Once there was a writer who drank too much.
For some writers the story ends there, but not for F. Scott Fitzgerald. With the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, he became a legend, the symbol and embodiment of all the gaudy and juvenile excesses lumped under that handy misnomer, the Jazz Age. After Fitzgerald's death in Hollywood in 1940, the legend persisted, but with an important addition: the charming playboy was mourned as a great writer who had tragically dissipated his talent. To some intellectuals, the Fitzgerald story seemed the perfect prop to bolster a shaky thesis: that the U.S. is culturally too anemic to nourish its good writers. By implication, Fitzgerald's dipsomaniacal botch of his life derived from and was part of the national botch.
Far from withering, the Fitzgerald legend is livelier today than at any time since its hero's death. Unlike many literary "revivals," the interest in his books is real, not the byproduct of a publisher's promotion. At literary shindigs nowadays the Fitzgerald worshipers generally outnumber the Hemingway and Faulkner fans. Budd Schulberg's The Disenchanted, largely a fictional pry into Fitzgerald's private life, has sold more than 250,000 copies.
Arthur Mizener, an English professor at Minnesota's Carleton College, has tried to do in a biography what Schulberg failed to do in his novel: root out the sources of Fitzgerald's failure as a man and evaluate his worth as a writer. If The Far Side of Paradise is not a distinguished biography, it is at least an honest and sympathetic effort to see Fitzgerald as he really was. And, like The Disenchanted, it is practically insured against failure or dullness by its material—irritating and fascinating in almost equal parts.
Two-Cylinder Complex. The handsome, blond freshman who went to Princeton from St. Paul in the fall of 1913 had been a thoroughly spoiled youngster ("I didn't know till 15 that there was auyone in the world except me . . .")*When he started school at the age of seven, it was on condition that he go only half days, whichever half he chose. Later, when he made the football team at Newman School, the quarterback threatened in the middle of a game to beat up Fitzgerald because he didn't have the guts to make a tackle. Already, as he did throughout his life, Fitzgerald judged himself with ruthless accuracy: "I knew that at bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect."
An insatiable climber whose Princeton ambition was to become a big-man-on-campus, Fitzgerald was embarrassed both by his Irish mother and by his father's job as a wholesale grocer's salesman. Years later he wrote to Novelist John O'Hara: "I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions . . . Being born in that atmosphere of crack, wise crack and countercrack I developed a two cylinder inferiority complex ... I spent my youth in alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great."
He was far too busy with extracurricular affairs to be a good student. His big effort for three years was working on the Triangle Club shows. He never graduated. But he knew what he wanted to become. Said he to his fellow student Edmund Wilson: "I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don't you?"
"World's Worst." The drinking had begun. During a college vacation at home he barged into St. John's Episcopal church during a Christmas service, staggered up to the pulpit and casually said to the rector: "Don't mind me, go on with the sermon." It was the first of many Fitzgerald toots that made the papers. From Princeton, in 1917, he went into the Army, never got overseas, but left a reputation at Fort Leavenworth as "the world's worst second lieutenant." In the Army he wrote his first novel, which was rejected by Scribner. And while at camp in Alabama he met his future wife and drinking partner, Zelda Sayre, "just 18, a beautiful girl with marvelous golden hair and that air of innocent assurance attractive Southern girls have."
What Zelda wanted was fun and money, lots of both, and she wouldn't marry Scott until he had the money to pay for the fun. This Side of Paradise reassured them both. The barely disguised story of Fitzgerald's Princeton experience, it made its author famous overnight. The magazines, chiefly the Satevepost, bought his stories at top rates as fast as he could turn them out. Yet This Side of Paradise was far from a great novel. It was crude, snobbish, awkward and frequently juvenile. Critic Harry Hansen exclaimed: "My, how that boy Fitzgerald can write!" But an abler critic, Fitzgerald's old Princeton friend, Edmund Wilson, wrote: "It is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published .. . full of bogus ideas and faked literary references . . ." Read today, the book's account of youthful behavior seems almost a burlesque.
Novelist John Marquand once wished "that one's own children behaved as sensibly and nicely."
"They Beat Me." For the Fitzgeralds, as for many of their contemporaries, the big toot was on—what Scott called "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." In New York, Scott fought with waiters, and Zelda danced on dinner tables. They went wading in public fountains and tried to undress at the Scandals. No matter how much he wrote, Fitzgerald was continually in debt. By 1924, he was living at a $36,000-a-year clip. Two years earlier, he had published The Beautiful and Damned, the story of a rich idler's moral collapse. It had the same faults as Paradise, and most sound critics, Wilson included, gave it the raps it deserved. But his short stories, some of them excellent, sold as well as ever.
The Fitzgeralds went to Paris in 1925, and for famous Author Fitzgerald it was "1000 parties and no work." He went on ten-day bats and came to in places as far away as Brussels, wondering how he got there. But that spring he had published The Great Gatsby, a beautifully written, technically near-perfect story about the Long Island rich and a young bootlegger's pathetic belief that money could buy respect and happiness. This time, Fitzgerald got the critical praise he hungered after. Famed Novelist Edith Wharton invited him to call. Drunk, and with his inferiority complex working overtime, he accused her of knowing nothing about life. Improvised Fitzgerald: "Why, when my wife and I first came to Paris, we took a room in a bordello!" Edith Wharton and her friends showed no surprise or shock. As Fitzgerald paused, Edith Wharton said, "But Mr. Fitzgerald, you haven't told us what they did in the bordello." Fitzgerald had no answer for that one. Stuck with his lie and shocked by it himself, he left the party, went home to Zelda and cried, between drinks, "They beat me! They beat me!"
His sense of insecurity led to all sorts of adolescent petulance. Once, when he was not invited to a party on the Riviera, he stood behind a hedge and peppered the guests with garbage. Zelda kept right up with him. At a farewell party for Alexander Woollcott, she kicked off her black lace panties and presented them as a go-ing-away present. When budding Novelist Robert Penn Warren praised This Side of Paradise, Scott truculently replied: "You mention that book again and I'll slug you."
Wet Goods. By the null Zelda had lost her mind (she was to die in a sanitarium fire in 1948), Fitzgerald's indebtedness was chronic, and even his short stories were being rejected. The novel on which he had spent his greatest effort, Tender Is the Night, appeared in 1934, just as the proletarian novel was moving into its heyday. A long, lyrical study of the emotional and moral bankruptcy of U.S. expatriates in France, Fitzgerald's book sold badly, and was received indifferently by the critics. He spent the last years of his life in Hollywood, at first optimistic about what he could accomplish there, at length convinced that "for a long time [the movies] will remain nothing more nor less than an industry to manufacture children's wet goods." When he died of a heart attack at 44, hardly anybody went to the funeral home. One who did was his old friend Dorothy Parker. Taking the epitaph line from The Great Gatsby, she said, "The poor son of a bitch!"
Fitzgerald died leaving two novels (Gatsby and Tender Is the Night) and a handful of short stories that rank with the most accomplished U.S. writing of this century. His unfinished The Last Tycoon, a novel about a Hollywood producer, showed touches of even greater promise that he never lived to fulfill.
Fitzgerald analyzed his weakness better than any of his critics—especially in The Crack-Up, a ruthless confession edited by Edmund Wilson. Too late, he admitted "an overextension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man overdrawing at his bank ... I have the feeling that someone, I'm not sure who, is sound asleep—someone who could have helped me to keep my shop open. It wasn't Lenin, and it wasn't God."