Monday, September 24, 2012

Happy birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

It is the birthday of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896), who is best remembered for his Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby (1925), which is considered to be among the best 20th century novels in the English language. The volume is a study of the pursuit of love and money in the Prohibition era, but it was an earlier examination of the same subject that gave Fitzgerald his start.

His first published novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), a tale of a young man and his search for love in the period right after World War I, is partly based on his courtship of Zelda Sayre, whom he met while in the Army and stationed in Montgomery, Alabama.

Zelda came from a prominent Southern family. Her father was a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and her great uncle was a U.S. Senator. Her grandfather was the editor of a newspaper in Montgomery. Zelda was bright, rambunctious, and given to eyebrow-raising antics. She once wore a flesh-colored bathing suit to spur rumors that she swam nude. She started drinking and smoking in high school, along with spending time alone with boys, a practice that was discouraged in proper society at the time.

Fitzgerald was smitten with her and, in fact, changed the main character in his novel to more resemble her. Fitzgerald had written a novel he called The Romantic Egoist and had sent it off to Scribner's before joining the Army. It was returned by editor Maxwell Perkins, with suggestions for revisions.

Zelda was intrigued by Fitzgerald and his notions about achieving fame and fortune through his writing, but she wasn't certain that he could support her. In the summer of 1919, she broke off their relationship. Fitzgerald, now 22, returned home to St. Paul, Minnesota, to finish revising his novel, which he believed would become an instant success and would help him win Zelda's heart. Fitzgerald used about 80 pages from his original story, but heavily reworked it according to Perkins' suggestions.

Fitzgerald worked feverishly on the novel and finished it by September. It was accepted by Scribner's and Fitzgerald rushed back to Zelda in Montgomery, where their relationship resumed. Fitzgerald convinced Zelda to agree to marry him, though her family and friends didn't approve of young Fitzgerald. He drank too much, they thought, and besides, he was Catholic, a fact that gained him no points among her Episcopalian family members.

Still, Zelda agreed to the engagement. This Side of Paradise was published in March 1920 and it sold out its original printing in three days. Fitzgerald sent a telegram to Zelda requesting that she come to New York. They were married in St. Patrick's Cathedral on April 3.

The rest of that year and the following year, the novel went through twelve printings. The Fitzgeralds celebrated in wild flapper style. They became legendary. Their excessive drinking and partying got them kicked out of two hotels. F. Scott and Zelda were iconic — the epitome of youthful success in the Jazz Age.

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