Zelda: A Biography

Zelda: A Biography

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by Nancy Milford

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Acclaimedbiographer Nancy Milford brings to life the tormented, elusive personality ofZelda Sayre and clarifies as never before her relationship with F. ScottFitzgerald, tracing the inner disintegration of a gifted, despairing womanundone by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent. Zelda was an instant touchstone forcreatively


Acclaimedbiographer Nancy Milford brings to life the tormented, elusive personality ofZelda Sayre and clarifies as never before her relationship with F. ScottFitzgerald, tracing the inner disintegration of a gifted, despairing womanundone by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent. Zelda was an instant touchstone forcreatively inspired readers after its initial publication in 1983; Patti Smithhails it in her autobiography, Just Kids,recalling how “reading the story of Zelda Fitzgerald by Nancy Milford, Iidentified with her mutinous spirit.” Now, the penetrating biography of one oftwentieth century literature’s most misunderstood figures—a book the New York Times calls “profound,overwhelmingly moving . . . [and] a richly complex love story” is availableagain in a handsome paperback edition from Harper Perennial.

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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.

Meet 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.

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Zelda 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 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 10 months ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this years ago, and I am delighted it's available on the Nook. It is a well-researched biography and also a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not what I expected. Kind of long and drawn out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
From the author of the recent award-winning, best-selling Savage Beauty (a bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay), this is the exhaustively researched story of the original flapper. Zelda's life reads like fiction. But how else could it read considering she was the tortured wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald? That's not to say that Scott wasn't a little tortured himself. It's no use debating who drove who to destruction. You have only to read a bit of Fitzgerald to solve that mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Only great will power to attend AAA has really helped many. How much this has impaired creativety no one knows what might have been. She seemed to be bi polar which is still in women difficult to balance drug management. The old pirates song of treasure island " drink and the devil have done for the rest" what they missed was a firm grasp of reality and common sense. A pity of wasted life and books becoming more dated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zelda wrote ,but not well enough to be published,or successsful. This book recaps the smallest details of all of these stories from a very mentally ill Zelda. The reading is tedious! Zeldas illness may have been one of the most important factors in Scots being such a great writer. I would not read this unless you love Fitzgerald!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Go to next res
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im going to my dads so i wont b on for a week bye.