'Call me Zelda': writers take on troubled life of F Scott Fitzgerald's muse

Interest is growing in the dark and tangled life of Zelda Fitzgerald and her marriage to the Great Gatsby author

The life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the beautiful and troubled wife of the author of The Great Gatsby, provided enough dramatic material to fill at least four novels. And now they have been written.

With a much-heralded film of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby due to be released this summer, four new fictional works explore the times of the intense and talented woman who influenced his work so much.

Already out is Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, an imagined first-person account that follows Zelda from her first meeting, aged 17, with her future husband in Montgomery, Alabama, until his death in 1940. (Zelda herself would perish eight years later in a hospital fire, locked in a room while awaiting electrotherapy.) Z will be followed in the next few weeks by two other imagined renderings of the relationship – Beautiful Fools by R Clifton Spargo and Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. A fourth novel is also due in the autumn.

The history of a dark and complex marriage – marred by alcoholism, jealousy and mental health problems – has been pored over by critics. Four years his junior, Zelda was a symbol of the jazz age who would spend long periods of her life in hospital for mental illness.

The bitterness at the heart of the relationship was described by Zelda's biographer, Sally Cline, a decade ago. "Zelda always seemed like the tragic heroine of her own and other people's novels," Cline told the Observer last week, attempting to explain the new literary interest in Zelda's life. "She was a woman who adored and hated her husband, who adored and oppressed and victimised her. Her melodramatic life was in real terms the stuff of fiction."

The high (or low) lights of the Fitzgeralds' turbulent marriage included Zelda's romantic entanglement on the Riviera with a French pilot, her suspicions that Fitzgerald was having a sexual relationship with Ernest Hemingway, and accusations on both sides that the other had "plagiarised" their life. Cline points to an exchange between Scott and Zelda in 1933, while Zelda was being treated in hospital for mental illness, recorded by her doctor. The author apparently attempted to prevent his wife from writing about their marriage and her mental illness – subjects he was dealing with himself in his own novel, Tender is the Night. He describes her writing efforts as "third rate", while she accuses him of relying on her "crumbs" for material for his writing. When Zelda published her novel, Save Me the Waltz, it infuriated Scott through its use of autobiographical material he hoped to use.

The straitened economic times are another factor in the current revival of interest, according to both Cline and Spargo – the Fitzgeralds lived through a period of ostentatious prosperity followed by austerity and sharp decline. "Zelda in some ways epitomised the 20th century," says Spargo. "She was born in 1900. She experiences the prosperity of the 20s and her collapse comes in the midst of the Great Depression."

Spargo insists that he is neutral in what he calls the "Team Scott-Team Zelda" controversy, instead seeking to portray the persistence of a "romantic tenderness" in their relationship to the very end. But Fowler said she was keen to set the record straight on Zelda, who she sees as having been unfairly treated. "I went looking for some preliminary information, and very quickly was struck by the way the surface-level knowledge about Zelda doesn't begin to describe the person that she really is," she said in an interview on US radio. "I had come to the project with the idea that she was just F Scott Fitzgerald's crazy, disruptive wife. I didn't really know anything about her. And very quickly I recognised that she was very badly misrepresented in popular culture. The more I learned, the more compelled I was to set the record straight – it became kind of a mission."

Like Fowler and Spargo, Robuck was unaware others were writing a Zelda novel: "I became interested in Zelda working on my previous novel, Hemingway's Girl. I kept coming across her in my research and became fascinated."

Robuck believes that Zelda's interests, first as a dancer then as a writer and artist, were never taken seriously. "F Scott Fitzgerald told her that their life together was his material. He used material from her diaries and letters. I think she enjoyed it [at first]." It was only later, Robuck says, as her problems became clearer and she sought to express herself as an artist, that the tensions became pronounced.

While all of the novelists have sought to find some romantic redemption in Scott and Zelda's relationship as they grew apart, its epitaph perhaps was best supplied by Fitzgerald himself in a poignant remark during one of her periods of psychiatric treatment. "I lost my capacity for hope on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanatorium," said Fitzgerald, by then sunk deep in debt and, in his more sober moments, in remorse.

"People like to ask [the] question, would she have been better off without him?" Fowler has said. "They were two sides of one coin. It's difficult to imagine that we would be talking about either one of them had they not been a pair."


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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