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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Tragic, Gifted Lives of the Fitzgeralds

By Tom Morrow

If ever there was an example of success ruining two lives it was the tragic fame of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 24, 1896, was an early 20th century author whose novels and short stories centered around the Jazz Age of the twenties and thirties. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. However, his wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, was essential to Scott’s success for being his collaborative muse.

Scott Fitzgerald is considered a member of the so-called “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. He finished four novels: “This Side of Paradise,” (1920; “The Beautiful and Damned,” (1922); “The Great Gatsby,” (1925); and “Tender Is the Night,” (1934). A fifth, unfinished novel, “The Love of the Last Tycoon,” was published posthumously, (1951). The bulk of Fitzgerald’s work was dozens of magazine short stories.

Born in Montgomery, Ala., Zelda was a Southern-turned New York socialite who influenced the writing of her husband. Reportedly, Zelda met Scott at a Montgomery, Ala., country club dance which he later portrayed in his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” when he describes Jay Gatsby’s first encounter with Daisy Buchanan.

On Feb. 14, 1919, he was discharged from the military and went north to establish himself as a writer in New York City. After being married, Scott and Zelda quickly became celebrities of New York society for the success of his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” Because of their wild and drunken parties, they were ordered to leave both the Biltmore Hotel and the Commodore Hotel.

In 1924, they went to France where Scott wrote “The Great Gatsby.”

In April 1925, Scott met Ernest Hemingway in Paris. Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald became good friends, but Zelda and Hemingway disliked each other from their very first meeting. Hemingway told Scott he thought Zelda was crazy. It was through Hemingway, however, the Fitzgeralds were introduced to much of the expatriate community of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and others.

In April 1930, Zelda was admitted to a sanatorium in France where, she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. In September 1931, the Fitzgeralds returned to Montgomery.

In 1932, while being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Zelda had a burst of creativity. She wrote an entire novel and sent it to Scott’s publisher. When Scott read Zelda’s book, he was furious. The book was a semi-autobiographical account of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. In letters, Scott berated her and fumed the novel had drawn upon the autobiographical material that he planned to use in “Tender Is the Night,” which he’d been working on for years, and which would finally see publication in 1934.

In 1937, Zelda remained in an Asheville, N.C., hospital while Scott returned to Hollywood for a $1,000-a-week job with MGM. Without Zelda’s knowledge, he began a serious affair with the popular movie columnist Sheilah Graham.

After a drunken and violent fight with Graham in 1938, Scott returned to Asheville. Then the Fitzgeralds went to Cuba, but the trip was a disaster even by their standards. Scott was beaten up when he tried to stop a cockfight and returned to the U.S. so intoxicated and exhausted that he had to be hospitalized. After that fiasco, the Fitzgeralds never saw each other again.

Scott returned to Hollywood and Graham; Zelda returned to the hospital, but in 1940, she was released, nearing her 40th birthday. Zelda’s friends were long gone, and Scott no longer had much money. He was increasingly embittered by his own failures and his old friend Ernest Hemingway’s continued success made him furious, nonetheless they wrote each other frequently until Scott’s death in December 1940. Zelda was unable to attend his funeral in Rockville, Md.

On the night of March 10, 1948, in the Asheville mental hospital where Zelda was back as a patient for manic depression, a fire broke out in the hospital’s kitchen. Zelda had been locked into a room, awaiting electroshock therapy. The fire spread to every floor, including the wooden fire escapes. Zelda and eight other women died. Her death went barely noticed – she was 48.

Their tragic lives are best mirrored in Scott’s “The Great Gatsby.”


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