". . . I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white."
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, 1932
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald came to Princeton bright and shining out of a little prep school in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a fine-looking boy with yellow hair and green eyes. He did well in the Triangle Club and on the undergraduate paper, The Tiger; he had a flair for writing. But he lasted only one day on the freshman eleventoo lightand that hurt him. He went into uniform (cut by Brooks Brothers) as a second lieutenant in October 1917 but they kept him stateside, and that hurt, too. When he got out he took a job doing slogans for an advertising agency for ninety dollars a month. He moved into a one-room apartment on Claremont Parkway in the Bronx. He was going to write short stories in his spare hours, but he spent the time around the plush Manhattan bars. When he did write, the stories didn't
He drank too much and he brooded about Zelda Sayre, the pretty Alabama teenager he fell in love with when he was stationed at Camp Montgomery during the war. Would she wait for him? "As I hovered ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon, or went to lush and liquid garden parties in the East Sixties or tippled with Princetonians in the Biltmore Bar," he wrote later,"I was haunted always by my other lifemy drab room in the Bronx, my square foot of the subway, my fixation upon the day's letter from Alabamawould it come and what would it say?my shabby suits, my poverty, and love . . . I was a failuremediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer.
Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home."
In St. Paul, he locked himself in his old room and wrote This Side of Paradise, the story of Amory Blaine and all the fast girls he knew. It was not just another novel, but an eyewitness report on the New Freedom. "Oh, she's average," a girl in the book says of another flapper, "smokes sometimes, drinks punch, frequently kissedOh, yescommon knowledgeone of the effects of the war, you know." It was a surgical survey of the times. The bar-and-boudoir scenes weren't such as to lure book-buyers away from the outdoor
dramas of Zane Grey, Peter B. Kyne, or James Oliver Curwood in 1920, or to compete with the blazing desert passion in "The Sheik" in 1921, but Fitzgerald was off and running.
He brought Zelda to New York and married her at St. Patrick's, and if there was anything in "Paradise" that seemed improbable, Fitzgerald and his vivacious Southern beauty proceeded to put it in the record. They passed out on strangers' divans at fancy parties, rode down Fifth Avenue atop a taxi on a hot Sunday night, waded in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza. Scott started to shed his clothes at the Scandals and got thrown out of the theater. Zelda danced on tables and livened up dinner gatherings where the hootch wasn't flowing fast enough. They bought a Marmon and Zelda hung it on a fire hydrant.
Three months after the whirl began, Fitzgerald didn't have the price of his hotel bill. When he came out of the bank with the horrible facts, Zelda asked why he looked so unhappy. "We haven't got any money," he said. "Well, let's go to the movies," Zelda replied.
There would always be more advances from the publisher; more royalties, more advances, and fat checks from the magazines for short stories. They took a house in Westport to get away from the high life in Manhattan but their drinking companions found their way to Connecticut. A fresh reckoning came in December, 1920. They had used up $18,000 in three months. They were broke again, Zelda was pregnant, and they didn't want to bring a baby into what Fitzgerald called "the glamour and loneliness" of their existence. So they retreated to the family homestead in St. Paul. The novelist was gloomy there.
"I should like to sit down with half a dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick of life, liquor and literature," the author wrote Max Perkins at Scribners." . . . I'm sick of the flabby semi-intellectual softness in which I flounder with my generation." But he dug in and finished The Beautiful and The Damned. (Zelda wrote a review of it and asked everyone to buy it because, she said, she wanted a $300 cloth of gold dress, a platinum ring, and a new coat.) Then they came back East with their daughter and took a $300-a-month house on Long Island, complete with a second-hand Rolls Royce. The welcome sign went up again and the parties got longer. Another stock-taking in 1924 showed that the happy couple had run through $113,000 in four years, so Fitzgerald wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post called "How to Live on $36,000 a Year." In it he repeated a remark he made to Zelda once when they were discussing the recurrent shortage of ready cash in the family: "We're too poor to economize. Economy a luxury . . . Our only salvation is in extravagance." He had no regrets. "We had spent $36,000," he said of the semester under examination, "and purchased for one year the right to be members of the newly rich class. What more can one buy?"
Somewhere along the way Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, a novel of the Manhattan-Long Island speakeasy set with a bootlegger as its central character. It was generally hailed as his best book and seemed to some critics to mark Fitzgerald's flowering as a novelist, but by the time it appeared in 1925 the young author was heading over the hill. He was wandering around Europe with Zelda, savoring Paris"a thousand parties and no work," he saidand the lush Riviera resorts. Back in America, broke, Fitzgerald tried script-writing in Hollywood but it was an unhappy experience. In time, Fitzgerald looked back glumly on his Jazz Age.
"It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire," he wrote in The Crack-Up. ". . . This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted elders and eventually over-reached itself less through lack of morals than lack of taste. May one offer in exhibit the year 1922! That was the peak of the younger generation, for though the Jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth.
"The sequel was like a children's party taken over by the the edlers, leaving the children puzzled and rather neglected and rather taken aback. By 1923 their elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began. The younger generation was starred longer."
He didn't blame it on Prohibition. He didn't blame it on anything. He fell into despair. "In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning," he wrote, and in 1936, in The Crack-Up, he talked about "too much anger and too many tears." In that year he was in a sanitarium, trying to dry out and perhaps find himself again. "A series of things happened to papa," he told Michael Mok, a reporter for the New York Post. "So papa got depressed, and started to drink a little." What happened? "One blow after another," Fitzgerald said, "and something snapped."
Something had snapped with Zelda too. She had a series of mental breakdowns, beginning in Paris in 1929, and never completely recovered. She died in 1948 when fire swept a sanitarium in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was a patient. Fitzgerald, forty-four, had died of a heart attack eight years earlier in Hollywood. There was only a handful of people at the services for the poet-prophet of the Jazz Age but he left a mark on his generation. The pity was that his own dark tragedy exceeded anything he put on paper in the good days when he locked himself away and played with words.