F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Jazz Age author F. Learn about his upbringing, "The Great Gatsby," and his untimely death in this video.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, best known for his classic American novel The Great Gatsby, was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Named for his distant cousin Francis Scott Key, author of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Fitzgerald was descended, on his father’s side, from a long line of Marylanders. His mother, Mary McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who made his fortune as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul.

Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, June 4, 1937. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1925.

Fitzgerald achieved fame almost overnight with the 1920 publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The novel, which draws heavily upon his years at Princeton, tells the story of a young man’s quest for fulfillment in love and career. The success of this novel enabled Fitzgerald to marry Zelda Sayre, whom he had met while stationed at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of the next decade and a half, while struggling to cope with the demons of his alcoholism and her emerging mental illness, the Fitzgeralds enjoyed a life of literary celebrity among the American artists and writers who had expatriated to Paris after the First World War. The American artistic community in Europe included such notable figures as Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein.

Panoramic view of St. Paul, Minn. Haines Photo Co., 1911. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1924, Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, considered his greatest work. Although it initially met with little commercial success, the novel about the American aspiration for material success has become one of the most popular, widely read, and critically acclaimed works of fiction in the nation’s literature.

Fitzgerald continued to publish novels and stories during the 1920s and 1930s. By 1936, however, both his marriage and his health were deteriorating. He spent the years 1936-1937 in the vicinity of Asheville, North Carolina, where his wife was receiving psychiatric treatment for recurrent schizophrenic episodes. For the last years of his life, Fitzgerald lived in Hollywood, earning his living as a screenwriter. Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940 at the age of forty-five, leaving his final novel, The Last Tycoon, unfinished.

Keeping Watch

Morgan Clark, first mate of the Anderson, kept watching the Fitzgerald on the radar set to calculate her distance from some other vessels near Whitefish Point. He kept losing sight of the Fitzgerald on the radar from sea return, meaning that seas were so high they interfered with the radar reflection. First mate Clark spoke to the Fitzgerald one last time, about 7:10 pm:

“Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”

“Yes, we have.”

“Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you, and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles on ahead of you.”

“Well,” answered Captain McSorley, “Am I going to clear?”

“Yes, he is going to pass to the west of you.”

“Well, fine.”

“By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problems?” asked Clark.

“We are holding our own.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” Clark signed off.

The radar signal, or “pip” of the Fitzgerald kept getting obscured by sea return. And around 7:15 pm, the pip was lost again, but this time, did not reappear. Clark called the Fitzgerald again at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.

Captain Cooper contacted the other ships in the area by radio asking if anyone had seen or heard from the Fitzgerald. The weather had cleared dramatically. His written report states:

“At this time I became very concerned about the Fitzgerald – couldn’t see his lights when we should have. I then called the William Clay Ford to ask him if my phone was putting out a good signal and also if perhaps the Fitzgerald had rounded the point and was in shelter, after a negative report I called the Soo Coast Guard because I was sure something had happened to the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard were at this time trying to locate a 16-foot boat that was overdue.”

With mounting apprehension, Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard once again, about 8:00 pm, and firmly expressed his concern for the welfare of the Fitzgerald. The Coast Guard then initiated its search for the missing ship. By that time the Anderson had reached the safety of Whitefish Bay to the relief of all aboard. But the Coast Guard called Captain Cooper back at 9:00 pm:

“Anderson, this is Group Soo. What is your present position?”

“We’re down here, about two miles off Parisienne Island right now…the wind is northwest forty to forty-five miles here in the bay.”

“Is it calming down at all, do you think?”

“In the bay it is, but I heard a couple of the salties talking up there, and they wish they hadn’t gone out.”

“Do you think there is any possibility and you could…ah…come about and go back there and do any searching?”

“Ah…God, I don’t know…ah…that…that sea out there is tremendously large. Ah…if you want me to, I can, but I’m not going to be making any time I’ll be lucky to make two or three miles an hour going back out that way.”

“Well, you’ll have to make a decision as to whether you will be hazarding your vessel or not, but you’re probably one of the only vessels right now that can get to the scene. We’re going to try to contact those saltwater vessels and see if they can’t possibly come about and possibly come back also…things look pretty bad right now it looks like she may have split apart at the seams like the Morrell did a few years back.”

“Well, that’s what I been thinking. But we were talking to him about seven and he said that everything was going fine. He said that he was going along like an old shoe no problems at all.”

“Well, again, do you think you could come about and go back and have a look in the area?”

“Well, I’ll go back and take a look, but God, I’m afraid I’m going to take a hell of a beating out there… I’ll turn around and give ‘er a whirl, but God, I don’t know. I’ll give it a try.”

“That would be good.”

“Do you realize what the conditions are out there?”

No reply from the Coast Guard. Captain Cooper tries again.

“Affirmative. From what your reports are I can appreciate the conditions. Again, though, I have to leave that decision up to you as to whether it would be hazarding your vessel or not. If you think you can safely go back up to the area, I would request that you do so. But I have to leave the decision up to you.”

“I’ll give it a try, but that’s all I can do.”

The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search, taking the lead. With the ship pounding and rolling badly, the crew of the Anderson discovered the Fitzgerald’s two lifeboats and other debris but no sign of survivors. Only one other vessel, the William Clay Ford, was able to leave the safety of Whitefish Bay to join in the search at the time. The Coast Guard launched a fixed-wing HU-16 aircraft at 10 pm and dispatched two cutters, the Naugatuck and the Woodrush. The Naugatuck arrived at 12:45 pm on November 11, and the Woodrush arrived on November 14, having journeyed all the way from Duluth, Minnesota.

The Coast Guard conducted an extensive and thorough search. On November 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush, using a sidescan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area. Another sonar survey was conducted November 22-25.

Early Life

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a well-off upper-middle-class family. His parents were Edward Fitzgerald, a former Marylander who moved north after the Civil War, and Molly Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who made a fortune in the grocery industry. Fitzgerald was named after his distant cousin, Francis Scott Key, who famously wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only a few months before his birth, two of his sisters died suddenly.

The family did not spend his early life in Minnesota, however. Edward Fitzgerald worked mostly for Proctor and Gamble, so the Fitzgeralds spent most of their time living in upstate New York and in West Virginia, following Edward’s job demands. Nevertheless, the family lived quite comfortably, thanks to a wealthy aunt and Molly’s inheritance from her own rich family. Fitzgerald was sent to Catholic schools and proved to be a bright student with a particular interest in literature.

In 1908, Edward Fitzgerald lost his job and the family returned to Minnesota. When F. Scott Fitzgerald was 15 he was sent away from home to attend a prestigious Catholic prep school, the Newman School, in New Jersey.

Race/history/evolution notes

Fitzgerald recognized the racism implicit in these possibly jocular statements and seemed to abhor it. "My reactions," he wrote "were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish." Yet he continued in the same vein as previously: "I believe at last in the white man's burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro. Even in art!" And so on (Letters 326).

[Alan Margolies. The Maturing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 75-93.] Margolies argues that while Fitzgerald was a wicked racist who engaged in ethnic stereotyping, Nordicism (along with lynching) was one form of racism he opposed. His evidence includes this quote from Fitzgerald: "No one has a greater contempt than I have for the recent hysteria about the Nordic theory". But Margolies leaves out the context:

These men were sustained by no democratic idealism, no patriotic desperation, and by no romance, except the romance of unknown adventure. But they were sustained by something else at once more material and more magical, for in the only possible sense of the word they were picked men--they were exceptionally solid specimens of a healthy stock. No one has a greater contempt than I have for the recent hysteria about the Nordic theory, but I suppose that the United Sates marines were the best body of troops that fought in the war.

[From Fitzgerald's review of Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat.]

Margolies knows this because Fitzgerald gave an inscribed copy to his father-in-law, who died in 1931.

Margolies summarizes some relevant passages from Gatsby:

When Tom Buchanan talks about "The Rise of the Coloured Empires' by this man Goddard," he is referring to Nordicism. "It's a fine book and everybody ought to read it," he says. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff," he says stupidly "it's been proved" (14). Daisy Buchanan makes fun of him. More importantly, Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway affirms the novelist's distaste when he tells us that "[t]here was something pathetic in [Tom's] concentration as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more" (14). The topic recurs later in the Plaza Hotel. "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife" says Tom, suspicious about Gatsby. "Well, if that's the idea you can count me out. . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white." Again Nick sneers at these ideas, referring to them as "impassioned gibberish" (101). [. . .]

Tom is obviously a Nordic, especially with his straw-colored hair. He has two truly American names, combining possibly the first names of Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine and the last name of President Buchanan. (Naming characters after American henoes was riot new in Fitzgerald's work.) Tom has "a gruff husky tenor" voice, "a rather hard mouth," "two shining, arrogant eyes," and a body with "enormous power" (9). Wolfshiem, the Jew, on the other hand, has tiny ratlike eyes that glance furtively around the room and seem to stand out in the darkness. He eats "with ferocious delicacy" (57), like an animal. Even his name suggests something subhuman. Yet, there are similarities between Wolfshiem and Buchanan. Tom is involved in a murder Wolfshiem is presumably a bootlegger and a counterfeiter, and, above all, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.

The portrayal of Jews in The Last Tycoon is also largely positive. Stahr, the hero, is Jewish his nemesis, Brady, is Irish. Fitzgerald, we are told, did this purposely. "It was a time when Hitler dominated the news and Scott avoided making the villain Jewish," writes Frances Kroll Ring (49). Apparendy, he was changing. To Tony Buttitta in 1935 he had said of his new friend's name: "Sounds Italian. I hated Italians once. Jews too. Most foreigners. Mostly my fault like everything else. Now I only hate myself" (5). [. . .]

But Fitzgerald's attitude toward Jews was not consistent. [. . .] Alcohol apparently also caused the bigotry to surface. Frances Kroll Ring writes:
[W]hen he was in a devilishly alcoholic state, he was quick to tell me that Sheilah [Graham] was "part" Jewish, that Jean, the nurse, was "part" Indian, as if it were some secret that would bring me over to his side against them. He knew that I was Jewish, but I was his secretary and confidente and had given him no cause for name-calling. (49)

An obsessive concern with ethnic differences has always been a part of American culture, but in some periods this concern has been more intense and explicit than in others. The 1920's, the time of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, immigration restriction legislation, and the pseudo-scientific racism of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard was one of the periods when concern about ethnicity was most evident on the surface of national life. [. . .]

The writer who is usually considered to have created the most penetrating literary accounts of the American 1920's is F. Scott Fitzgerald. If this estimate is correct, the characters of his fiction should manifest some concern about ethnic distinctions. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that in Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the 1920's, The Great Gatsby, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences does constitute a significant element in the book. This aspect of The Great Gatsby has been previously commented upon, but the tendency has primarily been to deal with the material of the book as evidence for charges that Fitzgerald possessed racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, or as evidence against such charges, rather than to explore the function in the novel of the consciousness of ethnicity. [. . .]

A refusal to indulge in Tom's paranoid-like rantings does not mean that Daisy and Nick are unconcerned about ethnic differences. An awareness of these differences is especially evident in the case of Nick through whose eyes the action unfolds. As narrator, he tends to point out the ethnic affiliation of the individuals with whom he comes in contact whenever their ethnicity is not of an Old American type as is his own. In part, this persistent consciousness of ethnic identity functions as an adjunct of Nick's keen sense of socio-economic status. From his vantage point in the upper middle class, he is aware of the substantial gulf that separates him from the lower class and the lower middle class, and is doubly aware because the members of these classes that he encounters are often of a different ethnic descent. [. . .]

Ultimately, Nick's awareness of ethnicity is based not on associations with socio-economic status, but on a heightened consciousness of physical distinctions and mannerisms, overlaid by an unstated belief in the superiority of his own type. During the few hours of the drive into New York City with Gatsby and their noonday lunch at the Metropole, Nick applies common anatomical stereotypes to a group of Southeastern Europeans riding in a funeral procession ("tragic eyes and short upper lips"), finds the countenances of the parvenu black "bucks" and their woman to be ludicrous ("I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry"), and scrutinizes the somatology and physiognomy of the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim4 to whom he has just been introduced with magnifying glass detail: "small, flat-nosed. large head . two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril" (pp. 82-83). The discernment of the nasal hair is a remarkable feat since the restaurant is so dimly lit that Nick even has trouble in locating Wolfsheim's eyes. This fine nasal hair which could hardly have been observed in situ by Nick must have been projected onto Wolfsheim from some stereotype of Jewish physiognomy in the mind of the narrator (and, perhaps, the author).5 [. . .]

Whereas the Dutch version of the American dream was available to any human who happened to come along at that moment in history, and Gatsby's version can be aspired to by anyone with the requisite imaginative potency, Nick's version is exclusive and provincial. It is basically limited to affluent Middle Western Americans who are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or willing and able to be acculturated to WASP modes. This is what Jay Gatsby has left behind "in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

Though no proponent of the views of fervent ethnic baiters such as Tom Buchanan, Nick is presenting an ethnocentric interpretation of the American dream, excluding from it a whole section of the nation, the East, as well as those with intense ethnicity of a different sort than his own, such as unreconstructed Swedes and the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim. For all his superior intellect and sensibility, Nick's point of view is not so very different from that held by the likes of a George F. Babbitt ("New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. " Babbitt exclaims, "No decent white man, nobody who loves his wife and kiddies and God's good out-o'-doors and likes to shake the hand of his neighbor in greeting, would want to live in them. New York is cursed with unnumbered foreigners").9 These biases were shared by millions of Americans in the 1920's, representing another way, in addition to those often noted, in which The Great Gatsby is a superb document of that complex decade. [. . .]

Evidence from other sources than The Great Gatsby indicates that Fitzgerald possessed at least the usual amount of ethnic prejudice for a white American of his era.

[Peter Gregg Slater. Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, (Jan., 1973), pp. 53-62]

the diminishing moral authority of uplift stories in an age of declining faith in the nation's ability to assimilate new immigrants. [. . .] A story of entrepreneurial corruption, accented by the language of nativism, competes with and ultimately foils the traditional narrative of virtuous American uplift. In this way, Gatsby stages a national anxiety about the loss of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the Twenties.

Nick informs the reader in the opening pages that, despite his herb's criminal connections, "Gatsby tumed out all right at the end" (6). In order to fulfill this expectation, the novel's famous conclusion must elide the narrative struggle— perpetrated by Gatsby's nativist rival, Tom Buchanan—over the ethnic as well as ethical nature of our hero's enterprise. On the book's final page, Tom's interrogation into Gatsby's clouded past is displaced by Nick's inspirational vision of Gatsby's inviolate dream of the New World. The narrator conceives a myth of American origins by imagining the Dutch explorers' initial contact with a virgin continent. Through this incarnation Gatsby becomes great: a forward-looking visionary who not only transcends the crisis of his contemporary moment but who is associated with ihe nation's legendary pastoral promise.

The frequently dted conclusion of The Great Gatsby illustrates nationalism in its generalized form as well as in a manifestation peculiar to the 1920s. Broadly speaking, Fitzgerald represents the Janus-faced logic of nationalism by offering, on the one side, a promising future in the prophesy "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And one fine morning—" and, on the other, an immemorial myth of American national origins envisioned by "boats . borne back ceaselessly into the past" (189).' [. . .] we might say that Nick's belief in Gatsby's gift of hope for a more perfect future is inverted in the expression of his hero's vision of a inviolate past. Gatsby's Janus-faced wonder at "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" is mirrored in the eyes of Nick's sixteenth-century Dutch explorers.

In death Gatsby is freed from his venal partnership with immigrant gangsters and remembered within a lineage of explorers of northern European stock. Fitzgerald might have retumed his reader to the "Columbus story" (9) used near the beginning of the novel to map the geographical configuration of Gatsby's "ancestral home" (162). Instead, Nick resurrects his hero's fallen reputation by transforming Gatsby's glimpse at Daisy's green light into the desire in the "Dutch sailors' eyes" for the continent that "flowered" before them as "a fresh, green breast of the new world." Against the current wave of immigration, Gatsby is "borne back ceaselessly" into a Nordic past as recollected within the climate of the Tribal Twenties, when conceptions of whiteness both narrow and become a sign not of skin color but of national identity. [. . .]

While Nick consistently dismisses Tom Buchanan's racial nativism as "impassioned gibberish" (137), his own narration re-enforces both the stereotypical degeneracy of the new immigrant (especially the Semite) and the minstrelsy of the Negro.

[Jeffrey Louis Decker. Gatsby's Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 52-71.]

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (he was named after the author of the National Anthem, a distant relative of his mother's) was a stocky, good-looking young man with blond hair and blue eyes who might have stepped from the gay pages of one of his own novels.

[Matthew Joseph Bruccoli. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald]

I will bet two-thirds of the girls at Miss Walker’s School have at least one grandparent that peddled old leather in the slums of New York, Chicago, or London, and if I thought you were accepting the standards of the cosmopolitan rich, I would much rather have you in a Southern school, where scholastic standards are not so high and the word “nice” is not debased to such a ludicrous extent. I have seen the whole racket, and if there is any more disastrous road than that from Park Avenue to the Rue de la Paix and back again, I don’t know it.

They are homeless people, ashamed of being American, unable to master the culture of another country ashamed, usually, of their husbands, wives, grandparents, and unable to bring up descendants of whom they could be proud, even if they had the nerve to bear them, ashamed of each other yet leaning on each other’s weakness, a menace to the social order in which they live—oh, why should I go on? You know how I feel about such things. If I come up and find you gone Park Avenue, you will have to explain me away as a Georgia cracker or a Chicago killer. God help Park Avenue.

Journal of American Studies (1998), 32:399-420 Cambridge University Press

“His Mind Aglow”: The Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Other Works

BERT BENDER Professor a1
a1 Department of English, Arizona State University, PO Box 870302, Tempe, Arizona 85287-0302, USA

They talked until three, from biology to organized religion, and when Amory crept shivering into bed it was with his mind aglow…

(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)

Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's early work might recall that in those years just before the Scopes trial he wrote of Victorians who “shuddered when they found what Mr. Darwin was about” or that he joined in the fashionable comic attacks on people who could not accept their “most animal existence,” describing one such character as “a hairless ape with two dozen tricks.” But few would guess the extent to which his interest in evolutionary biology shaped his work. He was particularly concerned with three interrelated biological problems: (1) the question of eugenics as a possible solution to civilization's many ills, (2) the linked principles of accident and heredity (as he understood these through the lens of Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law), and (3) the revolutionary theory of sexual selection that Darwin had presented in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). As I hope to show in the following pages, his concern with these issues underlies such well-known features in the Fitzgerald landscape as his insecurity in the “social hierarchy” (his sense of its “terrifying fluidity”), his emphasis on the element of time, his interest in “the musk of money,” his interest in Spengler and the naturalists, and his negative portraiture of male violence. The principles of eugenics, accidental heredity, and sexual selection flow together as the prevailing undercurrent in most of Fitzgerald's work before and after The Great Gatsby, producing more anxiety than love from the tangled courtships of characters he deemed both beautiful and damned.

Last decade

In the decade before his death, Fitzgerald attempted his most complex and ambitious work, Tender Is the Night (1934). The novel, set in Europe during the 1920s, presents the story of a brilliant young psychiatrist, Dick Diver, and his wife Nicole, who suffers from an emotional disorder. The victim of rape by her father when she was fifteen, Nicole steadily recovers through the care of her husband. He, on the other hand, suffers under the demands of the complex roles he must serve in the marriage as doctor, husband, and father. Broader in scope than his previous novels, Tender Is the Night drew criticism from readers who considered it confusing and unfocused. It was only after Fitzgerald's death that critics recognized the novel's depth.

In 1934, Zelda was placed permanently in a sanitarium. Fitzgerald withdrew into a deep despair, drinking heavily and destroying his health. For a time in the mid-1930s, his writing career came to a standstill. Trying to start anew at the end of the 1930s, he became a motion-picture scriptwriter and began The Last Tycoon, a novel based on his Hollywood experiences. The novel remained unfinished when he died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life was a study in destructive alcoholism

This is a red-letter week for American literature because it marks the debut of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby in 1925. The book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons and both Scott and his editor, the legendary Max Perkins, hoped the book would sell 75,000 or more copies. The reviews were mixed and six months later only 20,000 had been sold. The remaining copies were boxed and warehoused.

Fitzgerald went to his grave thinking his work was forgotten and irrelevant. Thanks to the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, we now know nothing could be further from the truth. Beginning with its re-discovery in the early 1950s, The Great Gatsby rose to become Scribner’s best-selling title. It has sold more than 25 million copies all over the world and each year sells more than 500,000.

But what does that have to do with great moments in medicine?

Bear with me as I provide a bit of context. For decades, I have taught Fitzgerald’s life and works to my students with the express purpose of using his life to demonstrate how deadly the diseases of alcoholism and addiction can be. I even once wrote about Scott’s struggles for the Journal of the American Medical Association, in 2009, to alert my medical colleagues of his sad but instructive story.

Let’s begin at the end. On December 21, 1940, Scott Fitzgerald dropped dead after eating a chocolate bar and reading the Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine. He was resting a bit before going back to writing his novel about Hollywood’s Dream Factory, an unfinished task we know as The Last Tycoon. At about 2:00 PM, he got out of his easy chair, began to struggle for breath as he clutched his pained chest, and hung onto the mantelpiece of his apartment’s fireplace for support. Soon after, he fell to the carpet with a thud. He was only 44.

A badly recovering alcoholic, Fitzgerald drank and smoked himself into a terminal spiral of cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, angina, dyspnea, and syncopal spells. He had already had a mild heart attack, in October of 1940, outside Schwab’s Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard.

The evening before he died, Scott went to the movies. Before the closing credits, however, he felt crushing chest pain and needed help in getting out of the theater and home to bed.

Two decades earlier, after the widely successful publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald was the toast of the literary world and a living legend of the Roaring Twenties, the era he called “the most expensive orgy in history.” Even now, the mention of his name instantly conjures up vivid images of flappers with bobbed hair and collegians wearing raccoon coats.

Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Sayre home in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919. The following year they would marry. Photo via Getty Images

In many ways, his end was all but predestined thanks to a strong family history for alcoholism a personality marked by excessive risk taking, reckless behavior and what he called “a two-cylinder inferiority complex” and a dizzying series of emotional traumas—most notably his wife Zelda’s descent into madness.

Fitzgerald was already drinking to excess by the time he matriculated into Princeton in 1916. His problem only grew worse with each passing year. Throughout his life, Scott made a drunken fool out of himself at parties and public venues, spewing insults, throwing punches, and hurling ashtrays—behaviors followed by blackouts and memory loss.

Predictably, his excessive drinking sapped his health and creative energy. As he told his editor, Max Perkins, in 1935:

It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows. . .

Between 1933 and 1937, Scott was hospitalized for alcoholism 8 times and thrown in jail on many more occasions. In February, March, and April 1936, Scott confessed the details about his breakdown on the high-profile pages of Esquire magazine. He titled them The Crack-Up. In an era when the admission of alcoholism was still considered a weakness of character, Scott’s public mea culpa was more than an act of candor or bravery it was tantamount to professional suicide.

In 1937, Fitzgerald somehow wrangled a job as a contract writer for the fabled Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios. Chain smoking and stuffing himself with fudge, chocolate bars, and sugary soda pop, an alcohol-starved Scott simply could not master the art of screenwriting by committee. His gorgeous prose just did not translate all that well to the staccato rhythm of the silver screen. He rebelled against the system by getting drunk.

Scott’s MGM contract was not renewed and he tried freelancing at some of the other studios. Too many times, he did what chronic alcoholics often do: he relapsed.

Struggling to abstain from liquor, Scott worried about his finances, precarious health, and the education of his daughter Scottie. More than once, friends suggested he join a sobriety support group that had been founded by a stockbroker named Bill Wilson and a physician named Bob Smith in 1935. It was called Alcoholics Anonymous. Scott’s response was both contemptuous and, ultimately, self-defeating:

I was never a joiner. AA can only help weak people because their ego is strengthened by the group. The group offers them the strength they lack on their own.

Instead, Scott chose to go it by himself, hoping that willpower alone would free him of his addiction. Despite periods of weeks to months “on the wagon,” the binges never really stopped, and each one took a greater toll on Scott’s battered brain and body. One time, he boasted of tapering his gin consumption but was still drinking 37 beers a day. In late October 1939, a few weeks after a disastrous drunken spree, Fitzgerald wrote his daughter Scottie a self-eulogy of sorts:

Anyhow I am alive again—getting by that October did something—with all its strains and necessities and humiliations and struggles. I don’t drink. I am not a great man, but sometimes, I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent, and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur. Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort.

Fourteen months later, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s body was placed on view in the William Wordsworth Room of the Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Los Angeles. The undertakers expertly colored Scott’s gray hair back to its golden brown and disguised the wrinkles that marred a profile once admired by millions. Scott’s hands, however, told a more accurate tale of too much alcohol and unhealthy living they were as withered and frail as those belonging to an old man.

One of the few mourners to pay her respects was the Algonquin Round Table wit, poet, screenwriter, and alcoholic Dorothy Parker. She alternately praised Scott as her generation’s greatest novelist and roundly criticized him as a “horse’s ass.” Softly, under her breath, the bereaved and tipsy poet whispered, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.” Those who subsequently heard about the remark assumed Parker was making one of her famously inappropriate, sharp comments. In fact, she was quoting a line that appears near the end of The Great Gatsby. It was first uttered by the character “Owl-Eyes,” as he stood over the coffin of Jay Gatsby.

Every morning during those sad, last years of his life, Scott awoke with the hope that he could tell his alcoholic demons to scram. Some days he enjoyed a modicum of success in that task there were still many more, however, when he reached for a drink, and then another, sliding closer and closer to his grave. Fitzgerald, after all, was the man who famously observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

In retrospect, a better passage for Mrs. Parker to have recited while standing over Scott’s silent body would be the last luminous lines of his Long Island literary masterpiece:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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 further. . . . And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Left: Fitzgerald struggled with addition through his entire adult life. Photo via Getty Images

F. Scott Fitzgerald – A Brief Examination of Alcoholism in a Literary Icon

The 20 th century was a shining moment for American literature. Great literary figures had grown up in the States in the previous one hundred twenty-five years of the nation’s history, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that American authors truly began to challenge European authors (especially the British) on the international literary stage. One of the most prominent novelists of his age, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what some consider the definitive American novel, yet gnawing at the edge of his talent was an addiction that would eventually overshadow his greatest achievements.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald had an uneventful birth, but his childhood was still troubled, mostly because he “grew up embarrassed by his mother and alternatively proud and ashamed of his father.” [1] This shame derived from the fact that his parents were not among the upper echelon of society. From an early age, Fitzgerald believed that he must find a way of inserting himself among the moneyed and influential classes, a preoccupation that filled much of his writing, though not without its fair share of critical consideration. While his first and largely autobiographical novel, This Side of Paradise, depicts a young college “egotist” attempting to fit in among the Ivy League, his third and most highly regarded novel, The Great Gatsby, paints a rather grim picture of the rich and their utter disregard for decency and human collateral. That is not to say that Fitzgerald rejected wealth and its excesses, only that it never quite lived up to his childhood aspirations.

Fitzgerald flat out rejected his Irish ethnic heritage, almost certainly because it set him apart from those in high society. In his attempt to recreate himself in the image of his ‘superiors,’ though, Fitzgerald never fully disassociated from his Irish roots, becoming “a mixture of aspiring, self-loathing WASP and, as he once put it, ‘straight 1850 potato-famine Irish.’” [2] As concerns his religious upbringing, Fitzgerald likewise moved away from it, writing in a letter to his friend and, later, critic, Edmund Wilson, “I am ashamed to say that my Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory.” He then waffles and claims it is “more than that” but then derisively asserts that he never goes to “church nor mumble[s] stray nothings over chrystaline [sic] beads.” [3] There can be no question that Fitzgerald had little room in his life for the structured religion of his forbearers. Of course, as most of the people he wished to call his peers would have been Protestant, it’s no surprise that he felt a need to distance himself from his Catholic heritage.

He attended Princeton for a time, but he was never an ideal student and didn’t graduate. While Fitzgerald certainly had his scholastic failings, he was a very popular and active member of his class and made a few lasting literary connections, but ultimately he dropped out to fight in the war (though, to his regret, he never made it overseas). [4]

Fitzgerald is among a long line of Irish-American literary figures, and with that heritage comes an appreciation for alcohol. It has been noted that the greatest undoing of the Irish was “not in how much the Irish consumed, but how they consumed it.” [5] Alcohol plays arguably as large a role, for instance, in Italian culture as it does among the Irish. However, the difference between the two cultures is “in the style and purpose of their drinking.” [6] For the most part, drinking in the Italian culture involves wine drank with a meal, whereas for the Irish, the alcohol of choice is usually hard liquor, such as whiskey and it is done as a “recreation,” with emphasis placed on imbibing for purposes of “socializing, celebrating and mourning.” [7]

For Fitzgerald, this cultural attitude towards drinking was obviously at play. He began drinking at a young age and it would become such a prevalent force in his life that alcohol and alcoholics appear as central characters throughout his writing. Whether it was the revelers at Gatsby’s parties or the disastrously young and married couple in The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald filled his writing to the brim with liquor. He peopled a great deal of his short stories and pretty much all of his novels with alcoholics, though he rarely seems interested in self-indictment. His characters, even when they display some of the most reprehensible characteristics of alcoholism, are by and large sympathetic people, often quite charming (as Fitzgerald, himself, was). [8] That is not to say that he didn’t craft true-to-life characters. One of his great gifts as a writer was his keen sense for humanity, but at times it seems he had a blind spot for his own greatest weakness.

A heavy dose of denial and rationalization explains how he could live so long pursuing a deadly habit without stepping back and realizing the dangers. Part of that was undoubtedly cultural.

He never truly gave up alcohol, though there were periods in which he claimed to have cut back or even gone long periods without any drink. In the Roaring Twenties, when he and his beautiful wife, Zelda, were the talk of the town, they lived up their celebrity both in the States and abroad as ravenous partiers. Despite their public personas, though, the Fitzgeralds were lousy drunks. When inebriated, Scott was prone to “theatrical” displays, almost invariably making a fool of himself in front of his companions. “In Zelda Sayre, he found a companion who liked drinking – and exhibitionism – as much as he did.” [9] Almost every friend they had as a couple could attest to an embarrassing story involving the couple’s drunkenness. Ernest Hemingway, friend and competitor, fellow literary giant and alcoholic, looked down on Fitzgerald’s seeming inability to handle his alcohol ‘like a man’ and painted a very unflattering portrait of him in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s account of the expatriate American writers living in France during the 1920s. In general, Fitzgerald does not come off well in Hemingway’s memoir.

This is not to say that Fitzgerald was unaware of his drunken escapades. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, reads like a fictional version of the early years of his marriage to Zelda (just as his final complete novel, Tender Is The Night, offers insight into the later years of their troubled marriage), with a husband and wife who drink too much and make spectacles of themselves both in play and while fighting. As is usual with Fitzgerald’s characters, though, the reader’s sympathies are with the couple, or at least with the husband, Anthony. [10]

What is most astonishing is that, unlike other authors of his time and disposition, Fitzgerald remained married to one wife. This fact has probably been largely responsible for the general myth that Scott and Zelda were literary romantic heroes, doomed to tragedy but passionately in love with each other. In reality, their marriage was often contentious, even before Zelda’s mental breakdowns, though those made the situation all that much worse. Up until her first collapse in 1930, they managed to find ways to rekindle their love and continue together, despite Scott’s fear of infidelity and Zelda’s feelings of abandonment, and even her accusations that he was a homosexual. [11] Whatever had kept them together throughout the 1920s, their marriage began quickly unraveling in the 30s, much in the same way his literary reputation seemed to crash concurrently with the stock market.

Of all their ups and downs, the one thing that can be said for their marriage is that Fitzgerald apparently never turned violent towards Zelda, which would have been entirely out of character for him. He was a less physical person in comparison to, say, Hemingway who Zelda disliked on the grounds that he was a “poseur” who artificially inflated his masculinity (plus, she suspected her husband of being sexually attracted to him). Hemingway, for his part, thought that Zelda was a bad influence on his friend’s writing productivity. [12] In fact, Zelda and Scott did fight often, and when she had her breakdown and was admitted to a sanatorium, the letters between Scott and her doctor reveals just how bad the cracks in their marriage had become. It also exposes an alcoholic who was unwilling, perhaps unable, to quit drinking and his justifications for it:

Two years ago in America I noticed that when we stopped all drinking for three weeks or so, which happened many times, I immediately had dark circles under my eyes, was listless and disinclined to work. [13]

Here is the author arguing that the alcohol helped him write, not the only time he would claim this. At the same time, he is suggesting that he frequently went long periods without drink, throwing in the “which happened many times” to imply that it was no great task to be sober. He made such claims to friends and editors, too, quite often, even going so far as to say that he planned to “quit drinking for a few years.” [14] Of course, it was never true. Ironically, his justification for drinking were the negative effects he felt when he wasn’t drinking, almost certainly symptoms of withdrawal. But he couldn’t see it that way.

Zelda had apparently threatened to not take him back if he kept drinking, but Fitzgerald refused to be bullied into sobriety, as he saw it. In fact, he puts much of the impetus for his drinking on her, writing, “the regular use of wine and apperatives [sic] was something that I dreaded but she encouraged because she found I was more cheerful then and allowed her to drink more.” [15] Here, again, is an alcoholic who apparently has been browbeaten into the overindulgence of drink against his will. The alcoholic as victim is a common theme. Displaying a fine gift for contradiction, he later admits in the same letter that his abuse of liquor is a crime he must pay for with “suffering and death perhaps but not with renunciation.” A glass of wine at the end of the day is, after all, “one of the rights of man.” [16] In this one letter, Fitzgerald seems to check off every excuse and justification in the alcoholic’s handbook before finally concluding that he will not give up drinking simply because Zelda has asked him to.

Fitzgerald’s final ten years would continue in pretty much steady decline. His fourth novel, Tender Is The Night, was not well-received upon publication in 1934 (though it has since, like Fitzgerald himself, received critical revival), and he spent much of the decade supporting himself with short stories and attempting to find success as a Hollywood screenwriter, success that would not come. The period would provide fodder for what would be his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.

While a more self-aware author would have explored his history with alcohol more directly (as Eugene O’Neill, a contemporary of Fitzgerald, did through his plays), he relegated the topic to secondary plot points. [17] However, from Fitzgerald we have a refreshingly candid but at times still self-deluding confession in his 1936 series of Esquire essays titled, “The Crack-Up.” As a means of summing up his life, it serves as a better analysis of his motivations and failings than those offered by his peers like Hemingway. In the second essay, he explains that he spent a great portion of his life “distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.” [18] For a man who famously wrote about and lived among his generation’s upper class, this is a remarkable admission of feelings of disconnection. Yet, in the first essay he claims to not have been “entangled” in alcoholism, having periods as long as six months in which he didn’t touch even a drop of beer. [19] While he did practice temperance during the writing of The Great Gatsby, this seems to be a pretty clear example of the author trying to offer up a sympathetic self-portrait for posterity. In confession he could not admit to his audience (and, it seems, to himself) that he was an alcoholic, even at the end.

In 1940, at the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of an alcohol-induced heart attack, leaving behind a legacy of wasted talent.

Posthumously, Fitzgerald has been recognized as one of the great writers of his (or any) generation in all of American literature. His failing was that of so many of his peers, which in a way makes his tragedy seem inevitable, though it was not. His literary strengths were overshadowed by his personal weaknesses most damning, an unwillingness to admit them to himself. For this reason, literature’s great gain was his greater loss, a truism of so many of the world’s finest artists.

[1] Scott Donaldson. Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald, The Rise And Fall Of A Literary Friendship (Woodstock: Overlook Pr), 1999. 15.

[2] Edward O’Donnell. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (New York: Random House Inc), 2002, 258.

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald. On Booze (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation), 2009. 80.

[6] Kevin Kenny. The American Irish, A History (New York: Longman Pub Group), 2000. 201.

[8] Donaldson, Fitzgerald, 232-235.

[13] F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Life In Letters. Ed. by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman (New York: Scribner), 1994. 196.

[15] Fitzgerald, Life In Letters, 196-197.

[17] Thomas Dardis. The Thirsty Muse (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 1989, 250.

F. Scott Fitzgerald - HISTORY

The Fitzgerald Museum is the only museum dedicated to the lives and legacies of Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald in the world. It is the last of four extant homes that survived their travels across the world, and the only home in which they both worked on their perspective novels Tender is the Night and Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda Sayre was a native of Montgomery and spent her formative years in the Cottage Hill neighborhood until her marriage to Scott in 1920. Their courtship in Montgomery would mark the beginning of the 'Jazz Age'. They would return several times, including the car drive from New York to Montgomery which was the basis of the 'Cruise of the Rolling Junk' and lived at the Felder Avenue home from 1931 until the spring of 1932. Her father's death and the break down of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage would propel Zelda from Montgomery to the Phipp's Clinic in Baltimore and Scott & Scottie would soon follow. This would be the last home that the Fitzgeralds lived in as a family.

Zelda returned to Montgomery after Scott's death in 1940 and lived on Sayre Street next door to her sister Marjorie and with her mother Minnine, just a few blocks down from her childhood home on Pleasant Avenue, until 1947. Eventually, their daughter Scottie would return to Montgomery in the early 1970s and live in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood until her death in 1986. She has three surviving children her two daughters continue to oversee the Fitzgerald Trust today.

The Felder Ave. home was originally built between 1905-1910 as a single family home. It would be subsidized into apartments when the Fitzgeralds moved out in 1932. In 1986, it was set to be demolished and our founders, the McPhillips, personally purchased the home and donated it as the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum.

Watch the video: F. Scott Fitzgerald - Author. Mini Bio. BIO (October 2022).

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