Today in 1896, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Named after a famous relative, Francis Scott Key, Fitzgerald would become a leading voice among his peers, the self-proclaimed “Lost Generation” who were born in the 1890’s and reach adulthood as the United States entered the First World War.
Fitzgerald’s path as a writer was clear by the time he was 13--that was his age when his first story was published in the St. Paul Academy newspaper. Despite, or perhaps because of, his passion for writing, Fitzgerald was a mediocre student from his earliest days at Princeton, the Ivy League college he attended from 1913-1917. It was during this time he began work on his first novel, a work that would ultimately be titled “This Side of Paradise.”
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Fitzgerald quit school and enlisted in the Army. He trained at Camp Zachary Taylor, located just a few miles from Louisville, Kentucky. The camp represented a turning point of sorts for Fitzgerald: his first rejection from a publisher came while he was there and he met Zelda Sayre, the woman who would be his wife until his dying day. Zelda was the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge and as such expected more of a lifestyle than Fitzgerald could provide. The two were engaged, but Zelda broke off the relationship when her fiancé was unable to convince her that he could support the two of them in the style to which they were accustomed.
With the war over and his romantic life on the rocks, Fitzgerald returned to his parents’ house in St. Paul. He revised his first novel “The Romantic Egotist” and renamed it “This Side of Paradise”. It was a contemporary work that spoke to a self-indulgent generation. The book was accepted and published in 1919. Seeing that Fitzgerald was a success after all, Zelda agreed to once again marry her writer. They were soon wed and had their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, in October, 1921.
The 1920’s were Fitzgerald’s decade. “This Side of Paradise” became a national bestseller, as did “The Beautiful and the Damned” and “The Great Gatsby”, arguably the most important book to come from an American writer in the early 20th century. Fitzgerald wrote from his own experience: Ivy League, Midwestern childhood, obsession with wealth. During this time, he also wrote short stories for many magazines in order to make the kind of money the Fitzgerald’s needed to live their lavish lifestyle in the United States and Paris.
The Great Depression began in the fall of 1929 and for Fitzgerald, the loss was much more than financial. Around that time, Zelda was diagnosed as schizophrenic, a condition with which she had struggled for most of her adult life. She had to be sent to a Baltimore hospital in 1930; she would remain hospitalized for most of the rest of her life. Fitzgerald rented a nearby house in which he wrote “Tender is the Night”, which reflected the bleakness he felt in his life. The novel disappointed critics and did not sell well compared to his earlier works. In fact, it would not become popular until after his death.
Fitzgerald spent the second half of the 1930’s in Hollywood, despite the fact that he supposedly hated the movie business. With his financial difficulties, however, Fitzgerald had to go where the money was, and Hollywood had plenty of it. Always a heavy drinker, by this point in his life Fitzgerald was clearly an alcoholic. 20 years of hard drinking, smoking and other excesses were beginning to take their toll on his body. He had two heart attacks late in 1940, with the second one being on December 20th. He died the next morning while waiting for his doctor to examine him. He was 44.
Fitzgerald has known more fame in death than he ever could have hoped for in life. His works have defined the post-World War One era for several generations, giving us a rare glimpse into a world of hedonism and excess that was the 1920’s. As Dexter Green, the main character in the short story “Winter Dreams” said, “That thing is gone, that thing is gone. It will come back no more.”