Zelda Fitzgerald: more than America’s flapper

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E. M. Ball Collection, Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNC Asheville. Highland Hospital fire, March 10, 1948

Most of us know Zelda Fitzgerald as wife to the author of F. Scott Fitzgerald (just as most of us were assigned the Great Gatsby in high school). But did you know she was an artist in her own right, and spent the last decade of her life here in Asheville at Highlands hospital, a psychiatric facility?

In 1935, Zelda + F. Scott came to Asheville so Scott could rest at the Grove Park Inn, and get treated for tuberculosis. Scott stayed through the summer + came back the next year (you can still visit his two rooms: one for sleeping, one for writing). Zelda never left. Scott admitted her to Highlands Hospital for schizophrenia.

After spending a decade in and out of Highlands Hospital, she and nine others died in the famous fire that took down the whole building (and was said to be arson). Zelda was locked in a top-floor room, awaiting electroshock therapy. You can see the historic marker at the Rumbough House.

Last week, Asheville’s City Council proclaimed March 10th Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald Day. Aurora Studio and Gallery, which runs programs for artists who have experienced mental health or substance abuse issues, organized a week of events to remember the author, artist, and ballet dancer who was overshadowed by her husband’s career and her own mental illness.

They married when they were 20.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born on July 24, 1900 in Montgomery, A.L. She was your classic southern belle before meeting the F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom she married in 1920.

She became known as America’s first flapper and her + Scott captivated the public as they took the spotlight.

“Plagiarizing starts at home.”

After F. Scott’s publishing of The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda told the New York Herald Tribune “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.

Which, makes sense, as she was a writer herself. In 1918 she received a prize for her short story The Iceberg which was published in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal. Her only novel Save Me the Waltz was published in 1932 and included a magnitude of autobiographical material. (Seriously, it’s a must read.) F. Scott’s book, Tender is the Night had very similar + overlapping themes.

Her art is still on display.

She painted portraits, plates, lampshades + even paper dolls for her daughter Scottie. She had an exhibition in 1934 at a museum in New York when she was alive, but now her work is shown at galleries around the U.S., including at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, at the College of Charleston. Prints of her work can be purchased here.

She *almost* became a professional ballerina.

She took up ballet in Paris in her mid-twenties, pursuing the idea of becoming professional when she was 27. Zelda put a lot of time into ballet and was even noted as being obsessed with the art. In 1929 Julia Sedova, the ballet mistress of the San Carlo Opera dance company + former Imperial Russian Ballet dance, asked Zelda to perform in the Teatro di San Carlo’s production of the opera “Aida.” That opportunity would have allowed her to dance the full season with a monthly salary, however, Zelda did not accept the offer to go to Naples.

How did she get to Asheville?

Zelda spent time in several mental health clinics. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic but many modern day nurses + doctors believe that she actually suffered from bipolar disorder.

The summers of 1935 + 1936 Scott Fitzgerald was suffering from Tuberculosis and like many people with TB he made the trek to Asheville. While in Asheville, Scott spent time at the Grove Park Inn and Zelda stayed in Highland Hospital and the couple eventually drifted apart – Scott went out west while Zelda stayed at Highland.

After Scott’s death in 1940, Zelda checked out of Highland to take care of her mother in Montgomery, yet she would periodically make visits to Highland Hospital for treatment.

A tragic death

During the night of March 10, 1948 a fire broke out at Highland and nine patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, were killed as the entire wooden facility burned to the ground.

Today the powerful duo Scott + Zelda echo in both literature + historic topics. Book such as Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and Call Me Zelda have made their debuts as interpretations of who Zelda truly was.

Asheville and WNC played a huge role in her life, before her death. We’re happy that Asheville is rewriting history + celebrating Zelda.

You tell me? Was Zelda hidden behind Scott’s spotlight or was she just too vibrant to contain? After reading both Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck + an essay by the Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan, I believe Zelda was a vibrant individual whose talents and mental health were not given enough attention.

–Audra