Today is the 119th birthday of the writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. It should come as no surprise that I enjoy his work, his narratives and his unapologetically messy life. Risks. Chances. Consequences. His life story is a cautionary tale of underutilized talent, gigantic love, and addiction. I have the last sentence of The Great Gatsby tattoo’d on my left forearm, it is also his epitaph. To me, it means less about escaping out pasts and more about knowing the path from them will be a struggle, but we keep moving forward. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: F. Scott Fitzgerald
BIRTH DATE: September 24, 1896
DEATH DATE: December 21, 1940
EDUCATION: Princeton University, St. Paul Academy, Newman School
PLACE OF BIRTH: St. Paul, Minnesota
PLACE OF DEATH: Hollywood, California
BEST KNOWN FOR: American short-story writer and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his turbulent personal life and his famous novel The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His namesake (and second cousin three times removed on his father’s side) was Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Fitzgerald’s mother, Mary McQuillan, was from an Irish-Catholic family that had made a small fortune in Minnesota as wholesale grocers. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, had opened a wicker furniture business in St. Paul, and, when it failed, he took a job as a salesman for Procter & Gamble that took his family back and forth between Buffalo and Syracuse in upstate New York during the first decade of Fitzgerald’s life. However, Edward Fitzgerald lost his job with Procter & Gamble in 1908, when F. Scott Fitzgerald was 12, and the family moved back to St. Paul to live off of his mother’s inheritance.
“I want to give a really BAD party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see.” – Tender is the Night
Fitzgerald was a bright, handsome and ambitious boy, the pride and joy of his parents and especially his mother. He attended the St. Paul Academy, and when he was 13, he saw his first piece of writing appear in print: a detective story published in the school newspaper. In 1911, when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the Newman School, a prestigious Catholic preparatory school in New Jersey. There, he met Father Sigourney Fay, who noticed his incipient talent with the written word and encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions.
”Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.” – This Side of Paradise
After graduating from the Newman School in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue his artistic development at Princeton University. At Princeton, he firmly dedicated himself to honing his craft as a writer, writing scripts for Princeton’s famous Triangle Club musicals as well as frequent articles for the Princeton Tiger humor magazine and stories for the Nassau Literary Magazine. However, Fitzgerald’s writing came at the expense of his coursework. He was placed on academic probation, and, in 1917, he dropped out of school to join the U.S. Army. Afraid that he might die in World War I with his literary dreams unfulfilled, in the weeks before reporting to duty, Fitzgerald hastily wrote a novel called The Romantic Egotist. Though the publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, rejected the novel, the reviewer noted its originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to submit more work in the future.
Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. It was there that he met and fell in love with a beautiful 18-year-old girl named Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. The war ended in November 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever deployed, and upon his discharge he moved to New York City hoping to launch a career in advertising lucrative enough to convince Zelda to marry him. He quit his job after only a few months, however, and returned to St. Paul to rewrite his novel.
The novel’s new incarnation, This Side of Paradise, a largely autobiographical story about love and greed, was centered on Amory Blaine, an ambitious Midwesterner who falls in love with, but is ultimately rejected by, two girls from high-class families. The novel was published in 1920 to glowing reviews and, almost overnight, turned Fitzgerald, at the age of 24, into one of the country’s most promising young writers. One week after the novel’s publication, he married Zelda Sayre in New York. They had one child, a daughter named Frances Scott Fitzgerald, born in 1921.
F. Scott Fitzgerald eagerly embraced his newly minted celebrity status and embarked on an extravagant lifestyle that earned him a reputation as a playboy and hindered his reputation as a serious literary writer. Beginning in 1920 and continuing throughout the rest of his career, Fitzgerald supported himself financially by writing great numbers of short stories for popular publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. Some of his most notable stories include “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Camel’s Back” and “The Last of the Belles.”
In 1922, Fitzgerald published his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, the story of the troubled marriage of Anthony and Gloria Patch. The Beautiful and the Damned helped to cement his status as one of the great chroniclers and satirists of the culture of wealth, extravagance and ambition that emerged during the affluent 1920s—what became known as the Jazz Age. “It was an age of miracles,” Fitzgerald wrote, “it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”
Seeking a change of scenery to spark his creativity, in 1924, Fitzgerald moved to France, and it was there, in Valescure, that Fitzgerald wrote what would be credited as his greatest novel, The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who moves into the town of West Egg on Long Island, next door to a mansion owned by the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby. The novel follows Nick and Gatsby’s strange friendship and Gatsby’s pursuit of a married woman named Daisy, ultimately leading to his exposure as a bootlegger and his death.
With its beautiful lyricism, pitch-perfect portrayal of the Jazz Age, and searching critiques of materialism, love and the American Dream, The Great Gatsby is considered Fitzgerald’s finest work. Although the book was well-received when it was published, it was not until the 1950s and ’60s, long after Fitzgerald’s death, that it achieved its stature as the definitive portrait of the “Roaring Twenties,” as well as one of the greatest American novels ever written.
After he completed The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s life began to unravel. Always a heavy drinker, he progressed steadily into alcoholism and suffered prolonged bouts of writer’s block. His wife, Zelda, also suffered from mental health issues, and the couple spent the late 1920s moving back and forth between Delaware and France. In 1930, she was briefly committed to a mental-health clinic in Switzerland, and, after the Fitzgeralds returned to the United States in 1931, she suffered another breakdown and subsequently entered the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
”I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” – The Great Gatsby
In 1934, after years of toil, Fitzgerald finally published his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, about an American psychiatrist in Paris, France, and his troubled marriage to a wealthy patient. Although Tender is the Night was a commercial failure and was initially poorly received due to its chronologically jumbled structure, it has since gained in reputation and is now considered among the great American novels.
After another two years lost to alcohol and depression, in 1937 Fitzgerald attempted to revive his career as a screenwriter and freelance storywriter in Hollywood, and he achieved modest financial, if not critical, success for his efforts. He began work on another novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, in 1939, and he had completed over half the manuscript when he died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940, at the age of 44, in Hollywood, California.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing himself a failure. None of his works received anything more than modest commercial or critical success during his lifetime. However, since his death, Fitzgerald has gained a reputation as one of the pre-eminent authors in the history of American literature due almost entirely to the enormous posthumous success of The Great Gatsby. Perhaps the quintessential American novel, as well as a definitive social history of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby went on to become required reading for virtually every American high school student, and has had a transportive effect on generation after generation of readers.
”Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby
Author of books:
This Side of Paradise (1920, novel)
Flappers and Philosophers (1920, short stories)
The Beautiful and Damned (1922, novel)
Tales of the Jazz Age (1922, short stories)
The Great Gatsby (1925, novel)
All the Sad Young Men (1926, short stories)
Tender Is the Night (1934, novel)
Taps at Reveille (1935, short stories)
The Last Tycoon (1941, novel)
The Crack-Up (1945, collection)
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