The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Colorful World of Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (American, 1900-1948), Circus, ca. 1938, oil on canvas, 36 ¼  x 24 ¼ inches, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Gift of the artist, 1943.5

“Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty." So said writer Ring Lardner after visiting his good friends the Fitzgeralds in 1924. The Fitzgeralds were famous for their colorful life, which was glamorous and tragic in equal measure. Though they lived in Paris for a time and hobnobbed with literary high society, the Fitzgeralds’ marriage was also plagued by mental illness, alcoholism, jealousy, and infidelity.

As part of their Big Read program, North Carolina's Cape Fear Literacy Council is taking a closer look at Zelda Fitzgerald, who, while not as well-known as The Great Gatsby author, was just as fascinating a character. Dubbed the “first American flapper” by her husband, Zelda was free-spirited and imaginative, and her influence can be found throughout F. Scott’s work. However, Zelda was not content to serve as mere muse, and pursued a variety of artistic disciplines---sometimes obsessively---herself. She wrote a novel and 11 short stories, and in her late 20s, began practicing ballet eight hours a day so that she might become a professional dancer. This dream was never realized, and the grueling practice schedule in fact led to Zelda’s first nervous breakdown. She was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent much of the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions.

In addition to dancing and writing, Zelda was also a prolific painter. In conjunction with the Big Read, 32 of her paintings will be on view at the Cameron Art Museum through March 10. Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: The Artwork of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald reflects Zelda’s gravitation toward themes of landscapes, ballet, children’s stories, and her religious beliefs. In early February, the Fitzgeralds’ granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, delivered a lecture at the Cameron Art Museum on her grandmother’s artwork. She grew up surrounded by Zelda’s paintings---not to mention eclectic anecdotes of her grandparents’ lives. As Lanahan noted in advance of her talk, “Whether she painted New York, Paris, landscapes, fairy tales, paper dolls, or ballet, Zelda’s art is a form of autobiography.”


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