THE SPIRIT OF STYLE: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre in 1919, the year before her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Over the five weeks of the Fall 2010 collections—in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and, in Canada, in Montreal and Toronto—the attention of fashion editors and writers was necessarily focused on the concrete. What was the new silhouette, the top hue, the hemline? Are vertiginous heels coming down to earth? Who’s the new face?

But now that the sparkle has dimmed, it’s interesting to think about the more abstract elements of style—less about the individual pieces in an outfit, and more about the individuals whose approach to life is itself a lesson in style.

I started thinking about this last week, while reading Zelda, the 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald by Nancy Milford. It’s a beautifully written account of a brilliant, complicated woman who became known as “the first flapper,” and served as inspiration for some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most enduring characters, including The Great Gatsby’s Daisy (with her “low, thrilling voice”) and Nicole Diver, the tragic heroine of Tender is the Night.

Born in Alabama in 1900, Zelda Sayre “lived on the cream at the top of the bottle,” as Milford quotes one of Zelda’s boyfriends. She was the youngest of six children and the daughter of a judge. She skipped school, wrote naughty poetry and wore a flesh-coloured bathing suit as she zipped down the streets of Montgomery on a bicycle.  Her photo appeared in the local paper; her dance card was always full. Trying to win her attention, aviation officers flew planes dangerously close over her family home. In the summer of 1918, she met Fitzgerald at the country club. The next year, he gave her his mother’s engagement ring.

Zelda’s life ended in the worst kind of tragedy, but her early years pulsed with possibility. Milford brings that excitement to life. These are the first few sentences of her book:

“When I was young in the Midwest and had dreams of my own, it seemed to me a fine thing to live as the Fitzgeralds had, where every gesture had a special flair that marked it as one’s own. Together they personified the immense lure of the East, of young fame, of dissolution and early death—their sepia-tinted photographs in rotogravure sections across the country: Scott, in an immaculate Norfolk jacket, gesturing nervously with a cigarette, Zelda brightly at his side, her clean wild hair brushed back from her face. But it was not her beauty that was arresting. It was her style, a sort of insolence toward life, her total lack of caution, her fearless and abundant pride.”

And then about 60 pages in:

“…In the spring of 1920 the Fitzgeralds were just beginning; they were young and happy, This Side of Paradise [Fitzgerald's first novel] was becoming a brilliant success, and for the moment the angels were on their side. Zelda called Scott her “King of the Roses,” and themselves “The Goofos,” and ordered fresh spinach and champagne for midnight snacks at the Biltmore. Those days in New York were gaudy ones, and Zelda caught the spirit of the city when she wrote about it later,

‘Vincent Youmans wrote the music for those twilights just after the war. They were wonderful. They hung above the city like an indigo wash…Through the gloom, the whole world went to tea. Girls in short amorphous capes and long flowing skirts and hats like straw manhole covers tapped the tune of a cataract on the dance floors of the Lorraine and the St. Regis. Under the sombre ironic parrots of the Biltmore a halo of golden bobs disintegrated into black lace and shoulder bouquets…It was just a lot of youngness.’”

Reading that doesn’t make me want to buy a fur coat or an old-fashioned swimming costume—it appeals to a finer instinct. It makes me want to be more sensitively tuned, more vigorous, more alive. That’s what inspiring people can do—rouse something folded and hidden, and make you think about how to live your life.

Below, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early years of their marriage. You can buy a copy of Zelda here.

One thought on “THE SPIRIT OF STYLE: Zelda Fitzgerald

  1. What an interesting mix of history and style in this piece.
    Zelda had a great sense of personal style–she seemed to make it her own. I would love to read more pieces along this vein.

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