Zelda: The Mystery of the Muse

A new novel goes in search of the real Zelda Fitzgerald.

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What is it about a madwoman? From the Maenads to Edie Sedgwick, such heedless spirits have long inspired our stories. When they don’t exist in real life, we invent them. Just ask Rochester what was pushing him so hard, and he’ll come back with some tale about a first wife in an attic. Or, for that matter, Truman Capote and Holly Golightly, Hannah and… well, her own brutish Adam. And we women adore them as fully as the men they motivate – if not more. It’s wishful thinking. Aspirational identification. Who wouldn’t want to be the inspiration, the free spirit, the spark?

That’s the thrust behind Z, the much heralded new novel by Therese Anne Fowler, which sets out a fictional retelling of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life from her heady days as an Alabama debutante through her embattled marriage to one of America’s greatest novelists. An icon of the Jazz Age, the spirit of the times chronicled by her spouse, if Zelda hadn’t existed, F. Scott would have had to invent her. Beautiful, sexy, free – F. Scott called her “the first flapper” – Zelda fit the myth of the mad muse perfectly, up to and including her tragic and early death.

This isn’t the first outing for the archetype, or for Zelda herself. Many of us were introduced to her through Nancy Milford’s wonderfully vivid biography, Zelda, which was first published in 1970 and remains in print.  That book – published just as second-wave feminism was catching on – helped begin a reevaluation of the Gatsby writer’s muse. In addition to swilling Prohibited cocktails and dancing on tables, Milford revealed, Zelda also wrote and painted.

Not much of either survives, though her one completed novel, Save Me the Waltz, has won praise in its own right for its sensuous and imaginative prose. But the Milford book – and the subsequent reconsideration – also brought to light, via Zelda’s own letters, the distaff side of the story. Fitzgerald, for all his genius, wouldn’t have had much to write about without his wild and willing wife; Zelda herself accused him of lifting directly from her diaries, in her infamous “review” of his The Beautiful and Damned.

This reevaluation – along with the growing realization that wood sprites may glitter, but they don’t get royalties – has sparked a second look at the entire archetype. Which is the true creative spirit? The artist who translates, but also feeds on, the wild genius of the muse? Or the muse herself, untrammeled but unable to stake her claim? In more recent times – as “feminism” becomes a dirty word – the myth has gained steam. Mystery is a means for the disenfranchised – the female, the exotic, the other – to claim power. Has been since prehistory.

Fowler’s book attempts to get closer to the real woman behind the muse, writing in breezy first person about the clothes and the booze and the sex and the fights. While she doesn’t use any of Zelda’s own letters, she has done her research. “Bunny” Wilson and Edna Millay, “Talu” Bankhead and, of course, Hemingway strut across these pages like they did through the Fitzgeralds’ hotel rooms. Sadly, too often, they do just that – stiff-legged and unreal. And although this novel improves as it progresses, echoing its protagonist’s growing understanding of her own picturesque but untenable role, it never approaches the depth of the Milford bio. (Or for that matter, Jean Stein’s stunning Edie: American Girl.)

Thus, as Fowler labors to get close to the woman, she ends up enshrining the very questions that first enthralled us. What could Zelda have become on her own? What would Scott? This book doesn’t have an answer; maybe none could. And so we are left wondering, and weighing, what matters. Archetype vs. individual, women’s fame compared to men’s. Or, put another way, which should come first, the real Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald or East Egg?

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