Carefully researched and a pleasure to read, historian David S. Brown’s Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a persuasive, original biography that will entice Fitzgerald fans and cultural historians alike. Brown shares a few little-known facts from the biography.
Everyone knows F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is variously remembered as the “Great American Dreamer,” the author of The Great Gatsby, and the man who coined the phrase “Jazz Age.” Fitzgerald was a literary celebrity in that dubious industry’s infancy and little that he--or his wife Zelda Sayre--did was off-limits. Still, he kept a few secrets to himself. Here are some facts from my biography, Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that you might not know:
1. Fitzgerald wrote the ‘great American novel’ in Europe. In May 1924, Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, and their two-year-old daughter, Scottie, boarded the SS Minnewaska in New York bound for Cherbourg France. Over the next several months, while in Paris, the Riviera, and Italy, Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, regarded as a quintessentially “American” story that raises serious questions about the country’s self-help mythology. The twilight mood of the novel might have been suggested by its author’s European stay. The Continent was only slowly emerging from the horrors of the First World War.
2. Fitzgerald wanted to be a poet. While at Princeton Fitzgerald wrote a number of poems. He was inspired by Keats, encouraged by his classmate John Peale Bishop, and wanted to become the American Rupert Brooke, the young British poet who died in 1915 while on his way to the landing at Gallipoli. In 1917, while in the army, Fitzgerald presumed he might meet a glorious death in battle and wished to leave behind a definitive generational statement. But he found it impossible to build upon his collegiate poems in an army atmosphere and turned instead to a novel that, after much reworking, was published in 1920 as This Side of Paradise.
3. Fitzgerald wrote a play that bombed. In the early 1920s Fitzgerald worked on The Vegetable, a play that lampooned America’s get-ahead mania. The “Vegetable” in question, Jerry Frost, pines to be a postman. He gets tight one night and dreams that he is president. In fact he no more wants to be president than he wants to be a poodle--he just thinks he should want to be president in a culture obsessed with power, money, and mobility. Fitzgerald’s skeptical look at the American Dream in this play did not endear him to audiences. The play opened in Atlantic City’s Apollo Theater in November 1923 and died in a single, dispiriting performance.
4. Jay Gatsby bears a resemblance to Fitzgerald’s maternal grandfather. Philip Francis McQuillan emigrated at eight from County Fermanagh, Ireland in 1842, settling with his family in Galena, Illinois. Like Gatsby, McQuillan uprooted and reinvented himself. He moved in 1857 to St. Paul, capital city of the Minnesota Territory, where he kept accounts for Beaupre & Temple, a wholesale grocery establishment. At 38, he took over the business and quickly amassed a fortune. Having gone from immigrant poverty to industrial age prosperity he died young (just a week past his 43 birthday), suffering from chronic nephritis compounded by tuberculosis. He left a legacy of $270,000, some $6 million in current dollars.
5. Fitzgerald attended but never graduated from Princeton. Following two years in a New Jersey prep school, Fitzgerald wanted to attend college in the East. Princeton, with its poised and privileged Ivy mien, attracted him immensely. He took--and failed--its entrance exams twice before meeting with the College’s Admissions Committee on what happened to be his 17th birthday and talked himself into the school. Over the next four years he neglected his studies, devoting his best energies to writing for a number of campus publications and drafting the lyrics for a musical put on by the Princeton University Triangle Club. In the winter of 1917, on the verge of failing out of the school, Fitzgerald left college to join the Army.
6. Fitzgerald’s father aided Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Edward Fitzgerald grew up in the Rockville/Montgomery County area of Maryland, which, due to its tobacco and slave economy, favored the Confederacy during the Civil War. At the age of nine Edward rowed Confederate spies across the Potomac River. He later helped a member of Mosby’s Raiders avoid arrest, and he cheered on Jubal Early’s army as it drove off Union forces at the Battle of Monocracy just outside of nearby Frederick. Scott’s distant connection to Francis Scott Key, writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is often noted, though his less-distant Confederate connection also played a powerful role in shaping his sense of American history.
7. Scott and Zelda were married just days after his first novel was published. On the first Saturday of April 1920, just eight days after the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre from Montgomery, Alabama. It was a small, rushed ceremony in the Rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Three of Zelda’s sisters attended but no parents were present and no party or reception followed the service. The Fitzgeralds honeymooned at the Biltmore Hotel and Zelda proceeded to invest in a new and more chic wardrobe.
8. Zelda came from a notable southern family. Like Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre (named by her mother for a fictional gypsy queen) could point to direct family ties to the old Confederacy. Her great-uncle, Jon Tyler Morgan, had been a Confederate general and later sat in the U.S. Senate; her maternal grandfather, Willis Benson Machen of Kentucky, served in the first and second Confederate Congresses and, briefly, the United States Senate. Zelda’s father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre, was an associate justice on the Alabama Supreme Court from 1909 to 1931. Zelda’s family kept a small domestic staff and lived in the fashionable west side of Montgomery.
9. Fitzgerald wanted to write a matricide. Following The Great Gatsby’s publication, Fitzgerald hoped to write a weighty social novel; at its center was to be a murder--a matricide. The famous Leopold and Loeb case (1924) involving the Chicago murder of a little boy by two adolescents perhaps suggested the plot. Variously called The Boy Who Killed His Mother, The World’s Fair, and Our Type, Fitzgerald could write only four chapters. Persistent financial needs kept him churning out short stories while Zelda’s breakdown in 1930 led him in a different artistic direction.
10. Fitzgerald’s last royalty check was for $13.13. In August 1940, Fitzgerald received a royalty check for a double-unlucky $13.13; four months later he died of heart failure at the age of 44. For the entire year, only about 15copies of The Great Gatsby had sold. Within a decade, however, a “revival” of Fitzgerald’s work began to influence both scholars and readers, and Fitzgerald moved into the American literary canon. In 2013 his publisher, Scribner's, estimated that some 25 million copies of Gatsby have been sold worldwide--a far cry from the fewer than 25,000 moved during its author’s life.