Beautiful and Damned

It’s a good day to curl up with one of the novels of today’s birthday boy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on September 24,1896 and penned some of the most famous Jazz Age novels (he also coined the term “Jazz Age”) before dying at the age of 44.

Fitzgerald was named after his famous second cousin three times removed, Francis Scott Key, and was primarily raised in Buffalo, New York. He was educated at private schools before attending Princeton University as a member of the Class of 1917. There, he became friends with future writers and critics Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. He also wrote for the musical-comedy society The Triangle Club. He left school to enlist during World War I, but the war ended shortly after his enlistment.

Fitzgerald took a job working for an advertising firm in Alabama, while writing short stories on the side. While there, he met Zelda Sayre, a feisty socialite with whom Fitzgerald fell passionately in love. She doubted he would be able to support her, so to prove her wrong, he withdrew to his parents’ house in St. Paul, Minnesota to complete his novel, This Side of Paradise. It was accepted by Scribner’s in the fall of 1919, and Zelda agreed to an engagement. The book became one of the most popular of the year after it was published in March 1920, and F. Scott became a celebrity. He and Zelda were married in early April, and had their only child, Frances Scott, in October 1921.

Three more novels, The Beautiful and the Damned, Tender is the Night, and The Great Gatsby followed, though none of them did quite as well as This Side of Paradise. The Fitzgeralds lived lavishly and were famous for their drinking, antics, and famous friends (including Hemingway, who didn’t care for Zelda). Fitzgerald also completed several short stories, but his writing couldn’t keep up with the bills, and he frequently borrowed money from his literary agent and his editor at Scribner’s. When his agent put an end to the loans, Fitzgerald cut him off.

In 1930, Zelda was struck with schizophrenia, and in 1932 she was hospitalized in Baltimore, Maryland. Fitzgerald rented a house in nearby Towson, where he completed Tender is the Night, his first novel in nine years. Critics who had been expecting a brilliant follow up to The Great Gatsby were disappointed, and sales of the novel were poor. In more recent years, the novel’s reputation has improved considerably.

Fitzgerald headed to Hollywood in the second half of the 1930s, even though he hated the idea of working in movies. He continued writing short stories and started work on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was based on the life of Irving Thalberg. He was still working on it when he died of a massive heart attack in December, 1940. His old college friend, Edmund Wilson, edited the manuscript and it was published in 1941. Today, Fitzgerald serves as one of the most prominent voices of a decadent, disenchanted generation of wartime survivors.

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