Fitzgerald was the only son of an unsuccessful, aristocratic father and an energetic, provincial mother. Half the time he thought of himself as the heir of his father’s tradition, which included the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, after whom he was named, and half the time as “straight 1850 potato-famine Irish.” As a result he had typically ambivalent American feelings about American life, which seemed to him at once vulgar and dazzlingly promising.
He also had an intensely romantic imagination, what he once called “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” and he charged into experience determined to realize those promises. At both St. Paul Academy (1908–10) and Newman School (1911–13) he tried too hard and made himself unpopular, but at Princeton he came close to realizing his dream of a brilliant success. He became a prominent figure in the literary life of the university and made lifelong friendships with Edmund Wilsonand John Peale Bishop. He became a leading figure in the socially important Triangle Club, a dramatic society, and was elected to one of the leading clubs of the university; he fell in love with Ginevra King, one of the beauties of her generation. Then he lost Ginevra and flunked out of Princeton.
He returned to Princeton the next fall, but he had now lost all the positions he coveted, and in November 1917 he left to join the army. In July 1918, while he was stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. They fell deeply in love, and, as soon as he could, Fitzgerald headed for New York determined to achieve instant success and to marry Zelda. What he achieved was an advertising job at $90 a month. Zelda broke their engagement, and, after an epic drunk, Fitzgerald retired to St. Paul to rewrite for the second time a novel he had begun at Princeton. In the spring of 1920 it was published, he married Zelda, and
Immature though it seems today, This Side of Paradise in 1920 was a revelation of the new morality of the young; it made Fitzgerald famous. This fame opened to him magazines of literary prestige, such asScribner’s, and high-paying popular ones, such as The Saturday Evening Post. This sudden prosperity made it possible for him and Zelda to play the roles they were so beautifully equipped for, and Ring Lardner called them the prince and princess of their generation. Though they loved these roles, they were frightened by them, too, as the ending of Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned(1922), shows. The Beautiful and Damned describes a handsome young man and his beautiful wife, who gradually degenerate into a shopworn middle age while they wait for the young man to inherit a large fortune. Ironically, they finally get it, when there is nothing of them left worth preserving.
To escape the life that they feared might bring them to this end, the Fitzgeralds (together with their daughter, Frances, called “Scottie,” born in 1921) moved in 1924 to the Riviera, where they found themselves a part of a group of American expatriates whose style was largely set by Gerald and Sara Murphy; Fitzgerald described this society in his last completed novel, Tender Is the Night, and modeled its hero on Gerald Murphy. Shortly after their arrival in France, Fitzgerald completed his most brilliant novel, The Great Gatsby (1925). All of his divided nature is in this novel, the naive Midwesterner afire with the possibilities of the “American Dream” in its hero, Jay Gatsby, and the compassionate Yale gentleman in its narrator, Nick Carraway. The Great Gatsby is the most profoundly American novel of its time; at its conclusion, Fitzgerald connects Gatsby’s dream, his “Platonic conception of himself,” with the dream of the discoverers of America. Some of Fitzgerald’s finest short stories appeared in All the Sad Young Men (1926), particularly “The Rich Boy” and “Absolution,” but it was not until eight years later that another novel appeared.
The next decade of the Fitzgeralds’ lives was disorderly and unhappy. Fitzgerald began to drink too much, and Zelda suddenly, ominously, began to practice ballet dancing night and day. In 1930 she had a mental breakdown and in 1932 another, from which she never fully recovered. Through the 1930s they fought to save their life together, and, when the battle was lost, Fitzgerald said, “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.” He did not finish his next novel,Tender Is the Night, until 1934. It is the story of a psychiatrist who marries one of his patients, who, as she slowly recovers, exhausts his vitality until he is, in Fitzgerald’s words, un homme épuisé (“a man used up”). Though technically faulty and commercially unsuccessful, this is Fitzgerald’s most moving book.
With its failure and his despair over Zelda, Fitzgerald was close to becoming an incurable alcoholic. By 1937, however, he had come back far enough to become a scriptwriter in Hollywood, and there he met and fell in love with Sheilah Graham, a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. For the rest of his life—except for occasional drunken spells when he became bitter and violent—Fitzgerald lived quietly with her. (Occasionally he went east to visit Zelda or his daughter Scottie, who entered Vassar College in 1938.) In October 1939 he began a novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. The career of its hero,Monroe Stahr, is based on that of the producer Irving Thalberg. This is Fitzgerald’s final attempt to create his dream of the promises of American life and of the kind of man who could realize them. In the intensity with which it is imagined and in the brilliance of its expression, it is the equal of anything Fitzgerald ever wrote, and it is typical of his luck that he died of a heart attack with his novel only half-finished. He was 44 years old.