Zelda: A Biography

Zelda: A Biography

by Nancy Milford

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Zelda Sayre started out as a Southern beauty, became an international wonder, and died by fire in a madhouse. With her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, she moved in a golden aura of excitement, romance, and promise. The epitome of the Jazz Age, they rode the crest of the era to its collapse and their own.

As a result of years of exhaustive research, Nancy Milford brings alive the tormented, elusive personality of Zelda and clarifies as never before her relationship with Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda traces the inner disintegration of a gifted, despairing woman, torn by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062032461
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 12,757
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Nancy Milford holds both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University where Zelda was her dissertation. She has held a Guggenheim Fellowship in Biography, and has served on the boards of the Authors Guild, the Society of American Historians, and the Writers Room, of which she is a founder. Her most recent book is Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If there was a confederate establishment in the Deep South, Zelda Sayre came from the heart of it. Willis B. Machen, Zelda's maternal grandfather, was an energetic entrepreneur tough enough to endure several careers and robust enough to outlive two of his three wives. He came to Kentucky from South Carolina as a boy when the new state was still a frontier. Young Machen began his career refining iron with a partner in Lyon County; soon he was successful enough to open his own business. It failed, and he was nearly ruined; but he managed to repay his debts and begin again. He built turnpikes until a severe injury forced him to turn in a completely fresh direction, the law. He never failed again. Soon he had built up a large clientele in the southwestern part of the state, and he became a member of the convention that framed the constitution of Kentucky.

He served as a state senator until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time Kentucky, a border state, was violently embroiled in choosing sides. Although the state formally declared its allegiance to the Union, the secessionists, Machen prominent among them, set up a provisional state government. He was elected to the Confederate Congress by residents of his district and by the soldiers in the field. At the close of the war, fearing reprisals, he fled to Canada. His third wife and their young daughter Minnie joined him shortly afterward.

Machen was pardoned and returned to Kentucky. He was urged to accept the nomination for governor of the state but declined because of some confusion about his eligibility. In 1872 he wasappointed to the United States Senate, in which he served for four months. At the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in July of the same year his name was presented by the delegationfrom Kentucky for the Vice-Presidential nomination. It was a distinction he did not achieve.

By 1880 Machen was a powerful member of the Kentucky railroad commission and his patronage was eagerly sought. He chose to retire to his fine red-brick manor house, Mineral Mount, near Eddyville, Kentucky; it stood on three thousand acres in the fertile valley of the Cumberland River, and there he raised tobacco. The pastoral elegance of Machen's splendid home must have been somewhat diminished by the running of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad line past the foot of the hill upon which Mineral Mount was built. Still, Machen had achieved the pinnacle of Southern society, for as both planter and lawyer he belonged to the ruling class. And it was in that atmosphere of privilege that young Minnie grew up.

In a scrapbook which Zelda kept during her girlhood there is a photograph of her mother taken when Minnie Machen was nineteen. Her curling hair is caught up in a braided bun behind her pierced ears, from which fall small jeweled earrings in the shape of flowers. It is a pretty face, which with maturity would become handsome, for it is wellboned and definite. Her nose is straight, her square chin determined-looking, and only the thinness of her lips mars a face that would otherwise have been called beautiful. Beneath the photograph is the inscription "The Wild Lily of the Cumberland."

Minnie was the artistic member of her family and her poems and short sketches were frequently published in local Kentucky newspapers. She was an ardent reader of fiction and poetry, and when she ran out of books to read she turned to the encyclopedia.

But her dreams centered upon the stage. She had a small clear soprano voice and she played the piano nicely. Her father sent her for "finishing" to Miss Chilton's School in Montgomery, Alabama. His good friend Senator John Tyler Morgan lived in Montgomery, and it was at a New Year's Eve ball given by the Morgans that Minnie met a nephew of Senator Morgan's, the quiet and courtly young lawyer Anthony Dickinson Sayre, whom she would eventually marry.

She was not, however, so smitten by Mr. Sayre that she would relinquish a trip to Philadelphia which she had persuaded her father to allow her. She spent the winter season in Philadelphia with friends of her family, and while there she pursued her secret ambition by studying elocution. When Georgia Drew, the head of the famous Drew-Barrymore theatrical family, held a tryout for one of her plays, Minnie read for her and was offered a role in the company. Machen learned of his daughter's adventure and was outraged. He ordered her home at once, telling her that he would rather see her dead than on the stage. Minnie returned to Kentucky immediately, but she had suffered a disappointment she never forgot. Years later, with her family grown and out of her home, she shifted the story slightly, remarking to a neighbor that if she hadn't married judge Sayre she would have had a career in the opera or on the stage; she reconciled herself by singing in the choir of the Church of the Holy Comforter, which she attended without her husband.

Anthony Sayre's family took pride in having been among the early settlers of Long Island, and they eventually came to Alabama, via New Jersey and Ohio, after the territory achieved statehood in 1819. By the time of the Civil War, some forty years later, their sentiments were entirely Southern.

Anthony's father founded and edited a newspaper in the rural town of Tuskegee and later moved to Montgomery, where he was editor of the Post. Sayre Street, which ran through the most fashionable section of Montgomery, was named in honor of Anthony's uncle, who had built the White House of the Confederacy for Jefferson Davis and who was a founder of the First Presbyterian Church. Anthony's mother, Musidora Morgan, was the sister of Senator John Tyler Morgan, who served in the United States Senate for thirty-one years...

Zelda. Copyright © by Nancy Milford. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Zelda 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
lesslie More than 1 year ago
I never thought I'd even want to read about Zelda Fitzgerald because I read all about Hemingway first and he didn't like her and I admit that influenced my opinion of her. Then one day I read that she died in a fire in mental hospital. That piqued my interest so I bought the book and am glad to say was not disappointed. I still don't "like" Zelda, but do understand her as a person more because of this extremely detailed book. It is one of the better biographies I've ever read. F.Scott Fitzgerald is part of the package of course. After reading Zelda, I don't feel the need to read his bio, Nancy Milford has told me everything I ever wanted to know about him too. I like reading about the 20's and all those glamourous Americans abroud in the years between the wars. This book gives you all the details, and I was not surprised at all that none of them really had as grand a time as the pictures make it look. What a price they all paid for all the debauchery. I liked the book, it provoked a sense of pity for this fragile, mentally ill china doll that was Zelda. I won't read it again, not because it's not good, but because it is more of an educational book than one I turn to for pleasure. It is the most thourough book I've read on life between the wars.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Love the writings of Scott Fitzgerald and have always heard rumor of Zelda and their tragic romance which sounded intriguing to me so I decided to read this book. It was very interested and written very well, except that there were many things that I did not understand about Zelda after I finished reading the book; mainly, how did she start out being such a strong person and then finally end up in the state that she was in. The book did not make that clear to me, I was able to speculate a lot of reasons why this may have come about from the information that she gave but was never clear about it. None-the-less, I did enjoy the book, interesting whether you are interested in the Fitzgerald's, women's topics, that certain era in history, or just a good story, this book would fulfill any of those need.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once again, Mitford does not disappoint. I picked this up casually as I am teaching a bit of Fitzgerald (F. Scott, that is) and thought it might provide interesting insight into the work. Finding that I just couldn't put it down, I read it in two sittings. While Mitford tries valiently to remain neutral, the conclusions one must of necessity draw from the facts she persuasively sets forth puts an entirely new face on the canon and renders the Fitzgerald's decline and early deaths far more understandable. I found the portions dealing with Hemingway of particular interest. An excellent read, hugely interesting to those who read and study the Fizgeralds' work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Scott and Zelda were the ¿it couple¿ of the twenties. Milford uses both narrative and the selected writings of both the Fitzgeralds to paint a marriage that is glamorous and troubled from the beginning to each of these stars tragic ends. High recommended for any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, women¿s studies or for those wanting a glimpse into a vanished age.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nancy Milford always does well researched bios and Zelda is no exception. She recreates Zelda,s world with interviews from many people who knew Zelda and Scott personally. Fascinating read which takes you back to the twenties and beyond. Some of the writings of Zelda are given and while not always interesting are a look into a brilliant mind that was very ill.
Link0 More than 1 year ago
Zelda was a deeply tortured soul. The author (Nancy Milford) brings her story to life in a breathtaking way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i actually picked up this book at random... and couldn't put it down. the excerpts from zelda's letters and writing are amazing. it was interesting to hear the back-story to some of the greatest books of all time.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Such talented people. So sad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took me 3 days to finally finish reading this book. OMG way too Long so I found it boring & put me to sleep which was ok because I do NOT sleep well when excited about reading something. This was NOT exciting. I felt Sad for Zelda & how she became who she was... Her Parents were NOT really the best parents to their daughter. So she became a "WILD CHILD' & Teenager & an Adult. Guess because she was brought up as a Privileged up human being. But she was SMART and Beautiful & totally took advantage of that aspect of herself. And took advantage of ALL THE MEN she seduced with her Beauty & Games. I just do NOT understand her being put away because she might have had the kind of Depression they call NOW DAYS "Mainiac Depression" or Bipolar Disorder. So unless you like LONG LENGTHY Writings in a thick book of small print, I wouldn't waste my time (Like I did)!
SandSing7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It sounds cliche, but this book was absolutely fascinating, even to a person who's not a big fan of non-fiction. Zelda was inspiring and tragic all at once. It also showed a completely different side of Fitzgerald, and made me think of The Great Gatsby in a completely different light. I could not believe Zelda actually muttered that famous "I hope she'll be a fool" line after the birth of her daughter, Scottie! And for some reason, I kept wondering if Tom could be a representation of Fitzgerald himself? The extent to which Fitzgerald went to secure "ownership" of their life for his own fictional use was astounding. I can't wait to go back and read his novels again with a more complete understanding of the biographical information behind it.
karinnekarinne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's hard to review "Zelda" without tying in my feelings about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and their crazy, codependent relationship. But I can't find any fault in Nancy Milford's work, and for such a long biography to hold my interest all the way through is sort of amazing, so I'm giving it five stars.I first learned about Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald a few years ago when I tried to read a couple of Scott Fitzgerald's books. I couldn't STAND the main characters in any of the books, and reading that they were semi-based on the Fitzgeralds in real life made me think these must be some of the most horrid people ever. I read asides about how rocky their relationship was but didn't know too much, but was a little interested in how the characters in the fictional worlds Scott created contrasted with the real people a lot of people compared them to. It wasn't really enough of an interest to do any footwork until I read Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" and read about his encounters with the Fitzgeralds. They sounded interesting and it spurred me to read "Zelda," which had been sitting on my bookshelf for about a year.So I guess I should get to the actual review, sorry. Milford writes about Zelda's childhood briefly, but most of the book focuses on her life after she meets Scott, which has a lot to do with the fact that the latter part of her life is better documented, I'm sure. Milford is a skillful biographer and has a knack as far as keeping the reader interested in the story she's telling. This is not quite a biography of Scott, but it is hard not to tell his story while telling Zelda's, so you learn quite a bit about Scott along the way.Zelda's story is so sad, at least I thought it was. She is not a sympathetic character all of the time -- sometimes she is downright unlikeable -- but I couldn't help but feel sorry for her as her husband stole pieces wholesale from her life to use in his writing, including writing from her journals and letters, and blamed her for almost everything bad that happened to him, professionally and sometimes personally. It seemed at times that he even blamed her for her own mental illness. Reading about Zelda's ups-and-downs and visits to mental health facilities was as sad as reading about her plaintive letters to Scott after their relationship fizzled for the last time, and her problems connecting with her daughter, Scottie."Zelda" is just a SAD book, so I can see why it wouldn't be for everybody. It does give great insight into the life of the couple behind the books I read, though (and surprise! I think I would dislike them as much in real life, in their heyday, as I did the characters in the books), and it gives a little window into how mental illness was handled seventy years ago or so. It's a fascinating look into a complicated life, if you can get past the melancholy inevitable end.[BONUS! I have now learned I am crap at reviewing biographies. Yay?]
edenkal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book and it was a lengthy read (it took me a week to finish) but it was well worth it. Nancy Milford did an excellent job of getting every last detail and putting it in an order that flows nicely. What a tragic life and love Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald had. I think it was an important story to tell and the author makes you feel like you were right there with them. Im was amazed to find out how two people could love each other so much and ruin each other at the same time. Anybody with an interest in the writers of the 1920's should definitely read this book.
lanaing on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Amazing. Milford did an excellent job of portraying the Fitzgerald couple. However, her writing was not the main attraction of this book, it was Zelda's. Her letter's to Scott were steeped in metaphors and beautiful in their conveyance of so many emotions.Here is one that she wrote to describe the rainy sky:"filled with copper clouds like the after-math of cannon-fire, pre-war, civil-war clouds and I feel all empty and bored and very much in love with you, my dear one, my own. I wish you were here so we could stretch our legs down beside one another and feel all warm and hidden in the bed, like seeds beaten into the earth. Why is there happiness and comfort and excitement where you are and no where else in the world, and why is there a sleepy tremulo in the air when you are near that's promising and living like a vibrating fecundity?"4 1/2 stars for a biography on the tragic lives of two who personified the Jazz Age
writestuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were international sensations during the Jazz age of the 20s. They traveled the world on a wave of excitement and romance. But beneath their carefree public personas lurked alcoholism, madness and tragedy.Nancy Milford has done her homework. She draws from Zelda's scrapbooks and love letters; mines information from old friends; and even delves into both the Fitzgerald's writings, which were autobiographical stories masquerading as fiction.The book is dark and brooding at times, and difficult to read as Zelda's life spirals out of control. Morose and intense, I found myself having to take frequent breaks to take a breath and recover. Milford portrays Scott Fizgerald as a man consumed by his writing, drinking to excess, and using his wife's words (from her diary and letters) as fodder for his novels. Disturbingly, many of Zelda's work was published under Scott's name. As a writer myself, I found this unforgivable.In the end, I was overwhelmed with sympathy for Zelda. She was a highly intelligent, gifted woman who could not overcome the demons of schizophrenia which haunted her. Milford leaves the reader feeling exhausted by the tragedy of Zelda's life and death. The book is worth reading for the breadth and depth of the information provided; but it is hardly a "light" or enjoyable read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
very informative
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
They were a couple with similiar demons. Doomed from the day they married, they fed off each other. The book was slow moving and certainly could have done without most of the letters, which were bizarre.
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BettyF More than 1 year ago
In fact, it was so uninteresting that I read only enough to find out I didn't like it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
... somewhat interesting but wouldn't recommend it to a friend