1/26/11 - pinning mistletoe to her backside

In today's excerpt - Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and daughter of a conservative, moralizing associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was widely known as a wild child in the 1910s in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the great moral rebellion that accompanied World War I and carried through the Roaring 20s, Zelda is assumed to have been one of her husband Scott's models for characters in This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby:

"Given her family's standing in the community, Zelda's frequent exploits were sure fodder for gossip. There was the day she climbed to the roof of her house, kicked away the ladder, and compelled the fire company to rescue her from certain injury and disgrace. Or the time she borrowed her friend's snappy little Stutz Bearcat to drive down to Boodler's Bend, a local lover's lane concealed by a thick orchard of pecan trees, and shone a spotlight on those of her schoolmates who were necking in the backseats of parked cars. Or those other occasions when she repeated the same trick, but at the front entrance to Madam Helen St. Clair's notorious city brothel.

"Most disturbing to Judge Sayre was Zelda's well-earned reputation for violating the time-honored codes of sexual propriety that seemed everywhere under attack by the time the opening shots were fired in World War I. Already a veritable legend among hundreds of well-heeled fraternity brothers as far and wide as the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and Georgia Tech, Zelda was 'the most popular girl at every dance,' as a would-be suitor remembered years later.

"Part of Zelda's renown surely was owed to her habit of sneaking out of country club dances—and sometimes her bedroom window—to join Montgomery's most eligible bachelors for a few hours of necking, petting, and drinking in secluded backseat venues. On more than a few occasions, the inviting aroma of pear trees, the dim glow of a half-moon, and the tentative sound of a boyfriend's car horn were all the inspiration Zelda needed to walk quietly across her plain whitewashed room, draw open the curtains, and creep down to the tin roof that protected the Sayre family's front porch. "After that, she was gone into the night. ...

"When the entire senior class cut school on April 1, it was Zelda who pooled everyone's money and flirted with the nice agent at the Empire Theatre, who happily granted the students admission at a cut rate. And it was Zelda who triumphantly organized a group photo in front of the ticket box. ...

" 'Zelda would have been the last to deny that she danced cheek to cheek and did the Shimmy, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom,' [Sara Mayfield, her loyal childhood friend, admitted]. But 'if she gave a demonstration of the Hula at a midterm dance at the University of Alabama, had not Alice Roosevelt, the President's daughter, been similarly criticized for doing the same thing . . . ?"

"To be sure, Zelda 'rode behind her admirers ... on their motorcycles with her arms around them, raised her hemlines to the knee, bobbed her hair, smoked, tippled, and kissed the boys goodbye.' But this sort of 'flirtation was an old Southern custom; "going the limit" was not. Zelda was a reigning beauty and 'a knockout' in the paleolithic slang of the day, far too popular to have 'put out' for her beaux, far too shrewd in the tactics and strategy of popularity to grant her favors to one suitor and thereby alienate a regiment of them.

"Maybe so, maybe not. But Zelda did her best to cultivate a scandalous reputation. She encouraged reports of skinny-dipping excursions and multiple romantic entanglements. During the summer, when it got too hot, she slipped out of her underwear and asked her date to hold it for the evening in his coat pocket. And at a legendary Christmas bop, when a chaperone reproached her for dancing too closely and too wantonly with her date, Zelda retaliated by swiping a band of mistletoe and pinning it to her backside.


Joshua Zeitz


Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex Style Celebrity and the Women Who Made America Modern, reviewed in American Heritage


Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. New York


Copyright 2006 by Joshua Zeitz


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