F. Scott Fitzgerald Biography

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1937, Carl Van Vechten

Brief Bio

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940) was an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. He is best known for his novels depicting the flamboyance and excess of the Jazz Age—a term he popularized in his short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age.

During his lifetime, he published four novels, four story collections, and 164 short stories. Although he achieved temporary popular success and fortune in the 1920s, Fitzgerald received critical acclaim only after his death and is now widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Born into a middle-class family in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Fitzgerald was raised primarily in New York state. He attended Princeton University where he befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson. Owing to a failed romantic relationship with Chicago socialite Ginevra King, he dropped out in 1917 to join the United States Army during World War I.

While stationed in Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, a Southern debutante who belonged to Montgomery’s exclusive country-club set. Although she initially rejected Fitzgerald’s marriage proposal due to his lack of financial prospects, Zelda agreed to marry him after he published the commercially successful book This Side of Paradise (1920). The novel became a cultural sensation and cemented his reputation as one of the eminent writers of the decade.

His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), propelled him further into the cultural elite. To maintain his affluent lifestyle, he wrote numerous stories for popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening PostCollier’s Weekly, and Esquire. During this period, Fitzgerald frequented Europe, where he befriended modernist writers and artists of the “Lost Generation” expatriate community, including Ernest Hemingway.

His third novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), received generally favorable reviews but was a commercial failure, selling fewer than 23,000 copies in its first year. Despite its lackluster debut, The Great Gatsby is now hailed by some literary critics as the “Great American Novel”. Following the deterioration of his wife’s mental health and her placement in a mental institute for schizophrenia, Fitzgerald completed his final novel, Tender Is the Night (1934).

Struggling financially because of the declining popularity of his works during the Great Depression, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood where he embarked upon an unsuccessful career as a screenwriter. After a long struggle with alcoholism, he attained sobriety only to die of a heart attack in 1940, at 44. His friend Edmund Wilson edited and published an unfinished fifth novel, The Last Tycoon (1941), after Fitzgerald’s death. In 1993, a new edition was published as The Love of the Last Tycoon, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

Longer Bio

Childhood and early years

Born on September 24, 1896, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to a middle-class Catholic family, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was named after his distant cousin, Francis Scott Key, who wrote in 1814 the lyrics for the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”. His mother was Mary “Molly” McQuillan Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who became wealthy as a wholesale grocer. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, descended from Irish and English ancestry, and had moved to Minnesota from Maryland after the American Civil War to open a wicker-furniture manufacturing business. 

One year after Fitzgerald’s birth, his father’s wicker-furniture manufacturing business failed, and the family moved to Buffalo, New York, where his father joined Procter & Gamble as a salesman. Fitzgerald spent the first decade of his childhood primarily in Buffalo with a brief interlude in Syracuse between January 1901 and September 1903. His parents sent him to two Catholic schools on Buffalo’s West Side—first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908). As a boy, Fitzgerald was described by his peers as unusually intelligent with a keen interest in literature.

Procter & Gamble fired his father in March 1908, and the family returned to Saint Paul. Although his alcoholic father was now destitute, his mother’s inheritance supplemented the family income and allowed them to continue living a middle-class lifestyle. Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy from 1908 to 1911. At 13, Fitzgerald had his first piece of fiction published in the school newspaper. In 1911, Fitzgerald’s parents sent him to the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey. At Newman, Father Sigourney Fay recognized his literary potential and encouraged him to become a writer.

Princeton and Ginevra King

After graduating from Newman in 1913, Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton University and became one of the few Catholics in the student body. While at Princeton, Fitzgerald shared a room and became long time friends with John Biggs Jr, who later helped the author find a home in Delaware. As the semesters passed, he formed close friendships with classmates Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, both of whom would later aid his literary career. Determined to be a successful writer, Fitzgerald wrote stories and poems for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Princeton Tiger, and the Nassau Lit.

During his sophomore year, the 18-year-old Fitzgerald returned home to Saint Paul during Christmas break where he met and fell in love with 16-year-old Chicago debutante Ginevra King. The couple began a romantic relationship spanning several years. She would become his literary model for the characters of Isabelle Borgé in This Side of Paradise, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, and many others. While Fitzgerald attended Princeton, Ginevra attended Westover, a Connecticut women’s school. He visited Ginevra at Westover until her expulsion for flirting with a crowd of young male admirers from her dormitory window. Her return home ended Fitzgerald’s weekly courtship.

Despite the great distance separating them, Fitzgerald still attempted to pursue Ginevra, and he traveled across the country to visit her family’s Lake Forest estate. Although Ginevra loved him, her upper-class family belittled Scott’s courtship because of his lower-class status compared to her other wealthy suitors. Her imperious father Charles Garfield King purportedly told a young Fitzgerald that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

Rejected by Ginevra as an unsuitable match, a suicidal Fitzgerald enlisted in the United States Army amid World War I and received a commission as a second lieutenant. While awaiting deployment to the Western front where he hoped to die in combat, he was stationed in a training camp at Fort Leavenworth under the command of Captain Dwight Eisenhower, the future general of the Army and United States President. Fitzgerald purportedly chafed under Eisenhower’s authority and disliked him intensely.

Hoping to have a novel published before his anticipated death in Europe, Fitzgerald hastily wrote a 120,000-word manuscript entitled The Romantic Egotist in three months. When he submitted the manuscript to publishers, Scribner’s rejected it, although the impressed reviewer, Max Perkins, praised Fitzgerald’s writing and encouraged him to resubmit it after further revisions.

Army service and Zelda Sayre

In June 1918, Fitzgerald was garrisoned with the 45th and 67th Infantry Regiments at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama. Attempting to rebound from his rejection by Ginevra, a lonely Fitzgerald began dating a variety of young Montgomery women. At a country club, Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, a 17-year-old Southern belle and the affluent granddaughter of a Confederate senator whose extended family owned the first White House of the Confederacy [which is now a museum you can visit].

Zelda was one of the most celebrated debutantes of Montgomery’s exclusive country club set. A romance soon blossomed, although he continued writing Ginevra, asking in vain if there was any chance of resuming their former relationship. Three days after Ginevra married a wealthy Chicago businessman, Fitzgerald professed his affections for Zelda in September 1918.

Fitzgerald’s Montgomery sojourn was interrupted briefly in November 1918 when he was transferred northward to Camp Mills, Long Island. While stationed there, the Allied Powers signed an armistice with Germany, and the war ended. Dispatched back to the base near Montgomery to await discharge, he renewed his pursuit of Zelda. Although Fitzgerald did not initially intend to marry Zelda, the couple gradually viewed themselves as informally engaged, although Zelda declined to marry him until he proved financially successful.

Upon his discharge on February 14, 1919, he moved to New York City, where he unsuccessfully begged the editors of various newspapers for a job. He then turned to writing advertising copy to sustain himself while seeking a breakthrough as an author of fiction.

Fitzgerald wrote to Zelda frequently, and by March 1919, he had sent Zelda his mother’s ring, and the two became officially engaged. Several of Fitzgerald’s friends opposed the match, as they deemed Zelda ill-suited for him. Likewise, Zelda’s Episcopalian family was wary of Scott because of his Catholic background, precarious finances, and excessive drinking.

Seeking his fortune in New York, Fitzgerald worked for the Barron Collier advertising agency and lived in a single room in Manhattan’s West Side. Although he received a small raise for creating a catchy slogan, “We keep you clean in Muscatine”, for an Iowa laundry, Fitzgerald subsisted in relative poverty. Still aspiring to a lucrative career in literature, he wrote several short stories and satires in his spare time. Rejected over 120 times, he sold only one story, “Babes in the Woods”, and received a pittance of $30.

Struggles and literary breakthrough

With dreams of a lucrative career in New York City dashed, Fitzgerald could not convince Zelda that he would be able to support her, and she broke off the engagement in June 1919. In the wake of Fitzgerald’s rejection by Ginevra two years prior, his subsequent rejection by Zelda dispirited him.

While Prohibition-era New York City was experiencing the burgeoning Jazz Age, Fitzgerald felt defeated and rudderless: two women had rejected him in succession; he detested his advertising job; his stories failed to sell; he could not afford new clothes, and his future seemed bleak.

In July, Fitzgerald quit his advertising job and returned to St. Paul. Having returned to his hometown as a failure, Fitzgerald became a social recluse and lived on the top floor of his parents’ home at 599 Summit Avenue, on Cathedral Hill. He decided to make one last attempt to become a novelist and to stake everything on the success or failure of a book. Abstaining from alcohol and parties, he worked day and night to revise The Romantic Egotist as This Side of Paradise—an autobiographical account of his Princeton years and his romances with Ginevra, Zelda, and others.

While revising his novel, Fitzgerald took a job repairing car roofs at the Northern Pacific Shops in St. Paul. One evening in the fall of 1919, after an exhausted Fitzgerald had returned home from work, the postman rang and delivered a telegram from Scribner’s announcing that his revised manuscript had been accepted for publication. Upon reading the telegram, an ecstatic Fitzgerald ran down the streets of St. Paul and flagged down random automobiles to share the news.

Fitzgerald’s debut novel appeared in bookstores on March 26, 1920 and became an instant success. This Side of Paradise sold approximately 40,000 copies in the first year. Within months of its publication, his debut novel became a cultural sensation in the United States, and F. Scott Fitzgerald became a household name.

Critics such as H. L. Mencken hailed the work as the best American novel of the year, and newspaper columnists described the work as the first realistic American college novel. The work catapulted Fitzgerald’s career as a writer. Magazines now accepted his previously rejected stories, and The Saturday Evening Post published his story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” with his name on its May 1920 cover.

Fitzgerald’s new fame enabled him to earn much higher rates for his short stories, and Zelda resumed their engagement as Fitzgerald could now pay for her accustomed lifestyle. Although they were re-engaged, Fitzgerald’s feelings for Zelda were at an all-time low, and he remarked to a friend, “I wouldn’t care if she died, but I couldn’t stand to have anybody else marry her.”

Despite mutual reservations, they married in a simple ceremony on April 3, 1920, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. At the time of their wedding, Fitzgerald claimed neither of them still loved the other, and the early years of their marriage were more akin to a friendship.

New York City and the Jazz Age

Living in luxury at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, the newlywed couple became national celebrities, as much for their wild behavior as for the success of Fitzgerald’s novel. At the Biltmore, Scott did handstands in the lobby, while Zelda slid down the hotel banisters.

After several weeks, the hotel asked them to leave for disturbing other guests. The couple relocated two blocks to the Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street where they spent half an hour spinning in the revolving door. Fitzgerald likened their juvenile behavior in New York City to two “small children in a great bright unexplored barn.”

Writer Dorothy Parker first encountered the couple riding on the roof of a taxi. “They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun”, Parker recalled, “their youth was striking. Everyone wanted to meet him.”

As Fitzgerald was one of the most celebrated novelists during the Jazz Age, many admirers sought his acquaintanceship. He met sports columnist Ring Lardner, journalist Rebecca West, cartoonist Rube Goldberg, actress Laurette Taylor, actor Lew Fields, comedian Ed Wynn, and many others. 

He became close friends with critics George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, the influential co-editors of The Smart Set magazine who led an ongoing cultural war against puritanism in American arts. At the peak of his commercial success and cultural salience, Fitzgerald recalled traveling in a taxi one afternoon in New York City and weeping when he realized that he would never be as happy again.

Fitzgerald’s ephemeral happiness mirrored the societal giddiness of the Jazz Age, a term which he popularized in his essays and stories. He described the era as racing “along under its own power, served by great filling stations full of money.” In Fitzgerald’s eyes, the era represented a morally permissive time when Americans became disillusioned with prevailing social norms and obsessed with self-gratification.

During this hedonistic era, alcohol increasingly fueled the Fitzgeralds’ social life, and the couple consumed gin-and-fruit concoctions at every outing. Publicly, their alcohol intake meant little more than napping at parties, but privately it led to bitter quarrels.

As their quarrels worsened, the couple accused each other of marital infidelities. They remarked to friends that their marriage would not last much longer. After their eviction from the Commodore Hotel in May 1920, the couple spent the summer in a cottage in Westport, Connecticut, near Long Island Sound.

In winter 1921, his wife became pregnant as Fitzgerald worked on his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, and the couple traveled to his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to have the child. On October 26, 1921, Zelda gave birth to their daughter and only child Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald.

As she emerged from the anesthesia, he recorded Zelda saying, “Oh, God, goofo [sic] I’m drunk. Mark Twain. Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” Fitzgerald later used some of her rambling almost verbatim for Daisy Buchanan’s dialogue in The Great Gatsby.

Long Island and second novel

After his daughter’s birth, Fitzgerald returned to drafting The Beautiful and Damned. The novel’s plot follows a young artist and his wife who become dissipated and bankrupt while partying in New York City. He modeled the characters of Anthony Patch on himself and Gloria Patch on—in his words—the chill-mindedness and selfishness of Zelda.

Metropolitan Magazine serialized the manuscript in late 1921, and Scribner’s published the book in March 1922. Scribner’s prepared an initial print run of 20,000 copies. It sold well enough to warrant additional print runs reaching 50,000 copies. That year, Fitzgerald released an anthology of eleven stories entitled Tales of the Jazz Age. He had written all but two of the stories before 1920.

Following Fitzgerald’s adaptation of his story “The Vegetable” into a play, in October 1922, he and Zelda moved to Great Neck, Long Island, to be near Broadway. Although he hoped “The Vegetable” would inaugurate a lucrative career as a playwright, the play’s November 1923 premiere was an unmitigated disaster.

The bored audience walked out during the second act. Fitzgerald wished to halt the show and disavow the production. During an intermission, Fitzgerald asked lead actor Ernest Truex if he planned to finish the performance. When Truex replied in the affirmative, Fitzgerald fled to the nearest bar.

Mired in debt by the play’s failure, Fitzgerald wrote short stories to restore his finances. Fitzgerald viewed his stories as worthless except for “Winter Dreams”, which he described as his first attempt at the Gatsby idea. When not writing, Fitzgerald and his wife continued to socialize and drink at Long Island parties.

Despite enjoying the Long Island milieu, Fitzgerald disapproved of the extravagant parties, and the wealthy people he encountered often disappointed him. While admiring the wealth and striving to emulate the lifestyles of the rich, he simultaneously found their privileged behavior morally disquieting, and possessed “the smoldering resentment of a peasant” towards them.

While the couple were living on Long Island, one of Fitzgerald’s wealthier neighbors was Max Gerlach. Purportedly born in America to a German immigrant family, Gerlach had been a major in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I and became a gentleman bootlegger who lived like a millionaire in New York. Flaunting his new wealth, Gerlach threw lavish parties, never wore the same shirt twice, used the phrase “old sport”, and fostered myths about himself, including that he was a relation of the German Kaiser. These details would inspire Fitzgerald in creating his next work, The Great Gatsby.

Europe and The Great Gatsby

In May 1924, Fitzgerald and his family moved abroad to Europe. He continued writing his third novel, which would eventually become his magnum opus The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald had been planning the novel since 1923, when he told his publisher Maxwell Perkins of his plans to embark upon a work of art that would be beautiful and intricately patterned.

He had already written 18,000 words for his novel by mid-1923 but discarded most of his new story as a false start. Initially titled Trimalchio—an allusion to the Latin work Satyricon—the plot followed the rise of a parvenu who seeks wealth to win the woman he loves.

For source material, Fitzgerald drew heavily on his experiences on Long Island and once again on his lifelong obsession with his first love Ginevra King. “The whole idea of Gatsby”, he later explained, “is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money. This theme comes up again and again because I lived it.”

Work on The Great Gatsby slowed while the Fitzgeralds sojourned on the French Riviera, where a marital crisis developed. Zelda became infatuated with a French naval aviator, Edouard Jozan. She spent afternoons swimming at the beach and evenings dancing at the casinos with him. After six weeks, Zelda asked for a divorce.

Fitzgerald sought to confront Jozan and locked Zelda in their house until he could do so. Before any confrontation could occur, Jozan—who had no intention of marrying Zelda—left the Riviera, and the Fitzgeralds never saw him again. Soon after, Zelda overdosed on sleeping pills.

The couple never spoke of the incident, but the episode led to a permanent breach in their marriage. Jozan later dismissed the entire incident and claimed no infidelity or romance had occurred: “They both had a need of drama, they made it up and perhaps they were the victims of their own unsettled and a little unhealthy imagination.”

Following this incident, the Fitzgeralds relocated to Rome, where he made revisions to the Gatsby manuscript throughout the winter and submitted the final version in February 1925. Fitzgerald declined a $10,000 offer for the serial rights, as it would delay the book’s publication.

Upon The Great Gatsby‘s release on April 10, 1925, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, and Edith Wharton praised Fitzgerald’s work, and the novel received generally favorable reviews from contemporary literary critics. Despite this reception, Gatsby became a commercial failure compared to his previous efforts, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922).

By the end of the year, Gatsby had sold fewer than 23,000 copies. For the rest of Fitzgerald’s life, The Great Gatsby experienced tepid sales. It would take decades for the novel to gain its present acclaim and popularity.

Hemingway and the Lost Generation

After wintering in Italy, the Fitzgeralds returned to France, where they alternated between Paris and the French Riviera until 1926. During this period, he became friends with writer Gertrude Stein, bookseller Sylvia Beach, novelist James Joyce, poet Ezra Pound and other members of the American expatriate community in Paris, some of whom would later be identified with the Lost Generation. Most notable among them was a relatively unknown Ernest Hemingway, whom Fitzgerald first met in May 1925 and grew to admire. Hemingway later recalled that, during this early period of their relationship, Fitzgerald became his most loyal friend.

In contrast to his friendship with Scott, Hemingway disliked Zelda and described her as “insane” in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. Hemingway claimed that Zelda preferred her husband to write lucrative short stories as opposed to novels in order to support her accustomed lifestyle. “I always felt a story in the [Saturday Evening] Post was tops”, Zelda later recalled, “But Scott couldn’t stand to write them.”

To supplement their income, Fitzgerald often wrote stories for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, and Esquire. He would first write his stories in an ‘authentic’ manner, then rewrite them to add plot twists which increased their salability as magazine stories. This “whoring”, as Hemingway called these sales, emerged as a sore point in their friendship. After reading The Great Gatsby, an impressed Hemingway vowed to put any differences with Fitzgerald aside and to aid him in any way he could, although he feared Zelda would derail Fitzgerald’s writing career.

In December 1926, after two unpleasant years in Europe which considerably strained their marriage, the Fitzgeralds returned to America.

Sojourn in Hollywood and Lois Moran

In 1926, film producer John W. Considine Jr. invited Fitzgerald to Hollywood during its golden age to write a flapper comedy for United Artists. He agreed and moved into a studio-owned bungalow with Zelda in January 1927. In Hollywood, the Fitzgeralds attended parties where they danced the black bottom and mingled with film stars. At one party they outraged guests Ronald Colman and Constance Talmadge by a prank: They requested their watches and, retreating into the kitchen, boiled the expensive timepieces in a pot of tomato sauce. The Hollywood life’s novelty quickly faded for the Fitzgeralds, and Zelda frequently complained of boredom.

While attending a lavish party at the Pickfair estate, Fitzgerald met 17-year-old Lois Moran, a starlet who had gained widespread fame for her role in Stella Dallas (1925). Desperate for intellectual conversation, Moran and Fitzgerald discussed literature and philosophy for hours while sitting on a staircase. Fitzgerald was 31 years old and past his prime, but the smitten Moran regarded him as a sophisticated, handsome, and gifted writer. Consequently, she pursued a relationship with him. The starlet became a muse for the author, and he wrote her into several of his stories, including “Magnetism” and Tender is the Night.

Jealous of Fitzgerald and Moran, an irate Zelda set fire to her own expensive clothing in a bathtub as a self-destructive act. She disparaged the teenage Moran as “a breakfast food that many men identified with whatever they missed from life.” Fitzgerald’s relations with Moran further exacerbated the Fitzgeralds’ marital difficulties and, after merely two months in Jazz Age Hollywood, the unhappy couple departed for Delaware in March 1927.

Zelda’s illness and final novel

The Fitzgeralds rented “Ellerslie”, a mansion near Wilmington, Delaware, until 1929. Fitzgerald returned to his fourth novel but proved unable to make any progress due to his alcoholism and poor work ethic. In spring 1929, the couple returned to Europe. That winter, Zelda’s behavior grew increasingly erratic and violent.

During an automobile trip to Paris along the mountainous roads of the Grande Corniche, Zelda seized the car’s steering wheel and tried to kill herself along with Fitzgerald and their nine-year-old daughter by driving over a cliff. Following this homicidal incident, doctors diagnosed Zelda with schizophrenia in June 1930. The couple traveled to Switzerland, where she underwent treatment at a clinic. They returned to America in September 1931. In February 1932, she underwent hospitalization at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

In April 1932, when the psychiatric clinic allowed Zelda to travel with her husband, Fitzgerald took her to lunch with critic H. L. Mencken, by then the literary editor of The American Mercury. In his private diary, Mencken noted Zelda “went insane in Paris a year or so ago, and is still plainly more or less off her base.” Throughout the luncheon, she manifested signs of mental distress.

A year later, when Mencken met Zelda for the last time, he described her mental illness as immediately evident to any onlooker and her mind as “only half sane.” He regretted Fitzgerald could not write novels, as he had to write magazine stories to pay for Zelda’s psychiatric treatment.

During this time, Fitzgerald rented the “La Paix” estate in the suburb of Towson, Maryland, and worked on his next novel, which drew heavily on his recent experiences. The story concerned a promising young American named Dick Diver who marries a mentally ill young woman; their marriage deteriorates while they are abroad in Europe.

While Fitzgerald labored on his novel, Zelda wrote—and sent to Scribner’s—her own fictionalized version of these same autobiographical events in Save Me the Waltz (1932). Piqued by what he saw as theft of his novel’s plot material, Fitzgerald would later describe Zelda as a plagiarist and a third-rate writer. Despite his annoyance, he insisted upon few revisions to the work, and he persuaded Perkins to publish Zelda’s novel. Scribner’s published Zelda’s novel in October 1932, but it was a commercial and critical failure.

Fitzgerald’s own novel debuted in April 1934 as Tender Is the Night and received mixed reviews. Its structure threw off many critics who felt Fitzgerald had not lived up to their expectations. Hemingway and others argued that such criticism stemmed from superficial readings of the material and from Depression-era America’s reaction to Fitzgerald’s status as a symbol of Jazz Age excess. The novel did not sell well upon publication, with approximately 12,000 sold in the first three months, but, like The Great Gatsby, the book’s reputation has since grown significantly.

Great Depression and decline

[Fitzgerald’s] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.
—Ernest Hemingway on Fitzgerald’s loss of talent in A Moveable Feast (1964)

Amid the Great Depression, Fitzgerald’s works were deemed elitist and materialistic. In 1933, journalist Matthew Josephson criticized Fitzgerald’s short stories saying that many Americans could no longer afford to drink champagne whenever they pleased or to go on vacation to Montparnasse in Paris. As writer Budd Schulberg recalled, “my generation thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an age rather than a writer, and when the economic stroke of 1929 began to change the sheiks and flappers into unemployed boys or underpaid girls, we consciously and a little belligerently turned our backs on Fitzgerald.”

With his popularity decreased, Fitzgerald began to suffer financially and, by 1936, his book royalties amounted to $80. The cost of his opulent lifestyle and Zelda’s medical bills quickly caught up, placing him in constant debt. He relied on loans from his agent, Harold Ober, and publisher Perkins. When Ober ceased advancing money, an ashamed Fitzgerald severed ties with his agent believing Ober had lost faith in him due to his alcoholism.

As he had been an alcoholic for many years, Fitzgerald’s heavy drinking undermined his health by the late 1930s. His alcoholism resulted in cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, angina, dyspnea, and syncopal spells. According to biographer Nancy Milford, Fitzgerald’s claims of having tuberculosis (TB) served as a pretext to cover his drinking ailments.

Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring TB.Another biographer, Arthur Mizener, notes Fitzgerald had a mild attack of TB in 1919 and conclusively had a tubercular hemorrhage in 1929. In the 1930s, as his health deteriorated, Fitzgerald had told Hemingway of his fear of dying from congested lungs.

Fitzgerald’s deteriorating health, chronic alcoholism, and financial woes made for difficult years in Baltimore. His friend H. L. Mencken wrote in a June 1934 diary entry that “the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing. He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance. His wife, Zelda, who has been insane for years, is now confined at the Sheppard-Pratt Hospital, and he is living in Park Avenue with his little daughter, Scottie.”

By 1935, alcoholism disrupted Fitzgerald’s writing and limited his mental acuity. From 1933 to 1937, he was hospitalized for alcoholism eight times. In September 1936, journalist Michel Mok of the New York Post publicly reported Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and career failure in a nationally syndicated article. The article damaged Fitzgerald’s reputation.

By that same year, Zelda’s intense mania necessitated her extended confinement at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Nearly bankrupt, Fitzgerald spent most of 1936 and 1937 living in cheap hotels near Asheville. His attempts to write and sell more short stories faltered.

He later referred to this period of decline in his life as “The Crack-Up” in a short story. The sudden death of Fitzgerald’s mother and Zelda’s mental deterioration led to his marriage further disintegrating. He saw Zelda for the last time on a 1939 trip to Cuba. During this trip, spectators at a cockfight beat Fitzgerald when he tried to intervene against animal cruelty. He returned to the United States and—his ill-health exacerbated by excessive drinking—underwent hospitalization at the Doctors Hospital in Manhattan.

Return to Hollywood

Fitzgerald’s dire financial straits compelled him to accept a lucrative contract as a screenwriter with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1937 that necessitated his relocation to Hollywood. Despite earning his highest annual income up to that point ($29,757.87, equivalent to $605,766 in 2022), Fitzgerald spent the bulk of his income on Zelda’s psychiatric treatment and his daughter Scottie’s school expenses.

During the next two years, Fitzgerald rented a cheap room at the Garden of Allah bungalow on Sunset Boulevard. In an effort to abstain from alcohol, Fitzgerald drank large amounts of Coca-Cola and ate many sweets.

Estranged from Zelda, Fitzgerald attempted to reunite with his first love Ginevra King when the wealthy Chicago heiress visited Hollywood in 1938. “She was the first girl I ever loved and I have faithfully avoided seeing her up to this moment to keep the illusion perfect,” Fitzgerald informed his daughter Scottie, shortly before the planned meeting. The reunion proved a disaster due to Fitzgerald’s uncontrollable alcoholism, and a disappointed Ginevra returned east to Chicago.

Soon after, a lonely Fitzgerald began a relationship with nationally syndicated gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his final companion before his death. After having a heart-attack at Schwab’s Pharmacy, Fitzgerald was advised by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. Fitzgerald had to climb two flights of stairs to his apartment, while Graham lived on the ground floor. Consequently, he moved in with Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald’s apartment on North Laurel Avenue.

Throughout their relationship, Graham claimed Fitzgerald felt constant guilt over Zelda’s mental illness and confinement. He repeatedly attempted sobriety, suffered from depression, and had violent outbursts. On occasions that Fitzgerald failed his attempt at sobriety, he would ask strangers, “I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald. You’ve read my books. You’ve read The Great Gatsby, haven’t you? Remember?”

As Graham had read none of his works, Fitzgerald attempted to buy her a set of his novels. After visiting several bookstores, he realized they had stopped carrying his works. The realization that he was largely forgotten as an author further depressed him.

During this last phase of his career, Fitzgerald’s screenwriting tasks included revisions on Madame Curie (1943) and an unused dialogue polish for Gone with the Wind (1939)—a book which Fitzgerald disparaged as unoriginal and an “old wives’ tale.” Both assignments went uncredited.

His work on Three Comrades (1938) became his sole screenplay credit. To the studio’s annoyance, Fitzgerald ignored scriptwriting rules and included descriptions more fitting for a novel. In his spare time, he worked on his fifth novel, The Last Tycoon, based on film executive Irving Thalberg.

In 1939, MGM terminated his contract, and Fitzgerald became a freelance screenwriter. During his work on Winter Carnival (1939), Fitzgerald had an alcoholic relapse and sought treatment by New York psychiatrist Richard Hoffmann.

Director Billy Wilder described Fitzgerald’s foray into Hollywood as like that of “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job”. Edmund Wilson and Aaron Latham suggested Hollywood sucked Fitzgerald’s creativity like a vampire. His failure in Hollywood pushed him to return to drinking, and he drank nearly 40 beers a day in 1939.

Beginning that year, Fitzgerald mocked himself as a Hollywood hack through the character of Pat Hobby in a sequence of 17 short stories. Esquire originally published the Pat Hobby Stories between January 1940 and July 1941.

Approaching the final year of life, Fitzgerald wrote regretfully to his daughter: “I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.”

Final year and death

Fitzgerald achieved sobriety over a year before his death, and Graham described their last year together as one of the happiest times of their relationship. On the night of December 20, 1940, Fitzgerald and Graham attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love. As the couple left the Pantages Theatre, a sober Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell and had difficulty walking to his vehicle. Watched by onlookers, he remarked in a strained voice to Graham, “I suppose people will think I’m drunk.”

The following day, as Fitzgerald annotated his newly arrived Princeton Alumni Weekly, Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, and collapse on the floor without uttering a sound. Lying flat on his back, he gasped and lapsed into unconsciousness. After failed efforts to revive him, Graham ran to fetch Harry Culver, the building’s manager. Upon entering the apartment, Culver stated, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” Fitzgerald died of a heart attack due to occlusive coronary arteriosclerosis at 44 years old.

On learning of her father’s death, Scottie telephoned Graham from Vassar and asked she not attend the funeral for social propriety. In Graham’s place, her friend Dorothy Parker attended the visitation held in the back room of an undertaker’s parlor. When Fitzgerald’s poorly embalmed corpse arrived in Bethesda, Maryland, only thirty people attended his funeral. Among the attendees were his only child, Scottie, his agent Harold Ober, and his lifelong editor Maxwell Perkins.

Zelda eulogized Fitzgerald in a letter to a friend: “He was as spiritually generous a soul as ever was… It seems as if he was always planning happiness for Scottie and for me. Books to read—places to go. Life seemed so promising always when he was around. … Scott was the best friend a person could have to me”. At the time of his death, the Roman Catholic Church denied the family’s request that Fitzgerald, a non-practicing Catholic, be buried in the family plot in the Catholic Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

Fitzgerald was buried instead with a simple Protestant service at Rockville Cemetery. When Zelda died in a fire at the Highland Hospital in 1948, she was buried next to him in Rockville Cemetery. In 1975, Scottie successfully petitioned to have the earlier decision revisited, and her parents’ remains were moved to the family plot in Saint Mary’s.

Critical reevaluation

It has been the greatest credo in my life that I would rather be an artist than a careerist. I would rather impress my image upon the soul of a people…. I would as soon be as anonymous as Rimbaud if I could feel that I had accomplished that purpose.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to H. L. Mencken, 1934

At the time of his death, Fitzgerald believed that his life was a failure and his work was forgotten. The few critics who were familiar with his work regarded him as a failed alcoholic—the embodiment of Jazz Age decadence.

In an obituary in The Nation magazine, Margaret Marshall dismissed Fitzgerald as a Jazz Age scribe “who did not fulfill his early promise—his was a fair-weather talent which was not adequate to the stormy age into which it happened, ironically, to emerge.” In retrospective reviews that followed after his death, literary critics such as Peter Quennell dismissed his magnum opus The Great Gatsby as merely a nostalgic period piece with “the sadness and the remote jauntiness of a Gershwin tune”.

Surveying these posthumous attacks, John Dos Passos opined that many literary critics in popular newspapers lacked basic discernment about the art of writing. “The strange thing about the articles that came out about Fitzgerald’s death,” Dos Passos later recalled, “was that the writers seemed to feel that they didn’t need to read his books; all they needed for a license to shovel them into the ashcan was to label them as having been written in such and such a period now past.”

Within one year after his death, Edmund Wilson completed Fitzgerald’s unfinished fifth novel The Last Tycoon using the author’s extensive notes, and he included The Great Gatsby within the edition, sparking new interest and discussion among critics. Amid World War II, The Great Gatsby gained further popularity when the Council on Books in Wartime distributed free Armed Services Edition copies to American soldiers serving overseas. The Red Cross distributed the novel to prisoners in Japanese and German POW camps.

By 1945, over 123,000 copies of The Great Gatsby had been distributed among U.S. troops. By 1960—thirty-five years after the novel’s original publication—the book was selling 100,000 copies per year. This renewed interest led The New York Times editorialist Arthur Mizener to proclaim the novel a masterwork of American literature.

By the 21st century, The Great Gatsby had sold millions of copies, and the novel is now required reading in many high school and college classes. Despite its publication nearly a century ago, the work continues to be cited by scholars as relevant to understanding contemporary America. According to Professor John Kuehl of New York University: “If you want to know about Spain, you read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. If you want to know about the South, you read Faulkner. If you want to know what America’s like, you read The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is the quintessential American writer.”

Posthumous renown

The Great Gatsby‘s popularity led to widespread interest in Fitzgerald himself. By the 1950s, he had become a cult figure in American culture and was more widely known than at any period during his lifetime. In 1952, critic Cyril Connolly observed that “apart from his increasing stature as writer, Fitzgerald is now firmly established as a myth, an American version of the Dying God, an Adonis of letters” whose rise and fall inevitably prompts comparisons to the Jazz Age itself.

Seven years later, Fitzgerald’s friend Edmund Wilson remarked that he now received copious letters from female admirers of Fitzgerald’s works and that his flawed alcoholic friend had posthumously become “a semi-divine personage” in the popular imagination. Echoing these opinions, writer Adam Gopnik asserted that—contrary to Fitzgerald’s claim that “there are no second acts in American lives”—Fitzgerald became “not a poignant footnote to an ill-named time but an enduring legend of the West”.

Decades after his death, Fitzgerald’s childhood Summit Terrace home in St. Paul became a National Historic Landmark in 1971. (Ironically, Fitzgerald detested the house and deemed it an architectural monstrosity.)

In 1990, Hofstra University established the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, which later became an affiliate of the American Literature Association. In 1994, the World Theater in St. Paul—home of the radio broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion—was renamed the Fitzgerald Theater. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fitzgerald Society organized an online reading of This Side of Paradise to mark its centenary. 

The Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where the couple lived from 1931-1932, occupies one of the four surviving Fitzgerald homes. It is open for visitors weekly. The building was subdivided into 4 apartments after the Fitzgeralds left, and two of these apartments have been re-decorated in period style and can be rented for overnight stays–an immersive experience in literary history!  


To learn more about Fitzgerald and his writings, check out these other Fitzgerald resources available on our site.