Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, named after his distant cousin Francis Scott Key, was one of the great American authors of the 1920s. He is most notably remembered for The Great Gatsby, though all his novels and short stories epitomize the time and the term he coined for the era: the chaotic Jazz Age.
Fitzgerald’s stories often centered on the lives of the wealthy nouveaux rich of the time. Not coincidentally, this was a group to which he himself belonged. Besides his reflections on the world of the newly wealthy and famous youth, Fitzgerald often drew his focus to more depressing themes, such as the loss of youth, the despair of aging, alcoholism, and the ambitious failings of those in his class
If Fitzgerald’s themes appear to be less than idyllic, chances are it was because the author based most of his work on his own life. FItzgerald himself struggled with alcoholism, the many whims and psychological illnesses of his wife, and his own inability to remain out of debt. Then again, without the motivations he had, chances are his work would not remain as important and compelling as it is widely considered to be today.
Fitzgerald’s first novel This Side of Paradise (1920) was initially turned down by publishers. At the time, Fitzgerald was attending Princeton but he soon dropped out and began work as an advertiser. Like many other young, financially blessed men, Fitzgerald desired the hand of Zelda Sayre, the uncontested queen of Southern high society. Zelda showed little interest in committing to Fitzgerald and dropping her many other suitors for his meager advertiser's wage. This Side of Paradise accurately reflects Fitzgerald’s frustration; the novel follows the life of a young Princeton student navigating the social climbers and greed that surrounds him. After the book was published, and Fitzgerald became an immediate success, Zelda finally agreed to move to New York and and marry him. The Fitzgeralds became celebrities, resulting in Zelda’s unparalleled influence on the “flapper style” of the age. The newlyweds soon moved to Paris, where Fitzgerald befriended Ernest Hemingway, a man who grew to become a fierce friend, and an even fiercer competitor.
Unfortunately, the Fitzgeralds’ happiness was short-lived. Fitzgerald’s infatuation with Zelda, who like Daisy for Jay Gatsby, represented all that was untouched by the horrors of poverty and lower class, and remained unshaken - but Zelda’s monetary needs were great, and Fitzgerald had been an alcoholic since his brief time at Princeton. Together, they were jealous, resentful, and unable to manage their finances, forcing Fitzgerald to write numerous short stories for magazines in order to supplement their income. Hemingway, who considered Fitzgerald a great talent, often shamed his friend for bowing to the world of magazines in order to preserve a lifestyle for Zelda, whom Hemingway strongly disliked. At the time, Hemingway’s hatred for magazines roughly correlated to the idea of great talent “selling out” for Hollywood today. Fitzgerald’s short stories were created primarily for entertainment purposes, barely scraping the surface of the themes his novels spent hundreds of pages exploring. Of course, there were a few exceptions, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922).
Fitzgerald was shameless regarding his use of his tumultuous marriage as material for his novels and shorts. In fact, he even stole snippets from Zelda’s diary, which he then credited to fictional heroines. The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) was a story entirely about the lives of the rich, centered on a wealthy couple that struggled with fidelity, money, and their passionate feelings for each other. Soon after came The Great Gatsby (1925) which can and should be read as an examination of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s obsession with his wife, as well as his recognition and later understanding of the different set of rules that the obscenely wealthy followed, all described through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway.
Zelda, not to be outshined by her husband’s artistic fame, decided at 27 to follow a lifelong dream of becoming a ballerina. Apparently, she wasn’t half bad - she was offered a position with an Italian dance company. Sadly, her rocky marriage with Fitzgerald, financial ups and downs, and frustration with his alcoholism and literary thieving from their lives contributed to Zelda’s admittance in 1930 to the Sheppard Pratt sanatorium in Towson, Maryland after it was determined that Zelda had bipolar disorder. From then on, the Fitzgeralds’ lives took a serious downturn.
Zelda’s healthcare bills took a serious toll on Fitzgerald’s bank account and he was, again, forced to write short stories. Yet this time, the Great Depression had caused a serious lack of interest in Fitzgerald’s tales of the wealthy. He also used the nature of their marriage to inspire another novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), which follows the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a psychoanalyst and his wife, Nicole, one of his patients. Before Tender Is the Night made it to publication, however, Zelda produced her own work, a semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932) which she wrote during her stay at the sanatorium. Her husband, rather hypocritically, was furious that Zelda blatantly took material from their life together. As a result, their two novels, only a few years apart, provide opposing viewpoints of a failing celebrity marriage.
Alas, the Fitzgeralds’ story was not to have a happy ending. After years of alcohol abuse, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s health was failing. He died at age 44, on December 21st, 1940, of a heart attack in his mistress's home. He hadn’t seen Zelda in over a year, his popularity had waned, and his wealth was depleted. Barely anyone attended his funeral, a scene quite similar to the death of his own fictional creation, Jay Gatsby. Zelda lived eight more years before dying in a fire that tore through the hospital where she had been staying. It was in this way that the darling couple of the 1920s, who single-handedly heralded in the Jazz Age, succumbed to the passage of time.
After their deaths, their works and lives would see a revival, resulting in The Great Gatsby’s presence in almost every high school English curriculum, and Zelda’s worship by feminists who portrayed her as a brilliant woman subdued by an overly demanding husband. Fitzgerald’s works would soon become considered contenders for the best American literature ever written. The couple’s lives would become immortalized through many films depicting their high profile relationship, though neither lived to see each other’s return to fame.