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Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24th 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper-middle-class family. Fitzgerald was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed, Francis Scott Key, but was referred to by the familiar label Scott Fitzgerald. He was also named after his deceased sister, Louise Scott, one of two sisters who died shortly before his birth. "Well, three months before I was born," he wrote as an adult, "my mother lost her other two children...I think I started then to be a writer." His parents were Mollie (nee McQuillan), of Irish descent and Edward Fitzgerald of Irish and English descent.
Fitzgerald spent the first decade of his childhood in Buffalo, New York (1898–1901 and 1903–1908, with a short time between in Syracuse, New York. His Catholic parents sent Fitzgerald to Catholic schools on the West Side of Buffalo, first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908).
His early years in Buffalo showed him to be a boy of high intelligence and drive with a thirst for literature. His doting mother ensured that her son had every advantage. In a bizarre style of parenting, Fitzgerald attended Holy Angels 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 again to Minnesota. Here Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy, in St. Paul, until 1911.
When he was 13 he was published in the school newspaper, it was, of all things, a detective story. In 1911, aged 15, he was sent to the prestigious Catholic prep school, Newman School, in Hackensack, New Jersey and even played on the 1912 Newman football team. Whilst there he met Father Sigourney Fay, who, seeing his literary talent, encouraged him to pursue these ambitions.
After graduating in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey and continue at Princeton University. He tried out for the college football team, but was cut the first day of practice.
At Princeton, he dedicated himself to writing. He wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit (a musical-comedy society), and the Princeton Tiger and was also involved in the American Whig-Cliosophic Society as well as a member of the University Cottage Club.
Unfortunately Fitzgerald's writing pursuits at Princeton came at the expense of his coursework. He was placed on academic probation, and in 1917 he dropped out of school to join the U.S. Army.
However this service to his country came with the very real fear that he might perish in the trenches of Western Europe. Afraid that he might die with his literary dreams not yet begun he spent the weeks before reporting for duty at work on a novel entitled The Romantic Egotist. Although the publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, rejected the novel, they could see his potential and encouraged him to submit more work in the future.
Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. It was there, at a country club, that Fitzgerald met the love of his life; Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice and the "golden girl," of Montgomery youth society.
The war ended in 1918, before Fitzgerald could be deployed, and upon discharge he moved to New York City hoping to start a career in advertising that would be lucrative enough to convince Zelda to marry him. There he worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency.
Zelda, at first, accepted his marriage proposal, but despite his job and a sideline writing short stories, he was unable to convince her that his means were enough to support her in the style she wished. Accordingly she broke off the engagement. Fitzgerald returned to his parents' house in St. Paul, to revise The Romantic Egoist, now recast as This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographical account of Fitzgerald's undergraduate years at Princeton.
His revised novel was accepted by Scribner's in the fall of 1919 and was published on March 26th, 1920 becoming an instant success, selling 41,075 copies in the first year.
It launched Fitzgerald's career as a writer and now provided a steady income suitable for Zelda's ambitions. The engagement resumed and culminated in them being married at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald, their only child, was born on October 26, 1921.
Fitzgerald wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, quickly in the winter and spring of 1921-22, while Zelda was pregnant with “Scottie” and followed editorial advice from both his friend Edmund Wilson and his editor Max Perkins. Chapters of the book were first serialized in late 1921 in Metropolitan Magazine and the book was first published by Scribner's in 1922. It portrays the Eastern elite during the Jazz Age, exploring New York café society. A society of complex characters, especially with respect to marriage and intimacy and is seen as a reflection of Fitzgerald's relationship with Zelda. Based on the sales of This Side of Paradise, Scribner's prepared a print run of 20,000 copies and mounted an advertising campaign. Through further print runs it went on to sell 50,000 copies.
The Fitzgerald’s made several excursions to Europe in the 1920s with Paris and the Riviera being central to developing his talents. The couple became friends with many members of the American expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately Hemingway did not get on well with Zelda. He described her as "insane" and claimed she "encouraged her husband to drink so as to distract Fitzgerald from his work on his novel."
Inspired by the parties he had attended while visiting Long Island's north shore Fitzgerald began planning the greatest of his novels, The Great Gatsby, in 1923, wanting to produce "something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." But progress was slow. The first draft was only completed following a move to the French Riviera in 1924. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, felt the book was vague and persuaded the author to revise over the next winter.
First published by Scribner's in April 1925, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and sold poorly; only 20,000 in its first year (in fact Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. During World War II, the novel experienced a revival and in the following decades it became an esteemed part of American culture, from school curricula to a variety of stage and film adaptations. Today, it is considered a literary classic and one of a small circle vying for the title "Great American Novel").
Like most professional authors at the time, Fitzgerald also 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. Fitzgerald called this "whoring", and claimed that he would first write his stories in an authentic style and add "twists that made them into saleable magazine stories". Whatever the merits he was particularly good at it.
Although Fitzgerald's passion lay in writing novels the fact was that only his first novel sold well enough initially to support the opulent lifestyle that he and Zelda indulged in. This lifestyle, and the bills from Zelda's later medical care, forced Fitzgerald into constant financial problems, often requiring loans from his literary agent, Harold Ober, and his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. When Ober decided not to advance further money the author severed ties.
Fitzgerald began working on his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, during the late 1920s but was again distracted by financial difficulties that forced him into writing commercial short stories. Now, in 1930, Zelda was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and her emotional health was now fragile, a condition that would endure for the rest of her life.
In February 1932, Zelda was hospitalized at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, Fitzgerald rented in Towson, Maryland to continue 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.
Zelda now wrote and sent to Scribner's her own fictional version of their lives in Europe, Save Me the Waltz. Fitzgerald was angry and was only able to make a few changes prior to the novel's publication. However he did convince her doctors to keep her from writing any more about what he called his "material", ie their relationship.
After a long gestation Tender Is the Night, the fourth novel, was finally published in 1934. Critics had waited nine years for the follow-up to the sensational The Great Gatsby and had mixed opinions about the novel. The novel did not sell well upon publication but, like the earlier Gatsby, the book's reputation has since risen significantly.
Fitzgerald's heavy and excessive drinking had now developed into alcoholism and that together with recurring financial difficulties and the emotional toll of Zelda's mental illness, made for difficult years in Baltimore. He himself was hospitalized nine times at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His friend, H.L. Mencken, wrote 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 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood. He now made his highest annual income thus far of $29,757.87, mostly from the sale of short stories. He also began to get involved in the film industry.
Although he found movie work beneath his talents, he was once again in perilous financial straits, and so spent the second half of the 1930s in Hollywood, working on a creative triangle of short stories, scripts for MGM (including some un-filmed work on Gone with the Wind), and his fifth and final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. (This was published posthumously using the notes for the remainder of the novel initially collected and edited by the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who was a close friend of Fitzgerald, and published in 1941 as The Last Tycoon, it was based on the life of the boy wonder film executive Irving Thalberg).
In 1939, MGM ended his contract, and Fitzgerald became a freelance screenwriter; a writer for hire. Still an alcoholic, there was now also conflict with Zelda. They became estranged; she continued living in mental institutions on the East Coast, while he now took up with Sheilah Graham, the famed gossip columnist, in Hollywood. The two quickly became lovers.
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, published in The Esquire from January 1940 to July 1941. The reviews of these were positive and they are a rich seam of writing.
By this last period of his life his alcoholism had left him physically wrecked. Fitzgerald claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, although doubt has been cast upon this assertion and it is thought it might well be using that as a way to cover for his excessive drinking. Either way his health was poor and declining.
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 Sheilah Graham, who lived in a ground floor apartment in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald's apartment where he would have had to climb two flights of stairs to his own apartment.
On the night of December 20, 1940, Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love. As they left the Pantages Theater, Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell; upset, he said to Graham, "They think I am drunk, don't they?"
The following day, as Fitzgerald ate a candy 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 for help. As they entered the apartment to assist the prone Fitzgerald, he simply stated, "I'm afraid he's dead."
Francis Scott Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack on December 21st, 1940.
His body was moved to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary and later to Maryland, where his funeral was attended by a small group in Bethesda; among the mourners was his only child, Frances Scottie Fitzgerald.
Zelda died in 1948, in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Scottie worked to overturn the Archdiocese of Baltimore's ruling that Fitzgerald died a non-practicing Catholic, so that he could be buried at the Roman Catholic Saint Mary's Cemetery where his father's family was interred; this involved "re-Catholicizing" Fitzgerald after his death. In 1975 both of the Fitzgeralds' remains were moved to the family plot in the cemetery of Saint Mary's Church, in Rockville, Maryland.
In a New York Times editorial after his death it was written that Fitzgerald "was better than he knew, for in fact and in the literary sense he invented a generation.... He might have interpreted them and even guided them, as in their middle years they saw a different and nobler freedom threatened with destruction."