Today is the birthday (1896) of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, a writer whose works have come to represent the culture of the Jazz Age (1920s and 30s) in the US. While he achieved limited success in his lifetime, he is now widely regarded as one of the most significant North American writers of the 20th century. He finished four novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, was published posthumously. Four collections of his short stories were published, as well as 164 short stories in magazines during his lifetime. To be plain spoken, I don’t like Fitzgerald’s work any more than I like that of his close contemporaries, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Their writing does not resonate with me, undoubtedly because I am not a fan of US culture, even though I lived there for 35 years. I was happy to escape when I retired 9 years ago, and will likely never return. Normally, when I post about a writer, I include a section of quotes at the end of the post, but here I will not, because Fitzgerald wrote nothing that I find memorable. That said, I recognize that his novels are popular, and Great Gatsby has been made into well received movies twice. So, he is worth a tip of the hat.
Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper-middle-class family, and was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed on his father’s side, Francis Scott Key. He was also named after his deceased sister, Louise Scott Fitzgerald, one of two sisters who died shortly before his birth. He later wrote: “Well, three months before I was born, my mother lost her other two children … I think I started then to be a writer.” His father, Edward Fitzgerald, was of Irish and English ancestry, and had moved to St. Paul from Maryland after the American Civil War, and was described as “a quiet gentlemanly man with beautiful Southern manners.” His mother was Mary “Molly” McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business.
Scott Fitzgerald spent the first decade of his childhood primarily in Buffalo, New York, occasionally in West Virginia (1898–1901 and 1903–1908) where his father worked for Procter & Gamble, with a short interlude in Syracuse, New York, (between January 1901 and September 1903). Edward Fitzgerald had earlier worked as a wicker furniture salesman; he joined Procter & Gamble when the business failed. His parents, both Catholic, sent Fitzgerald to two Catholic schools on the West Side of Buffalo, first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908). His formative years in Buffalo showed him to be an intelligent boy with a keen early interest in literature. In a rather unconventional style of parenting, Fitzgerald attended Holy Angels with the peculiar arrangement that he go for only half a day—and was allowed to choose which half.
In 1908, his father was fired from Procter & Gamble, and the family returned to Minnesota, where Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy in St. Paul from 1908 to 1911. When he was 13, he saw his first piece of writing appear in print—a detective story published in the school newspaper. In 1911, when Fitzgerald was 15 years old, his parents sent him to the Newman School, a prestigious Catholic prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey. Fitzgerald played on the 1912 Newman football team. At Newman, he met Father Sigourney Fay, who noticed his incipient talent with the written word and encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions.
After graduating from the Newman School in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue his artistic development at Princeton University. He tried out for the college football team, but was cut the first day of practice. He firmly dedicated himself at Princeton to honing his craft as a writer, and became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Princeton Tiger. He was also involved in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, which ran the Nassau Lit. His absorption in the Triangle—a kind of musical-comedy society—led to his submission of a novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons where the editor praised the writing but ultimately rejected the book. Four of the University’s eating clubs sent him bids at midyear, and he chose the University Cottage Club (where Fitzgerald’s desk and writing materials are still displayed in its library) known as “the ‘Big Four’ club that was most committed to the ideal of the fashionable gentleman.”
Fitzgerald’s writing pursuits at Princeton came at the expense of his coursework, however, causing him to be placed on academic probation, and in 1917 he dropped out of university to join the Army. During the winter of 1917, Fitzgerald was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and was a student of future United States President and General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower whom he intensely disliked. Worried that he might die in the War with his literary dreams unfulfilled, Fitzgerald hastily wrote The Romantic Egotist in the weeks before reporting for duty—and, although Scribner’s rejected it, the reviewer noted his novel’s originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to submit more work in the future.
It was while attending Princeton that Fitzgerald met Chicago socialite and debutante Ginevra King on a visit back home in St. Paul. Immediately infatuated with her, according to Mizner, Fitzgerald “remained devoted to Ginevra as long as she would allow him to,” and wrote to her “daily the incoherent, expressive letters all young lovers write.” She would become his inspiration for the character of Isabelle Borgé, Amory Blaine’s first love in This Side of Paradise, for Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and several other characters in his novels and short stories.
Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. While at a country club, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, a daughter of Alabama Supreme Court justice Anthony D. Sayre and the “golden girl”, in Fitzgerald’s terms, of Montgomery society. The war ended in 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever deployed. Upon his discharge he moved to New York City hoping to launch a career in advertising that would be lucrative enough to persuade Zelda to marry him. He worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency, living in a single room at 200 Claremont Avenue in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side.
Zelda accepted his marriage proposal, but after some time and despite working at an advertising firm and writing short stories, he was unable to convince her that he would be able to support her, leading her to break off the engagement. Fitzgerald returned to his parents’ house at 599 Summit Avenue, on Cathedral Hill, in St. Paul, to revise The Romantic Egotist, recast as This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographical account of Fitzgerald’s undergraduate years at Princeton. Fitzgerald was so short of money that he took up a job repairing car roofs. His revised novel was accepted by Scribner’s in late 1919 and was published on March 26th, 1920 and became an instant success, selling 41,075 copies in the first year. It launched Fitzgerald’s career as a writer and provided a steady income suitable to Zelda’s needs. They resumed their engagement and were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Their daughter and only child, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald, was born on October 26th, 1921.
Subsequently, Fitzgerald made several excursions to Europe, mostly Paris and the French Riviera, and became friends with many members of the US expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald’s friendship with Hemingway was quite effusive, but Hemingway did not get on well with Zelda,and in addition to describing her as “insane” in his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed that Zelda “encouraged her husband to drink so as to distract Fitzgerald from his work on his novel,” so he could work on the short stories he sold to magazines to help support their lifestyle. Like most professional authors at the time, Fitzgerald supplemented his income by writing short stories for such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, and Esquire, and sold his stories and novels to Hollywood studios. This “whoring,” as Fitzgerald and, subsequently, Hemingway called these sales, was a sore point in the two authors’ friendship. Fitzgerald claimed that he would first write his stories in an ‘authentic’ manner, then rewrite them to put in the “twists that made them into salable magazine stories.”
Although Fitzgerald’s passion lay in writing novels, only his first novel sold well enough to support the opulent lifestyle that he and Zelda adopted as New York celebrities. (The Great Gatsby, now considered to be his masterpiece, did not become popular until after Fitzgerald’s death.) Because of this lifestyle, as well as the bills from Zelda’s medical care when they came, Fitzgerald was constantly in financial trouble and often required loans from his literary agent, Harold Ober, and his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald began working on his fourth novel during the late 1920s but was sidetracked by financial difficulties that necessitated his writing commercial short stories, and by the schizophrenia that struck Zelda in 1930. Her emotional health remained fragile for the rest of her life. In February 1932, she was hospitalized at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Fitzgerald rented the “La Paix” estate in the suburb of Towson, Maryland to work on his latest book, the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychiatrist who falls in love with and marries Nicole Warren, one of his patients. The book went through many versions, the first of which was to be a story of matricide. Some critics have seen the book as a thinly veiled autobiographical novel recounting Fitzgerald’s problems with his wife, the corrosive effects of wealth and a decadent lifestyle, his own egoism and self-confidence, and his continuing alcoholism.
Fitzgerald was extremely protective of his “material” (i.e., their life together). When Zelda wrote and sent to Scribner’s her own fictional version of their lives in Europe, Save Me the Waltz, Fitzgerald was angry and was able to make some changes prior to the novel’s publication, and convince her doctors to keep her from writing any more about what he called his “material,” which included their relationship. His book was finally published in 1934 as Tender Is the Night. Critics who had waited nine years for the followup to The Great Gatsby had mixed opinions about the novel. Most were thrown off by its three-part structure and many felt that Fitzgerald had not lived up to their expectations. The novel did not sell well upon publication but, like the earlier Gatsby, the book’s reputation has since risen significantly. Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and financial difficulties, in addition to Zelda’s mental illness, made for difficult years in Baltimore. He was hospitalized nine times at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his friend H. L. Mencken noted in a 1934 letter that “The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”
In 1926, Fitzgerald was invited by producer John W. Considine, Jr., to temporarily relocate to Hollywood in order to write a flapper comedy for United Artists. Scott and Zelda moved into a studio-owned bungalow in January of the following year and Fitzgerald soon met and began an affair with Lois Moran. The starlet became a temporary muse for the author and he rewrote Rosemary Hoyt, one of the central characters in Tender is the Night, (who had been a male in earlier drafts) to closely mirror her. The trip exacerbated the couple’s marital difficulties, and they left Hollywood after two months. In the ensuing years, Zelda became increasingly violent and emotionally distressed, and in 1936, Fitzgerald had her placed in the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
Although he reportedly found movie work degrading, Fitzgerald continued to struggle financially and entered into a lucrative exclusive deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937, that necessitated him moving to Hollywood, where he earned his highest annual income up to that point: around $30,000. He also began a high-profile live-in affair with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. The projects Fitzgerald worked on included two weeks’ unused dialog work on loanout to David Selznick for Gone with the Wind, and, for MGM, revisions on Madame Curie, for which he received no credits. His only screenplay credit is for Three Comrades (1938). He also spent time during this period working on his fifth and final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, published posthumously as The Last Tycoon, based on film executive Irving Thalberg. In 1939, MGM terminated the contract, and Fitzgerald became a freelance screenwriter. During his work on Winter Carnival, Fitzgerald went on an alcoholic binge and was treated by New York psychiatrist Richard H. Hoffmann.
From 1939 until his death in 1940, Fitzgerald mocked himself as a Hollywood hack through the character of Pat Hobby in a sequence of 17 short stories, later collected as “The Pat Hobby Stories,” which garnered many positive reviews. The Pat Hobby Stories were originally published in Esquire between January 1940 and July 1941, even after Fitzgerald’s death. US Census records show his official address at this time to be the estate of Edward Everett Horton in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley.
Fitzgerald became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking which undermined his health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda’s biographer, Nancy Milford, Fitzgerald claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, but Milford dismisses it as a pretext to cover his drinking problems. However, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends that Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring tuberculosis, and according to Milford, Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener said that Fitzgerald suffered a mild attack of tuberculosis in 1919, and in 1929 he had “what proved to be a tubercular hemorrhage.” Some have said that the writer’s hemorrhage was caused by bleeding from esophageal varices.
Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in the late 1930s. After the first, in Schwab’s Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. He moved in with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald’s apartment on North Laurel Avenue. Fitzgerald had two flights of stairs to climb to his apartment; Graham’s was on the ground floor. On the night of December 20th, 1940, Fitzgerald and Graham attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love starring Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. As the two were leaving the Pantages Theater, Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell and had trouble leaving the theater; upset, he said to Graham, “They think I am drunk, don’t they?”
The following day, as Fitzgerald ate a chocolate bar and made notes in his newly arrived Princeton Alumni Weekly, Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, gasp, and fall to the floor. She ran to the manager of the building, Harry Culver, founder of Culver City. Upon entering the apartment to assist Fitzgerald, he stated, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack at age 44. Dr. Clarence H. Nelson, Fitzgerald’s physician, signed the death certificate. Fitzgerald’s body was moved to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary.
Among the attendees at a visitation held at a funeral home was Dorothy Parker, who reportedly cried and murmured “the poor son-of-a-bitch,” a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral in The Great Gatsby. His body was transported to Maryland, where his funeral was attended by twenty or thirty people in Bethesda; among the attendees were his only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith (then age 19), and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
One might celebrate Fitzgerald with a Jazz Age cocktail, I suppose. This was the era of Prohibition when speakeasies serving elaborate alcoholic concoctions were all the rage. Fitzgerald’s drink of choice was gin, and there are plenty of recipes for cocktails with gin if that’s your pleasure. Maybe a gin Rickey: gin, fresh lime juice, and a splash of club soda. I don’t drink alcohol, so I will recommend a dish that is healthier than a cocktail, and probably not to Fitzgerald’s tastes, although it was born in his era: Cobb salad. Salad dressings, for me the bane of US “cuisine”, including, French, Russian, Thousand Island, etc. reached their pinnacle of popularity in the Jazz Age, and have never quite relinquished center stage in North America for reasons I cannot fathom. I will always prefer a good quality olive oil on my salads, and nothing else. The salad ingredients should speak for themselves and not be drowned in goop. Enter the Cobb salad. The Cobb salad is named for Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Hollywood. The salad was reputedly invented by Cobb himself in 1937 when he was in the restaurant kitchen around midnight, and, being hungry, put together some avocado, cooked bacon, and leftovers from the evening meals to make the salad. But, other sources suggest that the salad was the idea of Robert Kreis or Paul Posti, both executive chefs at one time or another at the Brown Derby. Either way, the salad became a signature dish of the restaurant. Properly made, a Cobb salad consists of chopped salad greens (iceberg lettuce, watercress, endive and romaine lettuce), tomato, crisp bacon, cooked chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives, Roquefort cheese, and red-wine vinaigrette. I’ll give you a couple of photos so that you have the right idea. You don’t need more than that for a recipe.