The writer who best captured the essence of what he dubbed the "Jazz Age," author F. Scott Fitzgerald was a man whose literary career and personal life were fueled by aspirations of success and ultimately damaged by the destructive influence of alcohol. At the age of 24, the young writer became an overnight sensation with his debut novel This Side of Paradise in 1920, allowing him to marry the girl of his dreams, wild child socialite Zelda Sayre. Together they embarked on a legendary decade in the clubs of New York and on the shores of the French Riviera. Fitzgerald published over 160 short stories - increasingly a necessity as the sales of his later novels steadily declined - and at the height of his creative powers he wrote The Great Gatsby, a book later considered by many to be the finest American novel of the 20th Century. Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in 1937, where he finished out his years as a frequently uncredited screenwriter until his death from a heart attack in 1940. His legacy, however, would only grow, as Fitzgerald's works remained continuously in print and inspired dozens of film, television and theater adaptations for decades to come.
Born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald on Sept. 24, 1896 in St. Paul, MN, he was named after famed American composer Francis Scott Key, his second cousin, three times removed on his father's side. Generally referred to as "Scott," Fitzgerald was one of two surviving children born to Mary "Mollie" McQuillan, the daughter of a wealthy Irish-Catholic grocer and Edward Fitzgerald, who had lost their first two children just prior to Scott's birth. For a time, Edward operated a small wicker furniture business. After the struggling enterprise folded, Fitzgerald's father took on work as a salesman with Proctor & Gamble, moving the young family to Buffalo, NY for the majority of the next 10 years, with a brief relocation to Syracuse, during which time Fitzgerald attended various Catholic schools. The senior Fitzgerald was dealt a humiliating blow in 1908, when he was fired by Proctor & Gamble and was forced to return to St. Paul, where the family lived in upper-middle class comfort, thanks to Mollie's sizable inheritance. Scott was soon enrolled at St. Paul Academy when his family returned to the Minnesota area and at age 13 he saw his writing - a short detective tale - appear in print for the first time in the school's newspaper. The apple of his doting mother's eye, 15-year-old Fitzgerald was later sent to the prestigious Newman School, a Catholic preparatory academy in New Jersey. It was there that a priest, impressed by the boy's readily apparent talent, encouraged Fitzgerald to pursue his literary ambitions.
Upon graduating from Newman in 1913, Fitzgerald chose to continue his education at Princeton University, an institution that would greatly influence the aspiring writer as he began the transition from adolescence to manhood. Fitzgerald, never a strong student, was frequently on academic probation, choosing instead to focus his energies on his writing. There were, however, diversions for the young man, who found many social aspects of collegiate life quite attractive. Fitzgerald forged several lasting friendships at Princeton, most notably with Edmund Wilson, a future writer and literary critic whom Fitzgerald would come to rely upon as his "intellectual conscience" in later years. He enjoyed a robust extracurricular life at college, joining the Princeton Triangle Club (a theatrical troupe), the American Whig-Cliosophic Society (the noted debate club) and the Princeton Tiger, the school's humor magazine. Nonetheless, the writing remained of paramount importance for the ambitious Fitzgerald, who began what would become his first novel in the library of Princeton's historic eating club, the University Cottage Club. A year shy of graduation, he ultimately chose to leave Princeton and in 1917, with the country embroiled in a devastating world war, Fitzgerald enlisted in the U.S. Army. With a morbid certainty that he would be killed in action, Fitzgerald hastily penned a short novel titled The Romantic Egoist and sent it off to Charles Scribner's Sons for review. A polite response informed him that while the publisher chose not accept the work at that time, they felt Fitzgerald did show promise and encouraged him to resubmit the piece once he had made extensive revisions.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Fitzgerald began his military service and was eventually stationed at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, AL in 1918. It was there that he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of a state Supreme Court judge. Zelda was a local wild child, with a flair for scandalous behavior and a determination to live the good life. For Fitzgerald, she represented everything he wanted in a woman and he vowed to make her his wife. Fate intervened when in late-1918, World War I came to an end before Lt. Fitzgerald could be sent overseas. Discharged from the Army by the beginning of the following year, he decamped to New York City after a second submission of his novel to Scribner's was rejected. Taking on a job at the advertising firm of Barron Collier and living in a one-room apartment on Claremont Avenue, he was determined to break into the magazine market as a writer. As it always had been, money was of great concern for Fitzgerald as he needed to convince the affluence-minded Zelda to marry him. Zelda, who had tentatively accepted his recent marriage proposal, soon became impatient and, unconvinced by his limited earning potential, called off the engagement. Disheartened but undeterred, Fitzgerald quit the ad job and returned to St. Paul to live with his parents, where he once more set about revising his novel with renewed purpose.
Fitzgerald's diligence began to pay off when in September 1919, he sold his first professionally published story, "Babes in the Woods," to the literary magazine, The Smart Set. On the heels of that first taste of success was the news that Scribner's had at last accepted his novel for publication. And with that, his engagement to Zelda was back on. Published in the spring of 1920, Fitzgerald's debut novel, retitled This Side of Paradise, was unmistakably autobiographical. The story's protagonist was Amory Blaine, a young aspiring writer who leaves the Midwest to attend Princeton where he struggles to find his place in the world and endeavors to win the love of a wealthy debutante. There was even a supporting character based on the kindly priest from the Newman School who had encouraged Fitzgerald's writing ambitions nearly a decade prior. Unlike his literary alter-ego, however, the real life object of the writer's affection accepted his proposal and with the news of his imminent success Zelda agreed to travel to New York and marry Fitzgerald a week after the book's publication. This Side of Paradise was an overnight sensation, selling out its initial print run in three days. Within a year it had been reprinted a dozen times, was hailed by such venerable critics as H. L. Mencken, and made 24-year-old Fitzgerald one of America's biggest literary celebrities. Immediately, he and Zelda threw themselves into an outlandish, lavish lifestyle, drinking and carousing with New York's high society, earning themselves more than a bit of infamy in the process, much to their delight.
Although the sales of This Side of Paradise did not earn Fitzgerald the fortune many might have assumed, it did enable the now famous writer to command larger fees for his work. This was a key development for Fitzgerald, who would frequently infuse his income with much needed cash via the more than 160 short stories he would write over the course of his career. An example being the humorous tale about the dangers of conformity "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (1920), which marked the first time Fitzgerald's name appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, the popular periodical that would publish the majority of the author's short fiction. In what became a painfully necessary and distracting routine, Fitzgerald was often forced to put aside work on his novels in order to earn quick cash with a sale to The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's Weekly or The Smart Set. Describing his method of crafting these lucrative tales, the author once claimed that he would first write the stories with a more authentic artistic approach then later lay in "twists that made them into saleable magazine stories." The need for income became even more acute when Zelda gave birth to Fitzgerald's one and only child, daughter Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald on Oct. 26, 1921.
After receiving suggestions from his old Princeton chum Edmund Wilson and his famously intuitive editor at Scribner's, Max Perkins, Fitzgerald dashed off his second novel The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), begun during his and Zelda's riotous summer in Westport, CT. Equal parts morality tale and social commentary, it told the story of Anthony Patch, a handsome socialite and heir to a fortune, whose superficial marriage to the once lovely Gloria eventually dissipates in a haze of alcohol, ennui and disillusionment. Although not the unqualified sensation his previous effort had been, it sold well enough to merit a second printing and further established Fitzgerald's literary reputation. His second collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), included the fantasy tale "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," inspired by a comment of Mark Twain's about the best years of life coming at the beginning and the worst at the end. Also included was the bizarre fantasy thriller "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," about a wealthy clan in Montana who goes to supervillain-like extremes to guard their immense family secret. Although not for decades to come, the former tale would eventually be adapted for film, while the latter was reincarnated in several mediums, including radio, television and even a comic book.
Fitzgerald's first taste of failure since his breakout success came when his play "The Vegetable" - which he was certain would earn him a fortune with a lengthy run on Broadway - failed to make it past the tryout stage in 1923. As his and Zelda's drunken antics and arguments increased, the debt-ridden couple traveled to France in 1924 in the hope that a change of scenery would allow for some peace and tranquility so Fitzgerald could complete his next novel. Despite the fact that his relationship with his increasingly mercurial wife grew even more tumultuous - legend had it that Zelda embarked on a brief, torrid affair with a young man while the couple spent time on the French Riviera - Fitzgerald somehow managed to finish The Great Gatsby (1925). Contrary to popular belief, initial sales of the book continued the downward trend that had begun with Beautiful and the Damned. Nonetheless, the novel's intricate structure and disciplined narrative garnered substantial praise from critics, who viewed the work as an evolutionary step up for the author. The tragic story of World War I veteran Nick Carraway and the strange friendship he develops with his next door neighbor, the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, it perfectly captured the meaningless excess of the Jazz Age with a heartbreaking lyricism. Only decades after his death would Fitzgerald's melancholy tale of longing and aspiration become regarded as one of the all-time great American novels.
Fitzgerald met Ernest Hemingway in Paris shortly after the publication of The Great Gatsby in the spring of 1925 and the pair hit it off immediately. Zelda, on the other hand, disliked Hemingway intensely, saying she found him to be a posturing phony. For his part, Hemingway told Fitzgerald she was "insane" and felt that the endlessly needy and bored Zelda encouraged him to drink to excess, which in turn made it nearly impossible for Fitzgerald to write. While their friendship would remain intact throughout Fitzgerald's lifetime, it was one filled with equal parts admiration and, gradually, envy for Fitzgerald, who could only look on as his friend's career flourished while his own reputation steadily declined. With Zelda's mental health becoming increasingly unstable, Fitzgerald was in a bad place both emotionally and financially when he penned the stories assembled for the aptly titled collection All the Sad Young Men (1926). As the Fitzgeralds divided their time between France and America, their marriage continued to crumble and Scott - in large part due to his alcoholism - struggled unsuccessfully to write his fourth book. An unsuccessful journey to Hollywood to try writing for the screen was balanced out by more short fiction sales to The Saturday Evening Post and other always reliable publications. During this time, Zelda, desperate for her own creative outlet, began studying ballet in earnest, training to the point of physical exhaustion, much to the consternation of Fitzgerald.
Not long after returning to Paris in 1930, Zelda suffered her first emotional collapse and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia at a clinic in Switzerland. Within less than a year, both Fitzgerald and Zelda lost their elderly fathers, and after spending time with her family in Alabama, Zelda experienced another breakdown. Having returned from a second unfruitful venture in Hollywood, Fitzgerald admitted his wife to the Phipps Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. As part of her treatment, Zelda was asked to write for two hours each day. After showing an excerpt of her work to an encouraging female resident, Zelda experienced a burst of creative energy during the early days of her stay at the Baltimore clinic. The result was the deeply autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), which closely mirrored the Fitzgeralds' whirlwind marriage, their time on the French Riviera and even her frenzied attempt at a ballet career. Upon reading an early draft, a furious and fiercely proprietary Fitzgerald insisted Zelda remove much of what he deemed his "material" - similar anecdotes the writer was planning on using in his own, as yet unfinished novel. Once published, the reviews, both from the press and Fitzgerald, were not kind. A thoroughly depressed Zelda never attempted another book and remained hospitalized for much of her remaining years.
Nine years after the publication of Gatsby, Fitzgerald at last completed his long-awaited fourth novel, Tender is the Night (1934). Considered his most ambitious work, it told the story of Dick Diver, a brilliant American psychoanalyst, and his wife, Nicole, a wealthy former patient. While on vacation with friends on the French Riviera, Rosemary Hoyt, a beautiful young actress, is drawn into their destructive orbit. Told in a non-linear, chronologically disjointed narrative, it threw off the majority of critics and readers. Although later regarded as Fitzgerald's most accomplished novel next to Gatsby, at the time of its publication Tender is the Night was easily the struggling author's least commercially successful book. Months after the publication of Tender is the Night, the author's fourth and final collection of short fiction during his lifetime, Taps at Reveille (1935), was released. Among the tales contain within was the story that marked Fitzgerald's farewell to the Jazz Age, "Babylon Revisited," in which an estranged father returns to New York to rekindle a relationship with his young daughter only to be confronted by the wreckage of a past littered with wasted opportunity. Two years later, the short story "Trouble" was published in The Saturday Evening Post; it would be the last Fitzgerald would see printed in the magazine that had once been his most dependable literary home.
At what was arguably the lowest point in his life and in desperate need of income, Fitzgerald entrusted his young daughter Scottie to the care of boarding schools and family friends and left alone for Hollywood in 1937. Although two previous trips west in attempts to launch a screenwriting career had come to naught, Fitzgerald was able to secure employment with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a contract writer for $1,000 a week. While the pay was not enough to return him to the lavish lifestyle he had enjoyed a decade earlier, it was substantial enough to sort out much of his financial difficulties. Almost immediately, Fitzgerald began an affair with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Years later, Graham would pen Beloved Infidel, an autobiographical account of her time with Fitzgerald. A bestseller, it would later be adapted into a film starring Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr. Although estranged from Zelda, who remained largely in and out of institutions on the East Coast, Fitzgerald still made periodic trips out to visit his wife - stays that typically ended in alcohol-fueled disaster. His time in Hollywood was not particularly productive either. While rumored to have done uncredited tinkering on such high-profile efforts as 1939's "Gone with the Wind," Fitzgerald's sole official credit from this period was the screenplay for the World War I romantic drama "Three Comrades" (1938), starring Robert Taylor.
After MGM declined to renew his contract in 1938, Fitzgerald continued to work as a freelance screenwriter for several other studios, although notorious episodes like his brief collaboration with Budd Schulberg on the collegiate drama "Winter Carnival" (1939) - both writers were fired for public drunkenness - left Fitzgerald with little to show for his efforts. As always he depended upon sales of the occasional short story to magazines like Esquire to supplement his income as he attempted to complete a fifth novel. A lifetime of alcoholism, however, had taken its toll on the writer and on Dec. 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald succumbed to a massive heart attack in the living room of the apartment he shared with Graham. The once celebrated author was a mere 44 years old. A viewing of Fitzgerald in repose was held at a Hollywood mortuary, where famous friend and literary wit Dorothy Parker, taking a line from "Gatsby," was heard to mumble, "The poor son-of-a-bitch," through her tears. And although Zelda, too fragile to leave the institution, was not able to attend the funeral service later held in Baltimore, among the mourners present were Fitzgerald's daughter Scottie and his revered Scribner's editor, Max Perkins.
At the urging of Zelda and with the assistance of longtime friend and literary advisor Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald's final novel, originally titled The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously in 1941. Retitled The Last Tycoon, the unfinished novel, reportedly inspired by the persona of movie producer Irving Thalberg, was completed using extensive notes left behind by the author. In 1948, Zelda followed her husband in death, although under even more tragic circumstances when she perished in a fire at the North Carolina mental facility she had been in and out of since the mid-1930s. Regarding himself as a failure at the time of his death, Fitzgerald achieved neither the critical nor the commercial success he had always been certain he was capable of during his lifetime. In fact, it would be another two decades before his work would gradually receive the recognition it so richly deserved. Bolstered by exposure to U.S. soldiers via Armed Services Editions distributed during and after World War II, The Great Gatsby had become required reading for nearly every high school student in the country by the 1960s and Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the Roaring Twenties was enshrined as one of the truly great American novels.
Although Fitzgerald's work had been adapted to the screen as far back as the 1920s - such as the lost silent version of "The Great Gatsby" (1926), starring a young William Powell as the hapless George Wilson - it would be years before his stories and novels began to enjoy a second life with adaptations for such popular television programs as "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57). And while both "The Great Gatsby" (1949) and "Tender is the Night (1962) had received screen treatments starring the likes of Alan Ladd and Jason Robards, respectively, it was a third attempt at filming Fitzgerald's greatest novel that drew the most attention the author's work had seen in years. Written by Hollywood wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola, "The Great Gatsby" (1974) starred Robert Redford as the enigmatic title character, Mia Farrow as the blithely destructive Daisy, and Sam Waterston as Nick, Gatsby's friend and the surrogate for the audience. While the sumptuously filmed production earned high marks for the visual feast it presented and the performances of the cast, most critics were disappointed by what was called an ultimately "lifeless" film. Nonetheless, audiences flocked to see Redford and Farrow framed in shimmering close-up, making "The Great Gatsby" one of the more successful films of the year.
Over the decades, both Fitzgerald's literary works and personal life with Zelda would perennially become fodder for film and television productions, attracting the mediums' biggest talents. His ambitious unfinished final novel was given the big screen treatment in "The Last Tycoon" (1976), starring Robert De Niro as the studio mogul protagonist, directed by the great Elia Kazan and adapted by revered playwright Harold Pinter. A laudable miniseries adaptation of "Tender is the Night" (Showtime, 1985), starred Peter Strauss as Dick Diver and Mary Steenburgen as his wife, Nicole. Thanks to advancements in special effects wizardry, director David Fincher later embellished the short tale "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2010) into a feature film highlighted by the mind-boggling reverse aging of its leading man Brad Pitt. The subject of much anticipation, yet another take on "The Great Gatsby" (2013) was released, this time starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as Nick. Directed by Australian helmer Baz Luhrmann, it was a frenetic eye-popping spectacle produced at an appropriately Gatsby-esque scale.
By Bryce P. Coleman