Men in slender-cut tuxedos, satin-draped women giggling tipsily at parties, the green light burning tantalizingly from Daisy Buchanan's dock at East Egg. These images from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's fiction have become so closely associated with the writer and his time that it's hard sometimes to separate where fiction ended and real life began. For Fitzgerald, who earned his place in the American literary canon as the master chronicler of his era, separating the man from his era is a dicey business. Fitzgerald's life (and the lives of his characters) echoed the national mood—boldly romantic before 1920, excessive and exuberant in the 1920s, sober and reflective in the 1930s. All writers rely on personal experience and insight to shape their work, but Fitzgerald was able to reflect the nuances and details of his surroundings onto the page with a skill few others have matched. He was also almost shameless about borrowing scenes, settings and characters from real life. When critics questioned his preoccupation with the themes of love and aspiration, Fitzgerald responded, "But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with."Fitzgerald saw the waste as well as the wealth, the pain that rattled below the surface of the parties. It pained him in later life that he was so closely identified with the frippery he found in many ways abhorrent. But the fact remains that the Jazz Age was such a sustaining, inspiring time for Fitzgerald that when it crashed out of existence, Fitzgerald himself struggled simply to exist. He lasted for only another ten years before collapsing at his lover's apartment of a heart attack at the age of 44. He died believing himself a failure. Generations of readers since have proved him wrong.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on 24 September 1896 in St. Paul Minnesota, the son of second-generation Irish-American named Mollie McQuillan and a wicker furniture manufacturer from Maryland named Edward Fitzgerald. Despite several attempts to make it big in the furniture business, Edward Fitzgerald never really achieved the success he hoped for. Mollie's inheritance and donations from an aunt allowed the family to live a comfortable upper-middle class Midwestern life, but Fitzgerald never shook the sense that he was a poor boy crashing a rich man's party. The duel between resentment and admiration of those who have more—that most American of conflicts—would always be a dominant theme in Fitzgerald's life and fiction.
America in the years just before the First World War was a place of contradictions. Women couldn't vote and people of any race but white were mostly marginalized. There were few protections for working people, no pensions or Social Security. It was also the time of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement, of the nascent rumblings that would eventually give way to women's suffrage and workers' rights. Through it all, Americans loved—loved—the idea of the self-made man, the plucky, ambitious fellow who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and took advantage of all that the land of opportunity had to offer. They admired business titans like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. Americans in the 1910s believed that it was possible to make something from nothing, which may explain why they were so ready for the prosperity of the decade that followed.
Fitzgerald attended prep schools in St. Paul and then in New Jersey, where his literary leanings first appeared in stories and plays he penned for student publications. In 1913, he entered Princeton University with the Class of 1917, beginning a period that would permanently shape his life and work. Princeton's aura of leisurely privilege inspired him. Fitzgerald made friends with young men (Princeton didn't go co-ed until 1969) who also would go on to become important literary figures, like the critic Edmund Wilson and the poet John Peale Bishop. A much better writer than a student, Fitzgerald scribbled prolifically for the campus' literary publications and theatrical societies while his grades withered. He fell in love with a young Chicago debutante named Ginevra King. Though the relationship eventually ended, Ginevra remained in his consciousness as a model for later female characters—most notably Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan. He also learned to drink. What started out as enjoyment of cocktails with friends eventually morphed into the alcoholism that contributed to Fitzgerald's early death.
Shockingly enough, the combination of wretched grades, unrequited love and rampant boozing eventually landed Fitzgerald on academic probation. With graduation unlikely, he did the gentlemanly thing for a young man of his time—he quit school and joined the military, hoping to be sent to Europe to fight in World War I. In November 1917, Fitzgerald accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He never graduated from Princeton. Soon after reporting for duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Fitzgerald started work on a novel entitled The Romantic Egoist. Fitzgerald would likely have admitted to egoism (he reported for military duty in a Brooks Brothers-tailored uniform) and he definitely held romantic visions of overseas battle. He was convinced he was going to die in the war and imagined his novel as his goodbye letter to the world.
But Fitzgerald didn't die. He didn't even go to war. World War I ended on 11 November 1918, before the well-dressed soldier even got a chance to board a ship for Europe. Near the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote that the two greatest regrets of his life were not having seen overseas combat . . . and not being big enough to play college football. This great disappointment—the buildup of hope, nerves and emotion that were never released—became a dominant theme for Fitzgerald and countless other young men like him. This was the defining characteristic of the group of young men that Gertrude Stein called the "Lost Generation," whom Fitzgerald described as "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."They were disillusioned, and figured that if the noble causes had all been already fought, they might as well have a good time.
In July 1918, at a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama, Fitzgerald met a popular 18-year-old named Zelda Sayre. Zelda was beautiful and charming, the type of girl who did cartwheels on the dance floor if she got bored at a ball. Fitzgerald was hooked immediately. He courted her feverishly, reading her his stories and parts of his unfinished novel. As we all know, the best part about being a writer is the courting a.k.a. reciting-your-poetry-in-the-middle-of-a-conversation process. He proposed after his discharge from the Army in February 1919, but Zelda had doubts. Her fiancé wasn't rich and there was no guarantee he'd ever be famous—Scribners had already rejected the first draft of The Romantic Egoist, albeit with a note encouraging Fitzgerald to try again. Hoping to fix the "no money" part of his problem, Fitzgerald took a job in New York as an advertising writer (his greatest contribution to the field was the "We keep you clean in Muscatine" jingle for the Muscatine Steam Laundry in Iowa - pure poetry). Fitzgerald hated advertising. His short stories didn't sell. His apartment was a dump. Zelda gave back the ring. After surviving a drunken three-week bender, Fitzgerald quit the job and New York to move back to St. Paul, holing up in his parents' house to rewrite the novel so that he could win back his girl.
Fitzgerald wrote a novel about a devastatingly handsome, wildly talented young Princeton student named Amory Blaine who quits school, joins the army, never sees combat, falls in love and gets his heart broken by a beautiful woman who happens to have the exact same mannerisms as Zelda Sayre. Gutsy? Sure. But it worked. This Side of Paradise (the new and vastly-improved title of The Romantic Egoist, inspired by a Rupert Brooke poem) was published by Scribners on 26 March 1920. A week later, Fitzgerald and Zelda were married at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. The success of his plan came at a price, which Fitzgerald later described: "The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class—not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends' money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit du seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl."blank">Calvin Coolidge announced to the nation, "The business of America is business." Their prizes won (victory in Europe for the U.S., marriage to Zelda for Fitzgerald), Americans were ready to have a good time.
The 1920s have many names in America: the Roaring Twenties, the Boom, the Jazz Age (the name Fitzgerald himself invented). It was a period of wild economic prosperity, cultural flowering and a shaking up of social mores. It was also the defining era of Fitzgerald's life as a writer. He reached the peak of his fame with the 1925 publication of The Great Gatsby, a book that perfectly captured the era's moods and styles. The fun lasted for ten years and then, as Fitzgerald so eloquently put it, "leaped to a spectacular death in October 1929."
In 1924, shortly before the publication of The Great Gatsby, the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris to join a growing community of American artists and writers drawn to France for its inexpensive cost of living, liberal sexual codes, great bars, numerous presses and magazines willing to publish them. Living cheaply in Paris, writers could sell their work to the growing numbers of magazines and publishers back in the U.S., which were hungry for new talent and willing to pay handsomely (at his peak, Fitzgerald earned the equivalent of $40,000 in today's dollars for a single story in The Saturday Evening Post.) Together, scholars have noted, this group of expatriates presided over arguably the greatest Renaissance in American literature. In addition to Fitzgerald, Paris-based American writers who published during the 1920s included Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and a young chap named Ernest Hemingway, about whom Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribners, "I'd look him up right away. He's the real thing." Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a complicated relationship that started in friendship, progressed to rivalry and ended in bitter resentment. Zelda and Hemingway hated each other, and both criticized Scott for hanging out with the other.
The Great Gatsby was published by Scribners on 10 April 1925. The quintessential tale of the glory and tragedy of American aspiration won Fitzgerald great critical respect. It also helped create a caricature of the era that continues to this day. "The popular impression of the Twenties as a time of hedonism, alcoholic orgies, and high jinks is in some part based on misreadings of Fitzgerald's fiction," wrote Matthew J. Bruccoli, a Fitzgerald scholar and part-time broccoli expert (jk). "Gatsby's party has become the quintessential Twenties party. Fitzgerald's characters have become confused with the cartoons of sheiks in raccoon coats and flappers in short skirts. . . . Fitzgerald's view of the Twenties was serious and complex, for he recognized the glamour as well as the waste, the charm as well as the self-destruction."
The stock market crash brought the music of the Jazz Age to a screeching halt. People lost their savings in the massive stock market collapse of October 1929. Frightened consumers stopped spending whatever money they had left, sparking a worldwide downturn. Banks failed. (Is any of this starting to sound familiar?) Unemployment reached 30 percent. To make matters worse, a drought in 1930 ravaged farmers. It was a hard time in America.
Fitzgerald didn't lose money in the market; he never owned stock. But the dawn of the 1930s spelled the end of an era for him and Zelda. "We will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings anymore," he wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age.blank">Mussolini in Europe. It was politically correct among writers and intellectuals to be liberal, if not Marxist. Fitzgerald was never politically active and was not willing to reveal political leanings of any kind in his work. He never catered to the desire for social redemption. He and his characters became reflective, musing on the talent squandered and the opportunities lost in an age of decadence.
Fitzgerald was frustrated by the public's preference for movies. "I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art," he wrote in "The Crack-Up." "As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures."If F. Scott Fitzgerald had not lived, if he had not chronicled his times with the sensitivity and vivid language that he did, it's possible that much of the cultural significance of the Jazz Age could be shrugged off by history. And that, as Gatsby might say, would be a shame, old sport.
Father: Edward Fitzgerald (1853-1931)
Mother: Mary "Mollie" McQuillan (1860-1936)
Sister: Louisa Fitzgerald (1892-1896)
Sister: Mary Ashton Fitzgerald (1893-1895)
Sister: Girl Fitzgerald (1900)
Sister: Annabel Fitzgerald (1901-1987)
Brother-in-Law: Clifton "Ziggy" Sprague (1896-1955)
Wife: Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900-1948)
Daughter: Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald (1921-1986)
Son-in-Law: Samuel J. Lanahan
Son-in-Law: C. Grove Smith
St. Paul Academy, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1908-1911
Newman School, Hackensack, New Jersey, 1911-1913
Princeton University, 1913-1917 (did not graduate)
Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army, 1917-1919
Writer, Barron Collier Advertising Agency, New York City, 1919
Novelist, represented by Scribners, 1919-1940
Screenwriter, United Artists, Hollywood, California, 1927
Screenwriter, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Hollywood, California, 1931, 1937-1938
Freelance screenwriter, Hollywood, California, 1939-1940
Flappers and Philosophers (1920) including "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"
Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) including "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"
All the Sad Young Men (1926) including "Winter Dreams"
Taps at Reveille (1935)
Babylon Revisited and Other Stories (1960, posthumous)
The Pat Hobby Stories (1962, posthumous)
The Basil and Josephine Stories (1973, posthumous)
The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1989, posthumous)