On April 3, 1920, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre on a bright spring day. The story of how he came to marry her wasn’t simple. It had the irresistible arc of a Cinderella story, the tale of a poor writer who wanted to marry a girl from a rich family and somehow willed it to happen. There are traces of their relationship reflected in almost every novel Fitzgerald ever wrote — and 94 years later, people are still writing books about their love.
Scott first met 18-year-old Zelda at a country dance club in Montgomery, Alabama during his time as an army lieutenant at Camp Sheridan. Zelda was surrounded by suitors, but took a liking to the lieutenant. As her biographer, Nancy Milford explained, Scott was different from all the other boys who had chased Zelda: He was “unathletic, imaginative and sensitive, he represented a world she did not know and could not hope to enter, much less possess, without him.” He was soldier waiting to be shipped off to war in Europe, and she was his “southern belle.”
When The Great War ended, Scott was discharged and moved to New York City to become a journalist, but ended up working at an advertising agency. He wrote to and visited Zelda in Montgomery whenever he had the chance. The two were tentatively engaged and eager to conquer New York together, but there was an issue: Scott didn’t want Zelda to join him until he could show her the lifestyle he felt she deserved. Zelda, still in Montgomery with her family still in denial that she wore Scott’s mother’s engagement ring, continued to see other men. Her mother genuinely liked Scott, but worried about the realities that would come with marrying a struggling writer. Zelda’s father, a justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, thought Scott would be unable to support his daughter and didn’t like that he was Irish, Catholic or a boozer.
One day, the engagement was called off. Some say Zelda broke it off because she was tired of waiting or that she felt too much pressure from Scott. As the story goes, she accidentally sent a sentimental note for another man, a young golfer, to Scott. He came down to Montgomery on the next train and begged Zelda to marry him immediately. She refused, and for the second time following his failed relationship with Ginevra King, the struggling writer learned “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.”
Scott returned to his childhood home in Saint Paul to revise The Romantic Egoist into what would become This Side of Paradise. He worked on his writing and took a job repairing car roofs for the Northern Pacific Railway until, finally, Scribner decided to publish his first novel. Scott recalls the day in The Crack-Up, his collection of essays:
… the postman rang, and that day I quit work and ran along the streets, stopping automobiles to tell friends and acquaintances about it — my novel This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication. That week the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning with a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise.
The manuscript was accepted on September 16, 1919, and Scott tried to rush the publication of the book as soon as possible with the notion that it would win the affection of Zelda. But the publication for This Side of Paradise stayed scheduled as planned for March 27, 1920.
Scott and Zelda were wed just a week after the publication of the novel. Neither of their parents were there for their wedding in New York, which was a small ceremony at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral just a day before Easter Sunday. Only eight people were invited to join them. Still anxious, Scott insisted the wedding happen early, before noon, before a few of the guests even made it there. He wanted it immediately. And then it all happened, as Zelda’s biographer Milford explains:
Zelda wore a suit of midnight blue with a matching hat trimmed with leather ribbons and buckles; she carried a bouquet of orchids and small white flowers. It was a brilliantly sunny day and when they stepped outside the cathedral Zelda looked for all the world like a young goddess of spring, with Scott at her side as consort.
This story isn’t just that of a boy finally “winning the girl,” but a moment when everything in the Fitzgeralds lives seemed to come together. Scott had published his first novel, with its first printing of 3,000 copies selling out within three days, and he felt like he had finally conquered New York with Zelda at his side. In many ways, April 3 was the day the Fitzgeralds peaked — success, wealth, fame and love all coming together. It was perhaps a premature success that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. It was a moment when they seemed to have it all and first became all too certain of its burden.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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