Zelda Fitzgerald: The Paris Years

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Zelda Fitzgerald: The Paris Years
In May 1924, Zelda, Scott and their daughter Scottie decamped from America to Paris. The extravagance of their lifestyle in the U.S. in the previous four years had left the Fitzgeralds in debt both financially and emotionally. Their hedonistic partying and heavy drinking had left Scott’s writing in limbo and their marriage no longer the fairytale they’d envisioned. Paris was to be a new start for both of them. Scott was to get his writing back on track, and the strong dollar and inexpensive living in France he hoped would alleviate their financial woes. The Fitzgeralds first contact in Paris was Sara and Gerald Murphy, a fabulously wealthy American couple who owned a majestic house just outside Paris. The Fitzgeralds were immediately invited the next evening and Zelda’s first introduction to the artistic beau monde of  Paris, despite being married to Scott for five years and being used to the accolade of the ‘Golden Couple’ in New York, had to have been as impressive as it was unexpected. The guests included amongst others, Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, Picasso and his then-wife the ballerina Olga Khokhlova. It was through the Murphys that the Fitzgeralds were introduced later to the likes of Miro, Sherwood Anderson, Dos Passos, Ezra Pound and eventually Ernest Hemingway. For a girl from Alabama, these were heady days indeed. However Paris in the 1920s was not a place to recuperate, to take life seriously, or to stop partying. Paris was not conducive at all to promoting sober, abstemious living which was exactly what both Scott and Zelda so desperately needed. And it had all started so well such a very few years before. The publication of Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, to great critical acclaim in 1920, tipped the balance on Zelda’s decision to marry him. It wasn’t that Zelda did not love Scott madly, but the prospect of marrying a penniless, struggling author had deterred Zelda from accepting Scott’s first proposal. Zelda Fitgerald, although undoubtedly a Southern Belle, was just as undoubtedly never an archetypal one. There was nothing either demure or coy about her behavior. Feted as a beauty from an early age, Zelda was accustomed to the attentions and avowals of love from the opposite sex and the adoration of her mother, for whom Zelda could do no wrong despite the rumors of her wild and decidedly unladylike escapades. Zelda was born in Montgomery, Alabama on the 24th of June 1900; her father was a remote and strict man, and as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, Zelda’s growing reputation for wildness left him coldly disapproving. With a string of beaus, constant drinking, smoking and partying, Zelda had already shocked Montgomery society. Zelda did not give a hoot. She could not have differed more than Scott Fitzgerald who was never blessed with Zelda’s innate courage and total fearlessness. Their attraction at country club when Zelda at just 18 was instant and all consuming. Both beautiful and blonde it was hardly surprising they were soon to be known as the ‘Golden couple’. Scott had already published The Beautiful and Damned in 1922 before they came to Paris, but sales had disappointed him. Zelda had recognized herself in the character of the flapper Gloria, and wryly noted similarities in Scott’s novel to her personal letters and diaries. (This was to become a running theme throughout Scott’s work where he used Zelda’s letters and conversations, sometimes verbatim; he felt as her husband and the novelist that they belonged to him.) The Murphys had already ‘discovered’ the Riviera and were in the process of building a villa in Antibes. They urged the Fitzgeralds to join them and so after a few scant weeks in Paris, Scott and Zelda took the train down to the south of France. In St Raphael they fell in love with the Villa Marie and Scott settled down conscientiously to write every day. Zelda, spending most days on the beach and swimming, soon became bored and her attentions turned to a young French airman, Edouard Jozen. It has never been established how far their affair went– Jozen, who later became Vice Admiral of the French fleet, denied it was anything more than a brief friendship– but Zelda felt she had fallen in love with Jozen and told Scott. Scott was never to forgive or forget her betrayal and Zelda complied with his ultimatum to never see Jozen again. The first indication of Zelda’s instability came in August that year when a shocked Scott knocked on the Murphys door in the early hours. Zelda had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. No explanations were offered and the matter was never referred to again between the couples. It was not until the following spring that the Fitzgeralds returned to Paris, renting a gloomy apartment on 14 Rue de Tilsitt, just off the Champs-Élysées. The heavy furniture was ‘circa grandma’ as Zelda described it, but neither Scott nor Zelda ever showed much interest in any of the apartments they rented in Paris and Zelda was renowned for living in chaotic conditions. Despite his continued heavy drinking, Scott had finished The Great Gatsby and they embraced the nightlife of Paris with their usual abandon. Much has been written about Scott’s admiration of Hemingway. He not only admired his writing and his discipline, but was also overwhelming impressed by Hemingway’s macho persona. To Scott, Hemingway was a ‘real man.’ To Zelda, Hemingway was bogus. Their mutual antipathy was to cause more problems in a marriage already unbalanced by Scott’s literary talents and his desire to spend…

Lead photo credit : Zelda Fitzgerald in 1917. Public domain.

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-06-08 07:20:26
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thanks Cynthia. They were both complex but fascinating people in their own right.


  • Cynthia
    2020-06-05 10:33:05
    Fascinating article, thank you!