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zelda fitzgerald, writers' wives, f scott fitzgerald's wife
Associated Press
Zelda Fitzgerald, 1925

The Secret Lives of Writers’ Wives

February 20, 2011
by Shannon Firth
Vladimir Nabokov; James Joyce; F. Scott Fitzgerald. These are names of the literary giants of the 20th century. But they didn’t get there on their own.

Vera; Nora; Zelda. These are the names of the great writers’ wives—not as well known, perhaps, but essential. Whether as housekeeper, editor, secretary, or muse, they made it possible for their husbands to make masterpieces.

Vera Nabokov: Champion and Editor

Without her there would be no “Lolita.” Vera Nabokov was not the inspiration for that famous nymphet of the book’s title, but she saved the book from the ashes when Nabokov set fire to it and tossed it in a trashcan. Vera also directly influenced the content of her husband’s books: biographer Stacy Schiff, author of “Vera” describes her dual role as a typist and editor: “[S]he would essentially say from time to time, ‘no, no, you can't say it this way,’ and Nabokov would come up with a better solution, or she would say ‘isn't this a better solution?’”
Vera’s life with Nabokov is a study in devotion, fueled by her conviction of his greatness. According to an article in the New Yorker, “When she met her husband, she felt that he was the greatest writer of his generation; to that single truth she held strong for 66 years.” From the couple’s early years in Europe, Vera and Vladimir worked as a team to support his writing, often working several jobs apiece. In the end, Vera functioned as his agent, chauffer and assistant—according to The Guardian, she even cut up his food at each meal.

Nora Joyce: Passion and Prudence

The fabled Bloomsday, celebrated June 16 and recorded in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” marks the author’s first date with Nora Barnacle and, at Nora’s urging, the consummation of their relationship. Nora provided inspiration for much of Joyce’s work; her character is visible in many of the female figures who inhabit his stories and novels: “Her memory of a lover who died young is given to Gretta in ‘The Dead’; her earthiness and uninhibited speech to Molly Bloom in ’Ulysses’; her pull on Joyce, at once a lullaby and a siren's song, echoes in Anna Livia
Plurabelle in ‘Finnegan’s Wake.’”
Though strong-minded, Nora accepted the role of Joyce’s lifelong companion, and spent her time caring for and supporting him, although her fiery side may have served her well in her attempts to tame his ego. Unfortunately, their relationship was plagued with troubles. although their passion (demonstrated by erotic letters), provided James with plenty of literary fodder.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Muse and Author

Zelda Sayre's family had a long history of mental illness, and she suffered from it as well. However, the particular instability that gave her her wild unpredictability and spark also provided the opportunity to do some writing of her own. Zelda’s first nervous breakdown occurred after the ultimate failure of her attempt to become a ballerina at age twenty-seven. While recuperating in an asylum she wrote her own novel, titled “Save Me the Waltz.”
Wildly melodramatic and deeply troubled, Zelda was nonetheless aware of her role as F. Scott’s muse. In a mock review for Fitzgerald’s debut, “This Side of Paradise,” Zelda quipped: “I recognize a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

Unfortunately, the breakdown and its resultant novel was the undoing of Zelda’s marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald resented that Zelda mined their marriage for material, as he himself had done in “Tender is the Night.” As Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt, a writer for Literary Encyclopedia, explains: “The writing of Zelda Fitzgerald is thus driven by two principle concerns: that she tell her own story, write her version of her life as she saw it, and that she recreate herself as an “artist” rather than remain the “work of art.” Zelda was in and out of mental hospitals until 1932, at which point she was permanently institutionalized. She died in a hospital fire in 1948.

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