F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Brief Life
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 revised.
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 for a 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 in the advertisement business and unwilling to live on his small salary, Zelda Sayre 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 Sayre 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 Fitzgerald 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, who was born in October 1921.
The Fitzgeralds 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. He was an alcoholic, but he wrote sober. Zelda Fitzgerald 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,” he wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age.
Seeking tranquility for his work, the Fitzgeralds went to France in the spring of 1924 . 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 affluent and cultured American expatriates 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 Riviera. 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 Fitzgerald’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 Fitzgerald 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 contributed to the couple’s estrangement. In April 1930 she suffered her first breakdown. 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 psychiatric treatment.
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 present-day 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 Fitzgerald 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 Fitzgerald 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 patient.
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 Fitzgerald 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 screenwriting 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. The $91,000 he earned from MGM was a great deal of money during the late Depression years when a new Chevrolet coupe cost $619, but although Fitzgerald paid off most of his debts, he was unable to save. His trips East to visit his wife 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 at 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’s “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald” originally appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Bruccoli with the assistance of Judith S. Baughman (New York: Scribners, 1994.); essay reprinted courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
This page updated December 4, 2003.