F. Scott Fitzgerald never quite got over the romances of his life. He said that writers really only had two or three memories which they just repeated over and over until the magic of storytelling ran out. Although Fitzgerald's personal story took on new life after his death, tainting his work and highlighting his mistakes, he remains one of the great American writers. His immense talent was sometimes subsumed by circumstances and often under-used, particularly when he had to write short stories for cash.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Fitzgerald thrived, becoming one of the highest-paid writers in America. His work drove magazine sales, with short stories about love, wealth and disappointment including 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair,' 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and 'The Diamond as Big as the Ritz'. But for every good story, there were several that seem forced or less polished.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in 1896 and raised in a middle-class family in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the fall of 1913, he went to Princeton. He left to enlist as a soldier in World War One, but the fighting ended soon after he joined up.
He began to hang around with wealthy and elite society types. It was apparent to Fitzgerald from early on that he was not like these people, in sentiment or even morality, as he saw it. Not that he believed he was better – just different. These themes became central to his short stories and novels.
In July 1918, he met a young southern debutante called Zelda Sayre at a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama. They were married in 1920, shortly after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's first novel and a popular success.
This Side of Paradise combined themes of youth, hope, love and loss in a dense novel that structurally differs a great deal from his later novels. It's a patchwork of great writing and anecdotes with allusions to popular culture and classic literature.
At this point, Fitzgerald's career took off. He was respected and famous. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published in March 1922. It carried themes of hedonism and the passing of time, the loss of youth and expectation. This story of the disappointment of a married couple who discover love is a fleeting thing, in equal parts sad and glorious, proved ultimately more prophetic than autobiographical. Its popular success allowed him and Zelda to carry on their destructive and lavish party lifestyle, and also enabled Fitzgerald to demand higher and higher rates for his short stories: the top magazines would publish anything he wrote because his name alone would sell copies. However, these stories only occasionally offered hints of great Fitzgerald writing. And the author had by now garnered a reputation as a drinker.
Between 1922 and 1925, the Fitzgeralds lived lavishly in Europe. Gertrude Stein labelled them members of 'The Lost Generation'. In 1925 The Great Gatsby was published, considered to be his literary masterpiece. It was a critical success but sank commercially.
The following nine years of Fitzgerald's life were marked by Zelda's mental illness and institutionalisation, the deaths of their parents, and alcoholism. In early 1934, Tender is the Night went to press; it had taken him the greater part of seven years to write. The book is an account of a young doctor, Dick Diver, who marries one of his patients. They go on to live a lotus-eating life on the French Riviera. The illnesses of Nicole in the novel mirror those of Zelda, just as the collapse of Dick and Nicole's marriage reflects the breakdown of the Fitzgeralds' marriage.
By 1937 Fitzgerald was in debt and had no choice but to market his talents to Hollywood as a screenwriter. From his letters, it appears that he loathed the movie industry, calling Hollywood a miserable place. Arguably, it sapped what was left of his talent. Fitzgerald received a handful of screen credits for MGM, using his skill to write dialogue and his reputation to find work. But he was drinking more and more, and becoming dangerously destructive. With Zelda now confined to an asylum on the east coast, Fitzgerald began a relationship with Sheilah Graham, a famous Hollywood gossip columnist. She wrote about the affair in her autobiographical novel Beloved Infidel, which was later made into a film. It includes a great amount of detail about Fitzgerald's late life.
Despite all the drama and drink-related health issues, Fitzgerald felt reinvigorated and began his fifth novel, about Hollywood, with the working title The Love of the Last Tycoon. He would never finish that book, as in 1940 he suffered a string of heart attacks that led to his death. In 1976 the book was made into a film starring Robert de Niro.
Fitzgerald's books are now required reading in almost every American Literature class worldwide, and The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night remain firm favourites for many.