Nancy Milford, the biographer of women who helped light up the Jazz Age — Zelda Fitzgerald, the “original flapper” and wife and literary muse of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay — died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 84. Her son, Matthew Milford, said the cause had not been determined.
An indefatigable researcher, Ms. Milford brought the chaotic, troubled Zelda Fitzgerald and her world to vivid life in “Zelda” (1970) through letters, albums, scrapbooks, and interviews with her friends and her husband as well as reports by psychiatrists who treated Zelda for schizophrenia. Her mental health was declining by the late 1920s and led to institutionalizations in the 1930s and ’40s.
“She haunts our idea of what it is like to be this spirited girl caught in a web of destruction, which ends up being romanticized,” Ms. Milford told Interview magazine in 2011. During one stay at a clinic in Baltimore in 1932, the 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 a “good deal more than the curio of a deranged sensibility working over the grievances of a life with Scott Fitzgerald, or of a life shattered by mental illness.”
Zelda was 47 when she died in a hospital fire in 1948 in Asheville, N.C., eight years after her husband died at age 44. But her fame outlived her in popular culture: Her life helped inspire the Eagles’ 1972 song “Witchy Woman” in one instance and more recently was the basis for the streaming Amazon series “Z: The Beginning of Everything.” “Zelda” spent nearly 22 weeks on The New York Times’s hardcover best-seller list, sold more than 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 overwhelmingly moving,” and that it had demythologized 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 the records of Zelda’s treatments for mental illness infused the book with “remarkable psychological intensity.” He added that Ms. Milford’s complex portrait of the Fitzgeralds’ very public marriage “helps us to understand the nature of modern intimacy as well as helping us to see one of our greatest writers with a new complexity.”
Nancy Lee Winston was born on March 26, 1938, in Dearborn, Mich. Her father, Joseph, was an engineer at General Motors and Ford. Her mother, Vivienne (Romaine) Winston, was a homemaker who volunteered for many years at a hospital in Dearborn. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in English, she traveled throughout Europe and married Kenneth Milford in 1962, a union that would eventually end in divorce. She earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1964 and eight years later received a Ph.D. from Columbia, using “Zelda” as her dissertation.
The seeds of “Zelda” were planted during Ms. Milford’s upbringing. In the prologue, she recalled that “it seemed to be a fine thing to live as the Fitzgeralds had, where every gesture had a special flair that marked it as one’s own.” “Together,” she added, “they personified the immense lure of the East, of young fame, or dissolution and early death.”
In 1963, she began talking to people who knew the Fitzgeralds, among them Gerald Murphy, a patron of artists and writers, who, shortly before his death the next year, passionately told Ms. Milford, “Zelda was an American value!” Mr. Murphy and his wife, Sara, were another glamorous couple of the era and 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 riding down Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Ala., wearing a flesh-colored bathing suit, with her legs draped over the rumble seat of the car and shouting, to a group of boys called the Jelly Beans, “All my Jellies!” After the publication of “Zelda,” 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 ’30s — she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1923 — faded quickly afterward.
Asked about the long gestation of “Savage Beauty,” Ms. Milford told The Los Angeles Times: “Pish posh. Who cares? It’s my life, and I can do with it what I want.” How much of that time had she spent on the biography?
“Oh, who knows,” she said. “Maybe 22 years. I’d do little bits here, little bits there. Then I’d drop off. I obviously wasn’t writing every day or I’d have finished 20 years ago.” While working on the book she was teaching English at Bard and Vassar Colleges, New York University, and the University of Michigan. She was also a founder, 1978, of the Writers Room in Manhattan, which provides a space for writers to work. It was inspired by her time writing “Zelda” in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room at the New York Public Library.
She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1977 while working on the Millay biography and a Fulbright scholar in the 1990s in two stints teaching literature and history in Turkey. Millay had been on her mind as her next subject since 1972, when Ms. Milford visited the poet’s sister, Norma, at a farmhouse in Austerlitz, N.Y. There she found a trove of material — notebooks, letters, and drafts of poems in the thousands scattered about in the dining room, the library, the bedrooms, and a woodshed, and even under a tablecloth and inside piano benches. She spent four summers combing through thousands of pieces of material and removing much of them for her research.
“Was it my luck that this extraordinary collection was in no university library?” she wrote in the prologue of “Savage Beauty.” “Can luck strike twice? Just as no one had Zelda Fitzgerald’s papers but her daughter, Scottie, who handed them to me in shopping bags, so no one had ever seen this collection.” But by the time “Savage Beauty” was published, the collection that Ms. Milford believed had been hers exclusively had been given to the Library of Congress by Norma Millay. Another biography of Millay, by Daniel Mark Epstein, who was able to examine the collection, was released at the same time as Ms. Milford’s.
“Savage Beauty,” which also became a best-seller, was lauded by Lorrie Moore in The New York Review of Books “as a rich, moving picture of a rich, moving target.” But Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that the book “does not manage to make Millay’s life come alive for the reader, as she did Zelda’s.” In addition to her son, Ms. Milford is survived by her daughters, Kate Milford and Nell Dority; six grandchildren; and her brother, Fred Winston. Ms. Milford never published another book, although she had started one about Rose Kennedy. She continued to teach and in 2008 was a founder and the first executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, which offers fellowships to biographers.
The idea for the center crystallized when Ms. Milford, then teaching at Hunter College in Manhattan, a part of the City University of New York, met the biographer David Nasaw, a history professor at the Graduate Center. They bonded over her working on a biography of Mrs. Kennedy and his writing one 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 craft,” Mr. Nasaw told The Times in recalling the formation of the center. “We thought if we could formalize this, it would be extraordinary.”