Perhaps best known for his novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ (published in 1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled an incredible period of American history. Fitzgerald lived both within and without the world he depicted, enjoying a lifestyle that would ultimately be his downfall.
Born in 1896, Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after the writer of The Star Spangled Banner, a distant relation. Fitzgerald’s parents were Southern middle class and the family moved often, finally settling in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1908. Fitzgerald’s first published work was in his school newspaper at the age of 12, when he published a detective story.
It took almost all of his academic career for Fitzgerald to work out that mainstream life wasn’t for him. By this time, he had been to and dropped out from Princeton University and was on his way to becoming a writer. The war that raged in Europe provided a good excuse not to finish university and test other waters, so just before he was due to graduate, in 1917, he enlisted.
Fitzgerald had enlisted just in time to catch World War I but never saw action. He was demobilised in 1919 and began to work for an advertising agency in New York. It was at this time his first story, ‘Babes in the Wood’, was published in a periodical. In a fashion that would be typical of the rest of his career, Fitzgerald took the $30 fee and invested it into his social life, buying a flannel suit.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Fitzgerald’s life was his relationship with his wife and muse, Zelda Sayre. Fitzgerald met Sayre in 1918, when both were aspiring writers. They married in 1920 and had a child in 1921, but the partnership was wrought with difficulty right from the outset. The couple lived well beyond their means and were continually in debt. At the same time, they pursued a hectic lifestyle, celebrating Fitzgerald’s successes with wild parties and drowning setbacks in alcohol.
The lifestyle suited neither of them. The pair flitted between America and Europe throughout the mid to late 20s, always holding out the hope that Fitzgerald’s next book would bring in the money. In 1925, ‘The Great Gatsby’ was a critical success but financially disappointing. Fitzgerald, already struggling with alcoholism, lost himself in a bottle.
At this time the writer was caught in a seeming vicious cycle – he put work on his novels to one side in order to write profitable short stories to support a party lifestyle, which in turn he needed to relieve his depression. At the same time, the couple’s tumultuous relationship began to take its toll. Zelda, plagued by schizophrenia, had a major breakdown in 1930 and was hospitalised in 1932.
The couple parted around 1937, but Zelda continued to be an inspiration for Fitzgerald throughout his life, even to the extent that the writer tried to prevent Zelda from using their relationship as the basis for her own work. Possibly the most thorough account of their relationship appears in ‘Tender is the Night.’
It is often thought that Zelda Sayre was Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the alluring character of Daisy in ‘The Great Gatsby’, and perhaps to some extent she was. Most historians, however, can’t ignore the parallels between the story and Fitzgerald’s failed romance with socialite Ginevra King, with whom he fell in love at the age of 18. King, who was 16 at the time, considered his suit but ultimately denied him because he was unable to financially support her. Their history is hauntingly familiar to anyone who has read Gatsby, the story of a man obsessed with winning back a youthful love lost to money.
Fitzgerald died in 1940, of a heart attack. Zelda died eight years later in a fire at the mental hospital where she was resident. Although the two were separated, Fitzgerald having died while living with his long-time partner Sheilah Graham, both Zelda and Fitzgerald are buried in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland.