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Southern Cultures 10.2 (2004) 19-49

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Zelda Sayre, Belle

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Figure 1
Readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age literature tend to assume that his wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, must have emerged from that same world. In fact, she was a quintessential southern belle from Montgomery, Alabama. Photograph of F. Scott and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, from the collections of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at Princeton University Library, used by permission of Harold Ober Associates as agents for the Fitzgerald Trustees; reproduced courtesy of Princeton University Library.
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There are few more memorable wives in twentieth-century American culture than Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, who was married to the successful young author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, had appeared a few weeks before their marriage. Because of his popularization of the Jazz Age, complete with its New York partying, elite college society, and alcohol, dancing, and flappers, readers tend to place his beautiful bride with the exotic name—Zelda—within those fictional contexts. In reality, Zelda Sayre had never been to New York City until she went there, accompanied by her older married sister, to wed Fitzgerald. Neither had she been abroad, nor had she gone to college. In fact, she had seldom spent a night away from her father's house. Zelda Sayre was in fact a Montgomery, Alabama, girl, whose father was a judge there in the state capitol. But more than that, Zelda Sayre was a highly visible southern belle, soon to be immortalized in literature as the essence of the early-twentieth-century's thoroughly modern American woman.

To change the definition of Zelda from "flapper" to "belle" is to move from the commercialized and risqué image of woman as fast, easy—a "speed"—to that of the highly desirable but more traditional and consistently protected beauty. Flirtatious and flamboyant, the southern belle was often a local celebrity. She was the woman one courted, although she was never assumed to be available. In the candid words of Virginia Foster Durr, a contemporary of Zelda's who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, belles "were almost like visiting movie stars. . . . the epitome of success." Zelda Sayre, Durr wrote, "was just gorgeous. She had a golden glow around her. . . . The boys would line up the whole length of the ballroom to dance with her for one minute. She was just pre-eminent. And we recognized it."1

The belle is peculiar to the South, and Fitzgerald, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota; Buffalo, New York; and Princeton, would have known little about belledom. Requisites of this time-consuming status at the close of the nineteenth century included birth into a certain social class along with the means to afford suitable clothes, train travel, and leisure. Several dozen callers on Sunday afternoons, as many letters daily, boxes of long-stemmed red roses, small square boxes of corsages, and the offers of fraternity pins, club insignias, and engagement rings—not to mention the actual dates, parties, and dances—kept the true belle busy from morning to night and into the next morning. The orderliness of the custom may have been difficult for outsiders to fathom, but within each social circle, rituals were firm: "town girls" could not be belles (again, social class—with a proper and recognizable family name— was crucial); neither could "fast" girls. The existence of the belle was a tribute to the power, and the self-conceit, of the higher classes within the South: it reaffirmed patriarchy in that status as a belle was entirely dependent upon the social standing of the girl's father.2

Having money was not the most significant part of being from the right social [End Page 20]

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Figure 2
Virginia Foster Durr wrote that Zelda "was just gorgeous. She had a golden glow around her. . . . The boys would line up the whole length of the ballroom to dance with her for one minute." Male students at nearby Auburn University even formed a...