By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
An American Tragedy

     In the early 1920s, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, blessed with film-star looks, charismatic personalities and talent to burn, were the toast of two continents, destined to become forever emblematic of the Jazz Age, an era marked by rivers of alcohol, childish hijinks, reckless sexual abandon and the absolute certainty the good times would never end.
     But end they did. By the early 1930s, Scott was a failed novelist and a hopeless drunk, while Zelda had begun the long, dark slide into schizophrenia. Their turn of luck had not been caused by the Great Crash of '29 (as so many other’s futures had been) but by their complex and competitive marriage, a union not of opposites but almost of twins who both inspired and tormented each other and were ultimately destroyed by their shared fantasies.
     When they first met, the upper-class southerner Zelda had been wildly popular, noted for her beauty, irresistible charm, searing intelligence and eccentric behavior, while Scott was little more than a poor young army officer with literary aspirations. Their positions would be reversed when Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, became an international best-seller, its female protagonist soon to be the model for an entire generation of young flappers who wanted to emulate the novel’s captivating heroine. If “Scarlett O’Hara” was the first “liberated” lady in American fiction, surely Fitzgerald’s “Rosalind” was her worthy successor.
     But as Scott became more successful, Zelda grew more desperate to come out from under the shadow of his fame. Her talents were awesome: a perceptiveness that bordered on genius (she might have made a world-class psychiatrist) and a stunningly lyrical way of expressing herself. She could have made her mark in either acting, dance, painting or writing. In time, she would try all four, and with some success. But she had set the bar too high, and nothing less than exceeding her husband’s own lofty achievements would ever satisfy her.
     By the mid-30s, Zelda’s mind was disintegrating. She often spent many months in institutions in Europe and America. The staggering cost for such treatment came at a terrible time, for as if manipulated by a fickle fate, Scott’s financial fortunes were on a similar downward skid. He had published The Great Gatsby—which today, many consider the greatest American novel of the 20th century—but its wretched sales had ruined what remained of his self-respect.
     Toward the end of the decade, he was laboring as a struggling screenwriter at MGM, by now a ghost of his former self. A young scribe, encountering him by chance, had incredulously asked, “Aren’t you F. Scott Fitzgerald?” Scott had replied, “I used to be.”
     In 1940, the great writer’s heavy heart finally gave out. At 44, he had left unfinished what might have been his best novel, The Last Tycoon, modeled after Irving Thalberg—the legendary boy-genius of Hollywood.
     In 1948, Zelda died in a sanitarium fire, having never fully regained what had once been her most pronounced characteristic: a spellbinding personality. Over the years, Scott had sweated through bad times and worse to pay her medical expenses, and deeply resented parting with money that he had been forced to crawl to the edge of Hell to earn. But his bitterness must have been tempered by the awareness that without her, he might never have become famous, in the first place—for the model for all of the dazzling heroines in every one of his novels had been none other than his own wife, the unforgettable Zelda Fitzgerald.