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F. Scott Fitzgerald
and the American Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald's life is a tragic example of both sides of the American Dream - the joys of young love, wealth and success, and the tragedies associated with excess and failure. Named for another famous American, a distant cousin who authored the Star Spangled Banner, Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul Minnesota on September 24, 1896. The son of a failed wicker furniture salesman (Edward Fitzgerald) and an Irish immigrant with a large inheritance (Mary "Mollie" McQuillan), Fitzgerald grew up in a solidly Catholic and upper middle class environment.

1935 Portrait by David Silvette, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
F. Scott Fitzgerald Portrait

Fitzgerald started writing at an early age. His high school newspaper published his detective stories, encouraging him to pursue writing more enthusiastically than academics. He dropped out of Princeton University to join the army and continued to pursue his obsession, writing magazine articles and even musical lyrics.

At 21 years of age, he submitted his first novel for publication and Charles Scribner's Sons rejected it, but with words of encouragement. Beginning a pattern of constant revising that would characterize his writing style for the rest of his career, Fitzgerald decided to rewrite "The Romantic Egoist" and resubmit it for publication. Meanwhile, fate, in the form of the U.S. army, stationed him near Montgomery, Alabama in 1918, where he met and fell in love with an 18-year-old Southern belle - Zelda Sayre. Scribners rejected his novel for a second time, and so Fitzgerald turned to advertising as a steady source of income. Unfortunately, his paltry salary was not enough to convince Zelda to marry him, and tired of waiting for him to make his fortune, she broke their engagement in 1919. Happily, Scribners finally accepted the novel after Fitzgerald rewrote it for the third time as "This Side of Paradise", and published it a year later. Fitzgerald, suddenly a rich and famous author, married Zelda a week after its publication.

In between writing novels, Fitzgerald was quite prolific as a magazine story writer. The Saturday Evening Post in particular served as a showcase for his short works of fiction, most of which revolved around a new breed of American woman - the young, free-thinking, independent "flapper" of the Roaring Twenties.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Photo

The Fitzgeralds enjoyed fame and fortune, and his novels reflected their lifestyle, describing in semi-autobiographical fiction the privileged lives of wealthy, aspiring socialites. Fitzgerald wrote his second novel - "The Beautiful and the Damned" a year after they were married. Three years later, after the birth of their first and only child, Scottie, Fitzgerald completed his best-known work: "The Great Gatsby."

The extravagant living made possible by such success, however, took its toll. Constantly globe-trotting (living at various times in several different cities in Italy, France, Switzerland, and eight of the United States), the Fitzgeralds tried in vain to escape or at least seek respite from Scott's alcoholism and Zelda's mental illness.

Zelda suffered several breakdowns in both her physical and mental health, and sought treatment in and out of clinics from 1930 until her death (due to a fire at Highland Hospital in North Carolina in 1948). Zelda's mental illness, the subject of Fitzgerald's fourth novel, "Tender is the Night," had a debilitating effect on Scott's writing. He described his own "crack-up" in an essay that he wrote in 1936, hopelessly in debt, unable to write, nearly estranged from his wife and daughter, and incapacitated by excessive drinking and poor physical health.

Things were looking up for Fitzgerald near the end of his life - he won a contract in 1937 to write for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood and fell in love with Sheilah Graham, a movie columnist. He had started writing again - scripts, short-stories, and the first draft of a new novel about Hollywood - when he suffered a heart attack and died in 1940 at the age of 44, a failure in his own mind. Most commonly recognized only as an extravagant drunk, who epitomized the excesses of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald's work did not earn the credibility and recognition it holds today until years after his death.

F. Scott & Zelda

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
Artist, Writer, Dancer and Wife

"By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future." -Zelda Fitzgerald

This quote perfectly illustrates Zelda Fitzgerald's lifelong struggle to create her own artistic identity. Born in 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama, she entered a world that was just starting to consider the possibility that women might have the right to be independent citizens capable of making their own decisions. The youngest of six children, her parents raised Zelda as a free-spirited, imaginative and thoroughly spoiled little girl. By the age of eighteen, when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald at one of the many parties she attended, she embodied the quintessential southern belle.

Zelda as a young girl.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

A constant stream of passionate and argumentative love letters punctuated the period of their engagement while Scott worked in Manhattan and Zelda remained at her parents' home in Montgomery. For Zelda, marriage represented a new lease on life, the only way out of her small-town existence as someone's daughter, without any rights of her own. For a year, Scott struggled unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the advertising business, but Zelda grew tired of waiting. When he professed that he could not be successful without her by his side and proposed, she broke the engagement because she felt too much pressure. She insisted that he find success first on his own.

His first novel made Scott rich within the year, and Zelda married him a week after its publication. As his wife, she embarked on a new life as a flapper - a freethinking woman with the world at her disposal. She was a huge influence on his writing, providing much of the material for his novels and short stories throughout their engagement and marriage. Scott frequently quoted her and her letters directly, using her words as the voice for several of his female characters.

Zelda bore her first and only child at 21, naming Scottie after her husband. By 1924, Zelda's influence on Scott's writing had become less positive. An affair with a French naval aviator strained their marriage, so Zelda sought fulfillment in other venues.

In 1928, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a professional ballerina, and began taking lessons in Paris from a famous dancer. At the late age of 27, three years of intense ballet work (eight hours a day) damaged her health, and prompted her first mental breakdown, diagnosed as "nervous exhaustion", in 1930. Zelda was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would reside in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life.

During her stay at Johns Hopkins hospital in 1932, she wrote her first and only novel: "Save Me the Waltz." A fairly prolific writer, Zelda also wrote eleven short stories and twelve articles during her lifetime.

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, circa 1921.
Zelda and F. Scott

Writing was not Zelda's only form of artistic expression - she was also a painter. She painted brilliantly colored whimsical, sometimes fantastical works of art. Her granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, describes Zelda's paintings as "theatrical. They're like on a raised stage floor, and the characters are actors who are before you, waiting to perform." Several different areas of Zelda's life influenced her choice of subject matter. She painted one series based on children's fairy tales such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "The Lobster Quadrille," from Alice in Wonderland. The Bible and Zelda's strong religious beliefs inspired another series of illustrations. She also painted from life, creating portraits of both herself and her husband, and depicting scenes from New York in the 1940s. A fire destroyed most paintings, and Zelda even donated some to the army during World War II to be painted over and used as canvas.

Perhaps if Zelda had focused on just one form of artistic expression, she would have found her own success and fame independent of her marriage to a famous author. Her accomplishments are still impressive, especially when one takes the context of her life into consideration. As an icon of the Jazz Age, she struggled against her traditional southern upbringing and its societal constraints to create a new, independent identity not just for herself, but for all American women.


Biographer Erika Willett is a modern-day flapper enjoying the good life in San Francisco.


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