Beautiful and Damned: The 1920’s through the Fitzgeralds
“ I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember. Remember inside of me there will always be the person I am tonight.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
When you think of the Jazz Age, you think of pleasure seeking flappers and young bright things partying their lives away in a haze of sophisticated decadence and glamorous fashion, you think of breathing solely for beauty and fun, and approaching life with all the carelessness in the world. And it’s true – flappers thrived on shocking the previous generation, whose social conventions were considered boring and archaic, laughing at sex jokes, living for cocktails and drugs, baring their bodies to the navel in modern fashion, staying out till dawn, cropping their hair short and smoking cigarettes in public in an attempt to appropriate the previously male dominated inappropriate and seemingly newly acquired deviant pleasures of life.
To scandal was to go by example, almost like mad teenagers reaching for life’s thrills just beyond convention – eccentric, radical lifestyles were diffused by society’s elite, going as far as shaking notions of romance and relationships and redefining expressions of passion. Nowhere was this more apparent in Hollywood’s first years – perhaps the most common incarnation of our contemporary idea of the 1920’s. The silent era had such a string of unsolved, strange murders, rapes, affairs, career prostitution, extortion, drug abuse, and futures cut short in a flurry of wild living that movie studios began requiring that their actors and directors sign a ‘morality clause.’ Mabel Normand, Clara Bow, William Desmond Taylor and Barbara La Marr are only a few of the countless names whose lives were ruined by the roaring twenties, yet this paradoxically went hand in hand with admiration from the crowds than followed suit, defiantly pursuing recklessness for that sought after short, sweet abandonment.
W.C. Fields charming some Ziegfield girls
Male and female relationships underwent a drastic shift - the perceived freedoms of the single life were glorified, encouraging young women to adopt a love the man you’re with kind of emancipation for all – in theory. In practice, this sort of opulent, reign free lifestyle was only accessible to women of a certain status, belonging to aristocratic circles or wealthy families, the ones who could afford to lose stability. That however only fueled the transformational quality of the flapper lifestyle, and flapper fashions were widely adopted, giving lower social circles a taste of the sort of thrilling escapism enjoyed by the few through dress.
Isn’t it funny then, that one of the most romanticized love stories of our recent history came from such a period of idealized singlehood? The story of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald has become one of fascination and inspiration, the many facets of their tumultuous marriage used as literary fodder for, and subsequently immortalized throughout, Scott’s greatest works.
Scott and Zelda at a party - can you spot them?
As physical personifications of the so dreamed after fashionable excessive lifestyle of the 20’s, the myth of the Fitzgeralds, hammered on by the legacy of The Great Gatsby, fuels a modern nostalgia for a more exciting and beautiful past, one of our very own sources of escapism. Yet, the kind of fleeting passion that comes with furiously chasing exhilarating moments doesn’t come without its consequences, and desperately ignoring the parts of real life that endure only mean the crash is that much steeper and devastating. Much like with a majority of silent era movie stars and personalities of the time, few dwell on the sadness that accompanied them throughout their lives.
They were the original beautiful and damned; the very first, part of a youth termed ‘The Lost Generation’, living a disillusioned, broken reality in the wake of World War I that saw their faiths and conventional futures destroyed, romantically epitomizing the death of the American Dream amidst stolen youths in an estranged, new world society. A fervent, desperate urge to party and somehow exceed life permeated this culture in flux, spurred on by the meeting of new found abundant wealth that mirrored itself in a loss of a sense of normalcy.
The word was ‘progress’, because the beginning of the 21st Century was marked by a seemingly perpetual flurry of technological advances and innovations in industrial processes. The Ford model T, making cars affordable to all, the radio, airplane, air conditioner, feature film motion pictures, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the seeds of current banking services we take for granted today such as mortgages and auto loans, among innumerable others, all came out in the first decade to alter people’s lives forever. Yet, while these afforded a definite improvement for some, the quality of living of workers, entangled in the growth of industry, descended to deplorable depths while the fundamental pillar of what made America, America, self sufficiency through working the land, began to crack under the pressure of extreme poverty. The world needed time to balance the nasty after effects of breaking new ground, especially when it comprised the sort of innovations that turned a small percentage of the population into solid millionaires.
The twenties were two sides of one coin: progress and decay, prosperity and poverty, survival and cultural sophistication, tolerance and extreme racism, booming industry and decreased workers rights, free speech and ruthless persecution of ideas perceived as abnormal or ‘unAmerican’, right when these two words were undergoing a drastic change in definition.
Interestingly, this resolute defense of the normal featured the all new shiny Wall Street, that at this point began producing millionaires at a rate 400% higher than the previous decade (even though most did not make it through to the 1930’s). While wealth continued to rise on speculation, 1% of the nation’s banks slowly took a hold of 50% of the nation’s financial resources, the wealthiest 5% of Americans’ share of national income suddenly exceeded that of the bottom 60% with one tenth of the top 1% owning wealth (assets and income) equal to the bottom 42%.
That is not surprising when we consider that any attempt by organized labor to get the tiniest of wage increases was marketed as an attempt by radical anarchists to undermine American values. All this happened in a context where big business boomed while small business shrank, meaning that the fight for worker rights and fair wages to accommodate a context of skyrocketing increases in costs of living and corporate incomes became almost impossible. Immigrants and the American working classes lived on the brink of homelessness.
Apparently, it wasn’t the threat to normalcy that was beaten down, but the threat to big business and big bucks.
The bizzarity of this complicated, prosperous new decade full of contradictions, where urban socialites wildly engaged in personal freedoms while the other rural half of the country suffered intense poverty, debt, and disaffectedness, where President Warren G. Harding’s campaigned “normalcy” spiraled into widespread corruption and a steep wealth gap between the rich and the poor and where new found freedoms meant toyfully teetering over the farthest edge of what was tangible in order to feel something and forget that “all Gods [were] dead,” also gave rise to multiple incredible literary works centering on the decadence of a fortunate elite, whose pages inevitably pointed to much darker consequences. (As always, art needs conflict and obscurity to thrive: it is only through digging into the depths of the soul that beauty finds its rawest self, capable of provoking intense emotions).
Those were the decadent twenties – and at the height of their existence Zelda and Scott were the twenties, rising among illustrious high society, carelessly squandering their youth and wealth for thrills, only to come hurtling down towards the end of the decade in a tangle of marriage problems, alcoholism, wasted talents, existential crises and bitter mutual resentment in line with the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression. All with remarkably similar joys and ills.
In a way, these two personalities somehow symbolized the post World War I transition into the new world, a direct product of the context in which they lived, their conflicting realities serving as a peep hole into a difficult social and economic transition phase, where a new language was just beginning to define itself.
It is no mistake they became the Jazz Age’s golden couple – she almost embodied it from childhood, swimming in scandalous skin colored bathing suits with boys, cartwheeling on the steps of the Alabama capitol where her father worked as Supreme Court Justice and smoking in public: the perfect careless, excessive flapper that behaved as if she received everything on a silver platter, even when she no longer did. He, seduced by success and lots and lots of money, lived as hard as she did while still finding time to record the roaring twenties lifestyle in fictional stories based on his own life and marriage - accounts that hugely glamorize our modern perceptions of the decade, notwithstanding the deceitful dual nature of the lifestyle he would warn of through his insightful characters.
The twenties began with glorious carelessness - as did they. In “The Fitzgaralds,” the author points to a quote by Zelda for her high school yearbook that glaringly marks her “blind eye” symbiosis with the decade, “ Why should all life be work, when we can all borrow. Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.”
And so we see the first ever consumer culture based on credit; one that not only approved of debt in order to pursue the American Dream, but encouraged it so much so that by 1927, 75% of all household goods were purchased this way. A prosperous standard of living became the norm, felt as the kind of freedom brought by progress, taking the shape of extravagant clothing, cars, and household appliances. In turn, these labor saving devices made possible by advancements in technology freed up time and disposable income to spend in entertainment and frivolities, resulting in deeper debt. Borrowing from future income whilst simultaneously spending beyond it in fits of a false sense of wealth and temptations driven by the invention of entertainment for the masses only spurs on a future which is doubly as poor. But no one seemed to bother with this then. The stock market had reached the masses for the first time ever, who began living by the solid mantra of investment, now devoid of the risks it used to be associated with before the sale of government bonds during World War I. Brokers popped up on every corner and ticker tapes, which were used to find out stock prices at any given moment, were in the most unlikely of places, from beauty parlors to nightclubs, becoming an inextricable part of contemporary ‘play’ culture.
Betting on stocks with boundless faith in speculation and changing mentalities with regards to buy now, pay later, the birth of our current debt culture, led to a short term period where anything seemed possible – life just couldn’t get any better. The Fitzgerald’s lived this short term gratification very well, spending much beyond their means, always the life of the party until they could no longer afford it and were forced to move to Paris in 1924. Even though for them, this meant the Riviera, Hemingway, Picasso, Chanel and the buzzing social life that accompanied it, it was step towards an end that not even the success of the Great Gatsby could save them from.
In this crazy world, the Fitzgeralds were a perfect symbiosis between fiction and reality. Together, they were larger than life, and what befell them, like the precious decade in which they lived, a tragic irony.
Zelda was more than just the love of his life, she was his eternal muse, and her erratic, indulgent and thoughtlessly capricious behavior (which proved to be warning signs of a hereditary mental illness) breathed real life into the heroines of his novels. Scott followed her into the extreme lifestyle she epitomized, into a high society he both envied and despised; a path that proved fatal to any hopes of a future deserving of his talents.
Hemingway’s prophecy was eventually fulfilled: Scott died a penniless drunkard; alone, bitter, and believing he had wasted his life and talents; Zelda, locked for years in an endless loop of mental institutions, eventually perished in a fire while locked in a room awaiting electroshock therapy. Catastrophic ends to passionate and carefree lives that slowly turned sour.
Like the beautiful sirens that would coax hopeful sailors to their deaths at the bottom of the ocean, the promise of pleasures that seemed too good to be true eventually led the Fitzgeralds, along with hundreds of thousands of Americans, to drown in a sea of their own doing.
Even worse, moments were replaced with thrills - and thrills go just as quick as they come, dissipating into thin air before you’ve had a chance to truly savor them. Once he began paying the price for his golden years, Scott could barely remember what should have been the best moments of his life, too caught up with living like a beautiful fool to notice his life was passing him by until even the consolation of nostalgia was gone.
It was almost impossible to envision the prosperity of the twenties with the onset of the Great Depression, so deep was the damage, so devastating its effects, that the party of the previous decade felt almost like a mirage, collapsing onto its own many inconsistencies: the apex of the similarities we see with Scott and Zelda’s self-destructive love; the implosion building in equal intensity to that which awaited a world of perfect incongruity.
Men waiting in line for food hand outs
The quintessential flapper and the lifestyle she characterized for the decade lacked longevity in every respect, and omits the very severe issues undermining the outstanding progress of the decade. It was a live hard die hard kind of life, one with very destructive consequences to the self and those around her. Scott embraced the roaring twenties lifestyle himself, only to lose everything he had ever hoped to achieve in his life, eventually coming to hate the very thing he put on a pedestal in his early years.
In the end, the roaring twenties in all its stereotypes only spells a false paradise that lulls you into a sense of comfort, only to brusquely pull you out at your happiest. Scott himself apparently had a moment, while on the hood of his car during a wild night out, where he wept wildly, because he knew he would never be as happy as he was then – an instinctual feeling worthy of the perspicacity he poured onto the pages of his novels.
The Ziegfield Follies
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
Paris, Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds
Prohibition Era fun