“Plagiarism begins at home” – uncovering the real Zelda Fitzgerald

By Kat Lister

To write a profile of Zelda Fitzgerald is to cut through a dark thicket of myths, lies, stereotypes and false medical diagnosis. Most of us have never even picked up the blade and tried. But as we near the 66th anniversary of her untimely death on 10 March, one question still remains unanswered: who was the real Zelda Fitzgerald?

For most, the name Zelda Fitzgerald is closely followed by the words ‘lunatic’ and ‘fantasist’. It’s a name synonymous with fur stoles and empty gin bottles. She’s a spoiled party girl who drove her talented husband Scott Fitzgerald to drunken ruin: a flapper, an It girl, a “Witchy Woman” (to quote The Eagles). What Zelda has never been called is an uncredited writer, but she often was: her byline replaced by her husband’s with a “sorry” and a shrug.

The true story of Zelda’s life and her authorship rights is yet to be told with honesty and clarity. Hack away at the dense falsehoods and you let in the light. Headstrong, sharp-tongued and vivacious; an artist, writer and dancer. In many ways Zelda Fitzgerald’s legacy has been judged by her influence and latter bipolar years (scholars now argue her schizophrenia was misdiagnosed at the time), but never her own achievements. Zelda’s life would be dramatically cut short by her own desperate quest to be heard and counted; only now are her words finally being credited with her name.

When Zelda gave birth to their daughter Scottie in 1921, high on anesthesia she babbled: “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool”. All readers of The Great Gatsby will instantly recognise the quote as one of its defining lines, voiced through the effervescently absent Daisy Buchanan. It is a mere drop in the ocean of words Scott skimmed from Zelda’s mouth with a pond net and an ear for its startling lucidity.

Many of the Fitzgeralds’ closest acquaintances would praise Zelda as a witty conversationalist, likening her to contemporary writer Dorothy Parker. Critic Edmund Wilson surmised: “I have rarely known a woman who expressed herself so delightfully and so freshly.” Scott Fitzgerald himself was consistently struck by her words and even read her diaries, directly lifting entries to voice his fictional heroines. Zelda became a crucial source, as she well knew. Her impact on Scott Fitzgerald’s literary works is immeasurable.

“It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. Mr Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home,” Zelda Fitzgerald cheekily joked in the New York Review when asked to review her husband’s latest novel The Beautiful and Damned in 1922. The joke soon wore thin on Zelda, who grew increasingly resentful of Scott’s habit.

Search the archives and you may come across a 1973 edition of 21 uncollected stories entitled Bits of Paradise written by both Scott and Zelda. Flicking through it soon becomes clear that, at the time when they were written, most of Zelda’s short stories were published with a co-authored byline, despite Zelda’s sole authorship. The shocking truth is many of her stories were robbed of her authorship – an arrangement agreed between Scott’s literary agent Harold Ober and the magazine editors.

This is by no means to demonise Scott. The world was hungry for F Scott Fitzgerald and history maintains he was not made aware of this transaction at the time. Nevertheless, it weighed heavily on Zelda’s sense of worth and identity. Over the course of the 1920s, Zelda’s five ‘girl’ stories in College Humour were credited to both Fitzgeralds. Zelda’s A Millionaire’s Girl, deemed too good for College Humour by Ober, was sold to the Post for $4,000 instead of $500, but only if Zelda’s authorship was omitted. It appeared as F Scott Fitzgerald’s work alone.

Ober later admitted he “felt a little guilty about dropping Zelda’s name from that story” but consoled himself “I think she understands.” Zelda didn’t understand. Even if she did at the time, misunderstanding rippled between Zelda and Scott over the proceeding years, their lives ebbing further and further apart like driftwood against the tide.

In 1932 Zelda’s battle to be heard ended in marital catastrophe when Scott finally got round to reading her novel Save Me the Waltz. He was furious. Written in an obsessive 6-week spiral of creativity, Scott was livid at Zelda’s fictionalisation of their marriage. This, despite the fact that his own yet-to-be-published novel Tender is the Night copied direct chunks of Zelda’s letters to Scott in order to fictionalise Zelda’s mental illness.

Zelda would later conclude “I can’t get on with my husband and I can’t live away from him…I’m so tired of compromises. Shaving off one part of oneself after another until there is nothing left…” Perhaps her biggest compromise was yet to come. Scott ordered Zelda to revise her novel. She complied.

Kat Lister is Feminist Times’ new Contributing Editor. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

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