Zelda Fitzgerald was born a delicate Southern belle before she turned into the rebellious flapper who became an icon of the Roaring Twenties. From her seriously toxic marriage to her desperate years spent in and out of asylums all the way to her twisted end, Zelda’s life is as fascinating and tragic as any of the stories she was known for.
1. She Needed More
The story of Zelda Fitzgerald is proof that all the privilege in the world can’t save you from a tragic end. Born to a prominent and wealthy Southern family, Zelda Sayre wanted for nothing in her youth—except for, of course, the love and attention of her father, a state Supreme Court Justice who was largely absent. This would exercise itself in increasingly more dramatic ways as she grew up…
2. She Was A Rebel
Zelda was energetic and bright, but as a teen, she grew bored of school and found excitement in increasingly more scandalous places. Though Southern women were expected to be demure and well-behaved, Zelda had a serious wild streak. She smoked, drank, and spent all her spare time with boys. She got away with it, thanks to her family’s sterling reputation—but as we’ll see, even they had their limits.
3. She Was The Center Of Attention
As evidenced by her later public outbursts and antics with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda definitely had a flair for the dramatic—and it all began when she was still quite young. Alongside her childhood friend (and future Hollywood megastar) Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda was a magnet for local gossip—and it’s obvious why. When neighbors began to whisper that she swam nude, she made a flesh-colored bathing suit to play into the scandalous rumors.
Zelda simply loved attention—be it good or bad.
4. She Found What She Wanted
When Zelda was still just 18, she met a man who would happily indulge that need—an aspiring writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald. At the time, he was volunteering in the military and stationed near her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Upon meeting her, Scott showered her with attention, calling her daily and visiting whenever he could—but there was more to it than a simple crush.
5. He Used Her
Scott Fitzgerald immediately began to rewrite his characters to reflect Zelda’s looks and personality—but his obsession with her went much deeper. He also copied from her letters and diary and inserted passages of her writing into his own. At one point, he even showed Zelda’s diary to his friends and they contemplated publishing it. He clearly saw that she had a great voice—but did he let that show? Oh, definitely not.
6. Their Relationship Was Put To The Test
It’s not like Scott was just taking advantage of poor little Zelda—oh no. She actually had scores of suitors lining up to take her out, and she didn’t hesitate to use them to make Scott jealous. But then, just as she began to fall for him, disaster struck. The army wanted to send him to France, and Scott fully expected to die in combat.
Scott traveled to Long Island and waited to his turn to fight on the frontlines of WWI, while Zelda stayed back in Montgomery. It really looked like they wouldn’t be able to make it work—at first.
7. He Escaped WWI By A Hair
The call to go to Long Island seemed like terrible timing at first—but it was actually miraculous. While waiting to go to France, WWI suddenly ended. Scott was able to return to Zelda in Montgomery, where they spent the next four months together. He decided that he’d go to New York City to make his name. There was just one problem—despite her seemingly flighty nature, Zelda had no interest in marrying a man with no job and no money.
So, she stayed back at home and waited for him to prove himself.
8. It All Happened So Fast
Within months of arriving in NYC, Scott finished his first novel, This Side of Paradise. It included, of course, passages taken directly from her letters to him. Within weeks, the pair got engaged, the novel came out, and Zelda traveled to New York City. Days later, they tied the knot. The whirlwind of it all seems like a fairy tale—but as we’ll see, their relationship was really more of a horror story.
9. She Made Quite A Scene
Scott Fitzgerald splashed onto the New York scene with the publication of his first novel. Zelda’s entrance to New York society was just as memorable. Just as she’d been the focus of gossip back home in Montgomery, Zelda quickly became a fixture in the local social scene and was known for her wild behavior. She could be dancing in fountains and on top of cars—but she often went too far with it.
10. They Were Too Wild
It soon became apparent that Zelda’s rebellious streak had a chilling dark side. Drinking was a problem for both her and Scott, and behind closed doors, they had legendarily terrible fights. They also got kicked out of multiple hotels for their disorderly behavior. Luckily, since this was just the very beginning of the Roaring Twenties, they could get away with it—at first.
11. She Wasn’t Meant To Be A Housewife
In 1921, the Fitzgeralds’ hard-partying lifestyle was briefly put on hold when Zelda became pregnant. She gave birth to their first child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, but she didn’t exactly take to motherhood and domesticity. Another pregnancy followed, but they didn’t end up having the child. Zelda and Scott were solely dedicated to their cosmopolitan way of life—and with the attention they were getting, who could blame them?
12. She Started Her Own Career
While scores of readers awaited Scott’s follow-up to his first novel, he wasn’t the only one in the spotlight. More and more people were becoming enchanted with Zelda, and she began to write short stories and essays as well…but the good times can’t last forever. A failed play left the Fitzgeralds broke and desperate—so they came up with a plan.
13. She Fell For Someone Else
Facing problems head-on wasn’t exactly the Fitzgerald way, so Zelda and Scott picked up and moved to France. Scott quickly became absorbed in working on his next novel, so Zelda found a distraction of her own—and it was utterly scandalous. She began spending all her time with a young French pilot named Edouard S. Jozan. He was stationed on the airbase near their home on the French Riviera.
Zelda was falling hard—and ready to throw it all away for him.
14. She Wanted To Leave Him
After weeks of afternoons on the beach and nights spent dancing with Jozan, Zelda confronted Scott and told him that she wanted a divorce. His reaction was brutal. At first, he wanted to meet with Edouard, but ultimately, he took a much more disturbing route. Scott locked Zelda in their house in Antibes until she agreed to stay with him.
Sure, great strategy. I’m sure that’ll wind up working out for him…
15. Her Lover Disappeared
Zelda had been ready to leave her family behind for Edouard—but she’d never actually told him that. Edouard left the Riviera not knowing about Zelda’s demand for a divorce, and she never saw him again. Though Zelda and Scott had weathered the storm, it had irreparably damaged their relationship and thrown seeds of distrust and doubt into the mix.
They were already walking on fragile ground before, and now it grew ever weaker beneath their feet.
16. She Was Struggling
Zelda tried her best to put on a brave face. After all, her busy social life in Antibes demanded it. But Zelda was hiding something—and when it finally bubbled to the surface, it was absolutely heartbreaking. Late one night, Scott showed up at a friend’s door, begging for help. Zelda had overdosed on sleeping pills and he didn’t know what to do. The friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, rushed back to the Fitzgerald home—and what they found was disturbing.
17. They Couldn’t Face The Truth
Sara took the reins when they found Zelda and did everything she could to keep her awake. She tried to get Zelda to drink some olive oil to get her to throw up, but Zelda refused. Eventually, they made it through the night—yet after this harrowing ordeal, the Fitzgeralds clammed up and never spoke of the incident again.
The Murphys had no idea why Zelda had chosen to overdose, but one thing was clear—things weren’t as they appeared between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
18. They Overshared
After their time in Antibes, the Fitzgeralds traveled, eventually settling down in Paris for a moment. There, they met Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley. They quickly became close. While Zelda and Scott had previously chosen to ignore the cracks in their marriage, this time around they exposed themselves to the Hemingways.
They would retell the story of Zelda’s failed romance over and over, embellishing it and putting on quite the performance. In one version, her lover takes his own life at the end of the story. I really feel like these two could’ve benefited from couples’ therapy…
19. She Hated Her Husband’s BFF
The maxim “sharing is caring” didn’t really apply in the friendship between the two literary families, even with all the oversharing going on there. In fact, Ernest and Zelda just didn’t get along. She thought he was “bogus” and he thought she was crazy—but there was an even darker side to all of their tension and animosity.
20. She Thought They Were Sleeping Together
Zelda actually accused her husband of carrying on an affair with Ernest Hemingway, taunting him with homophobic slurs. Scott’s reaction was deranged. He arranged a liaison with a prostitute and left condoms in full view in their home to prove himself to Zelda. This only added fuel to the fire of their relationship, resulting in fights that were longer and more vitriolic than before—but the worst was yet to come.
21. Her Jealousy Was Out Of Control
The Fitzgeralds and the Murphys were dining together near Nice when the jealous friction between Zelda and Scott finally reached a terrifying zenith. When Scott spotted famous dancer Isadora Duncan, he rushed to speak to her. As the minutes went by and he didn’t return to the table, Zelda fumed. She watched as Isadora ran her fingers through Scott’s hair—and decided to do something about it.
22. She Nearly Killed Herself
Zelda wanted to get her husband’s attention back from Isadora—and she did it in the most dramatic way possible. She threw herself down a set of steep marble stairs, disappearing into the darkness that surrounded the hilltop restaurant. Silence filled through the air, and the Murphys remember thinking that there was no way she survived the fall.
Well, despite the odds, Zelda popped back up again, bloody but alive. She was on a self-destructive course, and it seemed like nothing could get her off of it—not even these dangerously close calls.
23. They Were Missing Something
When Zelda and Scott had been newlyweds living in New York, their dramatic antics always had an undercurrent of fun and mischief. Years later, they would pull the same stunts, but the fun was gone. Especially for Zelda, the “bad” behavior—drinking, flirting, dancing on tables—seemed joyless and perfunctory. Occasionally, when they were out looking for trouble together, the old spark would return to Zelda and Scott’s eyes…but this began to become a rarer and rarer occurrence.
24. They Tried To Start Again
The Fitzgeralds’ years in Europe had astonishing highs and terrifying lows. Scott had written and published The Great Gatsby during this period, after all. But most of all, the couple’s time in Paris had done some serious damage to their relationship. They needed a change, and an offer from Hollywood came at just the time to provide one.
A producer wanted Scott to write a film, so they packed up and headed to Los Angeles. However, their old problems soon came back to haunt them.
25. He Had A Wandering Eye
The Fitzgeralds quickly became fixtures in the Hollywood party scene. Indeed, while schmoozing at one lavish gathering, Scott met an up-and-coming starlet named Lois Moran. She was just 17 years old to his 31, but neither cared, and they began a passionate affair right under Zelda’s nose. Scott had stepped out before, but this time was different.
26. She Got Replaced
Zelda was used to being her husband’s muse—and the occasional object of his plagiarism—but now, he was basing his new characters on Moran, instead of her. Zelda was furious, and she lashed out in the only way she knew how. One night while Scott was out at dinner with Lois, Zelda took her expensive clothes out of the closet and burned them in the bathtub.
It was a cry for help, or at the very least, attention, but Scott refused to give her what she wanted. He went right back to Moran.
27. She Branched Out
The two years that Zelda and Scott had spent in Europe were nothing compared to the damage that two months in Hollywood did. For once, Zelda’s efforts at recovery were not tinged with self-destruction. They moved to Delaware, where Scott could write and their daughter Scottie could join them. She also took up painting and ballet—but still, it wasn’t enough to occupy her troubled mind.
28. She Got Back Into A Groove
After two relatively unproductive years in Delaware, the Fitzgeralds returned to Europe, this time with little Scottie. While there, Zelda found time between a grueling schedule of ballet lessons to write a series of short stories—but when it came time to publish them, she experienced the ultimate betrayal from the person she should have trusted most.
29. They Didn’t Want Her
The magazine she had been writing for wanted to publish Zelda’s stories under her husband’s name. They offered a payday so large that the Fitzgeralds, who often struggled with money, couldn’t say no. Once again, her husband had shunted Zelda to the side—and the constant indignity wore on her like nails on a chalkboard. It couldn’t keep up.
30. It Wore Heavily On Her
Between the writing and her daily dance lessons, Zelda was exhausted, both mentally and physically. She was struggling, and though those around her could sense it, they had no idea what was around the corner. One day while the family was driving in France, Zelda grabbed a hold of the car’s steering wheel and attempted to drive off of a cliff.
Luckily, they survived, but it was clear that she had reached a terrifying breaking point. They wouldn’t just be able to smile through their troubles anymore.
31. She Couldn’t Stop Herself
In 1930, Zelda Fitzgerald finally sought treatment at a hospital on the outskirts of Paris. She was anxious, worked up, and couldn’t stop talking about going back to see her ballet teacher, who was growing scared of her. Three days later, she abruptly left, against the doctor’s wishes. It was a horrible mistake. Back at home, she threw herself into ballet, but it wasn’t enough. Zelda needed professional help.
32. She Was Breaking Down
For the next month, Zelda slowly became more and more incoherent, and her bad dreams began to color the edges of her waking reality. She was having a full-on nervous breakdown. Eventually, Scott was able to persuade her to go a psychiatric facility in Switzerland. Finally, there was a beacon of hope for their future.
33. He Wouldn’t Let Her Rest
Doctors diagnosed Zelda Fitzgerald with schizophrenia, and she spent months convalescing in the facility on the shores of Lake Geneva. While there, Scott wrote to her and to her psychiatrist—but his letters show just how callous he could be. Instead of letting her rest, he asked the doctor when she would be able to help him edit something he was working on.
34. She Went Through It
Zelda Fitzgerald had plenty of ups and downs during her time in treatment in Switzerland. She suffered from extremely painful outbreaks of eczema and visits from Scott and Scottie only seemed to make her physical and mental state worse. Eventually, doctors gave her to go-ahead to return home, and on shaky legs, she walked out of the facility after one year and three months.
35. She Was Deteriorating
When she finally left the facility, she sailed back to the US with Scott and Scottie. A seemingly innocent photo from the passage reveals the dark truth about the situation. Zelda’s beauty and liveliness had been her defining traits, but the picture shows just how much the battle with her mental health had worn her out, and how the eczema had scarred her once-youthful skin.
When they got back home, they went to Alabama so she could be near her family—but it wasn’t long before they got restless again.
36. He Abandoned Her
For Zelda, returning home to Montgomery was like walking out of the frying pan and straight into a blazing fire. Her father was extremely ill. Despite this, within weeks of arriving, Scott told her that he was going off to Hollywood to work on another screenplay. He was gone when Zelda’s father died, leaving her to deal with the aftermath and grief alone.
As a result, she made it out in the world barely five months before she had to be institutionalized again.
37. She Had An Outpouring Of Creativity
This time, Zelda sought treatment stateside at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore—and it was night and day from her experience in Switzerland. This time, she was able to focus her nervous energy, and the results were jaw-dropping. She wrote an entire novel, Save Me the Waltz, in her first six weeks there. Zelda immediately submitted it to Scott’s publisher, and waited patiently to see what he had to say about it. She was in for a surprise.
38. It Enraged Him
The publisher sent it to directly to Scott—and his reaction was devastating. He was absolutely furious with Zelda. The novel was largely based on the ups and downs of their relationship. That wasn’t really what bothered him, though. It was the fact that he had been working on a novel for years. It had gone through multiple iterations, and he’d eventually come to base it on their marriage. Despite his status as an author, his professional jealousy over Zelda’s talent was rearing its ugly head once again.
39. He Ordered Her Around
When Scott confronted Zelda about her novel, he made an ultimatum. He wanted her to remove the parts that he found objectionable—AKA, the dirty details from their marriage that he wanted to use in his novel. Despite the fact that she was hospitalized, he hurled insults at her, calling her “third rate” and “plagiaristic.” Lest we forget, he plagiarized from her letters and diaries all the time…
40. It Was A Huge Disappointment
To add insult to injury, the publisher only agreed to a small run of the book, just a few thousand copies. Sadly, it didn’t even sell out, and the critics didn’t seem to care for it either. Upon completing the book, she’d reached a creative high that she’d never got to experience before, and now she had to contend with her husband’s criticism and the book’s failure. It absolutely crushed her.
41. She Kept Trying
Save Me the Waltz was the only novel that Zelda ever published, but her creative flame hadn’t yet been extinguished. In 1934, a gallery exhibited a number of paintings that Zelda had made during the previous years, including some that she painted in the asylums she’d been a patient at. As with the novel, the reception for them wasn’t what she expected.
After this series of disappointments, she was never quite the same again.
42. She Was Delusional
Zelda Fitzgerald grew increasingly mentally distressed, isolated, and was occasionally destructive. According to Scott, she claimed to regularly speak to figures like Christ, William the Conqueror, and Mary Stuart. He felt that he had no choice but to hospitalize her, this time in Asheville, NC. With her safe there, he left for a much-needed job in Hollywood—but instead, he found a distraction.
43. He Thought It Was All Her Fault
While Scott was in Hollywood, he had an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham—but it wasn’t all wine and roses. The Great Depression meant that people were less charmed by Fitzgerald’s characters and their lavish lifestyles, and his royalties slowed down to a trickle. He still had Zelda’s massive medical bills to cover, not to mention his own.
Scott’s many years of heavy drinking had finally caught up with him and he had his own share of medical problems. And who did he blame for his troubles? Zelda, of course.
44. He Ran Back To Her
Scott held his bitter grudge against Zelda from afar while she recovered in Asheville, and it soured everything he touched. Eventually, he had a violent fight with Graham and fled Los Angeles to see Zelda. He stepped off the plane still drunk and whisked Zelda off to Cuba. It was a complete fiasco. A group of strangers that Scott had confronted beat him up badly, and he spent the whole trip drinking.
When they returned to New York, it was Zelda who had to check him into a hospital.
45. She Had To Take Care Of Him
After contacting her in-laws to take care of Scott while he was in the hospital, she said farewell to him and returned to Asheville. Neither of them knew, but it would be the last time they’d ever see each other. Despite the circumstances, the effort they’d both made on the trip had rekindled their feelings somewhat, and their letters to each other showed a certain fondness.
Still, Scott returned to Sheilah Graham in Hollywood, while Zelda went back to the hospital.
46. She Got Out
Zelda petitioned her doctors to allow her release from the hospital. In 1940, after four years, she finally got her way—but the world she returned to was a far cry from the one she’d once known. She went to live with her mother, but Scott barely had any money to send to support her. Then, a few months later, the unbelievable happened.
47. She Became A Widow
For many years, Zelda had been the fragile one in the relationship, but ultimately, she survived her husband. In 1940, he died suddenly while at home with Sheilah Graham. Zelda was heartbroken. She wasn’t able to attend his funeral, but she did get her hands on the manuscript of his final novel, which she cherished—and which kindled the spark she’d need to get through the loss.
48. She Went Back To A Familiar Place
After Scott’s death, Zelda began working on another novel of her own, but she still struggled with her mental health. Eventually, she returned to the hospital and her doctors in Asheville, where she was in and out for the next few years. However, this time the experience was markedly different.
49. She Tried To Write Again
Zelda had written Save Me the Waltz in a frantic, six-week period during her first stint at the hospital in Asheville. She had no such luck this time around. Not only could Zelda not complete the novel, but her mental state also deteriorated. Finally, doctors decided on an experimental treatment that seemed promising—but would sadly spell her doom.
50. She Didn’t Have A Chance
Zelda Fitzgerald began receiving electroshock therapy, and one evening in 1948, nurses prepared her for a course of treatment. They gave her sedatives and locked the door to her room. It was then, when she was trapped in the room, that disaster struck.
51. She Didn’t Make It Out
A fire began in the kitchen of the hospital and it quickly spread throughout the facility through the dumbwaiters. While Zelda sat waiting, smoke began to fill the room, and eventually, flames. Zelda didn’t survive the fire, and perished at the hospital along with eight other women. The fire had burned her so badly that the coroner had to identify her body with dental records. She was only 47 years old.
52. People Didn’t Appreciate Her In Her Time
When Scott and Zelda died, there was little fanfare. She was buried next to him after a sparsely-attended service. His career had floundered long before he passed. She had been out of the public eye for decades. But then, in the years that followed, something strange happened. People began to revisit not only their writing, but their life story, and found it utterly fascinating.
A landmark biography of Zelda followed—and it exposed all of the secrets the Fitzgeralds had long kept hidden.
53. People Saw Her Differently
For many years, Scott’s friends had painted Zelda as a burden on him—the thing that brought him down both personally and professionally. The book Zelda: A Biography, instead revealed the extent to which Scott had plagiarized from his wife, how controlling he was, and how he’d done his best to stomp out her creative flame.
It also laid bare the truth about the jealousy and affairs that had defined their tumultuous relationship.
54. They Made It All Up
When the Fitzgeralds moved to the French Riviera, Zelda had famously fallen for a man named Edouard S. Jozan and demanded a divorce. Years later, Jozan revealed the surprising truth about his time with Zelda. Though they spent time together as friends, he claimed that they never actually had an affair, and that the couple had embellished the story to feed their need for drama.
55. She Wanted To Meet Her Granddaughter
Zelda sent out a letter to her daughter Scottie just days before her untimely death. It was absolutely heartbreaking. In the letter, Zelda expressed her desire to meet the daughter that Scottie had just given birth to, her second child. Sadly, the meeting would never come to be.