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A brief life of F. S. Fitzerald
This website utilizes a server that will be decommissioned on Oct 31, 2017. If you are the site owner, please visit the Server Decomissioning page for more details.

A Brief Life of Francis Scott Fitzerald

The dominant influences on F. Scott Fitzgerald were aspiration, literature,
Princeton, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, and alcohol.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September
24, 1896, the namesake and second cousin three times removed of the author
of the National Anthem. Fitzgerald's given names indicate his parents' pride
in his father's ancestry. His father, Edward, was from Maryland, with an
allegiance to the Old South and its values. Fitzgerald's mother, Mary
(Mollie) McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who became
wealthy as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul. Both were Catholics.

Edward Fitzgerald failed as a manufacturer of wicker furniture in St. Paul,
and he became a salesman for Procter & Gamble in upstate New York. After he
was dismissed in 1908, when his son was twelve, the family returned to St.
Paul and lived comfortably on Mollie Fitzgerald's inheritance. Fitzgerald
attended the St. Paul Academy; his first writing to appear in print was a
detective story in the school newspaper when he was thirteen.

During 1911-1913 he 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. As a member of the Princeton Class
of 1917, Fitzgerald neglected his studies for his literary apprenticeship.
He wrote the scripts and lyrics for the Princeton Triangle Club musicals and
was a contributor to the Princeton Tiger humor magazine and the Nassau
Literary Magazine. His college friends included Edmund Wilson and John Peale
Bishop. On academic probation and unlikely to graduate, Fitzgerald joined
the army in 1917 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry.
Convinced that he would die in the war, he rapidly wrote a novel, "The
Romantic Egotist"; the letter of rejection from Charles Scribner's Sons
praised the novel's originality and asked that it be resubmitted when

In June 1918 Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery,
Alabama. There he fell in love with a celebrated belle, eighteen-year-old
Zelda Sayre, the youngest daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. The
romance intensified Fitzgerald's hopes for the success of his novel, but
after revision it was rejected by Scribners second time. The war ended just
before he was to be sent overseas: after his discharge in 1919 he went to
New York City to seek his fortune in order to marry. Unwilling to wait while
Fitzgerald succeeded ill the advertisement business and unwilling to live on
his small salary, Zelda broke their engagement.

Fitzgerald quit his job in July 1919 and returned to St. Paul to rewrite his
novel as This Side of Paradise, it was accepted by editor Maxwell Perkins of
Scribners in September. Set mainly at Princeton and described by its author
as "a quest novel," This Side of Paradise traces the career aspirations and
love disappointments of Amory Blaine.

In the fall-winter of 1919 Fitzgerald commenced his career as a writer of
stories for the mass-circulation magazines. Working through agent Harold
Ober, Fitzgerald interrupted work on his novels to write moneymaking popular
fiction for the rest of his life. The Saturday Evening Post became
Fitzgerald's best story market, and he was regarded as a "Post writer." His
early commercial stories about young love introduced a fresh character: the
independent, determined young American woman who appeared in "The Offshore
Pirate" and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Fitzgerald's more ambitious stories,
such as "May Day" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," were published in
The Smart Set, which had a small circulation.

The publication of This Side of Paradise on March 26, 1920, made the
twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald famous almost overnight, and a week later he
married Zelda in New York. They embarked on an extravagant life as young
celebrities. Fitzgerald endeavored to earn a solid literary reputation but
his playboy image impeded the proper assessment of his work.

After a riotous summer in Westport, Connecticut, the Fitzgeralds took an
apartment in New York City; there he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful
and Damned, a naturalistic chronicle of the dissipation of Anthony and
Gloria Patch. When Zelda became pregnant they took their first trip to
Europe in 1921 and then settled in St. Paul for the birth of their only
child Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald was born in October 1921.

Fitzgerald expected to become affluent from his play, The Vegetable, in the
fall of 1922 they moved to Great Neck, Long Island, in order to be near
Broadway. The political satire--subtitled "From President to Postman"--
failed at its tryout in November 1923, and Fitzgerald wrote his way out of
debt with short stories. The distractions of Great Neck and New York
prevented Fitzgerald from making progress on his third novel. During this
time his drinking increased. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, but he wrote
sober. Zelda regularly got "tight," but she was not an alcoholic. There were
frequent domestic rows, usually triggered by drinking bouts.

Literary opinion makers were reluctant to accord Fitzgerald full marks as a
serious craftsman. His reputation as a drinker inspired the myth that he was
an irresponsible writer; yet he was a painstaking reviser whose fiction went
through layers of drafts. Fitzgerald's clear, lyrical, colorful, witty style
evoked the emotions associated with time and place. When critics objected to
Fitzgerald's concern with love and success, his response was: "But, my God!
it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with." The chief theme of
Fitzgerald's work is aspiration--the idealism he regarded as defining
American character. Another major theme was mutability or loss. As a social
historian Fitzgerald became identified with "The Jazz Age": "It was an age
of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an
age of satire."

The Fitzgeralds went to France in the spring of 1924 seeking tranquillity
for his work. He wrote The Great Gatsby during the summer and fall in
Valescure near St. Raphael, but the marriage was damaged by Zelda's
involvement with a French naval aviator. The extent of the affair--if it was
in fact consummated--is not known. On the Riviera the Fitzgeralds formed a
close friendship with Gerald and Sara Murphy.

The Fitzgeralds spent the winter of 1924-1925 in Rome, where he revised The
Great Gatsby; they were en route 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.
Fitzgerald's achievement received critical praise, but sales of Gatsby were
disappointing, though the stage and movie rights brought 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

Fitzgerald made little progress on his fourth novel, a study of American
expatriates in France provisionally titled "The Boy Who Killed His Mother,"
"Our Type," and "The World's Fair." During these years Zelda's
unconventional behavior became increasingly eccentric.

The Fitzgeralds returned to America to escape the distractions of France.
After a short, unsuccessful stint of screen writing in Hollywood, Fitzgerald
rented "Ellerslie," a mansion near Wilmington, Delaware, in the spring of
1927. The family remained at "Ellerslie" for two years interrupted by a
visit to Paris in the summer of 1928, but Fitzgerald was still unable to
make significant progress on his novel. At this time Zelda commenced ballet
training, intending to become a professional dancer. The Fitzgeralds
returned to France in the spring of 1929, where Zelda's intense ballet work
damaged her health and estranged them. In April 1930 she suffered her first
breakdown. Zelda 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 psychiatric

Fitzgerald's peak story fee of $4.000 from The Saturday Evening Post may
have had in 1929 the purchasing power of $40,000 in 1994 dollars.
Nonetheless, the general view of his affluence is distorted. Fitzgerald was
not among the highest-paid writers of his time; his novels earned
comparatively little, and most of his income came from 160 magazine stories.
During the 1920s his income from all sources averaged under $25,000 a
year--good money at a time when a schoolteacher's average annual salary was
$1,299, but not a fortune. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald did spend money faster
than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of
money on character was unable to manage his own finances.

The Fitzgeralds returned to America in the fall of 1931 and rented a house
in Montgomery. Fitzgerald made a second unsuccessful trip to Hollywood in
1931. Zelda suffered a relapse in February 1932 and entered Johns Hopkins
Hospital in Baltimore. She spent the rest of her life as a resident or
outpatient of sanitariums.

In 1932, while a patient at Johns Hopkins, Zelda rapidly wrote Save Me the
Waltz. Her autobiographical novel generated considerable bitterness between
the Fitzgeralds, for he regarded it as pre-empting the material that he was
using in his novel-in-progress. Fitzgerald rented "La Paix," a house outside
Baltimore, where he completed his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night.
Published in 1934, his most ambitious novel was a commercial failure, and
its merits were matters of critical dispute. Set in France during the 1920s,
Tender Is the Night examines the deterioration of Dick Diver, a brilliant
American psychiatrist, during the course of his marriage to a wealthy mental

The 1936-1937 period is known as "the crack-up" from the title of an essay
Fitzgerald wrote in 1936. Ill, drunk, in debt, and unable to write
commercial stories, he lived in hotels in the region near Asheville, North
Carolina, where in 1936 Zelda entered Highland Hospital. After Baltimore
Fitzgerald did not maintain a home for Scottie. When she was fourteen she
went to boarding school, and the Obers became her surrogate family.
Nonetheless, Fitzgerald functioned as a concerned father by mail, attempting
to supervise Scottie's education and to shape her social values.

Fitzgerald went to Hollywood alone in the summer of 1937 with a six month
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract at $1,000 a week. He received his only screen
credit for adapting Three Comrades (1938), and his contract was renewed for
a year at $1.250 a week. This $91,000 from MGM was a great deal of money
during the late Depression years when a new Chevrolet coupe cost $619;
although Fitzgerald paid off most of his debts, he was unable to save. His
trips East to visit Zelda were disastrous. In California Fitzgerald fell in
love with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. Their relationship endured despite
his benders. After MGM dropped his option at the end of 1938, Fitzgerald
worked as a freelance script writer and wrote short-short stories for
Esquire. He began his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, in 1939
and had written more than half of a working draft when he died of a heart
attack in Graham's apartment on December 21, 1940. Zelda Fitzgerald perished
in a fire in Highland Hospital in 1948.

F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing himself a failure. The obituaries were
condescending, and he seemed destined for literary obscurity. The first
phase of the Fitzgerald resurrection--"revival" does not properly describe
the process--occurred between 1945 and 1950. By 1960 he had achieved a
secure place among America's enduring writers: The Great Gatsby, a work that
seriously examines the theme of aspiration in an American setting, defines
the classic American novel.

Matthew J. Bruccoli."A Brief Life of Fitzgerald," courtesy of Charles
Scribner's Sons; originally appeared in F.Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in
Letters, ed. Bruccoli with the assistance of Judith Baughman. New York:
Scribners, 1994.
  Bibliography Zhang, Dr. Aiping. Enchanted Places.