By Hubert Ta
If you’ve ever read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, there’s a chance that you might have become infatuated with the rustle and bustle of the Roaring Twenties. In an age of Prohibition, Suffragettes, revolutionaries and credit, business was booming, alcohol was flowing, and the Lost Generation was writing. The 1920s are hailed as a peak point of American prosperity, a calm before the storm of the Great Depression and World War II. Coinciding with the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties represented new ideas of modernity, the rise of socialites and celebrities, and the advancement of modern technologies in transportation, electrification, and telecommunications. Most iconic of this era is the flapper, a redefining of the modern woman with short hair, trending fashion, a taste for jazz and a breakaway from traditional behaviors of womanhood. This is where Zelda Fitzgerald enters the frame.
“Z: The Beginning of Everything,” Amazon’s adaptation of “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Theresa Anne Fowler, is a period drama that focuses on the love story of Zelda Sayre (Christina Ricci) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (David Hoflin) and the intervening years of World War I and the Roaring Twenties. Filled with the style and splendor of jazz and speakeasies, the show captures the relative chaos of the party atmosphere of the time to illustrate the personal lives of Fitzgerald and Zelda. Told primarily from the perspective of Zelda, the show ruminates on contrasts of the time: the joyful party spirit vs. excess credit and reckless promiscuity, domestic housewives vs. flappers, and the culture clash of Southern tradition vs. Yankee modernity. From Zelda Sayre’s boredom in Montgomery, Alabama to her first meeting with Fitzgerald to fractures in their marriage and a slump in Fitzgerald’s writing after the success of “This Side of Paradise”, “Z” weaves an intricate and captivating tale of “the first American flapper” that has fascinated people for decades, but so often gets overshadowed by F. Scott’s novels.
What’s unique about this adaptation of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life is that the show focuses on her personal perspective of their tumultuous lives, reigning in both the successes of Fitzgerald’s career and the downward spirals he would descend into. Her attempts at being a good housewife, a lively flapper, and a conscious member of society float around thoughts of tradition, stability, and livelihood. Zelda’s can-do attitude, relentless spending and party mentality provide a complement to Fitzgerald, whose work and lifestyle take him through stages of aggression (mainly against his critics) and embolden his drunken escapades.
This narrative adds contrast to previous narratives of Zelda being detrimental to Fitzgerald’s creativity and writing. In fact, the first season of “Z” illuminates Zelda’s role in her husband’s work, that inspiration and lines of his writing are lifted from her diary entries. In this account, her attempts at writing and acting are confined by her husband’s controlling view, and her youthful vigor drives her boldness. This conflicts with previous characterizations of Zelda being an interference in Fitzgerald’s writing and legacy, an idea fostered by Ernest Hemingway, who often clashed with Zelda.
Moreover, dramatic irony runs amok in the show. Several scenes directly point to the future ambitions of the Fitzgeralds and their reputation. Fitzgerald’s arrogant claims to become a famous writer who will stand the test of time before writing his bestsellers foreshadows his current status as one of the great American novelists. Furthermore, Zelda and Fitzgerald’s lifestyle and experiences mirror aspects of the characters of “The Great Gatsby.”
Yet why is Zelda Fitzgerald a person we still talk about nearly 100 years later? With this show and two films on the way about her, Zelda’s retains her status as an icon of early celebrity and symbol of the flappers. Period dramas such as “Downton Abbey” are largely successful at capturing the aesthetics of the past and in this case, the Roaring Twenties runs rampant throughout Zelda’s life — glitz, glamour, alcohol, recklessness, and liberation are the fundamental underpinnings of the flapper.
In addition, Zelda as the embodiment of the modern, independent woman seems particularly relevant today. A precursor to the feminist movements of the 1960s/1970s and the ongoing fight for equality of the sexes is rooted in the flapper, who broke away from religious tradition and the Victorian era, finding freedom through the 19th Amendment and the expanding the workplace for women. Zelda’s high profile role in creating the icon of the flapper reinforced her presence in American culture, and helped to redefine the woman’s place in the world.
Zelda Fitzgerald, as a representative of the flapper era, serves as an idolized free spirit and liberated modern woman; perhaps this is why she still continues to fascinate the American populace.