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Rethinking Zelda

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I know what you're thinking. She was a dissolute jazz baby who drank champagne out of her shoe, supposedly ruined the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald and her own, and ended up in a madhouse. So why is Zelda Fitzgerald a heroine to me?

Consider the young Zelda. Right from the start, she was an original who knew her own mind and didn't care about convention. Laughing at the notion of a demure Southern belle, she wore flesh colored bathing suits so it might look like she was swimming nude. At sixteen, she not only had a reputation, she polished it to a sheen, carrying on with the boys, dancing into the night, and entering into a glittering marriage with one of the most famous writers of her day.

I know there were excesses. She threw herself down a flight of stairs when she caught Scott flirting with the dancer Isadora Duncan. She drank more and more, and slowly began to exhibit the signs of madness so that she was in and out of mental institutions, eventually dying in a fire, locked in a room waiting for shock treatment. But how much of her downfall was because of Scott?

She was a hire-wire act without a net, brilliant and creative, but even before they were married, Scott was stealing passages from her diary. "Plagiarism begins at home," she was quoted as saying. Tired of being in his shadow, she began, against the odds (and yes, one of those odds was Scott) to forge her own life and she would be damned if anyone would tell her no.

At the late-to-the-party age of 27, she decided to be a ballerina. She practiced for hours and eventually got good enough to be asked to join a company. She painted for hours and even had a show, but the show didn't do well. She didn't give up. She set about writing her own novel, Save Me The Waltz, and what is most astonishing, she wrote it in six weeks (six weeks!) while in a mental institution. I love this novel because it's lush and sensual and decidedly brave, but Scott called it -- and her -- "third rate." He was appalled that she had used her own life for her art (after all, her life was his material) and made her revise it before publication. It sold poorly and she was devastated.

Recently, the New York Times critic Michiko Kukatani praised Save Me The Waltz, writing, "That for all its flaws, it still manages to charm, amuse and move the reader, is even more remarkable." Zelda's art has been touring the United States and Europe to critical acclaim. When I think of Zelda, I think of a woman determined to craft the life and art she wanted, on her own terms. I think of a woman who would risk anything to have that, no matter what anyone thought. And isn't that what a true artist is?

Caroline Leavitt's New York Times-bestselling ninth novel, Pictures of You, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2011. She is a book critic for People and The Boston Globe. Read her blog on Red Room.