned bonnet.

“Most of Zelda’s figures are extremely muscular — man, woman and child,” observes Lanahan. “They’re all drawn like dancers and are quite androgynous. … But I’ve been looking at pictures of the Diaghilev Ballet [Zelda studied at the school that trained the dancers for the compnay] … and the men were extremely androgynous. Their costumes were very feminine.” In addition, notes Lanahan, Zelda “painted how she felt, capturing the agony of ballet. … The big feet are supposed to relate to how she knew a dancer’s feet feel when they’ve been working out for hours.”

“God Almighty!” — undated but presumably painted late in Zelda’s life (in 1944, she suddenly became intensely religious) — is a Picasso-like study in nightmarish distortion. Marked by browns and flesh tones, the work is a gnarled morass of misshapen hands and feet, projecting at odd angles from a central image that looks to be two intertwined figures — or at least their random body parts — one brown-skinned, the other pinkish. A single hand, reminiscent of a fractured piece of the famous “praying hands” icon, floats unsettlingly near the painting’s upper edge.

Ironically, though, the most conventional, and traditionally “pretty,” works in the exhibit consist of a series of three lush Western North Carolina landscapes, also done late in her final hospitalization at Highland. Blue skies and puffy white cumulus clouds mark the bucolic scenes — with one rather disturbing (in light of later events) exception: In one of the scenes, what appear to be flames lap from the window of a small gray shack.

In Nancy Milford’s exhaustive biography, Zelda, Landon Ray, once Highland Hospital’s athletic director, recounts one of his last memories of Zelda. As they hiked together across Sunset Mountain near the Grove Park Inn in a light spring rain, “She had no complaints about her own discomfort. Once we made camp, the first thing we did was to build a fire. Zelda went for wood and I remember stopping … and just watching her going through the deep laurel and wet briar selecting the best pieces for kindling.” As Milford put it, “That vignette formed his final memory of Zelda — a disheveled and middle-aged woman bending in the dim light and rain, alone and searching for wood.”

That’s a far cry from the resplendent flapper who personified an era; but then again, the tendency is to paint Zelda in extremes: either the tortured, crazy wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the wild and gorgeous Southern belle who captivated a nation. Lanahan feels strongly that the real Zelda has been lost in all the hoopla. “One of the biggest early misconceptions was that she was just a flapper and just decorative,” she notes.

“And there are just so many people, in Montgomery and elsewhere, who remember her for her sweetness,” Lanahan relates. “She was very comforting to other sick people. She was … known [to give] solace to people. As far as the generosity goes, I know that she gave away more than she kept, because they actually had very few possessions. … She was always sending my mother things, and she didn’t have much money, contrary to popular belief. She was quite destitute toward the end, but she handled being broke so gracefully. There were no angry letters, nothing like that.”

Finally, Lanahan points to her grandmother’s keen sense of humor, which is often overlooked : “Her sheer flippant style, her cast-off comments were absolutely fantastic.” As proof, Lanahan e-mailed me a “recipe” Zelda submitted to a newspaper that had asked her to contribute to a study of the cooking habits of American women. Considering the circumstances of Zelda’s death, however, the humor here takes on a slightly macabre edge: “Breakfast, Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald: 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. Also, in the case of bacon do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.”

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