THE JAZZ AGE
Zelda Fitzgerald: The Life of the Party Turns 118
The famous socialite and flapper would have turned 118 years old today.
Like no other decade, the 1920s carried a number of nicknames: the “Dry Era,” the “Jazz Age,” the “Roaring Twenties” and, as the denizens of Paris referred to it, les Anées Folles, the “Crazy Years.” On both sides of the ocean, perhaps, no two people personified that epoch better than F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. And today, July 24, would have been Zelda’s 118th birthday.
She was perhaps the quintessential “flapper,” the term used to describe the rebellious, non-conformist young woman of that era. She bobbed her hair and dressed (and behaved) provocatively. She smoked and enjoyed a cocktail or three, Volstead Act be damned!
And if Zelda was the personification of a flapper, her husband Scott was its chronicler and unofficial spokesperson. Specifically, you’ll find Zelda’s wild, flapper streak throughout the pages of his 1922 novel The Beautiful and Damned, which some critics referred to as The Beautiful and Slammed. You’ll also find aspects of her sprinkled throughout the pages of his other prose, notably in This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Jelly Bean, and his short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers.
Zelda Sayre came from a wealthy and socially prominent family in Montgomery, Alabama. Her family’s social standing gave her a safety net to develop a bit of notoriety, which she did nothing to discourage. She flouted convention, danced the Charleston, smoked and drank, and took to swimming in a form-fitting, flesh-colored Annette Kellermann swimsuit, so as to give the appearance she was swimming nude. The belle of every society ball, Zelda soon grew tired of the Southern social scene. When she met a dashing young Army lieutenant from up North named Fitzgerald (he was stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan), love soon ensued and, shortly after Scott’s first novel This Side of Paradise was published in 1920, they wed at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And that’s when the party life really began.
Scott and Zelda soon moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where that Prohibition classic, the Orange Blossom (a mix of gin and orange juice), became their favorite drink. Indeed, it was, according to Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, “Zelda’s cocktail of choice.” So much so that their summer of 1920 became “a summer of a thousand giant orange blossoms, with their biggest household expense the bootlegger,” wrote Marion Mead in her book, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties.
On one occasion, Zelda and her friend Helen Buck drank an entire pitcher of Orange Blossoms, then packed some in a Thermos for a round of golf at the country club. Zelda and Buck were visibly drunk out on the links, with Zelda belting out the turn-of-the-century ditty “Silver Dollar.” (It was later covered by Bobby Darin, sans Orange Blossoms, I would imagine.) Fortunately, the episode came to a peaceful end, writes Sarah Churchwell in Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, when Fitzgerald’s friend and author Ring Lardner (who had a thing for Zelda, by the way) escorted them home safely.
Like their Connecticut residence, their next home in Long Island continued the “party house” theme. Lardner would later quip that Scott and Zelda were compelled to move to France “because New Yorkers kept mistaking their Long Island home for a road house.” Indeed, by the spring of 1925, Scott had just published The Great Gatsby, and he and Zelda moved to Paris, looking to, according to Jessica Powell’s Literary Paris: A Guide, to “find a new rhythm’ for their lives.” Were they outgrowing the flapper lifestyle? To them, perhaps they saw it as a natural progression, even a maturing; indeed, in a 1927 interview in the New York World, Scott noted that “The best of America drifts to Paris. The American in Paris is the best American. It is more fun for an intelligent person to live in an intelligent country. France has the only two things toward which we drift as we grow older—intelligence and good manners.”
Unfortunately, their time in France brought about anything but good manners, and more of the non-stop party lifestyle from this dynamic duo. In the words of writer Morrill Cody in The Women of Montparnasse, “Scott and Zelda had little in common, yet the one passion they did share was very strong indeed. They were both ‘excitement-eaters’… a phrase that Zelda used in her book to describe herself.”
Indeed, during the 1920s, Morrill Cody wrote that the Fitzgeralds became “the most renowned ‘excitement-eaters’ of the western world.” Artist and expat Gerald Murphy noted that they “did not seek ordinary pleasures. They wanted something unusual to happen, some act that they might not even understand.” Zelda’s friend Livye Hart is quoted in Sara Mayfield’s Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, saying that “one of her main characteristics was her apparent delight in shocking people. And that was what she almost invariably did.”
Like what? Oh, how about that night at dinner at La Colombe d’Or near Antibes, when Zelda (jealous that Scott was flirting with dancer Isadora Duncan) threw herself off the top of a parapet and down a flight of stone steps. Everyone assumed she was dead, until she emerged, a bit bloodied but otherwise fine. (Unfazed, that night she even managed to steal a pair of glass salt and pepper shakers from the restaurant!) Or that wild Paris night when Scott and Zelda, according to Noël Riley Fitch’s Walks in Hemingway’s Paris, “entertained themselves by frivolously racing around the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in a stolen delivery-cart tricycle.” (If that feat sounds familiar, Scott included it in his short story “Babylon Revisited.”) Or perhaps that farewell party in Antibes for theatre critic Alexander Woollcott. It seems Zelda was bored by all of the stuffy toasts, so she got up and, according to a 1951 Life Magazine article, said, “‘I have been so touched by all these kind words. But what are words? Nobody has offered our departing heroes any gifts to take with them. I’ll start off.’ And she stepped out of her black lace panties and threw them toward Woollcott…”
The ironic thing about Scott and Zelda’s lifestyle is that Scott was seen as being a satirist of that crazy jazz/flapper-era. In its review of The Beautiful and Damned, the Philadelphia Record noted that it told the cautionary tale of “a man and woman who go to spiritual and physical ruin.” Yet if Scott and Zelda sought out to satirize the dissolution and recklessness of their own age, why were they so bent on actually living it?
For Zelda’s sake, she seemed powerless to stop it. Reminiscing in Arlen J. Hansen’s Expatriate Paris, she’s quoted as saying “Nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks. When you felt you couldn’t survive another night, you went home and slept and when you got back, a new set of people had consecrated themselves to keeping it alive.” Perhaps it was Zelda herself who was the one “consecrated” to keeping the party alive.
Indeed, way back in 1919, she wrote these words in a letter to her suitor, Scott, which I found in the journal, American Literary Dimensions: “And I don’t want to be famous and fêted—all I want is to be very young always and very irresponsible and to feel that my life is my own—to live and be happy and die in my own way to please myself.”
How about we fix an Orange Blossom and raise a glass to that immortal excitement-eater, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald?
- Juice of one orange (approximately 2 oz)
- 2 oz London dry gin
Glass: Cocktail or coupe
For more tales from 1920s Paris, pick up Philip Greene’s new book, A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris, which comes out on October 9th.