Nearly every high school student in the United States eventually finds themselves obligated to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. However, most class discussions fail to mention that Fitzgerald “borrowed” the material from his wife, Zelda. Zelda Fitzgerald was an artistic, independent icon of the flapper movement. She had dreams of writing and publishing her own work. Did Zelda inspire her husband’s writing like a dutiful wife and dependable muse? Or did Scott plagiarize his own wife, sabotaging her career and dreams? This is F. Scott Fitzgerald on trial.
Speaking of The Great Gatsby, we know Scott “borrowed” some inspiration from his wife for the character of Daisy Buchanan. After giving birth, Zelda famously stated that she hoped that her daughter would be a beautiful little fool. Scott uses this line in Gatsby, attributing it to Daisy Buchanan’s hopes for her own daughter.
Scott appears to draw inspiration from his wife again in the character of Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned. Many of Zelda’s behaviors are exaggerated in Gloria’s character. For example, early drafts of the manuscript reflect directly on Gloria’s abortion at a time in which Scott Fitzgerald was also reconciling Zelda’s recent abortion. In her biographical book Zelda, Nancy Milford lays descriptions of Zelda’s characteristics side by side with excerpts from Scott’s The Beautiful and Damned, and the resemblance is striking. Zelda seemed to think the same thing because she published a review of the book in the New York Tribune under her maiden name. The review intentionally satirizes positive book premotion in a witty and playful manner, but somewhere along the way, Zelda reaches a more serious tone when she writes:
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. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.
Though the tone of the review edges on playful banter, this excerpt concerning plagiarism appears to address a serious grievance. Zelda recognized the similarities between herself and the character of Gloria, and she did not appear to receive this representation with goodwill. Milford notes, “We cannot know to what extent Scott used Zelda’s diary but we have her word for it . . . that he did.”
Of course, not everyone takes Zelda’s word for it. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, states in a literary hub article in 2019:
Scott’s use of Zelda’s letters is sometimes cited as evidence of his gross misappropriation of Zelda’s talent. At the time, however, it was generally considered a husband’s job to be a provider, and a wife’s job to tend to amenities. Maybe Zelda wanted to give herself a bit of credit for authorship, but at this point there was no serious rivalry between them.
Lanahan appears to believe that Scott’s publication of excerpts of Zelda’s writings was not plagiarism but an act of consensual collaboration from a dutiful wife.
While I agree that accounts of plagiarism have been reduced and sensualized in the past for media consumption, I have to push back on the notion that Zelda Fitzgerald was a dutiful wife. In my personal research, I found that Zelda was a deeply artistic woman with a strong voice and a desire to see change in the domestic sphere. In her article “Eulogy on the Flapper”, published by Metropolitan Magazine, Zelda reflects on the flapper movement she participated in during the 1920’s. She writes, “the Flapper awoke from her lethargy . . . bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle.” The descriptions of her place in her era are not that of a domestic housewife. Instead, Zelda’s words echo similar sentiments to the ideas present in the feminist movements today.
Later in her life, Zelda began drafting a new novel, Save Me the Waltz, which has been read as a dramatized representation of her own marriage. When she sent her manuscript to her agent, her husband was enraged because he had been planning on using the same material in his upcoming novel, Tender is the Night. Lacking her husband’s approval, Zelda could not publish Save Me the Waltz without cutting a substantial portion of it. This revised version of her novel was met with little approval from critics and is generally regarded as a poor sample of her writing.
So, what was Zelda’s writing actually like? Luckily, several of Zelda’s works survived. In her article “Plagiarism Begins at Home,” Shaunta Grimes claims, “She was a sensory writer with a lyrical style.” When Scott Fitzgerald sent Maxwell Perkins copies of Zelda’s stories for consideration, Perkins noted that her stories possess an “astonishing power of expression […] and have and convey a curiously effective and strange quality.” He advised her to expand her short manuscripts into a novel to appeal to a larger audience.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Zelda Fitzgerald and her life, there are plenty of resources out there. I found the biography Zelda by Nancy Milford to be incredibly enlightening. Amazon Prime has also released the series Z: The Beginning of Everything based on Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Theresa Anne Fowler. Whether or not you believe that Zelda’s writing was stolen or hampered by her husband, it is important to note that her legacy lives on, and I encourage you to explore some of the documents she left behind.