F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Beautiful and Damned World

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born into a Catholic family in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 24, 1896. Educated in private prep schools and then at Princeton until 1917, when he enlisted in the army because he feared he wouldn’t graduate , he was a middle-class, Midwestern boy who coveted the wonders of the East. When he married Zelda Sayre, a southern, upper-class daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge , Fitzgerald thought he had it all. The couple lived the high life, moving back and forth between Paris, the Riviera, and New York, but after a while Fitzgerald became an old name and his money dwindled. After Zelda had her first mental breakdown in April 1930, Fitzgerald’s life went spiraling downhill. Trying to become a star in Hollywood, Fitzgerald failed, as he thought he had done in everything else in life. All the fame that he has today has come to him post-mortem, but undeservedly so. Although The Great Gatsby was not a hit when it was first published, it is now recognized as one of the great American novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald “epitomized the mood and manners of the 1920’s” as well as the writers living in the Jazz Age.

Fitgerald’s parents were of contrasting backgrounds. His father’s family was rich in Southern traditions and was from Maryland, while his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Irish immigrant. When Edward, his father, moved to upstate New York, after failing in the wicker business in St. Paul, Scott became home-schooled. However, in 1908, when Scott was twelve, the family moved back to St. Paul and Fitzgerald enrolled in the St. Paul Academy. The family moved again in late 1911 and Scott went to the Newman School in New Jersey, until 1913. After graduating high school, Fitzgerald was accepted to the Princeton class of 1917, but he didn’t graduate, and enlisted in the army instead. While in Europe, Fitzgerald came to terms with the fact that he was going to die in the war, so to leave a living legacy, he wrote a scanty novel entitled, “The Romantic Egotist”. Although the novel was praised for its originality, it was rejected and asked to be resubmitted when revised. This tumultuous way of life and Fitzgerald’s constant movement is a classic example of life in the 1920’s, where everything was alive but nothing was stable. The world was moving on a fast track, and Fitzgerald was going with the flow.

Still in the army after the war, Fitzgerald was sent to a reserve camp in Alabama, and while there he became infatuated with Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a distinguished Alabama Supreme Court judge. As Fitzgerald’s romance with Zelda blossomed, he became revitalized and continued to work on the revision of his novel. However, as the second letter of rejection came from the publishing company, Fitzgerald was discharged and moved to New York City. After his unsuccessful attempts to convince her to stay, Zelda moved back to Alabama and Fitzgerald went home to St. Paul. Although he had left New York, the City had left a mark on him and he forever envisioned himself as living in the East. In fact in a letter to Charles Scribner in 1934, he went as far as to say that the Midwest was for fools, and as Tom Buchanan said, “Oh, I’ll stay in the East, don’t you worry. I’d be a God Damn fool to live anywhere else.” (The Great Gatsby – Pgs. 14-15) Home in St. Paul, Fitzgerald finally finished his story, “The Romantic Egotist”, but had changed the title to This Side of Paradise.

After Scribner’s accepted the book, Fitzgerald took a break from novel work to focus on becoming a magazine writer. After This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920, Fitzgerald became instantly famous and married Zelda the next week in New York City. In December 1920, Fitzgerald began work on The Beautiful and the Damned, a characterization of the Jazz Age and of the Fitzgeralds’ lives. Scott’s hurried and confused life became more chaotic when the couple moved back to St. Paul so Zelda could give birth to their only child, Frances Scott (Scottie) Fitzgerald, in October 1921. They didn’t stay in Minnesota for long however, and in late 1922, they moved to Great Neck, Long Island (Great Neck is in the same location as The Great Gatsby’s West Egg). In another letter to Scribner in early 1923, Fitzgerald said of the times he was living in, “The Jazz Age is an age of miracles, it is an age of art, it is an age of excess, and it is an age of satires.” In the spring of 1924, the Fitzgeralds moved to France, where Scott began work on The Great Gatsby. After spending a year revising and editing his third novel, Gatsby was published in April 1925. Although critics loved it, the book had a disappointing sales record and the couple moved to Rome. After journeying back to America in late 1926, Fitzgerald began work on his fourth novel, “The Boy Who Killed His Mother”. This constant movement between Europe and the United States, which paralleled the lives of other American writers such as Hemmingway, contributed greatly to the breakdown of Zelda. The family stayed at a mansion called “Ellerslie” near Wilmington, Delaware, for nearly two years, interrupted only by a visit to Paris in the summer of 1928. This was the longest Fitzgerald had stayed in the same place since he was at Princeton from 1913-1917, displaying the hectic lifestyle that writers led in the 1920’s.

In April 1929, Zelda started to dance and aspired to turn professional. Her intense training impeded her health and led to her first mental breakdown in March 1930. She was treated in Switzerland until September 1931 , and when she was released, the couple returned to America and rented a house in Alabama. Zelda’s “unconventional behavior” continued and on February 12, 1932, she suffered her second breakdown and entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. She was never completely released from the hospital and spent the remainder of her life as either a resident or an outpatient of sanitariums. While living outside of Baltimore, Fitzgerald finished writing his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, “a thinly disguised, almost confessional story of his life with Zelda.” In 1936, Fitzgerald entered the beginning of the end of his life after moving to North Carolina and putting up fourteen year-old Frances for adoption. In mid-1937, Fitzgerald left for Hollywood to work for MGM Studios. Finally, after years of long-distance communication, Scott stopped seeing Zelda and fell in love with a California writer named Sheila Graham. F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a sudden heart attack in Graham’s apartment on December 21, 1940, at the age of forty-four.

Fitzgerald died thinking of himself as a failure. He had made the equivalent of $40,000 a year during the course of his life, but his family spent the money faster than he could earn it. Toward the end, both Zelda and Frances became hindrances to Fitzgerald’s life, not part of it, and he reverted to alcohol to drown out his sorrows. Many of his novels contained forlorn, lovesick characters that resembled Scott himself. The 1920’s were full of wonderful highs, but also deathly lows in which the rising economy of the first eight years of the decade paralleled the early portion of Fitzgerald’s life, but the crash of 1929 matched his downfall. “Like the Jazz Age, they [Zelda and Scott] were both beautiful and damned, and like it, they destroyed themselves.” Fitzgerald’s life was “an extraordinary portrait of an age, of a marriage, and of a man and a woman who cared too much, who lived too passionately, whose fatal flaw was their incredible capacity for life.”


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  • Fitzgerald, Zelda. Save Me the Waltz. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932
  • Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. London: William Clowes & Sons, 1962
  • “Fitzgerald, F(rancis) Scott (Key).” Bookshelf 1998. CD-ROM. Microsoft, 1996-7.
  • “Fitzgerald, F(rancis) Scott (Key).” Encarta 1998. CD-ROM. Microsoft