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The other Fitzgerald: Upcoming play tells Zelda’s tale

Julie Kaiser portrays Zelda Fitzgerald in “The Last Flapper” Friday, Oct. 23 at Armory Square, a fundraiser for the Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning. The play, written by William Luce, tells of Zelda’s rebellion as a southern belle, her destructive marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald and her mental disintegration.

They were icons of The Roaring 1920s.  F. Scott Fitzgerald is even credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age.”  The Minnesotan author dubbed his wife, Zelda, “the first American flapper.”  “They were a fascinating couple. They lived in a time like no other,” says actress Julie Kaiser, who will portray Zelda in “The Last Flapper” Friday, Oct. 23 at Armory Square.  The 7 p.m. performance is a fundraiser for the Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning.  “They symbolized The Jazz Age. They both succumbed to the excesses of the age,” Kaiser said.  

They socialized with wealthy expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and others.  Based on her letters and stories, playwright William Luce’s full-length, one-woman play is a definitive portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald.  “Her words are her words. I think that’s important,” notes Kaiser.  Born 115 years ago on July 24, 1900, Zelda lived a glamorous, often troubled life.  Like other flappers of the 1920s, she rebelled against conventional ideas of ladylike behavior and style.  A “flapper” was a free-thinking, risk-taking woman who listened to jazz, danced, smoked, spoke openly about sex and voted.  Their bobbed hair, drop-waist dresses, higher hems and long strings of glass beads were considered “shocking.”  Fast-paced dances like the Charleston and Shimmy were considered “wild” by the older generation.  

Flappers drank at a time when the U.S. outlawed alcohol through Prohibition.  “She’s just fascinating to me,” Kaiser says of the southern belle who struggled to create an artistic identity of her own, separate from her famous husband.  “One of the things I like about her and feel somewhat connected to her and why I wanted to do this play is that she was a creative woman at a time that accepted neither,” Kaiser said.  Creative, strong-willed women need to fully express themselves, says Kaiser.  Zelda was a “brilliant writer,” but critics were very unkind to her at her husband’s urging and Scott constantly tried to extinguish – or even plagiarize – her creative efforts.  “He took parts of her diary, word for word, and inserted them into his books,” Kaiser said.  “Every female character he wrote was her. There’s no mistaking that. He chronicles her mental disintegration in ‘Tender is the Night.’”  Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Zelda was in and out of institutions from the age of 30 to 47. Today’s scholars believe it’s more likely she had bipolar disorder.  In 1932, she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, “Save Me the Waltz.”  “Her writing is very image-laden, opulent and undisciplined. That’s sort of how she was and how she spoke. She’ll give a long, long description,” Kaiser says.  

Scott was furious when Zelda submitted it to his publisher.  They fought over rights to her story.  “He told her her life was his literary domain,” says Kaiser.  “The Last Flapper” is set on the night of March 10, 1948. A fire breaks out in Highland Hospital, where Zelda is locked into a psychiatrist’s office, awaiting electroshock therapy.  An alcoholic, Scott suffered a heart attack and died in 1940, at the age of 44. Zelda died eight years later.  “It’s not a sad story. There’s hopefulness,” says Kaiser. “I think it’s a cautionary tale.”  Kaiser’s stage pursuits encompass numerous roles. She has performed with Northern Light Opera Company, Long Lake Theater and Bemidji Community Theater.  She’s also the lead singer for “Alabaster Falls,” an acoustic folkgrass band and joint endeavor with husband Bill Kaiser.  

Kaiser has studied voice, theatre, dance, songwriting, piano, banjo and mandolin.  “I’m fortunate,” she said. “I don’t live with a husband who is unsupportive.”  Jennifer Wills Geraedts is directing “The Last Flapper.”  As an actress, bringing Zelda to life has been “an interesting ride,” Kaiser said, “because there are parts of her that resonate with the artist in me.”  Tickets are available at Headwaters for Lifelong Learning presentations or at Beagle and Wolf Books. Tickets are $12.50 in advance or $15 at the door. More information, contact Marty Leistikow at 218-699-3527 or martyleistikow@ gmail.com.

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