Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald


So you see that old libel that we were cynics and skeptics was nonsense from the beginning. On the contrary we were the great believers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”

Fitzgerald was one of those writers I liked right away, even though I read most of his stuff at 14 or 15, and was forced to for school. I clicked with his books. I credit a lot of that to my 10th grade teacher, Mr. Crothers. His love of The Great Gatsby permeated his lectures, and his enthusiasm inspired the class. (Excerpt from book here). I really “got” it. I remember the book as being much longer than it actually is. When I recently re-read it, I was shocked by the slim-ness of the volume.

As an early teenager, I already had a fascination with flappers: that might have had something to do with seeing Bugsy Malone on TV when I was about 12. Jodie Foster and Scott Baio as little kid gangsters and gun molls, driving cars with their feet like the Flintstones. I loved that movie, and I loved Jodie Foster’s spit-curls, and her costumes. In junior high I did a whole paper on the 1920s for history class. Even back then, I would take on independent research projects in topics that gripped my imagination.

I wrote stories about flappers and vaudeville show girls and bootleggers. It was a highly evocative era for me, perhaps indicative of my fantasy of being grown-up, and on my own, and rebelling, doing what I wanted to do.

All the time I was idealizing her to the last possibility. I was perfectly conscious that she was about the faultiest girl I’d ever met. She was selfish, conceited and uncontrolled and since these were my own faults I was doubly aware of them. Yet I never wanted to change her. Each fault was knit up with a sort of passionate energy that transcended it. Her selfishness made her play the game harder, her lack of control put me rather in awe of her and her conceit was punctuated by such delicious moments of remorse and self-denunciation that it was almost – almost dear to me … She had the strongest effect on me. She made me want to do something for her, to get something to show her. Every honor in college took on the semblance of a presentable trophy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw” – a story written when he was an undergraduate

F. Scott Fitzgerald (or Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) was born in St. Paul Minnesota in 1896. He went to Princeton, and afterwards joined the army. Somewhere in those early years, he sold his first story and when he was only 23 years old he wrote and published his first novel: This Side of Paradise. It was a smash hit, one of those zeitgeist books: it described the moment in time that everyone was experiencing, a mood coursing through the molecules in the collective atmosphere. Fitzgerald was immediately seen as the voice of that era and that generation. The jazz age kicking in. Fitzgerald was the poster child for it. This Side of Paradise remains one of the greatest books about American undergraduate life ever written. It didn’t hurt that he was so handsome, either.

People projected their own desires onto him, their ideals for who they wanted to be. He was glamorous, urbane, free from societal conventions. He seemed to live the life others wanted to live.

And yet, he was also the man who wrote: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”

As everyone knows, F. Scott Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre, a Southern belle who hailed from Montgomery, Alabama.

Girls, for instance, have found the accent shifted from chemical purity to breadth of viewpoint, intellectual charm and piquant cleverness … we find the young woman of 1920 flirting, kissing, viewing life lightly, saying damn without a blush, playing along the danger line in an immature way – a sort of mental baby vamp … Personally, I prefer this sort of girl. Indeed, I married the heroine of my stories. I would not be interested in any other sort of woman.

Interview with F. Scott Fitzgerald, in January, 1921

Zelda was the Clara Bow for the literary set. She was who they were talking about when they talked about “jazz babies”. Zelda was the original article.

They had their wedding reception at Chumley’s, a former speakeasy and literary hangout at 86 Bedford Street, which unfortunately is no longer there. There was no signage, nothing to point you to it. You had to know where it is. The phrase “86 the plates, 86 the table settings” comes from the address of Chumley’s, or so the rumor goes. It was a message from the days of Prohibition: 86 Bedford, baby! The cops are coming, 86 those cocktails, and let’s get the hell out of here.

Scott and Zelda lived their relationship in public. They created personae, they acted parts, they showed up at places looking amazing, they relished in their own publicity, keeping massive scrapbooks of their clippings from the gossip pages. They were partners in self-promotion and self-absorption.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Zelda wrote to Scott (who was anxious about her flirting and fidelity):

Scott – there’s nothing in all the world I want but you – and your precious love – All the material things are nothing. I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence – because you’d soon love me less – and less – and I’d do anything – anything – to keep your heart for my own – I don’t want to live – I want to love first, and live incidentally – Why don’t you feel that I’m waiting – I’ll come to you, Lover, when you’re ready – Don’t – don’t ever think of the things you can’t give me – You’ve trusted me wiht the dearest heart of all – and it’s so damn much more than anybody else in all the world has ever had –

How can you think deliberately of life without me – If you should die – O Darling – darling Scot – It’d be like going blind. I know I would, too – I’d have no purpose in life – just a pretty – decoration. Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered – and I was delivered to you – to be worn – I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm or a button hole bouquet – to the world. And then, when we’re alone, I want to help – to know that you can’t do anything without me.

Here’s a page from their scrapbook:

Dorothy Parker has a vivid (and oft-quoted) memory of seeing the two of them after their marriage:

Robert Sherwood brought Scott and Zelda to me right after their marriage. I had met Scott before. He told me he was going to marry the most beautiful girl in Alabama and Georgia! … But they did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun; their youth was striking.

Zelda and Scott were in sync in those early years. They wrote essays together (at least the essays carried two bylines) detailing their peripatetic life, and some of it is truly wonderful stuff some of it. (I was reading Fitzgerald’s collection of essays The Crack-Up in the spring of 2009, before I stopped being able to read altogether in July, so I wrote a lot about it at that time. Here’s a post I wrote about one of those essays. I was in the beginning stages of my own “crack-up” when I wrote that essay, and I think that is apparent in the writing, so my apologies. Just a word of explanation for the tone of that piece.) Scott and Zelda had fun with the public perception of who they must be (and we continue to imagine them, we continue to speculate and dream about them, which is what Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was all about.

Zelda wrote a review of Scott’s book The Beautiful and the Damned in which she blithely references their relationship in an amusing way:

It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald – I believe that is how he spells his name – seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.

Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to a friend:

I’ve always known that, any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has “kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,” cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it … I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and its these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be … I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of everything. You’re still a catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

We all know what ended up happening to Zelda. While they lived in Paris, she got it into her head that she needed to be a ballerina. She became obsessed. Soon, she was dancing for 6, 7, 8 hours a day. She was in her early 30s, way too old to be a prima ballerina. Friends who visited the couple in Paris told stories (in letters, and later, to biographers) of arriving at their hotel room or rented rooms and Zelda would greet them at the door in a tutu and ballet shoes. She would dance for them. These stories are painful to read.



In 1922, Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribners: “I want to write something new — something extraordinary and simple & intricately patterned.”

The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. Fitzgerald worked hard on the book and was tormented throughout the process. He wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote, holding off Perkins, as long as possible. It was a precious book to him, a deeply personal book, and he feared he had not succeeded.

Perkins’ long letter to Fitzgerald, after he finally received the manuscript, is an amazing insight into the book, and also into Fitzgerald the Writer.

I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book. It is an extraordinary book, suggestive of all sorts of thoughts and moods. You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective. In no other way could your irony have been so immensely effective, nor the reader have been enabled so strongly to feel at times the strangeness of human circumstance in a vast heedless universe. In the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down upon the human scene. It’s magnificent!

I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and meanings, but points of criticism are more important now. I think you are right in feeling a certain slight sagging in chapters six and seven, and I don’t know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt that you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up here to the pace set, and ensuing.

He then goes on to list a couple of pages of specific criticisms.

One of the criticisms is as follows:

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course. But in the end you make it pretty clear that his wealth came through his connection with Wolfstein. You also suggest this much earlier. Now almost all readers numerically are going to be puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me though, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged. You do have him called on the telephone, but couldn’t he be seen once or twice consulting at his parties with people of some sort of mysterious significance, from the political, the gambling, the sporting world, or whatever it mayb be. I know I am floundering, but that fact may help you to see what I mean … I wish you were here so I could talk about it to you for then I know I could at least make you understand what I mean. What Gatsby did ought never to be definitely imparted, even if it could be. Whether he was an innocent tool in the hands of somebody else, or to what degree he was this, ought not to be explained. But if some sort of business activity of his were simply adumbrated, it would lend further probability to that part of the story.

After a couple more paragraphs, Perkins writes:

The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think woudl require a book of three times its length.

The presentation of Tom, his place, Daisy and Jordan, and the unfolding of their characters is unequalled so far as I know. The description of the valley of ashes adjacent to the lovely country, the conversation and the action in Myrtle’s apartment, the marvelous catalogue of those who come to Gatsby’s house — these are such things as make a man famous. And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, for with the help of T.J. Eckleburg and by an occasional glance at the sky, or the sea, or the city, you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me you were not a natural writer — my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.

The Great Gatsby was not the phenom that This Side of Paradise was. Reviews were mixed. In 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a heartcracking letter to Perkins:

Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye – or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers – I can maybe pick one – make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose – anybody? But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!

Only posterity would place Gatsby in the canon.

Zelda had her first breakdown in 1930. Fitzgerald’s drinking problem went to a deeper more entrenched and dangerous level. He was devastated by her illness, and devastated by what was obviously a slacking off in the public reception of his work. It’s tough when you become a mega-star at 23. Fitzgerald needed to support himself, so he started cranking out short stories for the big mags at the time, stuff that paid the bills but left him feeling empty.

F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44, leaving an unfinished novel The Last Tycoon behind him.

When I read Gatsby at age 15, I completely “related” to Nick, the narrator, the relatively innocent bystander, who looks on at the decadence of Daisy and Jordan and Gatsby, trying not to judge (as he says on the first page of the book), and trying to come out of the situation unscathed. By the end of the book, Nick is changed. And so are we, whether we like it or not. Nick was my “way in” as a know-nothing little teenager.

But now, reading it as an adult, with a lot of wreckage in my rear view mirror, I found myself entering the story through the eyes of Gatsby. I understood Gatsby, suddenly. Carrying a torch for years, infusing his whole life, his every action, with significance, poetry. Choosing the dream-world over reality.

It is only NOW, after reading it from an adult perspective, that I can truly understand why the book is such an epic human tragedy. A particularly American tragedy.

Now I understand. Now I understand. I wish I didn’t. It is a terrible kind of understanding.

First edition, “The Great Gatsby”

The first pages of the book are so extraordinary they cannot be improved upon.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that any intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

And here, in his essay “Early Success”, written in 1937, (an essay that often makes me think of Elvis Presley, who also became an “early success”), Fitzgerald writes:

The uncertainties of 1919 were over – there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen – America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air – its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them – the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants. In life these things hadn’t happened yet, but I was pretty sure living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought – this generation just younger than me …

The dream had been early realized and the realization carried with it a certain bonus and a certain burden. Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power – at its worst the Napoleonic delusion. The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining. The man who only asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what will power and fat have each contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone. This comes out when the storms strike your craft.

The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fairy years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea. Once in the middle twenties I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bathrobe – the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: “Ah me! Ah me!” It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again – for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment – when life was literally a dream.

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21 Responses to Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Desirae says:

    It will never stop being amazing to me that he was so young when he wrote his most famous novels. It’s so rare for someone to be a participant in a zietgeist and yet be distant enough from it to see it clearly. He also wrote a line in the last Tycoon that has stuck with me as maybe the most clearest summation of movie magic I’ve ever read:

    “Her hair was of the color and viscosity of drying blood but there was starlight that actually photographed in her eyes.”

    It’s the “actually photographed” that makes it.

    Oh, and this is a neat thing:


    A trailer from a 1926 version of Gatsby – unfortunately the movie itself has apparently been lost.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae – wow wow. I love your observation about “actually photographed”. Incredible. It is incredible to me, too, how someone so young could not only see so much but articulate it, and, in some ways, create it. Crazy. I am trying to think of a writer who has done that today. There are those zeitgeisty books, like Bright Lights Big City – which certainly described and captured a Time and a Place with such accuracy that you can’t really argue with it. But it’s different from what Fitzgerald did. Or maybe it’s not – but it seems different. Bright Lights Big City doesn’t have quite the reverb that Fitzgerald’s book did.

  2. mutecypher says:

    I hope he and Zelda are happy, smiling, and drunk somewhere. Laughing with Hemingway and pissing into Faulkner’s bourbon.

  3. bybee says:

    I love Maxwell Perkins so much. He had exquisite, discerning taste and he could articulate it.

  4. Kent says:

    Even though they are so closely associated with the ’20s, the Fitzgeralds defied age and time. They still do. Surely a deadly sin in several places.

  5. Kent says:

    All the various incarnations of their lives and work on film are fascinating. They are still elusive, and so is Gatsby, all these years and versions later. It is like interpretive poetry, many different perspectives, none the real thing. Peck is a little on the stoic side, but I like watching “Beloved Infidel” and “Tender Is The Night”, though they both have quirks, as well as “The Last Tycoon” with DeNiro. They seem to have some touch of Fitzgerald in them, more than the Gatsbys. The three sound Gatsby films are all fun to watch, I think, but each in different ways seem to be disconnected from Fitzgerald. Have never seen the silent, it could be great fun as it was made in the ’20s while all the madness was actually happening and Fitzgerald was present for the production. Thanks for these posts, Sheila! I love your description of the draw of his work, and how deeply it gripped your young mind!

  6. Anthony Cinelli says:

    What a great post, Sheila. I so enjoyed a reminiscent walk through the fiery moments of the Fitzgeralds’ brilliance on F. Scott’s birthday. You are such an insightful critic and a wonderfully passionate writer I so enjoy reading! Thank you for a delightful read. You’ve inspired a revisit of one of my favorite’s, “Gatsby”!

    With love,

  7. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila Oh great post on Fitzgerald, Zelda and Maxwell Perkins! ( I want to read that bio too) Some time ago I got stuck in a doctor’s waiting room with nothing to read, so I was desperately reading whatever magazine that I could find. I didn’t know what I was reading after a couple of hours when I started another short story in The New Yorker. About two paragraphs in I was so knocked out and taken by the story I had to flip back to see who wrote it, F. Scott Fitzgerald! called ‘Thank you for the Light’ A really beautiful gem. I had been reading just before story stories written by fairly good writers, but the difference was so vast it was astonishing! I have only read The Great Gatsby (but several times) so I’m thinking of reading, The Beautiful and Damned!

    • sheila says:

      Ooh, I don’t think I’ve read Thank You For the Light – will seek it out!!

      Did you see Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Regina? I thought it was pretty extraordinary – and have been meaning to write a post about how Leo actually captured/understood the gigantic themes of the book and somehow put it all into the characterization – in a way that Robert Redford could not do when he played the role. Or, Redford wasn’t directed that way. Who knows. All I know is – Leo managed to create the schism in the guy, the panic, the complete lack of EASE for a guy like that – who has done everything possible to be a winner in life. And it’s still not enough.

      An extraordinary performance!

  8. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila Thank You For the Light knocked me out by it’s seeming sheer simplicity. And that little short story just stayed with me. And what it means to have faith, or not have it. (it was also rejected by The New Yorker back then. He was on a losing streak and another thing to send Fitzgerald further and further down) I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not a big fan of Leo, which probably kept me from it. (Sorry! I think I might have said that before about him and how I annoy my daughter by saying that and I’m banned from saying anything bad about him!) I’ll check it out though. I am a big fan of Redford, but that was awful!

    • sheila says:

      haha oh that’s right, we have discussed Leo!!

      Well, perhaps this latest Gatsby won’t be for you then! I thought he was incredible in it – I’m a big fan of Redford too but boy that movie was bad. Everything was under a haze of beauty and lethargy. Yeah. Not really appropriate for the source material.

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