Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on 24th September, 1897. The dichotomy he was to find within himself in later life – half wide-eyed boy from the mid- West, half upper-class socialite – was in evidence from his birth. His father was from a well-to-do family which had fallen upon hard times. F. Scott was named after the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Francis Scott Key, a direct relation. Fitzgerald’s mother was a member of the petit bourgeoisie and was both loved and looked down upon by Fitzgerald’s father. Fitzgerald was always acutely aware of social class and the problems and benefits related to it, and this disillusionment with the society of Twenties America produced the socio-philosophical import behind his most brilliant novels.
Fitzgerald went to Princeton in 1913. He was a success, befriending Edmund Wilson and moving with vigor in the literary circles of the university. After an unhappy love affair, during which he first realized his ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’, Fitzgerald left Princeton, only to return in the next autumn. However, during his time away, many of his friends had left, and he quit to join the army.
Whilst stationed at a base in Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre, a beautiful socialite. They fell in love and Fitzgerald returned to New York to earn money so that they might marry. Fitzgerald gained a position at an advertising company, but this did not pay enough for the luxury-loving Zelda, and she called off their engagement. Fitzgerald, heavily depressed, left for St. Paul to carry on with the novel he had begun at Princeton. It was published as This Side of Paradise in 1920 and received immediate critical and public acclaim as the defining novel of its generation. F. Scott married Zelda with the proceeds.
F. Scott and Zelda began to live the high life that they had both always aspired to, driving cars into the fountain outside of the Plaza Hotel in New York and living off champagne. Fitzgerald’s next novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) already shows Fitzgerald’s weariness of the duality of his existence – both profound writer and shallow socialite. Because of the jaded nature of the work, it was received less well than his debut.
The couple moved to France to escape their New York lifestyle. They mixed with such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The Riviera was later to form the setting for Tender is the Night. It was whilst in France that Fitzgerald completed his greatest work, The Great Gatsby (1925). After this point, life for the Fitzgeralds went steadily but inexorably downhill. Scott began to drink more heavily, and Zelda, depressed by Scott’s condition, lost her battle with depression and in 1930 and 1932 had mental breakdowns.
Tender is the Night was finished in 1934 and detailed the breakdown in relations between a psychiatrist and one of his patients. It is Fitzgerald’s most world-weary novel. Bankrupted from his drinking and Zelda’s sanatorium fees, Fitzgerald signed on to work for film company Metro Goldwyn Mayer, but was sacked because of his drinking. His last novel, The Last Tycoon, remained brilliant but unfinished when Fitzgerald’s riotous life caught up with him. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44.