There is a distinguished list of ‘significant others’ in cultural history – usually wives or lovers or sisters of celebrated writers, artists and musicians who are famous for their proximity to the celebrated person, rather than their own achievements (which are often in the same field). Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and daughter have both had biographies written about them (Zelda by Nancy Milford and Scottie, The Daughter Of... The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanaham Smith by Eleanor Lanaham Smith) and although both Zelda and Scottie were published and performed writers, their names are seldom evoked without Scott’s. Milford’s Zelda was the first biography I can remember reading. My dad had been given it as a Christmas present by an American friend and, in the course of working my way through his books as a teenager, I came across it and loved it. Zelda Fitzgerald’s contribution to her husband’s work is well known – he used portions of her diaries verbatim in his novels and even directly attributed Zelda’s words on the birth of Scottie to Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: 'I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool.' Although Zelda’s novel, Save Me the Waltz, is now regarded as ‘moving and fascinating’ and comparable to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and her intense personality the inspiration for his female characters, she is still largely remembered largely for being the less significant half of a notoriously wild couple whose outrageous behaviour was in direct proportion to their alcohol consumption.
Zelda Fitzgerald had much in common with Caitlin Thomas who was thirteen years younger. They were respectively thirty-nine and forty years old when their incredibly famous husbands died. Both women shared unpredictable, fearless personalities, a passion for dance, the boredom and loneliness of whiling away the hours while their husbands wrote – and both drank copious amounts. They were also creative – Caitlin published three books; Leftover Life to Kill, Not Quite Posthumous Letters to My Daughter and, with George Tremlett, Caitlin – A Warring Absence, while Zelda, as well as writing, was also a painter, influenced by Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe, and whose work is now exhibited across Europe and America. What Zelda and Caitlin might have achieved if their lives had not been overwhelmed by the iconic literary geniuses with whom they lived is unknowable – indeed, it’s arguable that their proximity to the disciplined creativity they were engulfed in nurtured their own efforts which may not have surfaced otherwise. Their lives make fascinating material for biographers – and obviously not just as an invaluable insight into the personalities of the men they shared their lives with, although this is frequently where the interest lies. I recently changed the title of the biography I’m writing to reflect the ‘significant other’ – it was both liberating and perplexing – reflecting the complex feelings I have about the nature of ‘significance’ in the first place. What is it that makes some people’s stories of consequence and worth telling despite the trivialising of their lives by others?