F. Scott Fitzgerald Biography

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the most influential works of the 20th century. If great art is born of great misery, that might help explain Gatsby's success. The novel tells the story of Fitzgerald’s “Lost Generation” during the Jazz Age. The term "Lost Generation" describe the young people of the 1920s who, like Fitzgerald, felt purposeless in a world of excess. Fitzgerald also wrestled with many personal demons—alcoholism in particular and his problematic relationship with his wife, Zelda Sayre. Zelda was from a markedly higher social ranking, so Fitzgerald constantly struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Despite his many publications, Fitzgerald died believing he was a failure as a writer. History has judged otherwise, and today Fitzgerald is considered one of America’s most celebrated authors.

Facts and Trivia

  • Don’t underestimate the influence of Zelda Sayre on Fitzgerald’s work. She was the basis of the characters Judy Jones in “Winter Dreams” and Daisy Fay in The Great Gatsby. Later, Zelda’s mental illness would also influence his novel Tender Is the Night.
  • Hemingway once ridiculed Fitzgerald’s famous line, “The rich are different than you and I,” by quipping, “Yes, they have more money.”
  • Despite his successes, Fitzgerald was continually in debt and often had to write for magazines to support his family.
  • During the last three years of his life, Fitzgerald worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.
  • A famous line from The Great Gatsby embodies Fitzgerald’s lifelong philosophy of trying to reclaim youth: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3034

Article abstract: With a poetic style and an insight into the lure of and the fallacies within the American Dream, Fitzgerald created some of the most distinctively American fiction.

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Early Life

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was a furniture manufacturer, and his mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of a wealthy St. Paul businessman. After Edward Fitzgerald’s business failed in 1898, he became a wholesale grocery salesman for Procter and Gamble in Buffalo, New York. Edward was transferred to Syracuse, New York, in 1901 (when Scott’s sister Annabel was born) and back to Buffalo in 1903 before losing his job in 1908. The family then returned to St. Paul to live off the money Mollie had inherited from her father.

Edward Fitzgerald, who had cowritten a novel when he was young, read from the works of George Gordon, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe to his son and praised the boy’s attempts at writing, but he hoped that Scott would become an army officer. Mollie did not encourage his literary interests and wanted him to be a successful businessman like her father, to make up for Edward’s failure and to live up to the illustrious ancestors on his father’s side of the family, a long line of wealthy Maryland landowners, politicians, and lawyers. (Francis Scott Key was a distant relative.)

Because Scott’s family believed that he needed discipline, he was sent in 1911 to the Newman School, a Catholic preparatory school in Hackensack, New Jersey. At Newman, Fitzgerald met Father Sigourney Fay, a wealthy intellectual who introduced him to Henry Adams and other well-known literary figures. Fay became the boy’s surrogate father and is the model for Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise (1920).

In 1913, Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton University. He dreamed of becoming a college football star but did not make the team. He had worked on school publications throughout high school and began writing for the Princeton Tiger, the college humor magazine. He also wrote the books and lyrics for musical productions of the prestigious Triangle Club, and through such literary endeavors he made friends with fellow students Edmund Wilson, who became one of America’s most important critics, and John Peale Bishop, later a successful poet. Fitzgerald and Wilson wrote The Evil Eye for the Triangle Club in 1915. After a publicity photograph for that production of Fitzgerald dressed as a girl ran in The New York Times, he received an offer to become a female impersonator in vaudeville.

Earlier that year, Fitzgerald had met sixteen-year-old Ginevra King of Lake Forest, Illinois, at a party in St. Paul. For him, she was the embodiment of the perfect woman: beautiful, rich, socially prominent, and sought after. Ginevra, the model for many of the young women in Fitzgerald’s short stories, rejected him eventually because he was not wealthy.

That disappointment was not Fitzgerald’s only one in 1915. He was elected secretary of the Triangle Club, meaning that he would be its president during his senior year, but bad grades made him ineligible for campus offices. Fitzgerald had neglected his studies almost from his arrival at Princeton. At the end of the fall semester, poor grades and illness forced him to drop out of school.

Fitzgerald returned to Princeton in the fall of 1916 to repeat his junior year, and he continued to write stories for the campus literary magazine. He was never graduated, however, since the United States entered World War I, and he joined the army as a second lieutenant in October, 1917. On weekends, he began writing “The Romantic Egotist,” an early version of This Side of Paradise. In June, 1918, he was sent to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama. At a country club dance that July, Fitzgerald met eighteen-year-old Zelda Sayre, and they fell in love two months later. Zelda came from a prominent Montgomery family, her father being a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Zelda, considered the most popular girl in Montgomery, was attracted to Fitzgerald because they wanted the same things: success, fame, and glamour.

The war ended just as Fitzgerald was to go overseas. He was disappointed because he wanted to test himself in battle and because he saw the war as a romantic adventure. Yet more disappointments were the rejection of his novel by Charles Scribner’s Sons and the disapproval of Zelda’s parents, who believed that Scott was not stable enough to take proper care of their high-strung daughter. Nevertheless, Zelda agreed to marry him if he went to New York—where she desperately wanted to live—and became a success.

Fitzgerald began working for the Barron Collier advertising agency in February, 1919, writing advertisements which appeared in trolley cars. That spring, he sold his first short story, “Babes in the Woods,” to The Smart Set, the sophisticated magazine edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Zelda, however, was too impatient for his success and broke off their engagement that June.

Life’s Work

Fitzgerald quit his job in July, 1919, and returned to St. Paul to live with his parents while revising his novel. Maxwell Perkins, the legendary Scribner’s editor, accepted This Side of Paradise that September, despite objections to what his very conservative employer considered a frivolous novel. Perkins, whose suggestions helped Fitzgerald improve the book, said he would resign if Scribner’s did not publish it.

Shortly after the novel was accepted, Fitzgerald became a client of agent Harold Ober and began publishing stories in the Saturday Evening Post, at that time the highest-paying magazine in the field. Unfortunately, he also began a lifelong pattern of drinking and wild spending. He and Zelda seemed made for each other because of their youth, beauty, ambition, and excesses. They were married April 3, 1920, a few days after This Side of Paradise was published.

Scribner’s published three thousand copies of Fitzgerald’s autobiographical novel about a college student’s coming of age, and the book was sold out in three days. By the end of 1921, it had gone through twelve printings of 49,075 copies, a huge success for a serious first novel. This Side of Paradise, considered the first realistic American college novel, was read as a handbook for collegiate conduct. By presenting the new American girl in rebellion against her mother’s values, the novel also created the prototype of the flapper. Novelist John O’Hara later claimed that a half million Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty fell in love with the book.

The Fitzgeralds quickly became major celebrities in New York because of Scott’s success and the young couple’s good looks and flamboyant personalities. (Unfortunately, few photographs capture the charismatic good looks of Zelda, with her wavy hair, almond-shaped eyes, and oval face, and blond, blue-eyed, stocky Scott, whose impact is widely attested in contemporary accounts.) Zelda went from the center of attention she had been in Montgomery to the wife of a famous novelist, and she resented the change. She remained jealous of her husband’s artistic success and attempted, in the course of their marriage, to become a ballerina, a painter, and a novelist. Save Me the Waltz (1932), her highly autobiographical novel, was written to compete with Scott’s Tender Is the Night (1934). This sense of competition increased Zelda’s drinking and contributed to her mental problems. The birth of their only child, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald, in 1921 did little to slow down the Fitzgeralds.

The couple had to lead extravagant lives to live up to their press clippings, and Fitzgerald’s work suffered for it. He borrowed from his publisher and agent and wrote short stories to finance the writing of his novels. (Of Fitzgerald’s 178 stories, 146 published during his lifetime, or about two-thirds, are of inferior quality, written primarily to pay bills.) Whenever he got ahead, he spent himself into debt again.

Fitzgerald’s early success was followed by two failures. The Beautiful and Damned (1922), while actually selling more copies than This Side of Paradise because of Fitzgerald’s reputation, was not as well received by the critics as his first novel. This examination of how greed corrupts a marriage is Fitzgerald’s bleakest, most cynical, least effective novel. Because he had long loved the theater, Fitzgerald wanted to be as good a playwright as he was a novelist. The Vegetable (1923), a political satire, opened in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in November, 1923, and closed quickly, leaving Fitzgerald’s aspirations as a dramatist unfulfilled.

In 1924, the Fitzgeralds made their second trip to Europe; Zelda had an affair with a French aviator on the Riviera and attempted suicide, events that her husband used in Tender Is the Night. In Paris, Scott was introduced to Gertrude Stein and other prominent American expatriates. He met the then-unknown Ernest Hemingway and recruited him for Scribner’s. Their friendship was a close but rocky one, for both writers were temperamental and suspicious of each other.

Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), is one of the most widely read serious American novels, but this poetic look at love, wealth, innocence, illusions, corruption, and the American Dream was, ironically, a failure when it first appeared, selling half as many copies as either of Fitzgerald’s previous novels. He blamed this failure on the lack of the strong women characters necessary to please the predominantly female reading public. The genius of this almost perfect novel, however, was recognized by many serious readers, including T. S. Eliot, who wrote Fitzgerald that “it seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

Almost a decade would pass before Fitzgerald’s next novel appeared. He spent that time writing stories, twice attempting unsuccessfully to become a Hollywood screenwriter, moving back and forth between the United States and Europe, seeing Zelda’s mental instability and his own drinking increase. Zelda entered psychiatric clinics in France and Switzerland in 1930 and was in and out of institutions for the remainder of her life.

Fitzgerald’s account of the disintegration of fragile Americans living on the French Riviera in Tender Is the Night is autobiographical, as is most of his fiction. The novel is considered a masterpiece but was yet another failure in 1934; both readers and critics were puzzled by the flashback structure. Fitzgerald hoped that the novel would be republished with the events rearranged into chronological order, and such an edition finally appeared posthumously, in 1951, but most critics regard it as inferior to the original version.

In the mid-1930’s, Fitzgerald reached his nadir. Between 1935 and 1937, he wrote nine stories that no one would publish, and he constantly begged Harold Ober for money. His drinking became so bad that he finally had to be hospitalized. Hemingway offered to have his friend killed so that Zelda and Scottie would receive insurance money.

Fitzgerald’s fortunes began improving in the month of July, 1937, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hired him as a screenwriter at a salary of one thousand dollars a week, allowing him to pay off many of his debts. That same month, he met gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and they fell in love. Fitzgerald spent his spare time educating the young Englishwoman while she tried to save him from himself, sticking by him even when he resumed drinking and mistreated her.

Fitzgerald took his film work seriously and even entertained hopes of becoming a director, but the assemblyline system of creating scripts at that time was unsuitable for someone of his talent and fragile ego. He received screen credit for only one script, Three Comrades (1938), an adaptation of an Erich Maria Remarque novel, but even then the finished product differed greatly from what Fitzgerald had conceived. He protested to producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “Oh, Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest. I thought you were going to play fair.” He was sent to Dartmouth College with young writer Budd Schulberg in February, 1939, to research a film about the school’s winter carnival, only to spend the entire trip drunk, and he was fired.

By October, 1939, Fitzgerald had decided to ignore his personal, financial, and professional problems as much as possible and began writing The Last Tycoon (1941), the story of an idealist film producer—based on himself and Irving Thalberg, the late head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—who falls in love with a young woman much like Sheilah Graham. The novel was about half finished when Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at Graham’s apartment on December 21, 1940.

Edmund Wilson assembled the unfinished novel and Fitzgerald’s outline for the remainder of the book for publication in 1941. Fitzgerald’s other posthumous book is The Crack-Up (1945), also edited by Wilson, a collection of autobiographical essays about his problems which first appeared in Esquire in the 1930’s. Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire at a sanatorium in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 10, 1948, and was buried beside her husband in Rockville, Maryland.

Summary

Like his friend Hemingway, Fitzgerald had the misfortune to live such a colorful existence that it has almost overshadowed his work. For many, the names Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald evoke images of an attractive but drunk couple jumping into the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. For all of his weaknesses as a human being, however, Fitzgerald is recognized as one of America’s best, most perceptive writers. He produced two great novels and dozens of good-to-excellent short stories, the best being “The Ice Palace,” “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “Winter Dreams,” “The Rich Boy,” “Babylon Revisited,” “Crazy Sunday,” and “The Lost Decade.”

One of the great subjects in American literature is failure, and Fitzgerald knew as much about this subject as any writer. He created his art to make up for his father’s failure, for his not making the Princeton football team, for not living up to his potential in college, for losing Ginevra King, for missing out on the war, for not continuing to be the successful author of This Side of Paradise, for not working out in Hollywood, for Zelda’s madness and his drinking, for not being the husband Zelda needed or the father Scottie should have had—for not proving himself to himself. Few Americans have understood the thin line between success and failure as well as Fitzgerald.

He is one of the major delineators of the American Dream, perhaps being more closely identified with this mythical concept than any other twentieth century artist. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby reinvents himself to fit his romantic idea of the American Dream, ending up both betraying and being betrayed by it. Throughout his fiction, Fitzgerald mourns the loss of innocence and youthful ideals while recognizing the inevitability of this loss. The great American paradox, as posed by Fitzgerald, is that holding on to illusions is both destructive and necessary. As the poet of the Jazz Age, a term he created to describe the 1920’s, Fitzgerald will forever be associated with that time. In Tender Is the Night, he shows America’s self-destructive urges in that decade and their painful consequences.

What matters most about F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, is not the tawdry details of his sad life, not any themes he examines in his art, not his place in American letters. What matters is that he could write beautifully. Nowhere in American fiction are there as many heartbreakingly lovely passages as in The Great Gatsby. The most moving tragedy of Fitzgerald’s life was that he died believing that he was a failure and would be forgotten.

Bibliography

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. The most complete biography of Fitzgerald; separates facts from myths. The culmination of thirty years of research by the leading authority on the writer. Includes an account by Fitzgerald’s daughter of their Colonial ancestors.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, and Joan P. Kerr, eds. The Romantic Egoists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. A pictorial autobiography of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald taken from their scrapbooks and photograph albums. Includes letters and selections from their writings. A fascinating document.

Callaghan, Morley. That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Some Others. New York: Coward-McCann, 1963. The Canadian novelist’s memoir perfectly captures the American expatriate life in France.

Graham, Sheilah, and Gerold Frank. Beloved Infidel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958. Graham’s account of her rise from an English orphanage to a position of influence in Hollywood, with the emphasis on her romance with Fitzgerald. First of her three books about Fitzgerald.

Hoffman, Frederick J. The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. Rev. ed. New York: Collier Books, 1962. Explores the relationship between literature, history, politics, science, and culture in general in the 1920’s. Relates all this specifically to The Great Gatsby. Perhaps the best such study of the period.

Hook, Andrew. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002. Part of the Literary Lives series. Concise rather than thorough, but with some interesting details.

Latham, Aaron. Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. New York: Viking Press, 1971. This detailed account of Fitzgerald’s screenwriting career has many facts and rumors but insufficient analysis.

Le Vot, Andre. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. Translated by William Byron. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1983. This biography by a French critic emphasizes Fitzgerald’s European experiences. Inconsistent in analyzing the fiction.

Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970. Very sympathetic look at Zelda’s life with much material not previously published. Presents Zelda as a woman with undeveloped talents and unused abilities.

Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965. The first full-length biography of Fitzgerald (originally published in 1951); achieves a balance between an account of his life and an analysis of his work. Re-creates the composition of each novel.

Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. Wonderful biography by a very talented writer who, as a child, knew and admired Fitzgerald. Emphasizes the artist’s personality and is written almost as if it were a Fitzgerald novel.

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