The Curious Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald circa 1920, from the Minnesota Historical Society

Youth

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born 24 September 1896 to a salesman father and an Irish-Catholic mother who was the heir to a successful Minnesota grocery store. The F. Scott of F. Scott Fitzgerald stands for Francis Scott; he was named for his distant cousin and the writer of the poem that became the lyrics to American national anthem.  Until 1908 the family moved throughout upstate New York, but once his father lost his job the Fitzgeralds moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Scott, as family and friends knew him, attended St. Paul Academy. When he was 13 he had his first story published– a detective story printed in the school newspaper. After his expulsion for lack of academic effort, he boarded at Newman School, a Catholic school in New Jersey. After graduation in 1913, he attended Princeton University, where he wrote articles for the college humour magazine, stories for the literary magazine, and scripts for the musicals of the Triangle Club. However, again he neglected his studies; in 1917 he was placed on academic probation, and he dropped out of Princeton to join the army.

Shortly before reporting for duty Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, The Romantic Egoist, and although the publisher rejected it, Fitzgerald was encouraged to submit later works.

Photo of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald taken about a month before the birth of their daughter

Zelda

While posted to Camp Sheridan in Alabama, then Second Lieutenant Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supereme Court judge and society darling. In 1918 the Great War ended, so Scott never was deployed to Europe. Zelda would not marry Scott until he could support her financially, and although he moved to New York to work in advertising and write short stories, she broke off the engagement.

Fitzgerald moved home and revised The Romantic Egoist, which became This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, and became an immediate hit. Upon the publisher accepting the manuscript Zelda and Scott resumed their engagement, and the couple were married in New York a week after publication. Their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, was born a year later.

Writing & Celebrity

With literary success came wealth, and with wealth came the Fitzgeralds’ new penchant for high living. Scott became known as a playboy and drank heavily, supporting himself largely through short stories published in popular magazines and papers like The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. In 1922 Fitzgerald published his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned. It was this novel’s satire of the Jazz Age that secured his position as a member of the Lost Generation. However, Zelda and Scott lived beyond their means, embracing the decadent lifestyle of the New York celebrity, and Fitzgerald had to take out frequent loans from his literary agent and editor to avoid financial troubles.

Like so many American writers after World War I, Fitzgerald moved to France, where he befriended fellow writer Ernest Hemingway. In France he wrote the now classic (then underrated) novel The Great Gatsby.

Decline & Death

In the 1920s Fitzgerald fell into severe alcoholism and suffered from writer’s block, and Zelda’s mental health deteriorated (in 1930 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia). The couple moved between Delaware and France, and Zelda was hospitalised in Switzerland and Baltimore. In 1932 Zelda published her novel Save me the Waltz, and Scott was furious that she drew heavily on autobiography, especially their relationship. In 1934 Fitzgerald did the same when he published his novel Tender is the Night, the story of an American psychiatrist married to a schizophrenic. The novel was a commercial disaster.

Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, depression, and financial problems worsened, and after Zelda was placed in a North Carolina hospital, in 1937 Scott left his wife behind and moved to Hollywood to try his hand as a screenwriter. In 1939 he began work on his final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, but in 1940 he died of a heart attack without completing the work. He was forty-four, and considered himself a failure at the time of his death. It is only posthumously that he has been acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. The Great Gatsby is a perpetual set text, and Fitzgerald’s shrewd depiction of his degrading society is lauded.

The grave of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald engraved with a quote from Scott’s novel The great Gatsby

All images are sourced from wikicommons.

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About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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