F. Scott Fitzgerald
1896, is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota,
his father, Edward, from Maryland,
held an allegiance to the Old South and its traditional values that he
passed along to his son.
Fitzgerald's mother, Mary (Mollie) McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish
immigrant who became wealthy as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul.
When Fitzgerald's father failed as a manufacturer of wicker furniture in
St. Paul, he took a job as a salesman for Procter & Gamble in upstate New
York. After he was let go in 1908, he moved his wife and
12-year-old son back to St. Paul, where they lived comfortably on Mollie's inheritance. Fitzgerald attended the St. Paul Academy;
and his first writing to appear in print was a detective story in the school
newspaper when he was thirteen.
During 1911-1913, Fitzgerald attended the Newman School, a Catholic prep
school in New Jersey, where he met Father Sigourney Fay, who encouraged his
ambitions for personal distinction and achievement. In
Princeton, Fitzgerald often neglected his studies for his writing.
Free to explore his artistic soul, he wrote the scripts and lyrics for
Triangle Club musicals and contributed his writing to the Princeton Tiger
humor magazine, as well as the Nassau Literary Magazine. His college
friends included Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop.
In 1917, Fitzgerald found himself on academic
probation and unlikely to graduate, so he joined the army and
was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry. Convinced that
he would die in service, he penned the novel, The Romantic
Egotist/ A letter of rejection from Charles Scribner's Sons
praised the novel's originality and asked that it be resubmitted after some
suggested revisions were made.
June, 1918, Fitzgerald was transferred to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery,
Alabama, where he met and fell in love with a true southern belle, Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme
Court judge. At 18, she already had a host of suitors, but Fitzgerald
was determined. His romance made him all the more anxious to get his
novel published--he saw the money from it as being his personal
salvation--but after resubmitting it to Scribners, it was rejected once
The war ended just before Fitzgerald was to be sent overseas. After
his discharge in 1919, he went to New York City to seek his fortune so that
he could ask for Zelda's hand in marriage. Unwilling to wait while
Fitzgerald succeeded in the advertisement business and unable to live on
his small salary, Zelda broke their engagement.
In April, 1920, at the age of 23, Fitzgerald
published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, making him an
overnight literary sensation. A week later, he and Zelda married in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
a riotous summer in Westport, Connecticut, the Fitzgeralds moved into an apartment
in New York City, where he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and
Damned, a naturalistic chronicle of the dissipation of Anthony and
Gloria Patch. The Fitzgeralds presented a picture of poise and beauty
to New York society. They proved to be perfect representatives of the
Jazz Age, a term that Fitzgerald himself had coined. Dorothy Parker said
they looked "as though they had just stepped out of the sun."
They embarked on an extravagant lifestyle as young socialites. Fitzgerald
wanted to be taken as a serious writer, but his playboy image made
it difficult for him to be critical of his own work.
When Zelda became pregnant
in 1921, the couple took their first trip to Europe before settling in St. Paul for the birth of their only child, Frances Scott
(Scottie) Fitzgerald, who was born in October, 1921.
Fitzgerald expected to become affluent from his play, The Vegetable;
so, in fall of 1922, he moved his family to Great Neck, Long Island, in order to be
closer to Broadway. The political satire--subtitled "From President to
Postman"-- failed at its tryout in November 1923, and Fitzgerald was forced
to write his way out of debt with short stories.
The distractions of Great Neck and New York City slowed his progress on
his third novel. His drinking increased. Although he was by now
an alcoholic, he wrote only when he was sober. Zelda regularly drank
to forget her problems, as well, but she was not an alcoholic. The
couple had frequent domestic arguments, usually triggered by bouts of
Literary reviewers were hesitant to give Fitzgerald full marks as a
serious craftsman. His reputation as a drinker inspired the myth that he
must also have been an irresponsible writer. In reality, he had grown
to become a
painstaking reviser whose fiction went through layers of drafts. His
clear, lyrical, colorfully witty style evoked the emotions associated with
time and place. When critics objected to his concern with love and
success, his response was: "But, my God! it was my material, and it was all
I had to deal with." A recurring theme in Fitzgerald's work is aspiration--the idealism he
regarded as the defining American character. Another major theme was
spring of 1924, the
Fitzgeralds went to France to find a calmer place
for Scott could work. He wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and fall in
Valescure near St. Raphael, but his marriage was strained by Zelda's
affair with a French naval aviator. The extent of the affair--if
it was in fact consummated--isn't fully unknown.
The Fitzgeralds spent the winter of 1924-1925 in Rome, where he revised
The Great Gatsby. They were headed to Paris when the novel was
published in April. The Great Gatsby marked a striking advance
in Fitzgerald's technique, utilizing a complex structure and a controlled
narrative point-of-view. His achievement received critical
praise, but sales of Gatsby were disappointing, though the stage and
movie rights brought them additional income.
In Paris, Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway--then unknown outside the
expatriate literary circle--with whom he formed a friendship based largely
on his admiration for Hemingway's personality and genius. The Fitzgeralds remained in France until the end of 1926, alternating between
Paris and the Riviera.
Fitzgerald made little progress on his fourth novel, a study of American
expatriates in France tentatively titled The Boy Who Killed His Mother,
Our Type, and The World's Fair. During these years,
Zelda's unconventional behavior became increasingly erratic.
once more to escape the hectic lifestyle they had fashioned for themselves,
Fitzgeralds returned to America. After a short, lackluster stint
screenwriting in Hollywood, Fitzgerald
rented "Ellerslie," a mansion near Wilmington, Delaware, in the spring of
1927. The family remained there for two years, interrupted by a visit
to Paris in the summer of 1928. Still, Fitzgerald's progress on his
new novel was painstakingly slow. Zelda, who had decided to become a professional
ballerina, went into training, and the couple returned to France
in the spring of 1929, where her intense dedication to ballet further damaged
both her health and their relationship.
time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald had begun to crumble, as
well. His marriage was in threads. Zelda had suffered her first nervous breakdown in 1930.
She was treated at Prangins clinic in Switzerland until September 1931,
while Fitzgerald lived in Swiss hotels. Work on the novel was again
suspended as he wrote short stories to pay for his wife's psychiatric treatment.
The changes that came with the Great Depression made F. Scott Fitzgerald
seem like ancient history, along with everything else from the Roaring
Twenties. He had written about the lives of the rich, and now he
remained associated with them while he and his writing fell out of favor
with the public. His books,
including The Great Gatsby (1925), did not sell well. In 1929,
the Saturday Evening Post paid him $4,000 per story, but his total royalties
on seven books that year were only $31.77.
"Long after midnight
the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a
late-burning light and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells.
As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new
generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed
romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and
poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old
creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out
into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation
dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of
success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man
shaken...." - from The Great Gatsby
Fitzgeralds returned to America in the fall of 1931 and rented a house in
Montgomery, where they would stay for seven months. Fitzgerald made a
second unsuccessful trip to Hollywood, and Zelda suffered a relapse in
February, 1932. She entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and
spent the rest of her life as a resident or outpatient of various
The year 1932 brought the
Great Depression to its most tenuous point. Fitzgerald was living in
New York, a city that he loved. He had said, "New York had all the
iridescence of the beginning of the world." One evening he did what a
lot of New Yorkers did that year—he went to the top of the newly built
Empire State Building. He wrote about it in his essay, My Lost City:
Full of vaunting
pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never
suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he
had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for
the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an
expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful
realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole
shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the
ground. - from My Lost City
After The Great
Gatsby, Fitzgerald took nine years to write his next novel, Tender is
the Night. When it came out in 1934, it received mixed reactions.
By the spring of 1936, he found himself broke and looking for advances from Esquire
magazine, but the editor told him he'd have to write something, anything,
just to prove to their accountants that he could still produce. Fitzgerald looked at his problems,
his situation as a writer, and wrote a series of personal essays called
The Crack-Up, about what it was like to hit bottom.
a time when people didn't air their own dirty laundry in public, the essays were shocking. Fitzgerald's writer friends—Hemingway,
Maxwell Perkins, John Dos Passos—didn't understand why he would expose
himself in that way. But not only did The Crack-Up place Fitzgerald's
name back in front of the public, but also it paved the way for a new
confessional style in American writing.
It begins: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows
that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or
seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in
moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at
once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you
don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize
with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again."
Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44. That year, all of his books
sold a total of 72 copies, with royalties of $13. Today, The Great
Gatsby, alone, sells nearly 300,000 copies a year.
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