Fitzgerald, F. Scott (2024)

The quick rise to fame in the 1920s and the sad, slow fall into drunkenness have often overshadowed F. Scott Fitzgerald's remarkable literary achievements. By age thirty he had written three novels, three volumes of short stories, and a play to become the leading writer of his generation. Two of these works—This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925)—remain iconic American novels, and the latter is considered by many to be the best novel of the twentieth century. Such sudden success would have been difficult for any writer to sustain. In Fitzgerald's case, however, it was the money his success brought him, not the pressure of his reputation, that proved his undoing: with it he could have everything he ever wanted, and he did, in abundance.

With his earnings in decline in the 1930s, Fitzgerald's renown sank to such a level that many assumed he had died long before he actually did—at the age of forty-four, in 1940. During this time, however, his literary writing—which he always distinguished from the stories and film scripts he wrote to maintain his lifestyle—deepened and matured. After nearly a decade's work, Tender Is the Night (1934) emerged as an exquisite yet painful study of a man who loses his confidence and with it all that he cherished. The Last Tycoon (1941), which Fitzgerald died writing, was a trenchant tale about Hollywood and far from the Jazz Age revelry for which he was once known. In this sense, Fitzgerald's career ran in reverse: at the end he was working in obscurity on a novel, while writing scripts that were never made into films in order to support himself. The praise he had received in his twenties from great writers such as Sinclair Lewis was gone. And the glamorous parties where he had been feted became sodden, solo binges. However, that Fitzgerald rose to such a level that one decade worshiped him and the next reviled and then forgot him was in itself testament to his powers of creation.

Midwestern Boyhood

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born on 24 September 1896 to Edward and Mary (Mollie) McQuillan Fitzgerald. His family lived in the affluent city of St. Paul, Minnesota, though his parents were far from wealthy. His father was from Maryland and distantly related to Francis Scott Key, who wrote The Star Spangled Banner. His mother was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had amassed a sizable fortune as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul. When Fitzgerald was a boy, his father held various jobs, mainly as a salesman, but never succeeded in business. His mother's inheritance supported them, but as it was spent the family's financial anxieties increased. In 1901, Fitzgerald's sister Annabel was born.

The young Fitzgerald was thin, affected, and disliked by other children. It did not help that his father moved his family to upstate New York and later within St. Paul itself. During this time, however, Fitzgerald began to write, and in 1909, at the age of fourteen, he had his first story published in his high school literary magazine in St. Paul. Two years later he enrolled at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, a short train ride from New York City. This served the dual purpose of letting him leave behind his parents, who embarrassed him, and bringing him to an eastern boarding school, which had been his dream. Arrogant and lacking athletic ability, he was again disliked by his peers. It was at Newman, though, that he met one of his early literary supporters, Father Sigourney Fay. In spite of his interest in literature and drama and Father Fay's tutoring, Fitzgerald was an indifferent student and did poorly.

Princeton and War

Fitzgerald set his sights early on Princeton. His reasons, however, had little to do with academics and everything to do with his image of it as a place for southern gentlemen. With his poor academic record, Fitzgerald had to take a special exam and plead his case to gain admission in 1913. Instead of focusing on his studies, he sought out extracurricular activities—though he was quickly cut from the football team, something he later hid. A keen observer of the boys around him, Fitzgerald plotted a path to prominence. He wrote comedic sketches and poems for the Tiger and immersed himself in creating the annual musical comedy for the Triangle Club. Through this he met two like-minded students who would be lifelong, albeit difficult, friends: John Peale Bishop, a poet, and Edmund Wilson, editor of the college's Nassau Literary Magazine.

While his literary and theatrical success elevated his standing in the class of 1917, his indifference toward his classes threatened his continuation at Princeton. Fitzgerald had to retake courses during the summer to become a sophom*ore, and his poor grades that fall prevented him from traveling with the Triangle show. He believed, however, that he was still on track to head Triangle and achieve great prominence. In the fall of his junior year, Fitzgerald became ill and had to withdraw. When he returned in September 1916, he had been dropped down a class, which would have been fine with him had a committee not determined that his grades were too low for him to continue participating in the clubs. Deprived of this, Fitzgerald left Princeton for good and returned to St. Paul.

After a lazy summer, Fitzgerald took the exam to become an army officer, and with the Great War under way, he was inducted as a second lieutenant in October 1917. Although eager to enlist, he was as unenthusiastic a soldier as he had been a student. However, he accomplished two things in the army: he wrote the first version of This Side of Paradise and met his future wife. Fitzgerald began writing The Romantic Egotist during basic training, and in March 1918 he submitted it to Charles Scribner's Sons. The manuscript was rejected, but Fitzgerald received suggestions for rewriting it from the editor Maxwell Perkins, who would become his chief supporter. In July, having been stationed in cities around the South, Fitzgerald was sent to Montgomery, Alabama, hometown of Zelda Sayre, a wealthy southern belle. They began courting, but she hesitated. Even though she was only eighteen, Zelda had a slate of financially attractive suitors and worried about Fitzgerald's career prospects.

In February 1919, Fitzgerald was discharged from the army without having been sent to Europe, which he had wanted. He moved to New York to write. Unable to sell his stories, however, he took a job at an advertising firm. He continued to visit Zelda, but in June, with his earnings showing no sign of improving, she broke off their engagement. The next month, bereft and barely sober, he quit his job and moved home to St. Paul.

In his room in his parents' house, he wrote This Side of Paradise. His hope was to use the published book to win back Zelda. In September, Perkins accepted it, and two months later Fitzgerald went to Montgomery to see Zelda and restart their engagement. With the novel set to be published, his financial situation improved: the same magazines that had rejected his stories now wanted to publish them. “When I returned six months later the offices of editors and publishers were open to me, impresarios begged plays, the movies panted for screen material,” he wrote fourteen years later. “To my bewilderment, I was adopted…as the arch type of what New York wanted.” Fitzgerald was twenty-three.

This Side of Paradise

An immediate and overwhelming success when it was published on 26 March 1920, This Side of Paradise captured the mood of postwar America through one man's coming of age. The novel centers on Amory Blaine, a handsome midwesterner, as he makes his way from college, where nothing seemed impossible, to New York, where he arrives with few practical skills and a vague desire to be a writer.

The first part of the novel—The Romantic Egotist—closely tracks Fitzgerald's own life, though he took considerable liberties to make Amory's upbringing more glamorous. Whereas Fitzgerald's father lost his job at fifty-five and spent the rest of his life in self-doubt, Amory's father, Stephen, inherits a fortune at thirty that provides security, if not success, in his other endeavors. Beatrice, Amory's beautiful and charming mother, is entirely more complex than Fitzgerald's own eccentric and outspoken mother. The adult guidance Amory receives, however, comes not from his parents but from Monsignor Darcy, who was based on Father Fay.

Amory's concerns are not academic but athletic and extracurricular. He tells Darcy that he chose Princeton because it was “lazy and good-looking and aristocratic.” In his first day on campus, Amory grasps the social hierarchy and is determined to succeed within that system. His greatest triumphs are the clubs he joins; his greatest defeat is being forced to stand down from them after failing a required course. Neither an academic nor an intellectual concerned with the wider world, Amory writes poems and stories, but mainly he focuses on girls, in particular Isabelle Borgés, a well-known debutante. He writes her long, sentimental letters that capture the overexuberance and hope of first love. More than these letters, Fitzgerald's description of kissing and “petting parties” exhilarated his contemporaries and shocked their parents. That their daughters were kissing men who were not likely to be their husbands and doing so at will was a shock to parents who came of age in a more restrained era.

Fitzgerald's account of Amory's life before the “Interlude,” when he joins the army and is sent to Europe, can be tedious at times because it is so self-centered. No other characters—not even his closest friend, Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, based on Bishop—are developed beyond their interactions with Amory. However, after the war, Amory's story broadens and mirrors the struggle of any educated young man trying to establish himself. In The Education of a Personage, set in New York, Fitzgerald tackles the keys to maturity—romance, intellectual development, and a willingness to sacrifice for others—that enable Amory to become a “personage.”

Amory's arrival in the city is literally dramatic. His first relationship, with Rosalind Connage, a socialite whose family wealth is in jeopardy, is written as a play. The device is perfect in capturing Amory's new attitude toward romance: love is no longer a rhapsodic poem or letter about himself but a parlor drama. In this play within a novel, Amory utters one of his most defining lines: “I'm a romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won't.” When Rosalind ends their relationship so she can marry a wealthier suitor, Amory is devastated, revealing himself as a sentimentalist still.

This devastation propels Amory into his first drunken binge, but it also pushes him to look beyond himself. His swearing off using epigrams seems a trivial gesture, but for a man who has used pithy jabs to keep the world at bay it is a sign of maturity. This is apparent when he meets Eleanor, a well-educated Maryland girl whose expansive mind is a match for his. “He did not at all feel like a character in a play, the appropriate feeling in an unconventional situation—instead he had a sense of coming home.” Amory does not lower their conversation to banter, and when he returns to New York and their relationship ends he does not swoon.

The final step toward maturity comes after Amory takes the blame for a friend who is caught with an unmarried woman. As he is pondering his action, he learns Monsignor Darcy has died. With his parents and their wealth gone, Amory is left alone. Walking from New York to Princeton, fifty-five miles away, in the throes of depression and self-doubt, he finally arrives at the university, and staring at the towers that once inspired him, he declares: “I know myself but that is all.” It was Fitzgerald's clarion call to the Jazz Age.

Commercially, This Side of Paradise was a huge success, selling nearly 50,000 copies in its first year, but critically its reception was mixed. H. L. Mencken, the editor of The Smart Set, a leading literary magazine, praised the novel's originality. However, Heywood Broun, acknowledging other critics' praise, wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: “We think he will go no great distance until he has grown much simpler in expression.” And Edmund Wilson, then a budding literary critic, quipped that “it is really not about anything” and complained, as others had, that Fitzgerald's style was derivative, owing much to the Scottish writer Compton Mackenzie. Fitzgerald, however, took the criticism in stride; his life was going too well not to. On 3 April 1920, with the first edition already sold out, he and Zelda were married at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. And even though alcohol had been made illegal in January, they went to the Biltmore Hotel and drank with gusto. He was rich and famous.

Early Stories

With sales of This Side of Paradise strong, Scribners published a collection of Fitzgerald's short stories six months later. Flappers and Philosophers (1920) gathered together eight of the fifteen stories he had written to date. They were far from the best he would write. He was still very much under the influence of the previous generation of writers—O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James—and this showed in the stories.

The Ice Palace is the best of them, filled with raw emotion. Harry Bellamy, an ambitious midwesterner, is engaged to Sally Carol Happer, a striking southern belle, whom he has convinced to move north. Initially, tired of her small hometown, Sally Carol is excited by the change, but soon feelings of isolation overwhelm her. When they visit the “ice palace” at the winter carnival, Sally Carol gets lost, and Harry cannot find her for hours. The writing here is frightening and pitch-perfect: “With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out. She might be lost in here for days, freeze to death.” More than being a simple contrast of place—the languid South versus the industrious Middle West—the story has at its core the very real, almost tribal fear of being cut off from what is familiar and how this particular isolation can turn quickly to despair. Sally Carol cannot stay in the north—something Fitzgerald feared could happen with Zelda.

The rest of the stories take as their subject the possibilities facing his generation after the Great War. Bernice Bobs Her Hair looks at how a girl cuts her hair short—a radical move then—to try to fit in. Dalyrimple Goes Wrong charts the disillusionment of a war hero who finds his career prospects limited at home. Head and Shoulders, which Fitzgerald told Perkins on 10 March 1920 that “everyone at Princeton is reading,” owes its structure completely to an O. Henry–like reversal of fortune: a chorus girl becomes a well-regarded novelist while an intellectual prodigy works as a circus performer to bring in money. Benediction, which carried the imprimatur of having been published in The Smart Set, is a morality tale about siblings: a priest who has quit drinking and his sister, who has traveled abroad—a scenario that echoes Henry James.

To be fair, Fitzgerald admitted to Mencken that only four stories were “worth reading” and that three were “trash.” However, the collection sold an impressive 13,000 copies. More important, it helped establish Fitzgerald in the popular magazines—namely the Saturday Evening Post—that would contribute the bulk of his income. Over the next twenty years, as Arthur Mizener noted in an introduction to Flappers and Philosophers, there was “scarcely a three-month period” not represented by a short story. In total, Fitzgerald would publish more than 160 stories.

The Beautiful and Damned

With the success of This Side of Paradise and the requests from high-paying magazines, Fitzgerald had a level of financial freedom he had scarcely imagined. This funded his antics with Zelda—whether riding atop taxis or splashing around in the fountain at the Plaza Hotel. More than being fodder for the gossip pages, though, their lifestyle was idolized and deemed representative of new freedoms. As the critic Malcolm Cowley wrote in 1951, This Side of Paradise “spoke in the voice of a new generation. His contemporaries recognized the voice as their own.”

The Fitzgeralds' popularity and drinking—despite alcohol being illegal—seemed to rise together. That summer they rented a house in Westport, Connecticut, where they hired a butler and threw parties that lasted days. In the fall, with Flappers and Philosophers coming out, they took an apartment in New York. They stayed there until the following spring, when they left on their first trip abroad. Europe did not live up to Fitzgerald's expectations—no one knew them, for one thing—and he wrote in letters to friends that he had “a rotten time.” In August 1921 the young couple returned to the United States and moved to St. Paul. Zelda was pregnant, and on 26 October 1921 their daughter, Scottie, was born. Fitzgerald was finishing The Beautiful and Damned, so they remained in Minnesota for the next year.

Called The Flight of the Rocket when it was a work in progress, The Beautiful and Damned tells the story of Anthony Patch, a young man with no direction but the prospect of inheriting a fortune from his grandfather. Harvard-educated and well-traveled in Europe, Anthony spends his nights drinking and chasing women. He is joined by two like-minded friends: Dick Caramel, an aspiring novelist, and Maury Noble, scion of an established Philadelphia family. When Dick introduces Anthony to Gloria Gilbert, his beautiful cousin, she gives his life a purpose: marrying her. After this happens, they settle down and wait for his inheritance.

Anthony's life of aristocratic idleness is going fine until his grandfather Adam Patch appears at one of their raucous parties in Connecticut. Adam is famous for campaigning against drinking, and seeing them drunk he leaves in disgust. A few months later Adam dies, and Anthony realizes he has been written out of the will. His life built on the expectation of inheriting money crumbles. The rest of the vast novel is consumed with Anthony and Gloria suing his grandfather's executor to claim the fortune, while their standard of living and energy slowly diminish. When they finally get the inheritance, years later, neither is in the condition to enjoy it.

Published on 3 March 1922, Fitzgerald's second novel was muddled but meticulously detailed. Since Anthony does little, the story is similarly sedentary, something Fitzgerald admitted to Peale in the spring of 1922: “I devoted so much more care to the detail of the book than I did to thinking out the general sceme [sic]” (The Crack-Up, p. 258). Fitzgerald had also grown arrogant and self-referential in parts of the novel. At a party Dick notes: “Just before the novel appeared I'd been trying, without success, to sell some short stories. Then after the book came out, I polished up three and had them accepted by one of the magazines that had rejected them before.” Later Dick adds: “Everywhere I go some silly girl asks me if I've read This Side of Paradise” (The Beautiful and Damned, p. 421). Such hubris might have been curtailed had Fitzgerald not rushed to write the novel in a little more than a year. Whereas Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, This Side of Paradise under Perkins's guidance, he sped through The Beautiful and Damned, in need of money to fund his lifestyle and repay $6,000 borrowed from Scribners. Another problem was distraction. Demand for his short stories had picked up, and he was also trying to conceive ideas for film and theater. Even though The Beautiful and Damned is the weakest of Fitzgerald's novels, it did well at the time, selling 40,000 copies and getting good reviews.

Jazz Age

Scribners followed up Fitzgerald's second novel with Tales of the Jazz Age in September 1922. The collection was an uneven mix that included stories published in Princeton's Nassau Lit. along with more recent work. However, it did contain two of his best-known stories, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and May Day. The former is a parable about the distorting influence of extreme wealth. It tells the story of a Washington family that has amassed an incalculable fortune from precious minerals and now hides it and themselves from the rest of America. However, the patriarch, Braddock Washington, wants his children to do what other children do and allows them to have visitors—the catch is their guests are killed when it is time to leave. When the family is finally discovered and its compound destroyed, the illusory nature of wealth is driven home.

May Day is a more intricate story and stands with Fitzgerald's best writing. First published in 1920, May Day is set the previous spring when thousands of soldiers are returning home from the war. Among the euphoric crowds is Gordon Sterrett, a Yale graduate who at age twenty-four feels spent. Living in New York, he has gotten himself into trouble with a woman and seeks the help of his college roommate, Philip Dean, whose family wealth has rendered him carefree. The hope that he will be given the money keeps Sterrett tagging along with Dean to a Yale ball. The mixing of the characters—from alumni and debutantes to soldiers and a socialist—around the dance is masterful and leads naturally to the stark end: Sterrett wakes up married to the woman he had been avoiding and shoots himself. Such an ending was consistent with Fitzgerald's view that if a person was not successful at a young age his life was wasted.

At the time Tales of the Jazz Age was published, Fitzgerald's focus was on playwriting. Since The Beautiful and Damned had not earned him as much money as he had hoped, Fitzgerald shifted his attention to Broadway, which he believed would “make my fortune.” He began working on The Vegetable in the fall of 1921 and had a draft by the time The Beautiful and Damned was published. Two months later, in May, he sent the play to Wilson, who said, “it is one of the best things you ever wrote.” By December he had given another draft to Perkins, who criticized the play's structure but said he thought “highly of its possibilities.” Fitzgerald, who believed his experience writing musicals and comedies as a student qualified him as a playwright, was convinced that he had the formula for a big hit: political satire, even though he knew nothing about politics.

What Fitzgerald considered satire, however, was really melodrama. He wedged one act of political farce between two acts taken up with marital and professional problems. The first and third acts, which establish and resolve Jerry Frost's unhappy relationship with his wife and thwarted desire to be a postman, were not comedic material, nor was the second act, where Jerry drinks to escape his life and dreams he is president—albeit one hobbled by his own personal problems. Instead of sending up politics, The Vegetable tries to offer solutions for a troubled marriage and an unrewarding job. Fitzgerald was convinced this would appeal broadly to people mired in similar situations and translate into ticket sales. It came as a shock, then, when the play opened for a tryout on 19 November 1923 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and closed within a week.

Financial Concerns

In October 1922, Fitzgerald, Zelda, and Scottie had returned east and rented a house in Great Neck, Long Island, eighteen miles from New York City. Here Fitzgerald threw parties that were grand and driven by alcohol. Writer friends such as John Dos Passos and Rebecca West came out to see him. He also made a new friend in Ring Lardner, a sports writer, humorist, and storyteller who was eleven years his senior. The two neighbors spent many nights drinking, and in this a lasting friendship was formed. As he often did for writer friends, Fitzgerald recommended Lardner's short stories to Perkins, and Scribners published them as a collection.

After The Vegetable failed, Fitzgerald realized he was deeply in debt. A year of throwing parties and spending time at theater rehearsals had not generated any money. His $5,000 debt, however, was entirely his fault: In 1923 he earned $36,000, “about twenty times more than the average American earned” (Meyers, 2000, p. 107). That winter he hunkered down and wrote, turning out eleven stories and earning $17,000. With the leftover money the Fitzgeralds moved in April 1924 to Paris, where he felt he could live cheaply and work on his next novel.

In Paris and then on the French Riviera, Fitzgerald focused all of his creative energy on The Great Gatsby. During that summer, however, two things happened that shaped his life going forward. Shortly after arriving, he met Gerald and Sara Murphy, an American couple with substantial family money. The Murphys invited the Fitzgeralds to visit them in Antibes, and at their parties—instead of his own—Fitzgerald continued his drunken antics, not always to the amusem*nt of his hosts or the other writers and artists down from Paris. Shortly after arriving in Antibes, Zelda met a young French aviator named Edouard Jozan. The two became close and in July they had an affair, which devastated Fitzgerald. Zelda asked for a divorce, and it seemed their marriage would end until Jozan broke off the tryst. Deep in depression, Zelda attempted suicide in September. Shortly afterward the Fitzgeralds left to spend the winter in Rome. Throughout this time, however, Fitzgerald kept Long Island in his mind and continued to write.

The Great Gatsby

Considered one of the best novels of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby is a classic tragedy. Its structure is Shakespearean, with a central event to which everything builds then recedes. The story—of Jay Gatsby, wealthy raconteur, as told by Nick Carraway, his neighbor—is seemingly straightforward. Yet in this slim book lies the story of America's new mobility, from the literal movement of automobiles and city life to the newly acquired wealth that unsettled old-money elites.

At the beginning of the summer of 1922, Nick moves to New York to work as a bond salesman. With a job in Manhattan, he rents a small house on Long Island, in the town of West Egg. Across the bay in East Egg live Nick's second cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her wealthy, polo-playing husband, Tom. Long before Nick meets Jay Gatsby, he hears about him: the name is brought up at lunch with the Buchanans by Jordan Baker, another guest, and again at a party in the city. Nick is intrigued by the gossip surrounding Gatsby's roots and is drawn to one of his glamorous parties, where they meet.

Around midsummer Gatsby walks over to Nick's house and for the first time reveals some personal history: he was raised in the Midwest, served as a major in the army, and was a student at Oxford University. Gatsby's revelations are not mere neighborly chat; he hopes to befriend Nick so he can ask him a favor: Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy to a lunch and let him come over. Five years earlier, Gatsby and Daisy were in love, but he was poor and she married Tom. Now that he is rich, he wants to see her again. After Nick arranges the lunch, the central event, there is an interlude when it appears Gatsby and Daisy will get back together. Tom, however, suspects the renewed affair and begins an inquiry into Gatsby's past.

The tragedy of Gatsby comes in the collision of the worlds of old and new money. On the way back from Manhattan, after Tom has exposed Gatsby's sordid background, Daisy sees Myrtle Wilson—Tom's mistress—running toward Tom's car and swerves into her. Daisy does it to restore order in her marriage, yet Gatsby is naively willing to risk everything to cover for her. Having been misled by Tom, George Wilson, Myrtle's husband, believes Gatsby was the one having an affair with her and driving the car. George kills Gatsby and then himself, the Buchanans resume their life, and Nick is left to wrap up Gatsby's affairs.

Beyond a story of ill-fated love, Gatsby offers a trenchant and enduring critique of American aspiration. How these characters relate to one another and their time—a fissure between America's rural past and its urban future—relies completely on Nick's often contradictory recollections. (His feelings toward Gatsby range from saying he “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” to telling him at the end: “They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.”) But Nick's memory of these people, distorted by the passage of two years, is what infuses the novel with its universality: the social interactions of a group of image-obsessed sophisticates on Long Island continues to speak loudly to the American desire to strive, acquire, and flaunt.

That an image of Gatsby exists in Nick's head long before they meet defines his viewpoint. When Nick first sees him, Gatsby is standing in the shadows of his lawn, staring across the bay. Later, Nick is amazed by the “romantic speculation” whispered about Gatsby by “those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.” And when they finally come face-to-face, Nick is amazed that Gatsby is not what he expected, “a florid and corpulent person in his middle years,” but instead “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty.” The image Gatsby projects is that of impeccable grace, from the cadre of servants he employs to his catchphrase “old sport.” Only at the most crucial moment, when he is about to see Daisy again, does he reveal his vulnerability: “Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes,” Nick recalls. Even when Tom tries to embarrass Gatsby later by revealing his money was made illegally, he is never as discomposed as he is before seeing Daisy.

The Buchanans, for their part, represent the established order. Daisy is a product of expectation. She restrains any public outburst when Tom excuses himself from lunch to take a phone call from his mistress. And after her reunion with Gatsby, she rushes to wipe the tears from her face when Nick appears. Yet it is Tom to whom she eventually returns. In Daisy, Fitzgerald created a type: the beautiful woman who chooses the security of wealth over love. Equally constrained—by family money and his own irresponsibility—Tom is brutish and dim. When he and Gatsby first meet, Gatsby's extreme polish unsettles him. He is embarrassed at being introduced as “the polo player” in a party of celebrities; he is concerned about being associated with old-money idleness in front of the young, self-made attendees. Furthermore, this scene makes him jealous because on some level he realizes it challenges his staid world, which is what Gatsby's set has already done.

When Gatsby was published on 10 April 1925 reviews were mixed and sales were weak. Early reviewers seemed “to fumble with the book, as if they did not fully understand it, [but] they praise it very highly,” Perkins wrote Fitzgerald on 25 April. Writers were encouraging. Gertrude Stein praised Gatsby, saying, “You are creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his.” Edith Wharton, revered by younger writers, said it was “in advance of your previous work.” At the end of the year, T. S. Eliot, whom Fitzgerald admired, wrote to say: “[Gatsby] has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.” Others were not as charitable. Mencken mocked Gatsby, despite having published ten of Fitzgerald's stories in The Smart Set. Writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken called the story “a glorified anecdote” and “obviously unimportant.” He did praise the stylish writing—“There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improving them than one can imagine improving a fugue.” But as Fitzgerald knew, this was not going to help him promote the book. Gatsby sold under 25,000 copies, making just enough to get Fitzgerald out of debt to Scribners. After the book failed to live up to his expectations, however, his confidence began to flag.


On 24 April 1925, en route to Paris from Marseilles, Fitzgerald wrote Perkins a letter that signaled a sad shift in his life. Fretting over sales of Gatsby, he said he would return to writing popular stories to better his financial situation until he could write his next novel. But he added:

If it [the next novel] will support me with no more intervals of trash I'll go on as a novelist. If not I'm going to quit, come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business. I can't reduce our scale of living and I can't stand this financial insecurity.…Then perhaps at 40 I can start writing again without this constant worry of interruption.

This letter, written out of desperation at age twenty-eight, proved sadly prescient. Fitzgerald was never poor until much later—and then for only a little over a year. He simply spent more money than he earned.

That same month he met Ernest Hemingway in a bar in Paris. Although Fitzgerald was famous, he was in awe of Hemingway, who had published a book of stories the previous fall but was largely unknown. Hemingway was what Fitzgerald wanted to be: a tall, rugged, war veteran. The two became friends—though Hemingway was condescending from the start—and Fitzgerald urged Perkins to publish Hemingway's books, which Scribners did at the end of 1925. With Hemingway and other writers and artists, Fitzgerald settled into expatriate life in Paris, with frequent trips to Antibes.

Fitzgerald began writing stories at a prodigious rate, hoping to accumulate money that would free him to work on his next novel without interruption. One of the results of this period was All the Sad Young Men, his finest collection. Gathering together stories from before and immediately after Gatsby, Fitzgerald showed he could look objectively at his work and discard what had been written only for money. On 1 June 1925, he wrote Perkins with an outline for a collection. He also suggested that the book's marketing should say the stories demonstrated the “more serious mood which produced The Great Gatsby and marked him as one of the half dozen masters of English prose now writing in America.” Although deeply immodest, his self-assessment was apt.

All the Sad Young Men, published on 26 February 1926, revealed a deepening of his talent. It contained some of his most profound, if not most widely known, stories. The Rich Boy, the first he wrote after Gatsby, has continued to stand out not least because it contains one of Fitzgerald's most quoted lines: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Instead of concentrating on the garishness of the rich, the story probes the desire of Anson Hunter, born with everything, to help others, which leads him into depression after his friends marry and move away. Winter Dreams is an exquisite tale of first love and the emotion that envelops it and then fades into forgetting as years pass. The Sensible Thing looks at one man losing a woman because he lacks enough money for her to marry him—with the twist that a year later he returns rich from a risky venture but now unsure if he wants to be with her. The Adjuster looks at the ramifications of a woman's decision to marry for money and what happens when her husband and child fall ill and she has to assume responsibility she never imagined. In The Baby Party, a story written in one night and among those that paid off his debt in 1924, Fitzgerald created one of his tightest tales about love, foolishness, and a father's hope for his child. More than the individual stories, however, All the Sad Young Men stands out as a bridge between Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, which taken together are his best work.

Hollywood and Misery

Fitzgerald should have been flush with money in 1926. In addition to solid sales of All the Sad Young Men, The Great Gatsby was made into a play in February, and from its success on Broadway he sold the movie rights, for a combined thirty-five thousand dollars (Mizener, 1951, p. 192). But after the summer of 1926 in Antibes, he had little money saved and, worse, his welcome at the Murphys' house was wearing thin. After Fitzgerald punched another dinner guest and began throwing wine glasses over a wall, he was barred from their home for three weeks, a childlike punishment that deeply upset him (Tomkins, 1971, p. 126). By this point he was also stalled on his new novel. The Fitzgeralds returned to America in December 1926, and the following month he and Zelda—leaving Scottie with his parents—went to Hollywood.

Fitzgerald, who was now thirty, received a lucrative offer to write a film for Constance Talmadge, a well-known actress. Although he worked hard, he and Zelda spent much time at parties, as enamored of Hollywood as they originally had been of New York. Starstruck and often obnoxious after drinking, they did not make good impressions on the producers and actors they met. This was also when Fitzgerald had his own affair, with a young actress named Lois Moran, though he did not tell Zelda. The Fitzgeralds left Hollywood in March, after it became apparent that his script was not going to be filmed.

For the next three years the Fitzgeralds lived a particularly itinerant life. In April they took a house in Delaware, which was again the site of raucous parties, though Fitzgerald now needed longer to recover and his guests were less forgiving of his antics. The Fitzgeralds stayed in Delaware for a year, then moved to Paris—where Zelda took a serious interest in becoming a ballet dancer—then back to Delaware in September 1928 and back once more to Europe in March 1929. Throughout this peripatetic time, Fitzgerald was writing to make sense of it all.

Even though Fitzgerald failed to become a screenwriter and was not progressing on his fourth novel, he was earning considerable money writing stories since magazines paid highly for his work. Around this time his stories began to shift from chronicling the present to recalling his past: worried he had squandered his talent, Fitzgerald became nostalgic. In 1928, he wrote the Basil series—nine overtly autobiographical stories based on Fitzgerald's childhood in St. Paul and at the Newman School. The best of them is The Freshest Boy, about Basil Duke Lee and his struggle for acceptance at a prep school outside New York City. In August 1929, At Your Age, about an older man who tries to recapture his lost vitality by dating a young woman, was published in the Saturday Evening Post, which paid him $4,000, his highest fee. Two months later the stock market crashed, and Fitzgerald's wealth and reputation began a steady decline.


The 1930s began badly for Fitzgerald and never improved. In April 1930, after months of erratic behavior, Zelda had her first nervous breakdown, in their Paris apartment. With his earnings still high, Fitzgerald put her in the Prangins Clinic, considered among the best mental hospitals, and moved to Nyons, Switzerland, to be near her. After she was diagnosed with borderline insanity, he was hopeful that she would recover fully, even though her doctors were not optimistic. Compounding Fitzgerald's woes, his father died in January 1931, and he traveled to Maryland for the funeral.

Writing was becoming more difficult. But in February 1931, Fitzgerald published one of his best stories, Babylon Revisited. In it, he used Charlie Wales's return to Paris a year after the stock market crash to give a sense of how even in the midst of catastrophe normal concerns continue. Having begun to rebuild his wealth and bring his drinking under control, Wales wants to regain custody of his daughter, who is being cared for by his dead wife's sister. His sobering up and buckling down mirrored what many people were trying to do in the early 1930s. It also expressed what Fitzgerald himself was going through, with Zelda in an asylum and Scottie being cared for by a governess in Paris. Ultimately Wales's bid to take his daughter to Prague fails, and he is forced to realize that everything broken in the boom cannot always be repaired in the bust.

In September 1931, Zelda was released from Prangins, and the Fitzgeralds went to Montgomery, Alabama, to see her family. The visit went badly—the family blamed him for her breakdown—and he, now thirty-five, departed in November for Hollywood. Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM producer, had offered him a writing job at $1,200 a week. This was an incredible sum during the Depression and a boon to Fitzgerald, whose story fees were declining. However, he drank too much and embarrassed himself again—at one of Thalberg's parties, no less. He left Hollywood by the end of the year.

Zelda had her second breakdown in February 1932 and was put in the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore. It was here that she wrote Save Me the Waltz, her novel about their time in the south of France. Even though Fitzgerald got it published through Scribners, he was furious that Zelda had used the material he was relying on for his novel. However, her book and worsening illness finally focused him. He rented a house outside Baltimore to be close to her, and from May 1932 to November 1933 he finally finished Tender Is the Night.

Decade of a Novel

Fitzgerald had been working on Tender Is the Night, his most intricate work, since 1925. Like Dick Diver, the novel's protagonist, Fitzgerald was well known and successful at the beginning of Tender; nine years later he was in debt and overwhelmed caring for Zelda. What began as a grand party on the Riviera ended in depression and perpetual drunkenness. From this came a sprawling, complicated, and at times bleak novel that mirrored his increasingly troubled life.

Tender, composed in three “books,” begins as a seemingly light tale about the American habitués of the French Riviera in 1925. The mood is haughty and sophisticated with a clear divide between those who set the agenda—namely Dick and Nicole Diver and their friends Abe and Mary North and Tommy Barban—and those who observe and envy them. The arrival of Rosemary Hoyt, a beautiful film star, brings the groups together in their desire to hear stories about Hollywood. Being accepted into this group, Rosemary soon precipitates a rift in the Divers' marriage, when the much-older Dick starts to acknowledge her flirting. But even this seems part of the high-living scene until Nicole suffers a breakdown in Paris.

The second book opens eight years earlier and lays out the basis for the Divers' marriage. In 1917, Dick's promise in psychiatry enables him to take an army research post in Europe and avoid the front line. At the request of a mentor, he begins corresponding with Nicole Warren, a sixteen-year-old American heiress in the Zugersee sanatorium. They later meet, and their relationship turns romantic—despite a ten-year age difference. When the story returns to the fall of 1925, Nicole is convalescing on the Riviera, where she seems “well-knit again.” However, this is the last time their life appears perfect. Dick makes a series of financial choices that leave him beholden to the Warren family—including allowing Nicole's sister to buy his half of Zugersee—while at the same time his uncertainty about his marriage to Nicole increases. After Nicole has a second breakdown Dick concocts a business trip for a break. During it his father dies and he is forced to go to America for the funeral. On the way back he lands in Rome, where he runs into Rosemary, who is making a movie. Their relationship is finally consummated, but Dick has lost the supreme confidence he possessed on the Riviera and nothing more ensues. While trying to come to terms with this, on a walk through the city, he is beaten by a group of taxi drivers, heaping physical pain upon psychological suffering.

As the third book opens, Dick has returned to Nicole, his hope of freedom dashed. His emotional decline gains momentum, while her mental health improves remarkably. A succession of events leads to his losing the clinic to his partner and Nicole to their friend Tommy Barban. The worst blow comes when, after their divorce, he is forced to leave his beloved Riviera for the obscurity of upstate New York.

The greatness of Tender, on the surface a story of failed love and a man's decline, comes from Fitzgerald's ability to convey a time—the years before the Great Depression—and render composite characters into enduring archetypes. The Divers possess the physical attributes of the Murphys, yet their marital and psychological problems were lifted straight from Fitzgerald's own. Rosemary Hoyt is the embodiment of youthful innocence, inspired by his affair with Lois Moran. Abe North, one of Dick's closest confidants, is based on Ring Lardner, yet the character's struggle as “a musician who after a brilliant and precocious start had composed nothing for seven years” alludes to Fitzgerald's All the Sad Young Men, published seven years earlier. Even Tommy Barban, based on Tommy Hitchco*ck, a Long Island polo player who was also the inspiration for Tom Buchanan in Gatsby, serves as a mirror of Fitzgerald's inadequacy: Barban proved his manhood fighting in the war, which Fitzgerald never did (Meyers, 2000, pp. 236–246). The complex lives of these characters suffuse Tender with the greatest complexity of any of his novels.

Fitzgerald had invested all of his hope in Tender's success. A month before its publication on 12 April 1934 he wrote Perkins: “I have lived so long within the circle of this book and with these characters that often it seems to me that the real world does not exist but that only these characters exist.” He was desperate for Tender to mark his return to commercial success, but it failed to sell and received a series of bad reviews. Many critics, writing in the depths of the Depression, had little time for such glamorous underachievers. However, the worst blow came from his friend Hemingway. Angered that Fitzgerald had created composites out of their mutual friends the Murphys, Hemingway wrote him on 28 May 1934: “Goddamn it you took liberties with people's pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously faked case histories.” Fitzgerald was devastated.


Fitzgerald's alcoholism was already chronic, and after Tender failed to boost his reputation, drinking gained an even greater place in his life. (Prohibition had been repealed in December 1933.) He was only thirty-eight, but his best work was behind him. His stories grew thinner and varied wildly in quality. Zelda had also had her third breakdown in February 1934, after her brother's suicide, and Fitzgerald was giving up hope that she would recover. “You and I have had wonderful times in the past,” he wrote her on 26 April 1934, “and the future is still brilliant with possibilities if you will keep up your morale.” She could not and remained institutionalized.

Fitzgerald was now living between Baltimore and Asheville, North Carolina, and drinking away most days. In March 1935, Taps at Reveille, the last book published in his lifetime, was brought out by Scribners to little notice. Taps contained first-rate stories such as Babylon Revisited, but for the most part it showed him delving further into his past with stories about his childhood and college love. He was grasping to find the talent he thought was gone but had been so abundant in his youth.

If Taps went unnoticed, a series of essays he wrote the next year for Esquire—his new outlet after being dropped by the Post—brought him notoriety, though mostly in the form of scorn for their confessional nature. The three Crack-Up essays, published in early 1936, were the frankest and saddest work of the end of his life. In the title essay he confesses his nerves are frayed and admits he has sought solitude to escape the demands—financial, marital, professional—life has placed on him. He also identifies two things he had long suppressed: not playing college football and never fighting in the war. In Pasting It Together, the second essay, he gives credit to those who influenced his writing and admits he never had much interest in the world beyond himself. In the last essay, Handle with Care, Fitzgerald asserts that his level of dissipation means he will need to conserve what remains of himself for writing and become more like the “men who didn't care whether the world tumbled into chaos tomorrow, if it spared their houses.” These essays were a lonely cry from a man who never knew rejection when he was young and could not accept it at forty.

The End

Fitzgerald's body was weakened by alcohol and his mind was full of self-doubt. To get himself out of his worst-ever debt, after a near psychological collapse in 1936, he moved to Hollywood in July 1937, after MGM offered him another contract. There he put his remaining energy into dozens of film scripts (for which he received only one credit, on Three Comrades, but remained one of the highest-paid screenwriters), some stories, and the first six chapters of a Hollywood novel. His writing during this time was raw and short. The Pat Hobby stories, all only a few pages long, track a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who lives in the past, when he had money and fame. Fitzgerald's more significant work was The Last Tycoon, begun in 1939. The novel tells the story of a powerful movie producer struggling under declining health and the memory of his dead wife. Fitzgerald modeled the main character, Monroe Stahr, on Irving Thalberg. Stahr's life is recounted by Cecilia Brady, his business partner's love-struck, college-age daughter. She creates a picture of a man able to handle all aspects of his work by eschewing social life. This changes when he glimpses his dead wife's doppelgänger, a woman named Kathleen Moore. Stahr's interest in her—and later Cecilia—starts to contend with his work. At this point, Fitzgerald died. What remains is an outline and several fragments for a story that was plotted to end in the deaths of Stahr and Brady and in Kathleen's realization she should have married Stahr.

The Last Tycoon was published in October 1941, ten months after Fitzgerald's death, with an introduction by Edmund Wilson. Wilson, then considered America's preeminent literary critic, praised the unfinished novel, calling it “even in its imperfect state, Fitzgerald's most mature piece of work.” Other major critics joined him, singing the praises of both the novel and the man. The poet Stephen Vincent Benét went so far as to write: “Had Fitzgerald been permitted to finish the book, I think there is no doubt that it would have added a major character and a major novel to American fiction” (Kazin, 1966, p. 131). Yet many of these critics, including Wilson, had disparaged Fitzgerald's work in the past, and their praise now seemed like attempts to clear their consciences. Hemingway, who had remained Fitzgerald's friend despite criticizing him, was more honest. “I read all of Scott's book and I don't know whether I ought to tell you what I truly think,” he wrote Perkins in November 1941. “There are very fine parts in it, but most of it has a deadness that is unbelievable from Scott.…Scott would have never finished it with that gigantic, preposterous outline of how it was to be.” Though parts of the novel are intriguing—particularly the way Fitzgerald begins to reveal Stahr's inner life—The Last Tycoon is at best a draft, given how thoroughly Fitzgerald reworked his previous novel.


When Fitzgerald died on 21 December 1940, collapsing after a heart attack in the apartment of Sheilah Graham, his mistress and a Hollywood gossip columnist, he had lapsed into obscurity. Gatsby had gone out of print in 1939, and his later work in film never amounted to much. Zelda was permanently confined to a North Carolina mental hospital, where she died during a fire in 1948. There was every reason to believe Fitzgerald would become a footnote to the Jazz Age. But in the 1940s, with the Depression and World War II over, a reassessment of his work and the era he embodied began. Slowly critics and readers came around to Fitzgerald. Appreciation for his work grew and so too did an interest in his life, its amazing rise and painful collapse. “In the end it was his life, as lived, that became the most impressive of his fictional creations,” Cowley wrote in 1951. Countless books and many movies about his life have continued to stoke popular and scholarly interest in Fitzgerald. Beyond the myth of the man, however, is his work. The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and the stories in All the Sad Young Men as well as others such as May Day and Babylon Revisited survive him. Although he died believing he was a failure, Fitzgerald's best writing has continued to resonate as authentically, painfully American.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott (2024)


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