Nancy Milford, the biographer of the women who helped illuminate the jazz age — Zelda Fitzgerald, the “original tap dancer” and wife and literary muse of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay — died Tuesday in his Manhattan home. She was 84 years old.
His son, Matthew Milford, said the cause has not been determined.
A tireless researcher, Mrs. Milford brought the chaotic and troubled Zelda Fitzgerald and her world to life in “Zelda” (1970) through letters, scrapbooks, scrapbooks, interviews with her and her husband’s friends as well as reports from psychiatrists who treated Zelda. for schizophrenia. His mental health was declining in the late 1920s and led to institutionalizations in the 1930s and 1940s.
“She haunts our idea of what it’s like to be this high-spirited girl caught in a web of destruction, which ends up being romanticized,” Ms Milford said. Interview magazine in 2011.
While in a Baltimore clinic in 1932, Alabama-born Zelda quickly wrote “Save Me the Waltz” (1932), a semi-autobiographical novel about a Southern belle, Alabama Beggs; her husband, a painter; and her attempt to become a ballet dancer. In ‘Zelda’, Ms Milford called the novel “much more than the curiosity of a deranged sensibility working through the grievances of a life with Scott Fitzgerald, or a life shattered by mental illness”.
Zelda was 47 when she died in a 1948 hospital fire in Asheville, North Carolina, eight years after her husband died at 44. an example and more recently served as the basis for the Amazon streaming series “Z: The Beginning of Everything”.
“Zelda” spent nearly 22 weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, selling over a million copies, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing “Zelda” for The Times, wrote that it was “profound and at times extremely moving”, and that it demystified the Fitzgeralds’ marriage and transformed Zelda “from an exotic thing into a person”. .
In his review in The Guardian, the critic and author Malcolm Bradbury wrote that records of Zelda’s treatments for mental illness imbued the book with “remarkable psychological intensity”. He added that Ms Milford’s complex portrayal of the Fitzgeralds’ very public marriage “helps us understand the nature of modern intimacy and helps us see one of our greatest writers with a new complexity”.
Nancy Lee Winston was born on March 26, 1938 in Dearborn, Michigan. His father, Joseph, was an engineer at General Motors and Ford. His mother, Vivienne (Romaine) Winston, was a homemaker who volunteered for many years at a hospital in Dearborn.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Michigan in 1959, she traveled throughout Europe and married Kenneth Milford in 1962, a union that would eventually end in divorce. She received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1964 and eight years later earned a doctorate. from Columbia, using “Zelda” as a dissertation.
The seeds of “Zelda” were planted during Mrs. Milford’s upbringing. In the prologue, she recalls that “it seemed a beautiful thing to me to live like the Fitzgeralds, where every gesture had a particular flair that marked it as its own”.
“Together,” she added, “they personified the immense appeal of the Orient, of young fame, or of disbandment and untimely death.”
In 1963 she began talking to people who knew the Fitzgeralds, including Gerald Murphy, a patron of artists and writers, who, shortly before his death the following year, passionately told Mrs Milford: “Zelda was an American value! Mr. Murphy and his wife, Sara, were another glamorous couple of the time and role models for the characters Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s novel ‘Tender Is the Night’.
Two of Zelda’s high school classmates recalled her walking down Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, wearing a flesh-colored bathing suit, her legs draped over the car seat, and shouting at a group of boys called Jelly Beans, “All my jelly!” »
After ‘Zelda’ was published, it took Ms Milford 31 years to complete ‘Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay’, about the poet whose immense popularity in the 1920s and 1930s – she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1923 – quickly faded thereafter.
Asked about the long gestation of “Savage Beauty”, Ms Milford told the Los Angeles Times: “Pish chic. We do not care? It’s my life and I can do what I want with it.
How much time had she devoted to the biography?
“Oh, who knows,” she said. “Maybe 22 years old. I would do little bits here, little bits there. Then I would file. I obviously didn’t write every day, otherwise I would have finished 20 years ago.
While working on the book, she taught English at Bard and Vassar colleges, New York University, and the University of Michigan. She was also one of the founders, in 1978, of the Writers Room in Manhattan, which provides workspace for writers. He was inspired by his time writing “Zelda” in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room of the New York Public Library.
She was a Guggenheim Scholar in 1977 while working on Millay’s biography and a Fulbright Scholar in the 1990s during two spells teaching literature and history in Turkey.
Millay had been on her mind as the next topic since 1972, when Mrs. Milford visited the poet’s sister, Norma, at a farm in Austerlitz, NY. She found a treasure trove of material there – notebooks, letters and drafts of poems by the thousands. around in the dining room, library, bedrooms and a woodshed and even under a tablecloth and inside piano benches. She spent four summers combing through thousands of pieces of fabric and removing much of it for her research.
“Was it my luck that this extraordinary collection is not in any university library? she wrote in the “Savage Beauty” prologue. “Can luck strike twice? Just as no one had Zelda Fitzgerald’s papers except her daughter, Scottie, who handed them to me in shopping bags, no one had ever seen this collection.
But by the time ‘Savage Beauty’ was released, the collection Ms Milford believed to have been hers exclusively had been donated to the Library of Congress by Norma Millay. Another biography of Millay, by Daniel Mark Epstein, who was able to examine the collection, was published alongside that of Ms Milford.
“Savage Beauty”, which also became a best-seller, was praised by Lorrie Moore in The New York Review of Books”like a rich, moving image of a rich, moving target. But Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that the book “fails to bring Millay’s life to life for the reader, as it did for Zelda”.
In addition to her son, Mrs. Milford is survived by her daughters, Kate Milford and Nell Dority; six grandchildren; and his brother, Fred Winston.
Mrs. Milford never published another book, although she started one on Rose Kennedy. She continued to teach, and in 2008 she was the founder and first executive director of the Leon Levy Biography Center at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, which offers scholarships to biographers.
The idea for the center crystallized when Ms Milford, then a teacher at Hunter College in Manhattan, part of the City University of New York, met biographer David Nasaw, a professor of history at the Graduate Center. They bonded over his work on a biography of Mrs. Kennedy and his writing about Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. His book was published in 2012.
“We saw how important it was for the two of us to share and talk about craft,” Mr. Nasaw told The Times, recalling the formation of the center. “We thought if we could make that official, that would be amazing.”