Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, more commonly known as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His namesake was his second cousin, Francis Scott Key, the lyricist of the U.S. national anthem. His family, of Irish-Catholic descent, was considered middle class – his father, Edward, was a businessman, while his mother, Mary, hailed from a wealthy family. Fitzgerald’s mixed background would later influence his literature, with themes often exploring the juxtaposition between wealth and poverty.
The young Fitzgerald developed an early passion for literature, writing his first detective story at the age of thirteen and publishing it in the school newspaper. His potential became evident during his schooling years at the St. Paul Academy and later at the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey. Here, he honed his literary talent, writing for the school magazines and plays.
Fitzgerald attended Princeton University in 1913, where he further nurtured his writing skills. His focus on writing, however, led to neglecting his studies, eventually leading him to drop out in 1917 to join the army during World War I. His fear of dying in the war without leaving a literary footprint spurred him to write the novel “The Romantic Egotist.” Though it was initially rejected, the manuscript showed promise and helped him secure a contract with Scribner’s.
Fitzgerald’s Family and Success
In 1918, while stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Captivated by her vivacity and high-spirited nature, Fitzgerald fell deeply in love. However, Zelda was hesitant to marry him due to his lack of financial security. This changed in 1920 when Scribner’s published his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” catapulting Fitzgerald to fame and financial success. The couple married shortly after and had one daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald is best known for his keen observation of the American society of the 1920s, a period often referred to as the “Jazz Age.” His novels and short stories, characterized by their evocative prose and exploration of themes such as wealth, love, and the American Dream, painted a vivid picture of this era. His most renowned work, “The Great Gatsby,” is hailed as one of the greatest American novels, masterfully capturing the excess, disillusionment, and moral decay of post-WWI America.
Health Issues and Addictions
Behind the dazzling facade of literary success, Fitzgerald’s life was slowly unraveling. He and Zelda led a life of extravagance and excess, often living beyond their means. This lifestyle took a toll on both their physical and mental health. Fitzgerald developed a serious alcohol addiction, which he admitted to in his writings. His infamous quote, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” aptly summarizes his struggle with alcoholism.
Fitzgerald’s excessive drinking aggravated his existing health conditions, including tuberculosis, which he had contracted in his youth. He frequently fell ill and was often unable to write, further exacerbating his financial troubles. His alcoholism also strained his relationship with Zelda, whose own mental health was deteriorating. In 1930, Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions, leaving Fitzgerald to shoulder the responsibility of their daughter’s upbringing and the mounting medical bills.
The Final Years: A Tale of Decline and Despair
Fitzgerald’s later years were characterized by financial struggles, poor health, and professional disappointment. His drinking habit worsened his health and often left him incapacitated, forcing him to rely on the income from his short stories. However, the quality of his work began to decline, and he found it increasingly difficult to sell his stories.
In the mid-1930s, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter, a job he despised but needed for financial stability. There, he began a romantic relationship with movie columnist Sheilah Graham while he was still legally married to Zelda, who remained institutionalized back East. He started work on his final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” but it remained unfinished due to his deteriorating health.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Untimely Death
Fitzgerald’s unhealthy lifestyle finally caught up with him on December 21, 1940. At the age of 44, he suffered a heart attack at Sheilah Graham’s apartment in Hollywood and died. It was a tragic end for a man who had once been the embodiment of the roaring twenties, the symbol of the American Dream.
His death was largely unnoticed by the literary world, and the obituaries were mostly dismissive. This was a stark contrast to the fame and adulation he had enjoyed in his early years. His funeral, held in Baltimore, was a small and quiet affair, attended only by a few family members and friends.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, much like his novels, was a poignant tale of ambition, love, despair, and ruin. His early success and subsequent downfall mirrored the very themes he explored in his works. His legacy, however, has proven enduring. Today, Fitzgerald is celebrated as one of America’s greatest writers, his works serving as timeless reflections of the Jazz Age and the human condition.