I was surprised, when Women's Lib finally became part of our national consciousness, to find that my mother was considered by many to be one of the more flamboyant symbols of The Movement. To a new generation, the generation of her grandchildren, she was the classic “put down” wife, whose efforts to express her artistic nature were thwarted by a typically male chauvinist husband (except that authors are the worst kind, since they spend so much time around the house). Finally, in a sort of ultimate rebellion, she withdrew altogether from the arena; it's a script that reads well, and will probably remain a part of the “Scott and Zelda” mythology forever, but is not, in my opinion, accurate.
It is my impression that my father greatly appreciated and encouraged his wife's unusual talents and ebullient imagination. Not only did he arrange for the first showing of her paintings in New York in 1934, he sat through long hours of rehearsals of her one play, Scandalabra, staged by a Little Theater group in Baltimore; he spent many hours editing the short stories she sold to College Humor and to Scribner's Magazine; and though I was too young to remember clearly, I feel quite sure that he was even in favor of her ballet lessons (he paid for them, after all) until dancing became a twenty-four-hour preoccupation which was destroying her physical and mental health. He did raise a terrible row when she published her novel, Save Me the Waltz, while he was still working on his own Tender Is the Night, a novel drawing on the same Paris and Riviera experiences. But this sort of competition is traditionally the bane of literary romances: only last year, the well-publicized love affair between a witty Washington blonde and a popular “Southern Writer” broke up when he published his novel about the very same events she had described in her nonfiction best-seller.
What I propose, rather, is that my mother was surprisingly emancipated for a woman born in the Cradle of the Confederacy at a time when the Civil War was still a vivid memory. One of her older sisters, Rosalind Smith, was the first girl “of good family” ever to get a job in Montgomery (other than teaching, of course), and she remembers that the day she started working at the bank, lines of young men formed outside just to stare through the window at the daredevil daughter of Judge A. D. Sayre. Both the Judge and my grandmother apparently took the position that their girls could do no wrong, for they fended off all criticism of their iconoclastic ways. Whether wise or not, this attitude undoubtedly played an important part in the willingness to attempt anything which characterized their baby, Zelda.
For in defining genius as one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, Edison surely meant in one direction, not in three. It was my mother's misfortune to be born with the ability to write, to dance, and to paint, and then never to have acquired the discipline to make her talent work for, rather than against, her. Growing up in Montgomery, she was apparently an accomplished amateur dancer; her name appears time and again in the Advertiser of World War I years as a featured soloist at various pageants and entertainments. After she was married she painted; then she studied at a Russian ballet school in Paris, getting just professional enough to be offered a job with the Naples Opera before her total collapse; on the advice of the doctors that she never dance again, she turned to writing, then back, finally, topainting. As one who cannot draw a whisker on a cat, I marvel at the one percent of genius coming through on canvas despite her almost casual attitude, as if creating a work of art was no more challenging than, say, planting a row of zinnias…
Her love of flowers, of color, of tradition are surely as Southern as the jasmine she often wrote of. As well as the passionate enjoyment of life which she kept until the end, a sort of triumph in defeat as poignant as the tombstones in the Confederate Cemetery at Oakwood, her favorite place to be when she felt quite alone.