I have long been a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I reckon anyone who has ever nurtured dreams of being a writer has been fascinated by the romantic legend of this great master. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The American Dreamer is a straightforward biographical documentary tracing Fitzgerald’s life from his beginnings on Summit Ave. in St. Paul to his death aged forty-four from a heart attack.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota to an upper middle class Irish Catholic family. He knew he would be a writer from a young age and showed unusual intelligence and a keen interest in literature. His first story was published in the local newspaper at the age of thirteen and by the time he attended college in Princeton the two most defining influences on his life were already in place; literary genius and a drinking problem.
Fitzgerald published the three novels that would make his reputation in a twelve year period: The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934). He had a marvellous ear which informed his lyrical style. His first drafts were undistinguished but as he repeatedly revised them the work was polished into the remarkable novels that have become legendary. He revised Tender is the Night seventeen times before he considered it good enough to send to his publisher.
However Fitzgerald’s alcoholism meant that he was washed up by forty, only five years older than I am now. He was widely regarded as a hopeless alcoholic who had squandered his talent. His friend and contemporary Ernest Hemingway chided him for his ‘whoring’; writing commercial short stories in order to make money rather than focussing on his novels. It must have been awful for Fitzgerald to know that his best work was behind him at an age where he should have been looking forward to his finest professional phase.
Fitzgerald was not a man’s man like his contemporaries Hemingway or Mailer, but women were charmed by him nonetheless, most notably Zelda Sayre, the golden girl of Alabama society. They married in 1920 when Scott was twenty-four and of Zelda he said, ‘it was a love that was one in a century’. It was a grand life-changing love and a destructive one too. Zelda couldn’t bear to be bored and hated when Scott disappeared to work and left her alone. She turned to partying to amuse herself and encouraged Fitzgerald to join her, providing continual opportunities for his alcoholism.
Zelda was certainly the life and soul of any party but this masked psychiatric problems, and those who claimed that Zelda was eccentric were mistaken. Zelda first developed schizophrenia at the age of thirty and was in and out of treatment for the rest of her life which was a huge burden on Scott both emotionally and financially. Even though they lived apart they never divorced. Zelda spent her last years after Scott’s death in mental institutions and died in a fire in a hospital aged forty-eight.
When Fitzgerald died his books weren’t in print and his genius was only rediscovered in the 1950s. Nowadays The Great Gatsby is regarded as one of the great classics of American literature and Fitzgerald is considered a master of style. For those wishing to know more about him his books are the first place to start as they were inspired by events in his life, but there is also a comprehensive and sympathetic biography by Matthew Bruccoli, who is considered the preeminent Fitzgerald scholar, which I would highly recommend.