Sunday, August 27, 2017

Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford






Mozart's Rondo in C major K 373 arranged for flute is playing.  Rain has finished falling outside, providing much relief from the relentless heat here in Texas.  There's an old folk song about the Devil asking the Lord for a bit of land so God gave him Texas.  The Devil gave it back saying the place was hotter than you-know-where.  If you have ever visited in the summer, which I don't recommend, you will appreciate the Devil's lack of gratitude.

I wrote the above a couple of weeks ago before the hurricane.  My prayers to those in South Texas.  Fortunately, we up here in NE Texas are safe.



Giant Oak outside my dining room window.



ZeldaZelda by Nancy Milford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Some biographies can trudge along but this one bubbled and flowed as Zelda would probably say based on her writings and her penchant for using loads of metaphors for absolutely every concept she was trying to express.

Nancy Milford spent years producing exhaustive research and it shows.

She starts with Zelda's parents and Zelda's birth in Montgomery Alabama. We get an idea of the sort of family Zelda was born into and it gives us a better idea why she developed into the sort of woman she ultimately became.

While Zelda's father, Judge Sayre, was strict, formidable and emotionally detached from his family, her mother Minnie, doted on her and let her do whatever she wanted.

Zelda's natural inclination was to be strong-willed and she thrived on attention. Reading about her social life exhausted me. She must have dated every single young man in Montgomery. Every weekend was filled with dances.

And she was rather daring for the age (this was the 19-teens). She wore a nude colored bathing suit, not just at the beach or pool but around town. She was flirtatious, bold, and addicted to attention.

She met F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was stationed in Montgomery for the war (WWI). Fitzgerald, according to his own temperament, fell for her with all the neurotic passion that forever colored his life.

Through a lot of rolling hills of conflict between themselves, between her family, they finally married in 1920. Zelda was twenty years old and Fitzgerald was twenty-four.

Zelda left her small, warm Southern community for the Big Apple. This might have intimidated some small town girls who had spent all their life in a certain culture but not Zelda. For her New York meant everything she adored on a larger scale: parties, drinking, and being the center of attention.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Zelda had temperate personalities and everything was done in excess. They spent more than they had, they drank more than they could handle. Friends began to dread their parties. A stint in Paris was no different except that Fitzgerald's fascination with the Manic Pixie Girl he had married was beginning slightly to wane. He needed to write and their lifestyle was interfering with that.

At first Zelda seemed to spur his writing, after all, all of his stories are centered around her. Reading about their life together I can safely say most of his books are autobiographical. The heroine is Zelda over and over.

Some have criticized Fitzgerald saying he "stole" her writings or her ideas. That is nonsense. Milford includes scads of Zelda's writings to allow the reader to make an informed comparison. While Zelda is certainly intelligent and at times bordering on brilliant, her writing is no match for Fitzgerald's. After one gets past the glitzy gloss of her descriptive phraseology, one finds very little and much of it is incoherent.

My only criticism of Fitzgerald's writing is that he simplified her. The real Zelda was more complex as Milford's biography shows.

She did try to write and get published and some of her work did get published but I doubt anyone would have looked twice if she had not been Fitzgerald's wife.

She also became obsessed in her late twenties, while they were living in Paris, in becoming a classic dancer. She practiced hours and hours each day with a Russian teacher. There is no coherent reason why she wanted to become a professional ballet dancer. Perhaps to find an identity seperate from her husband, but those who knew her saw strangeness from the get go.

I think without her life with Scott she probably would have become insane anyway, but the excessive drinking and night life probably accelerated her decline.

Frankly I don't know who was worse, Zelda, who ended up in an insane asylum or Fitzgerald, who drank and smoke himself to death at forty with a sudden heart attack.

It's a fascinating study in people who are desperately trying to find meaning in their lives through outside stimulation to the point it pushes them over the edge. Maybe they were terrified of what they might have seen if they stopped and stayed still for a few moments. Their frantic rushing off the cliff was a continual running away from what was inside of them.

Eventually Fitzgerald resorted to writing Hollywood scripts in order to pay debts, including Zelda's stay at a good hospital and their daughter, Scottie's, education.

Very little is mentioned about Scottie. One can only wonder how the effect of two narcissistic and unstable parents affected her. She's seems to have turned out OK and married outside the glamorous world of her parents.

While Fitzgerald stayed in Hollywood, Zelda had returned to Montgomery and lived with her mother, a rather invisible life it seems, after the legendary one. Her illness finally deteriorated where she had to return to the mental hospital. Her last words to her mother was, "It's OK. I'm not afraid of dying." and she ran off. Was this prophetic? She was to die in the hospital as it burned to the ground.

She still outlived Fitzgerald by eight years.

I suppose there will be endless fascination over this infamous couple and this is a good biography, but I don't know if it is necessary because after reading it, I realize that Fitzgerald faithfully recorded their lives in all of his stories.



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24 comments:

  1. Great review Sharon.

    This pair fascinates so many. After reading Tender is the Night I became more interested in them as I have heard that Nicole from that book is partly based on Zelda. With that, I wonder how much the two resembled one another. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they did in Fitzgerald's mind.

    Either way, this sounds like it is well worth the read.

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    1. Tender is the Night is supposed to be somewhat biographical but some of it is not true, if I'm recalling the story correctly. Nancy Milford says in this biography that none of the incest or sexual abuse ever happened. Yet, Fitzgerald did write what he knew in that the personalities of his characters resemble real life.

      I did not finish Tender is the Night because I found some of it disgusting, but that was years ago. Maybe I should try again. It has been hailed as his most mature work.

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  2. Sharon thank you for a wonderful review of this book. I was not familiar with this couple...think I would love reading the book. Hope you are having a delightful day.

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    1. Hi Debbie. You're welcome. Probably the biography would not signify much if you are not familiar with Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is his most famous novel, I believe.

      Hope you're having a blessed day as well.

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  3. How sad, but I still want to read this. I do love biographies, even if they feel like train wrecks. OK, adding it to my wishlist. : )

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    1. Hi Ruth. Their lives were train wrecks but I found myself enjoying this biography over others by, say, Hemingway who was more than a train wreck. He was just plain mean.

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  4. the edges of my universe didn't include the Fitzgeralds but that could change... anything is possible... but your post revealed them in quite a realistic way; i feel as if i had read the book... tx for that...

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    1. Hi Mudpuddle you are welcome. As I was telling Debbie, if you did not read Fitzgerald's stuff (The Great Gatsby was his most famous novel) I don't know if the biography would mean anything.

      You'd have to be into the Twenties and the Jazz Age. I like it but it's not for everyone.

      How's the house?

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    2. a brother of our son-in-law is a cabinet maker and carpenter and is drawing up plans to install yet another kitchen... we are agog in anticipation... tx for asking...

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    3. Well, yay for you all. I'm glad to hear it.

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  5. This biography sounds really well done. I'm a F. Scott fan, but I've only read about wild Zelda when she is fictionalized (such as bits in "The Paris Wife"). Thanks for this recommendation!

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    1. Hi Marcia. I have not read The Paris Wife. I tend to shy from fictionalized biographies because I'm not sure if they are able to give a true account of the people novelized. But then maybe that's not the point of those kinds of books and I should just read them to enjoy them.

      It is a great biography if you are looking for one about Zelda.

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  6. Sharon, you wonder who was "worse"? Hmmmm. I understand people who struggle with (in)sanity and alcoholism, and while I know that those struggling with the latter can overcome and survive, I also know that the question of who is "better" or "worse" is a value judgment I avoid. But that's just me. Perhaps I am too close to those struggles. I live in a glass house, and I don't throw stones.

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    1. I'm sorry, R.T. I should have clarified what I meant. I meant who was worse off. Is it worse to suffer from alcoholism or insanity?

      I say that because it seemed to me from reading the biography that in the end Zelda somehow learned to live with her demons, but Fitzgerald never did and finally succumbed to them.

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    2. nice comments; imo, everyone has demons, whether they know it or not...

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    3. No one is unscathed by trials and tribulations, that's for sure. How much we are tormented by harsh experiences or whether we surpass them is subject for a long discussion. I know I struggle as we all do, I'm sure.

      Why did Fitzgerald turn to alcohol to the point of self-destruction?

      And why did Zelda become insane? Was she responsible or was it a chemical imbalance or both?

      It's interesting to think about.

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  7. Zelda responsible for her insanity? C'mon, Sharon!

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    1. I feel you are determined to judge me, R.T. As a matter of fact alcoholism and drug abuse have been shown to be determining factors in the deterioration of mental capacities.

      I've done a lot of research on this subject and every article I've read says that doctors cannot determine how much mental illness is genetic and how much is environmental.

      I stand by what I say.

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    2. I'm judging no one. Use of drugs and alcohol is a choice. Mental illness is not a choice. Hence my assertion.

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    3. I guess we both stand by our assertions.

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  8. Interesting review...and comments! I haven't read anything by Fitzgerald, or many other American authors for that matter - except some Steinbeck a long time ago & children's authors.

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    1. Hi Carol. If you're interested in the Jazz Age of the 1920s you'd like Fitzgerald. I think he's a good writer. Can't say I care for Steinbeck, although I do like his short stories.

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  9. a Mozart piece i haven't heard... Racine does a nice, pleasant interpretation; he didn't try to kill the cadenza and i liked the slightly humorous ending...

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    1. Hi Mudpuddle. I know what you mean. Racine's performance is nice and balanced which is correct for the classic era. Virtuosic showing off is for the Romantics. Have a great Labor Day!

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I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.