Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Writer of the Jazz Age

The Author Who Captured the Lost Generation

F. Scott Fitzgerald writing at his desk
F. Scott Fitzgerald writing at his desk, circa 1920 (Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, born Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940) was an American author whose works became synonymous with the Jazz Age. He moved in the major artistic circles of his day but failed to garner widespread critical acclaim until after his death at the age of 44.

Fast Facts: F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • Full Name: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald
  • Known For: American author
  • Born: September 24, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Died: December 21, 1940 in Hollywood, California
  • Spouse: Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (m. 1920-1940)
  • Children: Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald (b. 1921)
  • Education: Princeton University
  • Notable Works: This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Early Life

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a well-off upper-middle-class family. His parents were Edward Fitzgerald, a former Marylander who moved north after the Civil War, and Molly Fitzgerald, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who made a fortune in the grocery industry. Fitzgerald was named after his distant cousin, Francis Scott Key, who famously wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only a few months before his birth, two of his sisters died suddenly.

The family did not spend his early life in Minnesota, however. Edward Fitzgerald worked mostly for Proctor and Gamble, so the Fitzgeralds spent most of their time living in upstate New York and in West Virginia, following Edward’s job demands. Nevertheless, the family lived quite comfortably, thanks to a wealthy aunt and Molly’s inheritance from her own rich family. Fitzgerald was sent to Catholic schools and proved to be a bright student with a particular interest in literature.

In 1908, Edward Fitzgerald lost his job and the family returned to Minnesota. When F. Scott Fitzgerald was 15 he was sent away from home to attend a prestigious Catholic prep school, the Newman School, in New Jersey.

College, Romances, and Military Life

After graduating from Newman in 1913, Fitzgerald decided to stay in New Jersey to continue working on his writing, rather than returning to Minnesota. He attended Princeton and became heavily involved with the literary scene on campus, writing for several publications and even joining a theatre troupe, the Princeton Triangle Club.

During a visit back to St. Paul in 1915, Fitzgerald met Ginevra King, a debutante from Chicago, and they began a two-year romance. They conducted their romance mostly through letters, and she was reportedly the inspiration for some of his most iconic characters, including The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan. In 1917, their relationship ended, but Fitzgerald kept the letters she’d written to him; after his death, his daughter sent them to King, who kept them and never showed them to anyone.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in military uniform
F. Scott Fitzgerald in his military uniform in 1918; he never saw action in the war.  Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Fitzgerald’s writing-related activities took up the bulk of his time, which meant he neglected his actual studies to the point of being on academic probation. In 1917, he officially dropped out of Princeton and joined the Army instead, as the U.S. was just joining World War I. He was stationed under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he despised, and feared that he would die in the war without ever having become a published author. The war ended in 1918, before Fitzgerald was ever actually deployed overseas.

New York and Europe in the Jazz Age

While stationed in Alabama, Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a state Supreme Court justice and a Montgomery socialite. They fell in love and became engaged, but she broke it off, worried that he would be unable to support them financially. Fitzgerald revised his first novel, which became This Side of Paradise; it sold in 1919 and was published in 1920, becoming a quick success. As a direct result, he and Zelda were able to resume their engagement and were married that same year in New York City at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Their only daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald (known as “Scottie”) was born in October 1921.

The Fitzgeralds became staples of New York society, as well as the American expatriate community in Paris. Fitzgerald formed a close friendship with Ernest Hemingway, but they came into conflict over the subject of Zelda, who Hemingway openly hated and believed was holding Fitzgerald’s career back. During this time, Fitzgerald supplemented his income by writing short stories, since only his first novel was a financial success during his lifetime. He wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925, but although it’s regarded as his masterpiece now, it was not a success until after his death. Much of his writing was tied to the “Lost Generation,” a phrase coined to describe the disillusionment in post-WWI years and often associated with the group of expatriate artists with which Fitzgerald mingled.

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald sitting in their garden
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, circa 1921. Time Life Pictures / Getty Images 

In 1926, Fitzgerald had his first movie offer: to write a flapper comedy for the United Artists studio. The Fitzgeralds moved to Hollywood, but after Fitzgerald’s affair with actress Lois Moran, their marital difficulties necessitated a move back to New York. There, Fitzgerald began working on a fourth novel, but his heavy drinking, financial difficulties, and Zelda’s declining physical and mental health got in the way. By 1930, Zelda was suffering from schizophrenia, and Fitzgerald had her hospitalized in 1932. When she published her own semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932, Fitzgerald was furious, insisting that their lives together were “material” that only he could write about; he even managed to get edits made to her manuscript before publication.

Later Years and Death

In 1937, after Zelda’s final hospitalization, Fitzgerald found himself financially unable to decline an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to move to Hollywood and write exclusively for their studio. During that time, he had a high-profile live-in affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and he wrote a series of short stories mocking himself as a Hollywood hack. His hard living began to catch up with him, as he had been an alcoholic for decades. Fitzgerald claimed to suffer from tuberculosis–which he very well may have–and he suffered at least one heart attack by the end of the 1930s.

On December 21, 1940, Fitzgerald suffered another heart attack at his home with Graham. He died almost instantly, aged 44. His body was taken back to Maryland for a private funeral. Since he was no longer a practicing Catholic, the Church refused to allow him a burial in the Catholic cemetery; he was instead interred at Rockville Union Cemetery. Zelda died eight years later, in a fire at the asylum where she was living, and she was buried next to him. They remained there until 1975, when their daughter Scottie successfully petitioned to have their remains moved to the family plot at the Catholic cemetery.

Legacy

Fitzgerald left behind an unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, as well as a prolific output of short stories and four completed novels. In the years after his death, his work became more praised and more popular than it ever was during his life, especially The Great Gatsby. Today, he’s regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.

Sources

  • Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Curnutt, Kirk, ed. A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.