Fitzgerald’s obituaries were mixed. There was a general tendency to associate him with the excesses of the Twenties. The respectful obituaries expressed a sense of regret for Fitzgerald’s failure to fulfill his promise. None of the assessments predicted that Fitzgerald would be accorded a safe place among the greatest American authors. That claim was first made in Stephen Vincent Benét’s December 1941 review of Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel.
All four novels were characterized by rich, loose-living characters, who grew older as Mr. Fitzgerald grew older. Invariably they met disillusionment and despair. In commenting on Mr. Fitzgerald’s last novel, “Tender Is the Night,” Clifton Fadiman, book critic for “The New Yorker,” summed up Mr. Fitzgerald’s career with the words:
“In Mr. Fitzgerald’s case, at any rate, money is the root of all novels. In ‘This Side of Paradise,’ Mr. Fitzgerald’s first and most successful novel, the world of super-wealth was viewed through the glass of undergraduate gayety, sentiment and satire. With ‘The Great Gatsby’ the good-time note was dropped, to be replaced by a darker accent of tragic questioning.”
Mr. Fitzgerald came of an old Southern family. His great-grandfather’s brother was Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The author was named after him. His father’s aunt was Mrs. Suratt, one of the conspirators hanged for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Fitzgerald’s father went through several severe financial reverses, which gave his son an understandable fear of poverty. The family, however, was able to send him to Princeton University, where his undergraduate escapades are still remembered. He passed his entire freshman year writing a show for the Triangle Club, which was accepted, and then tutored in the subjects in which he had failed so he could come back and act in it.
The war ended before his unit saw service and Mr. Fitzgerald tried to sell the novel. It was rejected. After holding a job in advertising in New York a few months, he quit and returned to St. Paul, where his family was living, and rewrote “The Romantic Egotist” under the title “This Side of Paradise.”
It was published in 1920 and was tremendously successful. The hero, Amory Blaine, a young Princeton undergraduate like Mr. Fitzgerald, was considered a composite of all the sad young men of the post-war flapper era, and the novel became a sort of social document of its time. Mr. Fitzgerald, who was only twenty-three years of age, was greeted as one of the most promising of young writers.
In 1923 he wrote “The Vegetable,” a satire in play form, and in 1925 “The Great Gatsby,” which was generally regarded as his best novel. It is the story of a mysterious man, whose money, it is implied, comes from something dishonest. In the end he is broken, not by his sins, but by his aspirations. Mr. Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age,” a book of short stories, was also popular.
The Fitzgeralds lived in France from 1925 to 1928, where Mr. Fitzgerald wrote short stories later incorporated in “All the Sad Young Men.” Returning in 1928, he said that “the French are as far above us as we are above the African Negro.” After an interval of nine years his last novel, “Tender Is the Night,” was published in 1934. Critics commented that he had never quite lived up to his early promise.
“Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering,” he wrote. “This is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general, but at 3 o’clock in the morning the cure doesn’t workòand in a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning.”
A reporter once asked him what he thought had become of the jazz-mad, gin-drinking generation he wrote of in “This Side of Paradise.”
His answer was: “Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors.”
For the last three years, Mr. Fitzgerald had been in Hollywood. He had done little screen work recently, however, and his writing consisted of a few short stories for magazines and a play he was working on.
Surviving, besides his wife, who is living in Montgomery, Ala., is a daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald.
òNew York Herald Tribune, 23 December 1940, p. 14.
Fitzgerald, who died yesterday at the tragically early age of forty-four, continued to show “promise” all through his tortured career. He turned out many glittering short stories which were commercial successes. His admirers kept hoping for the elusive something which would be called great. In 1925, with a compact and brilliant novel, “The Great Gatsby,” the story of the rise and fall of a Long Island bootlegger, he renewed their faith. As literature it was perhaps the best thing he ever did. Then came long periods when he did little, or nothing. He was ill, troubled, unhappy. In 1934, with “Tender Is the Night,” he had another successòbut again the critics, while admiring much of it, confessed that they had been expecting something better. Once more he had shown the high promise that somehow always fell just short of fulfillment. And yet, it cannot be taken away from him that he left a substantial literary legacy. He could write prose that was extraordinarily smooth, but it was never soft. It had, as the saying has it, “bones” in it.
The gaudy world of which Fitzgerald wroteòthe penthouses, the long week-end drunks, the young people who were always on the brink of madness, the vacuous conversation, the lush intoxication of easy moneyòhas in large measure been swept away. But Fitzgerald understood this world perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. And as a literary craftsman he described it, accurately and sometimes poignantly, in work that deserves respect.
òNew York Herald Tribune, 23 December 1940, p. 18.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.
Immediately after word of the death of the author of “This Side of Paradise” was telegraphed to his wife at Montgomery, Ala., arrangements were made through Pierce Bros. mortuary to send his body to Baltimore, Md., his family home, for burial.
Readers of the 1930’s did not know Fitzgerald as did those of the postwar era.
For he was the latters’ most articulate voice.
His own early life paralleled that of his recurrent protagonist: the young man, caught in a turbulent age, uncertain, seeking.
There he found much of the atmosphere which fills his first books.
It was wartime. In 1917, deserting the university in his senior year, he entered the Army as a second lieutenant in the 45th Infantry. Two years later he left the service. He was 23.
Its hero, Amory Blaine, approximated “all the sad young men” of the distracted time. (That phrase was to become the title of a Fitzgerald short-story collection six years later.) Hailed by critics as a great first novel, “This Side of Paradise” was a period piece, a sort of social paper.
At 26, Fitzgerald was in Who’s Who. His clubs were listed as Cottage (Princeton) and Sound View Golf. His politics was Socialist. One critic described his works as documentary “in their vivid presentations of adolescent life, its turbulent spirit, swift tempo, charged atmosphere, excesses and boldness, as well as its uncertain psychology and groping to know itself in new and unadjusted conditions.”
His books also were milestones of this topsy-turvy epoch.
“The Beautiful and Damned” came in 1922, two years after his first novel and “Flappers and Philosophers.” Later he wrote “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night.” He saw his generation as truly lost. One of his collected volumes was titled “Taps at Reveille.”
In recent years Fitzgerald wrote no novels. Instead, he came to Hollywood in 1937. He adapted Gatsby to the screen, then did the scenario for Remarque’s “Three Comrades.”
Saturday he succumbed to a second.
His life in Hollywood had been quiet. His hobbies were children and water sports. He was a connoisseur of fine wines. Occasionally a Fitzgerald short story would appear in a national magazine. But mostly he worked on his last play for the New York stage. He lived at 1403 N. Laurel Ave.
In 1920 he married Zelda Sayre, daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice. They had one daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald.
òLos Angeles Times, 23 December, 1940, Part I, pp. 1-2.
Fitzgerald had an importanceòonly time will tell whether it was ephemeralòbecause he made himself the voice of youth crying in the wilderness of political and social and moral muddling. The youth he knew was dissolute, but it was also courageous. It was unstable, but it was also questing. It was a phenomenon of the postwar, Turbulent Twenties, a hangover from Versailles. Youth sensed that security had not been secured, but it did not know what to do about it. Neither did Fitzgerald. But he made people think. And that was something.
He was a brilliant, sometimes profound, writer. That his work seemed to lack a definite objective was not his fault, but the fault of the world in which he found himself. He has left us a legacy of pertinent questions which he did not pretend to be able to answer. That was not the smallest part of his greatness.
òLos Angeles Times, 24 December 1940, Part II, p. 4.
òThe New York Times, 28 December 1940, p. 10.
òLos Angeles Times
Fitzgerald was a writer, and a born writer, and a writer who strove against considerable odds to widen his range, to improve and sharpen his great technical gifts, and to write a kind of novel that no one else of his generation was able to write. How far he had come along the road to mastery may be seen in this unfinished draft of his last novel. We have had a good many books about Hollywood, including the interesting and staccato “What Makes Sammy Run?” But the difference between even the best of them and “The Last Tycoon” is not merely a difference of degree but a difference in kind. “The Last Tycoon” shows what a really first-class writer can do with materialòhow he gets under the skin. It doesn’t depend for success on sets or atmosphere, local color or inside stuff; it doesn’t even depend for effect on the necessary exaggerations of the life that it describes. All that is thereòthe Martian life of the studios, brilliantly shown. But it is character that dominates the book, the complex yet consistent character of Monroe Stahr, the producer, hitched to the wheels of his own preposterous chariot, at once dominating and dominated, as much a part of his business as the film that runs through the cameras, and yet a living man. Had Fitzgerald been permitted to finish the book, I think there is no doubt that it would have added a major character and a major novel to American fiction. As it is, “The Last Tycoon” is a great deal more than a fragment. It shows the full powers of its author, at their height and at their best.
Wit, observation, sure craftsmanship, the verbal felicity that Fitzgerald could always summonòall these are in “The Last Tycoon.” But with them, there is a richness of texture, a maturity of point of view that shows us what we all lost in his early death. And, included in this volume, besides a synopsis of the uncompleted portion of the novel and a number of Fitzgerald’s notes for it, are “The Great Gatsby” and some of the short stories, among them “The Rich Boy,” “Absolution,” and “May Day.” I could have wished for moreòfor a couple of the earlier ones with their easy, floating grace instead of the rather labored “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” But the ones here are enough for evidenceòand the evidence is in. You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputationòand, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.
òThe Saturday Review of Literature, 24 (6 December 1941), p. 10.
This page updated December 4, 2003.
Copyright 2003, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.