Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was an American socialite, novelist, and painter, born on July 24, 1900, in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the youngest of six children in a prominent southern family. Known for her beauty and high spirits, Zelda was the quintessential “Southern Belle.” In her early years, she exhibited an unapologetic nonconformity that would come to define her life and legacy.
In 1920, Zelda married F. Scott Fitzgerald, an aspiring writer. The pair quickly became the epitome of the Jazz Age – a term Scott himself coined – embodying the era’s exuberance, defiance, and decadence. Zelda was not just a muse for Scott; she herself was a creative powerhouse who pursued writing and painting, even though her work often lived in her husband’s shadow.
Zelda’s life, while glamorous on the surface, was marked by a multitude of struggles. She battled mental illness, addiction, and societal constraints that often eclipsed her creativity and individuality. Her life and death symbolize the tragic underside of the Roaring Twenties’ glitz and glamor.
The Onset of Mental Illness
Zelda’s battles with mental illness began in the early 1930s. She was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia, although modern scholars argue she might have actually suffered from bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. Her condition was likely exacerbated by the lifestyle she and Scott led—filled with alcohol, partying, and constant pressure to maintain their public image.
She experienced her first mental breakdown in 1930, which led to her confinement in a sanatorium in Switzerland. For the remainder of her life, Zelda would be in and out of mental institutions. Despite the challenges, she used these periods of confinement to create. It was during a stay at a hospital in Baltimore that she wrote her only novel, “Save Me the Waltz.”
Zelda’s mental health struggles were further complicated by her tumultuous relationship with Scott. Their marriage was marked by mutual infidelity, alcohol abuse, and intense rows. Scott’s control over Zelda’s life and his appropriation of her experiences for his work also put a strain on her wellbeing.
A Life Dimmed by Addiction
The Fitzgeralds’ life was steeped in alcohol. Their liquor-fueled escapades were as legendary as their literary achievements. Both Zelda and Scott struggled with alcohol addiction, which aggravated Zelda’s mental health issues and strained their relationship further. The excessive drinking was a part of their public image, but privately, it was a corrosive force that was slowly eroding their lives.
Zelda’s addiction wasn’t limited to alcohol. She was known to have experimented with various substances, although the extent of this use is not well-documented. However, it’s clear that the combination of alcohol abuse, potential drug use, and mental illness created a toxic cocktail that Zelda struggled to manage.
The Fire at Highland Hospital
Zelda Fitzgerald’s life came to a tragic end on the night of March 10, 1948. She was residing at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution where she had spent much of the 1940s. A fire broke out in the hospital’s main building, killing Zelda and eight other women. Zelda was locked in a room, awaiting electroshock therapy—a standard treatment for mental illness at the time.
The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but it is thought to have started in the kitchen. Locked doors and barred windows meant that Zelda and the other women on the top floor had no way to escape.
A Heartbreaking Conclusion
The last chapter of Zelda’s life was marked by anguish and loss. Having been widowed six years earlier by Scott’s untimely death in 1940, Zelda was alone in her struggles. She was only 47 years old when she died, her life cut short in a tragic accident that underscored the bleak conditions in mental health institutions of the time.
The fire at Highland Hospital was a horrifying end to Zelda’s tumultuous life. Despite her ongoing battles with mental illness and addiction, she remained a creative force until the end. Her death not only highlighted the conditions she lived in but also underscored the failings in the treatment of mental health in the mid-20th century.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s life was a rich tapestry of creativity, defiance, and tragedy. Despite her struggles, or perhaps because of them, she has become an iconic figure in American cultural history. Her life and death serve as a poignant reminder of the price of fame, the destructive power of addiction, and the desperate need for understanding and adequately addressing mental health issues.
A Legacy Beyond Tragedy
While Zelda’s death was tragic, her legacy has transcended her personal struggles. Today, she is recognized for her own artistic contributions to literature and painting. Her novel, “Save Me the Waltz”, has been lauded for its vivid portrayal of a woman’s quest for identity and fulfillment, mirroring Zelda’s own life.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s life story is as much about her death as her vibrant life. Her struggles with mental illness and addiction, her relationship with Scott, and her tragically premature death are all key parts of her narrative. However, it’s crucial to remember her as a talented artist in her own right, a woman who defied societal norms and strove to create despite the numerous obstacles she faced.
Zelda’s life and death are reminders of the human cost of fame and societal pressure. Her story underscores the importance of mental health awareness and the need for compassion and understanding for those who are struggling. Despite the tragedy of her life and death, Zelda Fitzgerald remains an enduring symbol of creativity, resilience, and the indomitable human spirit.