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« Rupert Brooke and THIS SIDE OF PARADISE | Main | Anti-Semitism Around World War I »

Fitzgerald: A Life Chronology

September 24, 1896. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is born at his parents' home: 481 Laurel Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota. The first of their surviving children, he is named after Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," his father's second cousin three times removed. His father is a furniture manufacturer; his mother is the oldest of five children, heiress of a grocer's fortune worth about $250,000 back in 1877 when he died (that's about sixty-five million dollars today, when adjusted for revaluations). By the way, Fitzgerald always insisted that his name was pronounced with an accent on the first syllable--FITZ-ger-ald--not on the second.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, about 19001898. His father's business fails and the family moves to Buffalo where his father becomes a grocery salesman for Proctor & Gamble. Over the next ten years, his father will be transfered to Syracuse, then back to Buffalo, then lose his job, and eventually move the family back to St. Paul in 1908 where they first live with his mother's relations and then in a series of shabby, rented homes.

1909. Fitzgerald publishes his first short story in his school's paper. Two years later, at fifteen, he begins writing plays for a local amateur troupe. But all is not glitz. After almost flunking out of school, he is sent to the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, to be "straightened out." There, he is wildly unpopular, considered a braggart and know-it-all. Still, he takes frequent trips into New York City, mostly to see Broadway plays.

1913. Despite a poor academic record, he continues to write plays and publish short stories in the school's magazine. Through family connections, he is also mentored by Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay, a well-connected Catholic priest. On a trip to Washington D.C., he spends time with the very aged American literary icon, Henry Adams, as well as the Irish writer Shane Leslie. Despite failing many courses at the Newman School, he takes the entrance exams for Princeton and enters in the class of 1917.

1914. At Princeton, Fitzgerald continues writing plays and stories, now for the "Princeton Tiger." His poor grades at Princeton make him ineligible for any extracurricular activities. Instead, he reads through the works of H. G. Wells.

1915. Although Fitzgerald struggles with classes, he continues to write for the "Princeton Tiger" and work on the lyrics for many Princeton club shows. Late in the year, he develops the first of his many illness and must leave college to seek treatment, probably for malaria, maybe for a mild case of tuberculosis. He'll spend almost a year in St. Paul, recuperating, before returning to Princeton in the fall of 1916.

1917. Although his writing is gaining more and more attention, he is sidetracked when the U. S. enters World War I. He enlists and ends up with a commission as second lieutenant in the infantry, reporting for training to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As he later writes of these years: "That was always my experience--a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy's school; a poor boy in a rich man's club at Princeton. I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works."

Zelda Sayre, about the time she met "Scott."1918. Expecting he will be killed in combat, Fitzgerald dashes off the first draft of what will become THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, naming it at this stage "The Romantic Egoist." He sends this novel to Charles Scribners, using his literary connections through Shane Leslie. It is rejected, he rewrites it, and it is rejected again. Meanwhile, his army career is continuing apace. He is sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky, then to Camp Gordon in Georgia, and finally to Camp Sheridan in Mississippi--where he meets Zelda Sayre at a country-club dance. She is the eighteen-year-old daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Just as he is about to embark for France with his regiment, the war ends--and his courtship of Zelda begins in earnest. Fitzgerald is officially discharged on January 10, 1919.

1919. Zelda refuses to commit to a relationship because of his lack of earning power. So he moves to New York City and takes a job with Barron Collier, writing ads for the sides of trolley cars, although he continues to write fiction and poetry at night. By mid-year, he has accumulated 112 rejection slips. However, "The Smart Set," a high-brow magazine, picks up one of the stories he published in the "Princeton Tiger" and pays him $30 for it. In a fit of happiness, he sends Zelda his mother's engagement ring--which she refuses. Despite repeated trips to Alabama, he can't convince her to accept his proposal. After a final rupture with her, he quits his job and moves back to his parents' home in St. Paul. Once again, he rewrites the novel and sends it off, this time titled THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, to Maxwell Perkins at Scribners. Perkins accepts the manuscript, writing, "The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor." He now sells several short stories, hires the über-agent Harold Ober, and makes a trip back to Alabama to convince Zelda to marry him.

1920. Ober manages to get Fitzgerald $400 each for several stories published in "The Saturday Evening Post." (That's about $12,000 a piece on today's standards.) Meanwhile, Fitzgerald is reading the collected works of the like of Samuel Butler and H. L. Mencken. When THIS SIDE OF PARADISE is published in March, it is a critical smash and sells 3000 copies in its very first week, turning Fitzgerald into an overnight celebrity. He marries Zelda on April 3, reads through all of Mark Twain, moves to Westport, publishes a collection of his short stories ("Flappers and Philosophers"), and finally moves to West 59th Street in New York City. He also begins to drink heavily. Of his own process, he says, "All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath."

Fitzgerald and Zelda in Europe in 19211921. Zelda is pregnant--and the couple sails for Europe. He finishes his second novel, THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, and their daughter, Scottie, is born in late October. As he writes of his own life: "A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five."

1922. THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED is published to mixed reviews, although it sells 40,000 copies in its first year. The family moves to Great Neck and Fitzgerald works on his second collection of short stories, "Tales of the Jazz Age."

Fitzgerald and Zelda in the early '20s1923. His short story rate has increased to $1500 a pop (a princely sum of about $20,000 a story in today's terms)--and he gets an astounding $10,000 for the movie rights to THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Despite all that, he is determined to become a successful playwright and ends up focusing all his attention on a minor drama called "The Vegetable." It opens for a pre-Broadway tryout in Atlantic City and closes just a few days later on bad reviews and poor ticket sales, leaving Fitzgerald in serious debt for the first time in his life.

The family at Christmas, 19241924. The first truly bad year: the couple goes to France, Zelda has an affair with a French aviator, Fitzgerald works on his third novel, and they settle in Italy where he spends his time almost pickled in champagne every day. Despite earning almost $30,000 from his writing in 1924 (about $400,000 in today's dollars), the bills are mounting.

1925. Fitzgerald sees his third novel, THE GREAT GATSBY, published to good reviews but poor sales. In an almost clinical depression, he meets Earnest Hemingway at the Dingo Bar in Montparnasse. (He also has tea with Edith Wharton at her French estate.) He travels a bit with Hemingway, after being introduced to Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (the owner of the famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris). He spends the summer on the Riviera ("a thousand parties and no work") and hangs out with Rudolph Valentino. The rest of the year is spent with Hemingway in Paris.

1926. His third short story collection is published. More importantly for literary history, he reads Hemingway's first novel, THE SUN ALSO RISES, and suggests heavy revisions. Hemingway is resistant--but finally follows Fitzgerald's suggestions--and gets the novel published at Scribners through Fitzgerald's insistence.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris1927. Fitzgerald gets a contract with United Artists to write a flapper comedy for Constance Talmadge (it is never produced) and so moves his family out to Hollywood, beginning a lifelong, utterly self-defeating obsession with Tinseltown. After he drinks far too much with the likes of Lillian Gish and John Barrymore, the family moves back to Wilmington, Delaware, so he can sober up. Here, Zelda's mental health begins to take a nosedive; she begins her lifelong, utterly irrational quest to be a ballet dancer.

1928. The family heads for France so Zelda can continue her ballet studies with important masters of the art--all at heavy costs. Fitzgerald falls in with the likes of James Joyce--and is earning more money than almost any other writer of his day.

1929. He reads the manuscript for Hemingway's novel A FAREWELL TO ARMS. He makes suggestions, all of which Hemingway ridicules (at the loss of their friendship) but many of which he takes. Fitzgerald moves the family to Cannes; his short story rate has now crested $4000 per story. Zelda is dancing, writing some--but the bills are mounting relentlessly.

Fitzgerald's official publicity photo in 19301930. After a trip to North Africa, Zelda suffers a full psychotic break and is hospitalized at the Malmaison clinic outside Paris. She discharges herself three weeks later, resumes ballet lessons, attempts suicide, and is finally hospitalized at the Val-Mont clinic in Glion, Switzerland, where she is officially diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fitzgerald spends the year traveling between Paris and Switzerland to see Zelda and writing short stories.

1931. At his father's death, Fitzgerald goes back to the states. When he returns to Europe, he finds that Zelda is now an outpatient. They travel some in Italy and Switzerland, then sail for the U. S. in September, where they settle in Montgomery, Alabama. But "settle" is not a word he knows. He heads for Hollywood in November to work on a Jean Harlow property for MGM, paid $1200 per week.

1932. The drinking intensifies. Despite traveling whenever she is not hospitalized, Zelda finishes her novel while housed at the Phipps Clinic. The family moves to a home outside Baltimore--and Fitzgerald is hospitalized for thyphoid at Johns Hopkins. (He will be hospitalized eight more times in four years for tuberculosis and alcohol-related ailments.) After much cajoling on Fitzgerald's part, Zelda's novel, SAVE ME THE WALTZ, is published by Scribners in October to bad review and even worse sales.

The official jacket photo from Zelda's novel1933. Zelda's play, "Scandalabra," is produced by a Baltimore amateur theater. For Fitzgerald, most of the year is taken up with writing his new novel, TENDER IS THE NIGHT, which he sends to Scribners in October. Neither his physical health nor Zelda's mental health shows any improvement.

1934. Zelda is institutionalized again--and then transfered to Craig Hospital in Beacon, New York, in February. Fitzgerald writes: "I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanitorium." His novel TENDER IS THE NIGHT runs serially and then is published in April to good reviews and solid sales. Banking on his renown, he manages to convince a New York art gallery into giving Zelda's paintings an opening--which she attends, but then slips further into insanity and is sent to the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, considered at the time a stop of last resort. All this is taking a toll on his writing--his short story fee has now slipped to $250 a piece.

1935. Zelda is in the worst state yet. Fitzgerald spends most of the year in North Carolina, trying to regain his health--although he still drinks heavily at every turn. In Asheville, he has an affair with the married Beatrice Dance at the Grove Park Inn. He sees Zelda occasionally in Baltimore but mostly holes up in various rented apartment and hotel rooms, trying to write. As he later says of this period, "The extraordinary thing is not that people in a lifetime turn out worse or better than we had prophesied; particularly in America that is to be expected. The extraordinary thing is how people keep their levels, fulfill their promises, seem actually buoyed up by an inevitable destiny."

1936. Fitzgerald writes three confessional pieces including "The Crack-Up," now considered masterpieces in the genre of self-revelation and memoir. Zelda is transfered to a North Carolina hospital, essentially warehoused, a hopeless case. Fitzgerald's mother dies in August, but he does not return home for her funeral. Scottie, their daughter, enters the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut. After his birthday party in September, the New York Post publishes an article entitled "Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair." He attempts suicide with morphine and then spends the end of the year in Johns Hopkins Hospital, trying to dry out.

1937. His attempts to sell his stories are beginning to fall flat. His personal debt now exceeds $40,000 (about $1,200,000 in today's terms). He fires his agent (to whom he is also in debt)--and makes a go of it on his own. Through much finagling, he manages to land another contract with MGM at $1000/week. He moves to a rented apartment on Sunset Boulevard, works on the film "Three Comrades" based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel, and begins an affair with the 28-year-old British gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. Although heavily reworked by others, "Three Comrades" will become his only on-screen Hollywood credit.

Edward Everett Horton1938. He returns east to visit Zelda, takes her on a trip to Florida, and then returns to Hollywood to work on "Infidelity," a Joan Crawford property that is never produced. He takes Zelda and Scottie on a spring-break trip to Virginia Beach, where he is drunk the whole time and behaves quite badly. Back in Hollywood, he begins work on drafting the screenplay for the Claire Booth Luce play, "The Women." (He is eventually replaced on the project.) He moves to a small house on the actor Edward Everett Horton's estate. Still carrying on with Sheila Graham, he drafts a two-year tutoring program for her, "College for One," an intense overview of the humanities. He also begins work on the Greta Garbo property "Madame Curie." (Again, he will be replaced.) His daughter Scottie enters Vassar.

1939. He is hired for and works very briefly on the script for "Gone with the Wind." However, because of his erratic behavior, MGM drops him from the film, drops its option on him, and sends him into the vast Hollywood freelance pack. He is eventually hired by United Artists to work up a screenplay of "Winter Carnival" with Budd Schullberg. They take a trip to Dartmouth "for research," are drunk the whole time, and get fired from the project. He takes Zelda to Cuba in April but is so drunk that she--in her state--is forced to get him on a plane and get him back to New York where he is hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and other related health complications. Back in Hollywood by the fall, he gets a few freelance assignments, falls even deeper in debt, and begins work on another novel (eventually unfinished but edited by Edmund Wilson and published posthumously as THE LAST TYCOON, a novel about Hollywood).

One of the last photos of Fitzgerald, taken in Hollywood1940. He begins publishing stories in ESQUIRE about a hack Hollywood writer named Pat Hobby; he gets $250 a story and ends up selling 17 of them in a matter of months. In May, he moves to an apartment on Laurel Avenue in Hollywood, only a block from Graham's apartment. (Don't miss the irony that this was the name of the street he was born on--he wouldn't have.) He works feverishly on his novel--until he suffers a heart attack in November. He is ordered to bed rest and moves into Graham's apartment where he dies of a second heart attack on December 21. With Zelda's approval, he is to be buried in the family plot in Saint Mary's parish, Rockville, Maryland, but is then denied burial because he was not a practicing Catholic. Instead, he is buried in the Rockville Union Cemetary on December 27th. Zelda outlives him by 8 years, is repeatedly hospitalized, and is killed in a hospital fire in 1948. She is buried next to him in the Union Cemetary. In 1975, Scottie Fitzgerald successfully petitions to have her parents reburied in the family plot of Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetary. Their tombstone has as its epitaph the last line of THE GREAT GATSBY: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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