September 24, 1896: Into a family that traces its ancestry to the author of "The Star Spangled Banner," Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is born in his parents' house on Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Way Up
Although Fitzgerald's father went bankrupt, Fitzgerald still played with the rich kids in town. This paradox would later inform his fiction. His awareness of his situation sharpened during his years at Princeton, where he studied from 1913 to 1917 until he accepted a commission from the U.S. Army. He never saw combat. During World War I, Fitzgerald was stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, where he began revising what became his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920). There he also met the love of his life, Zelda Sayre, the charming, mercurial daughter of a judge. Fitzgerald's early literary successes soon made him and Zelda celebrities of the Jazz Age—a term he coined. During the 1920s, Zelda served as his editor, confidante, and rival. Their appetite for excess made them notorious in an age when excess was the norm. The Fitzgeralds moved to France in 1924 with their young daughter, Frances (nicknamed Scottie), where they fell among a group of American expatriate artists whom the writer Gertrude Stein christened the Lost Generation. In 1925 publisher Charles Scribner's Sons came out with Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which has become his most enduring work.
The Way Down
Fitzgerald would not publish another novel for nine years. In 1932, Zelda suffered a breakdown from which she never fully recovered. She spent most of her remaining days in mental institutions. Fitzgerald sold stories to The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire to keep financially afloat. Implicitly acknowledging his wife's mental illness and his own alcoholism, he drew on their life abroad in the novel Tender Is the Night (1934). Fitzgerald relocated to Hollywood in 1937 to write screenplays. His sole screen credit from this period is for the film Three Comrades (1938). It joins his other script credit, Pusher-in-the-Face (1929), from an earlier California stint. Eventually Fitzgerald began sustained work on his novel The Last Tycoon (1941). Tragically, his end came before the book's did. Several chapters shy of finishing, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in the apartment of his Hollywood companion, columnist Sheilah Graham, while eating a chocolate bar and listening to Beethoven's Eroica symphony.
December 21, 1940: Fitzgerald dies of a heart attack. His final address: 1403 N. Laurel Avenue, Los Angeles, California.
Group B: Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age
Most young American veterans of the First World War came home changed by two revelations. One was the horror of trench warfare; the other was their exposure to life in London and Paris, where artists and writers celebrated sheer survival with decadent verve.
Raised by Puritan-minded parents to succeed first at Ivy League universities and then in business, masses of young men and their wives-to-be returned at least mildly shell-shocked by their conflicting experiences.
Despite serving stateside during the war, F. Scott Fitzgerald nevertheless wrote of this disenchantment and its consequences in his greatest works. The nihilism of this Lost Generation is evident from This Side of Paradise's concluding page, when Fitzgerald said they had "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."
Americans had two strong and opposite reactions to this state of affairs: The older generation pushed for new laws to control social outbursts, and the new generation rejected those laws, especially the Eighteenth Amendment, which forbade the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Many Americans turned to bootleggers, who illegally either served alcohol smuggled from abroad or distilled their own. In The Great Gatsby, the title character's party guests often attribute his extraordinary wealth to bootlegging and other illicit activities.
Introducing the seventieth anniversary edition of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli wrote that the Great War "triggered disillusionment, moral reevaluation, social experimentation, and hedonism.... Although Fitzgerald joined the parties and chronicled them, he wrote in judgment."
Not only was he the most famous writer of the 1920s, Fitzgerald also coined the term Jazz Age, which denoted an era of ragtime, jazz, stylish automobiles, and uninhibited young women with bobbed hair and short skirts.
Often called the Roaring Twenties, the postwar decade sometimes appears as one long flamboyant party, where the urban rich danced the Charleston and the foxtrot until 2 a.m. In fact, one might just as convincingly describe it as a period of individual possibility and lofty aspirations to serve the greater good. In his 1931 essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," Fitzgerald wrote, "It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."
"Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air." — from The Great Gatsby
Group C: Fitzgerald and his Other Works
Zelda Sayre refused to marry Fitzgerald unless he could provide for her. Following his honorable discharge from the Army in 1919, he moved to New York alone to revise his manuscript of This Side of Paradise. Twice rejected by the publisher Charles Scribner's Sons, the novel amounted to a thinly veiled autobiography of Fitzgerald's Princeton years. When Scribner finally published This Side of Paradise in 1920, Fitzgerald won not only literary fame and temporary financial security, but also the hand of his beloved Zelda.
This initial success established a pattern: After every novel, Scribner published a collection of new Fitzgerald short stories. During his lifetime, Fitzgerald was best known as the author of more than 150 stories, originally published in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, McCall's, Redbook, and Esquire. The collections—Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926), and Taps at Reveille (1935)—include such frequently anthologized pieces as "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "Babylon Revisited," and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."
In his lifetime, Fitzgerald earned more money from his stories than from all his novels combined. His first Post story in 1920 sold for $400; by 1928, some were bringing in $3,500 apiece.
These stories provided a way for Fitzgerald to test themes and situations that he would later develop in his novels. For example, literary critics identify four stories from All the Sad Young Men—"Absolution," "Winter Dreams," "The Sensible Thing," and "The Rich Boy"—as the "Gatsby-cluster," since he stripped and reused passages from them for his 1925 masterpiece.
High living in Europe and low sales for Gatsby silenced Fitzgerald as a novelist for nine years, until he published Tender Is the Night in 1934. The novel records the marriage of psychologist Dick Diver and his patient Nicole Warren. As with the emotionally ravaged Anthony and Gloria Patch from his 1922 novel The Beautiful and The Damned, readers often interpret Dick and Nicole as alter egos for their author and his wife.
Fitzgerald's final works deal comically and tragically with Hollywood. His college friend and literary editor, Edmund Wilson, edited his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon for publication in 1941. Its hero, Monroe Stahr, is partly based on Irving Thalberg, MGM's "boy wonder" producer. Fitzgerald's seventeen Pat Hobby stories, written for Esquire, chronicle their hapless hero's misadventures as a screenwriter. Scribner published a collection of them posthumously in 1962.
Other posthumous collections include The Crack- Up (1945), The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1951), and The Basil and Josephine Stories (1973). These and the other books mentioned here demonstrate how much more there is to Fitzgerald than just one book, however great.
"Books are like brothers. I am an only child. Gatsby my imaginary eldest brother." — from The Crack-Up