The curious case of F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda and all that jazz

An ode to the 'cult hero' who threw it all away.

 |  11-minute read |   30-05-2018
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On May 27, in 1922, the US magazine Collier's carried an uncanny story by a young, already successful writer destined to be a part of the vanguard of American literature. The author's name was F Scott Fitzgerald and the story was "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button".

Fitzgerald's slender, original piece of fantasy writing about a new-born "old man" who ages in reverse didn't go well with the reading public of the day. Shortly, after the publication of "Benjamin Button", Fitzgerald received a letter from an anonymous reader:

"Sir -

I have read the story Benjamin Button in Collier's and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic. I have seen many pieces of cheese in my life but of all the pieces of cheese I have ever seen you are the biggest piece. I hate to waste a piece of stationary on you but I will."

Fitzgerald explains in his author's note that the story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain: "It was a pity the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part came at the end."

The 25-page story remained confined to Fitzgerald's collected works for years before its worth was recognised.

f-scot-690_053018065507.jpgFrancis Scott Fitzgerald, a legend at 24. 

It was 86 years after the publication of this whimsy, amusing yet absurd work of fiction that it was turned into a film by director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, which unlike the story was well received and earned rave reviews from many critics of great repute.

The plot of the film, however, is poles apart from that of the short story, though the basic idea is the same.

Not a dash man

It would be fair to say that when it comes to short stories, Fitzgerald was a second rate albeit talented writer. Though he hated to be called a Saturday Evening Post writer, but he was a regular contributor there. The Post used to pay well in those days and he had achieved this much-yearned stability in his writing career after getting 122 rejection slips from various publications before his first short story was published for 30 dollars.

The novelists like Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Compton Mackenzie and John Galsworthy had had a huge influence on his writing style. He was a poetic writer, who seems to have taken Tolstoy's advice to young writers rather seriously. The Russian master's advice was: "Model yourself on tales and fables and parable."

The shortest of all his short stories, "Thank You for the Light", which was posthumously published in The New Yorker in 2012, has that fable-like feel about it. It was written in 1936, when Fitzgerald had become an alcoholic, his productivity was beginning to diminish, and his reputation was fading. One can sense a growing weariness in his tone; anxiety and godlessness pervading the story.

Many of his stories were written in haste to meet his expenses. However, some of them, particularly "Babylon Revisited" (1931), and his novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1921) can easily be ranked with the finest short fiction of the 20th century.

Yet, Fitzgerald is regarded as a lightweight short-story writer who was plying his trade in a literary world dominated by the rugged, Hemingway types.

Golden couple of the Jazz Age

So, who was this man whose reputation only burgeoned with time, who was considered a "cult hero" but threw it all away and whose books though were not bestsellers in his lifetime but went on to become classics?

Great grandnephew of poet Francis Scott Key, Fitzgerald was born in St Paul, Minnesota on September 24, 1896. After completing a parochial education to little avail, he entered Princeton, where his focus remained more inclined towards extracurricular than academic interests. He wrote poems, plays and stories for his college literary magazine. An illness and timely enlistment to the Army saved him blushes at college - he never graduated.

zelda-s_053018065757.jpgJazz Age icons Scott and Zelda.

This was the time when most undergraduates were increasingly occupied in World War I in Europe after the US declared war on Germany.

Fitzgerald never served abroad much to his dismay, as a second lieutenant he spent most of his time at training camps at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He met a beautiful girl of 18 from Alabama at a dance in 1918, while he was at a training camp in Montgomery. He began courting Zelda Sayre, who later became an artist-writer. She proved to be one of the most powerful influences on his life and also, according to many including Hemingway, someone who irredeemably dimmed his talent.

Zelda's novel Save Me the Waltz (1932) is a revealing account of her competitive feelings towards Fitzgerald.

Though ambitious, Zelda was reckless and extravagant in her ways. She didn't make it any easy for Fitzgerald during courtship and made exceedingly huge demands on the young writer's romantic ambitions. He fell head over heels for Zelda and she soon responded. After getting discharged from the Army, Fitzgerald joined an advertising agency in New York to make sufficient money to marry Zelda.

But in the summer of 1919 the future best-looking couple of the literary society of the Jazz Age had a fall out - Zelda broke their engagement and Fitzgerald returned to his parent's home in Minnesota to focus on his writing. It was a gamble, considering in those times, according to a statistic 12, 536 young men in America were leaving their jobs every year to take up writing. Fitzgerald, however, succeeded and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was not until This Side of Paradise would be published that Zelda would accept Fitzgerald's proposal to marry him. The novel was an earlier work entitled The Romantic Egoist, which was rejected by publisher Scribner's.

It was accepted in 1920 after he had rewritten it. Despite establishing his reputation with the novel, he would have to wait until the coming of his one true masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), to achieve the fame and repute he hungered for.

They married in April 1920 and soon Fitzgerald became a legend at the age of 24.

ze_053018064229.jpgZ: The Beginning of Everything is based on Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

For several years after their marriage, the couple lived in Paris and on the French Riviera, spending extravagantly and way beyond their means. During this period, Fitzgerald was regularly writing potboilers to make money.

It was during his time in France that he got acquainted with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway who was the pioneer of the post-war "Lost Generation" to which Fitzgerald also belonged. Fitzgerald is known to have aided and guided Hemingway when the latter was making his mark in the literary world.

Shouldn't art be impersonal?

The success of all good writers can be majorly attributed to their finesse of creating characters that readers adore with all their faults and virtues. Such adroitness among writers is rare. And in the light of this statement, Fitzgerald was indeed a rare talent.

For in his novels and short stories, he created characters like Jay Gatsby, Charles J Wales, Dick Diver and others whom one is bound to love despite all their flaws and weaknesses.

As readers, in Fitzgerald we find most of what is considered avant-garde, if not everything. And apart from regaling us, what he really does is present a proper study of an epoch coping with the hangover of the Depression and World War I.

Through his characters, he helps us know ourselves better - that is the essence of all good literature and the mark of a good writer.

Many writers, even the most successful ones, draw heavily from their personal experiences for their works. Even the very best of them - the heavyweights - express their obsessions and heresies in their writing rather than relying solely on imagination. Fitzgerald was no different. In fact, he was known for taking notes of witty utterances of his friends to use them later as material for his work.

If that was not enough, he used love letters written to him by his first lover Ginevra King - a lively, intelligent girl belonging to an affluent family of banking aristocracy. This failed love affair of two years compelled Fitzgerald to claim that "poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls".

Some romances last forever, despite separation. This one certainly did for Fitzgerald. He used his great, youthful struggle for love - and rejection - as material for his fiction, traces of which can be found in Gatsby.

so-we-beat-on_053018070845.jpgThe Great Gatsby, quoted on Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald's gravestone. Photo: Pinterest

In an essay in The New York Review of Books, Irish writer John Banville wrote: "Part of his (Fitzgerald's) problem, right up to the last, when he was broken in spirits, was his good looks. Hemingway in his youth was handsome, but Fitzgerald was beautiful, in a way that neither he nor others could ignore. He was a troubled Narcissus, engrossed and bemused by his own physical loveliness.

His helpless admiration of himself would not matter, except insofar as it mars his work, infecting it with a peculiar kind of low-level silliness that he seemed unaware of, and certainly made no effort to cure, Tender is the Night which he considered, and which many others still consider, his finest achievement, fairly throbs with self-regard in the portrait of its main character, Dick Diver, whom Fitzgerald closely modelled on himself."

Fitzgerald had modelled Diver's future wife, Nicole Warren, on Zelda. Fitzgerald's second novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is also believed to be loosely based on his relationship with Zelda.

The popular notion that one should judge a novel keeping it separate from the moral fibre of the author doesn't seem to apply in Fitzgerald's case. And in a sense, it is only in a minor degree that art can appear divorced from the moral insights of the artist.

In other words, the absence of the self or in Keatsian terminology "negative capability" is hard to achieve in fiction.

Posthumous fame

When a writer of great repute dies, his critics assure themselves he is at last tamed and caged. It was only after his death that the works of Fitzgerald attained the due respect they should have attained in his lifetime. His posthumous fame surprised many who knew him quite well and had given meagre treatment to his fiction.

The Great Gatsby, "a fable of the 1920s", had a modest beginning, and was far from being a bestseller even though it earned praises of an eminent critic like TS Eliot. Its reach was limited, and the sales never picked up.

Twelve years after its publication, Fitzgerald himself couldn't find a bookstore with a single copy of the novel. Two decades after Fitzgerald's death, 50,000 copies of the novel were being sold every year.

Fitzgerald is perhaps the most written about the writer of the last century. His romance with Zelda can be found in many contemporary novels. The love letters of the pair were published in 2002. The character of Jay Gatsby was portrayed beautifully by Leonardo DiCaprio in director Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013).

Fitzgerald's incomplete novel The Last Tycoon (1941), where it is said his prose achieved its greatest power, has been adapted for a TV series. An online series Z: The beginning of Everything was released in 2015, which is based on Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler.

Many new books have come up in the past few years about the Fitzgeralds. The most notable being The Subversive Art of Zelda Fitzgerald by Deborah Pike and Paradise Lost: A Life of F Scott Fitzgerald by David S Brown. The couple's former home in Montgomery has been turned into a literary vacation spot. The Fitzgeralds are still quite a rage, despite departing from the world more than half a century back.

The beautiful and damned

Fitzgerald's fate oscillated between success and failure for a while before its final doom. After living a luxuriant life, brushing shoulders with the who's who of the high society, things began to fall apart for the Fitzgeralds. By 1927, Zelda's mental health was deteriorating, she was institutionalised. Fitzgerald was struggling with his drinking habit. He was no longer the same writer - clearly the machine was wearing down. In 1936, he wrote a series of confessional pieces titled "The Crack Up" for Esquire.

The final years of the writer are recorded in these pieces, which he wrote for 300 dollars a piece.

And then literary crocodiles began attacking him. They said he should confess his drinking problem in his pieces, which he did a decade before his death in "Babylon Revisited". The pieces deal with his despairs, and his courage that kept him going during the twilight of his career.

The writer who had lived among the riches, like a rich, despite despising and finding the rich fascinating was now known as "Poor Scott" in literary circles. They said he was whining like a woman in these pieces. This gave ample opportune moments to his critics to lambast him.

The good old Fitzgerald, who wrote poetry in prose with a sense of history turned to script writing for Hollywood in 1937. It made little different to his repute.

At the age of 44, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in December 1940 and Zelda died in a fire a few years after his death. He died like an artist with his canvas still wet. The Last Tycoon, though unfinished and unrevised (he was known to rewrite a lot) have that integrity and vision of a true artist.

The world forgot him, only to find him again.

Also read: Remembering Lawrence Durrell, master of The Alexandria Quartet


M Saad

Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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