Montgomery native Zelda Fitzgerald died 53 years ago today in a fire. Nine died in the fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina that night – a small blaze that started in the kitchen and spread throughout the hospital through the dumbwaiter shaft. The fire escapes were wooden, so there was no escape for Zelda and her fellow patients. She is buried with her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald in Maryland.
The youngest child of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony Dickinson Sayre, Zelda was the apple of her mother Minnie’s eye and the toast of the city’s social circles. At Sydney Lanier High School (go Poets!), she was an undistinguished student known mostly for smoking, drinking, and hanging around with boys – along with her childhood friend and Alabama scandal staple Tallulah Bankhead.
Zelda’s good looks, dancing talents, and free spirits charmed locals and military men training for World War I. One of those men was future plagiarist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was smitten by Zelda and somehow convinced her to marry him – much to the chagrin of all of her many other suitors. After a lengthy and tumultuous engagement, they got hitched, and she was off to New York for the Big Show – it was the “Jazz Age,” and they were America’s it couple. Until they weren’t, because of his drinking and her general craziness, and their troubled marriage, all of which landed him in Hollywood writing miserable screenplays and her in a series of mental hospitals.
She and Scott lived in Montgomery for about a year, in the house on Felder Street that became their museum. When they lived there, he wrote some of Tender is the Night, and she wrote of Montgomery: “Nothing has changed here since the Civil War.” Now, Judge Sayre’s house is gone, destroyed along with other Montgomery landmarks by I-85. There are a lot of streets in town named after the beautiful woman with the small chin and flashing eyes who once held Montgomery’s social circle captive. And at the corner of Zelda and Scott, there’s a Krystal. And some other fast food restaurants. This for a woman who was not much for cooking, that’s true, but who published the following recipe for “Breakfast” in the 1925 book Favorite Recipes of Famous Women:
See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also in the case of bacon, do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week.
Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy.
Zelda was entirely modern. In that she defined what it was to be entirely modern. She was a talented writer who was her husband’s greatest character and whose journals were relentlessly mined for material. She wanted to be a dancer, a painter, something larger than herself even though she was larger in life than anyone could probably imagine.
And she died, horribly, cruelly, perhaps still wanting a career in the ballet beyond all hope, perhaps wanting to see her daughter and her wasting husband in his literary twilight, perhaps simply hoping for a cool Montgomery spring night, so close to home, so long ago.