September 24th – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”

The Notebooks of F Scott Fitzgerald 

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born September 24, 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Always known simply as “Scott,” he was named after his second cousin thrice removed, Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner.

The Fitzgerald family moved to Buffalo, New York, where his father worked for Proctor & Gamble until he was fired in 1908. Then the family moved back to Minnesota. Scott attended Catholic school throughout his childhood, and after graduating from High School went on to Princeton. There he continued to write the stories just as he had since childhood.

While at home on winter break, 19-year-old Scott met a wealthy young Chicago socialite, Ginevra King. She attended a boarding school in Connecticut, and Scott courted her until she ended the relationship in early 1917. Her family considered Scott an unsuitable match because of his lower-class standing. Adter the breakup Scott left Princeton and enlisted in the US Army. Although he was reportedly suicidal and hoping to die in WWI, he still had dreams of being a published author. He hurriedly wrote a 120,000 word manuscript entitled The Romantic Egotist. It was rejected by Max Perkins at Scribner’s, although Perkins encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it.

Stationed in Montgomery Alabama and looking to get over his heartbreak from Ginevra, Scott socialized. In June 1918  he met 17-year-old Zelda Sayre, the daughter of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Anthony D. Sayre. Fitzgerald became determined to become a successful author and marry her, and rewrote the novel he started and Princeton, finishing it in September 1919.

This Side of Paradise was published March 26th, 1920. The first printing was 3,000 copies, and two more printings were made within a month. On April 3rd 1920 Scott married Zelda at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The couple quickly became icons of the 1920s and the jazz age that Fitzgerald epitomized in his work.  Their first and only child, a daughter named Frances and called ‘Scottie’ was born in 1921, and Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned was published in 1922. He was just 26 by this time.

In 1924 the Fitzgerald’s moved to the Riviera, where he completed his most famous work The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. He followed with some short stories, but for most of the next decade the Fitzgerald’s fell apart. They had marital troubles, drank too much, and Zelda had a mental breakdown, spending the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions. Fitzgerald’s next novel was not published until 1934 – Tender is the Night. It is was not commercially successful, and Fitzgerald fell even deeper into despair and alcoholism.  

1937 Portrait of Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

In 1937 he moved to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. While there he began an affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. 

In 1940, living in Hollywood, Fitzgerald became sober, but not long after, on December 21st, 1940 he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 44. His daughter Scottie asked his lover Sheila Graham not to attend his funeral. His wife Zelda wanted him to be buried at the family plot at St. Mary’s in Maryland, but the priest rejected the request because Fitzgerald was not a practicing Catholic. So Zelda paid for him to be buried down the road at Rockville Cemetery.  She was not well enough to attend, but his daughter Scottie came down from Vassar. Only 25 people, including Scottie, attended the funeral of Fitzgerald, and his editor paid for 6 pallbearers. 

Zelda died eight years later in a fire at Highland Hospital. 

As the couple’s posthumous popularity grew, the couple’s single grave was moved to St. Mary’s churchyard, the new bishop accepted them onto consecrated land, where his famous tombstone bears the last line of The Great Gatsby “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Lesson from Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was desperate to change his social standing and attain beautiful women through his writing. The theme of aspiration ran throughout his work, and although he struggled greatly with addiction that darkened his dreams, there were shining moments where he surely attained what he was striving for. 

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