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Gregory Abramov
Gregory Abramov

The Damned And The Beautiful: American Youth In...



Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the famous writer and the prettiest southern Belle, glittering icons of the roaring 20s. They lived their lives with wild abandon and were hailed as king and queen of the jazz age. But the good times didn't last. By 40 Fitzgerald was washed out and alcoholic. His books no longer in print, his name forgotten, and his glamorous wife locked away in an insane asylum. Fitzgerald's rise and fall was dramatic, even shocking. But as he once wrote, give me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy. It was the story of his life, the story of a great American dreamer. The start of the 20th century was an exciting time in America as the industrial revolution gave way to a more modern era. The country was alive with new forms of transportation and communication, and a new hope for the future. Like many Americans born near the turn of the century, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald had great hopes and aspirations. He wanted to be a rich and famous writer, admired the world over. This was a big goal for a little Irish Catholic boy who was born on September 24th, 1896 in the small Midwestern town of St. Paul, Minnesota. Named after Francis Scott Key, a distant relation who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, young Scott was his parents pride and joy. His father, Edward Fitzgerald, doted on his young son, teaching him all the finer points of acting and addressing like a gentleman. But Edward, for all his fancy clothes, was not much of a businessman. In 1908 he was fired from a sales job. He came home a completely broken man, said Scott, and he was a failure. The rest of his days. This experience left a deep impression on young Scott who resolved that he would never be a failure like his father. Fortunately, his mother, Molly Fitzgerald, came from an affluent St. Paul family, so the fitzgeralds were never quite destitute. Mali would borrow money from her relatives to send Scott to all the right, prep schools. But as a poor boy amongst a lot of rich classmates, young Scott always felt like an outsider, until eventually he discovered that he had a special gift that would help him fit in. He found it was easy for him to write poems and stories and plays. Where it was not easy for others, even very bright. Young children, he was aware of this gift early on. And then he used it to win acceptance. All through prep schools got relished the attention he got from his classmates when his stories like this murder mystery appeared in the school paper. He also wrote plays and staged big productions. He took the starring role, and surrounded himself with people whom he wanted to be friends with. So in the simplest and most direct way, he found that he could write the lines and all of these people he knew would follow his script. It was like magic. Young Francis Scott Fitzgerald had found a way to impress people and win social acceptance. From then on there was no question. He would be a writer. In 1913, Fitzgerald was accepted at Princeton, an Ivy League college with a beautiful campus in New Jersey. Before he had even arrived, Scott worked out in elaborate fantasy. He would be a big man on campus admired by all his classmates. Blinded by visions of glory as soon as he got to Princeton, Scott tried out for the football team. But at just under 5 8 and a 138 pounds he was far too small and was cut the very first day of practice. Better Scott decided to stick with what he did best. So he wrote for the university's literary magazines and joined the triangle club. Princeton's most prestigious theatrical group. Just as he had as a boy, Fitzgerald used his writing skills to impress his peers. He wrote lyrics for the group's musical comedies and cast himself as the star. Since Princeton was an all male school, it was expected that men play the female roles. But few looked as good dressed in drag as Scott did in this publicity photo, which caused quite a sensation when it appeared around campus. Fitzgerald was having a wonderful time, writing musicals and partying with friends. But even in college, Scott showed early signs of a drinking problem. His diary includes notes about getting so drunk, he passed out at dinner. He spent more time writing plays than studying and was eventually placed on academic probation. But rather than buckle down and study, Scott went to a dance with sophomore year where he spotted a beautiful 16 year old debutante. She never king was the top girl. She was the one all the boys wanted to dance to the stag line when she came by, which sway and anticipation, and one boy braver than the rest would go out and cut in. Fitzgerald was brave. And he said his cap for her. Scott and Jennifer dated for a time in exchange love letters. But Scott was supposedly told by Geneva's father that poor boys don't marry rich girls, and she broke off the relationship. She went on to someone more suitable to her social standing, but the story, which I think is probably true, is that till the day he died, he kept all the letters that she wrote to him wrapped up in a little package with a ribbon tied around it. To Fitzgerald, ginevra would always represent the kind of golden girl who appeared later in his novels. She was the one all the boys wanted, but could never fully possess. By junior year, Scott was failing so many classes he decided to withdraw from Princeton, as he wrote, there were to be no badges of pride, no medals, after all. The young man who wanted so much to succeed had flunked out of school and failed at love. He was feeling pretty discouraged in 1917 when suddenly the United States entered World War I. And Fitzgerald, happily headed off to boot camp and another chance at glory. In June 1918, as the war to end all wars raged in Europe, second lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald reported to camp Sheridan and Montgomery, Alabama. Just as in college, he had dreamed of being a big man, Scott now imagined himself a war hero. As he waited to be sent overseas, got attended a dance at a local country club, where he saw a young girl who, as he said, made everything inside him melt. He was looking at 17 year old Zelda sayer, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, who often had that effect on man. I don't think pictures of Zelda do her justice. I think she had an aura about her. I mean, there was something about the way she dressed, something right about the way she presented herself. And the people who knew her all say that she was just a beautiful woman. That's something made Zelda one of the most sought after bells in the south. As one rival recalled, when Zelda sayer came to dances, the Birmingham girls just went on home. But though Zelda came from a prominent family, she was not your typical southern Belle. For as everyone in Montgomery knew Zelda was wild. When she was ten she telephoned the fire department to say a child was stranded on the sayer's roof. Then she climbed up there and waited to be saved. At 17, she was already smoking, drinking, and driving men to distraction. And Zelda was a young girl. She loved diving off high platforms into the water, she used to delight and outraging the expectations of their elders, chaperones, and dances. She'd go by him a flipper back skirts at him and she was that kind of girl. She knew how to have fun and she knew how she was that kind of girl. She knew how to have fun and she knew how to flout convention. Scott had found his golden girl, the one all the other men wanted. I fell in love, he said, with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect. Zelda in turn enjoyed the attentions of this dashing young lieutenant in the uniform he bought at Brooks brothers. November 11th, 1918, Fitzgerald's regiment was about to leave for France when the armistice was declared ending the war. Once again, Scott had missed his chance at glory. He would always consider his lack of combat experience one of the greatest regrets of his life. The moment Scott was discharged from the army, he proposed to Zelda, and was thrilled when she accepted. But before they could make it official, Scott needed to get a job. So he moved to New York City, where he used his writing talent to get a job at an advertising agency, writing copy for $35 a week. Fitzgerald hated the work. Nevertheless, he sent Zelda and exuberant telegram. Darling Hart, ambition, enthusiasm and confidence. I declare everything glorious. I am in the land of ambition and success, and my only hope is that you will be with me soon. But Zelda was already having second thoughts. $35 a week could hardly support the kind of lifestyle she wanted, so in June 1919, she broke off the engagement. Fitzgerald was so devastated he went on a three week drinking binge until finally in a last ditch effort to win back Zelda. He returned to his parents home in St. Paul and began working on a book he'd begun drafting in college. He moved into the third floor of spare bedroom of his parents row house on summit avenue. He lived on nothing he had no money. He borrowed a little here and there to buy cigarettes and he pinned the chapters of his novel to the curtains of the bedroom, and he rewrote it in great bursts of 16 hour days. With his whole future riding on it, Scott sent the book off to a New York publisher and waited anxiously for a reply. In postman rang the doorbell. And he got the news that it had been accepted for publication. And he ran out into the street. And he stopped everyone he knew to tell them that the young man who had promised great things in the past had now delivered. Scott's novel which he called this side of Paradise was a highly romanticized account of his college days. In his beautifully lyrical style he captured the hopes and fears of his post war generation. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, a generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success. Grown up to find all God's dead, all wars fought. All faiths in man shaken. This side of Paradise was released on March 26th, 1920, and by the end of the day it was completely sold out. One of the reasons it was a big success is it was considered very risque. I mean, people actually were saying, here's a novel that exposes what our young people are doing today. They're actually kissing. And going to petting parties. And of course, he dared to write about that. So there was a certain sensational angle to it. The book was a runaway success and a 23 Scott was an instant celebrity at last he had achieved the kind of fame he always dreamed of. And best of all, he could now marry Zelda. For as he had hoped, she changed her mind when she learned of his success. April 3rd, 1920, a week after this side of Paradise was published, Scott and Zelda were married in the rectory of Saint Patrick's cathedral in New York City. They made a lovely couple, the promising young author and his beautiful bride. They were happy and carefree, eager to take on the world. America was riding high and so were the fitzgeralds. It was a time of extravagance and self indulgence. Scott called it the jazz age and was hailed as its king, and Zelda was crowned queen of the flappers. They were the toast of the town, no party was complete without this glamorous pair, supremely confident and often inebriated their crazy exploits are legendary. Like the time they rode on top of a taxi down Fifth Avenue. And danced on the tables of the Waldorf hotel. The Fitzgerald's egged each other on, they were both creative and daring, and they knew very well what they were doing. They were creating a myth, a myth that has continued to grow in ways that probably they couldn't have anticipated. The Fitzgerald's briefly interrupted their revelries in February 1921, when Zelda discovered she was pregnant. Their baby girl, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, was born on October 26th, 1921. As an only child, Scotty, as she was called, was showered with love. My mother felt that she had a golden childhood. Some people felt sorry for her because she had a nanny. But nannies were normal then. So she was sheltered from some of the antics and drinking and her father was imaginative about the things he did with her. So I believe she probably did have a wonderful first ten years. But even parenthood couldn't slow the fitzgeralds down. They kept moving around, never living in one place for more than a year at a time. To pay for their increasingly extravagant lifestyle, Scott had to keep turning out work. He wrote dozens of short stories for mass market magazines, like the Saturday evening post, esquire, and red book, which all paid him top dollar. Fitzgerald saw it as easy money, but he hated taking time away from what he considered his real work, writing novels. In March 1922 he published his second novel the beautiful and damned. The book which sold well charted the decline of a happy couple who drank and fought and finally self destructed. As Scott wrote, things had been slipping perceptibly. There was the money question, increasingly annoying, increasingly ominous. There was the realization that liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement. Many of their friends thought the book reflected the downward drift of Scott and Zelda's own marriage. For by now they were living in great neck Long Island, where they threw drunken parties that went on for days. By 1924 their lives had become as Zelda described it very alcoholic and very chaotic. They looked for a way out, and finally, in the spring of 1924, the fitzgeralds decided to move to Europe, where Scott could concentrate on a new novel he had begun, a book he was convinced would be his greatest masterpiece. He would call it The Great Gatsby. The French Riviera in the 1920s was home to a glittering crowd of artists and writers. A lost generation of American expatriates escaping prohibition. Enjoying a place where the dollar was strong and life was easy. Scott and Zelda seen here on the Riviera, were soon caught up in a new social scene. Two of their closest friends were Gerald and Sarah Murphy, a fashionable American couple who knew everyone from Pablo Picasso to Cole Porter. The Murphy's daughter honoria was 8 when she first met Zelda and Scott. They were always quite fun. We would look forward to coming for dinner because I couldn't wait to see what Zelda would be wearing. She was always very cheerful and she might get up on a table and saw dancing, apparently she did in a nightclub. She got carried away. If Fitzgerald's often got carried away, like the time Scott got drunk at a party at the murphys and began tossing their highly prized crystal glasses over the garden wall. While I was quite upset, and my father said, this won't this would have not do. You may leave Scott. And not come back for three weeks. But my mother and father never really got furious. You know, they just got exasperated. And they would worry about his drinking, of course, because there were so fond of them. In July 1924, Fitzgerald finally settled down and began working in earnest on The Great Gatsby. It was a time consuming process, for whenever Scott worked on a novel, he wrote many drafts of each chapter. If you read Fitzgerald's writing, you get the sense that he wrote in the same way that the birds sing that it came to him very naturally, and that's not true. The way that the birds sing that it came to him very naturally, and that's not true. His first drafts are often undistinguished. And it was only through that laborious revision and the testing of the prose again and again against that marvelous ear that he had that he was able to achieve the beautiful effects that we so much admire him for. With Scott busy scribbling away Zelda grew restless. She began spending long afternoons at the beach, where she met a handsome French aviator named edouard Jose. In her four years of marriage, Zelda had flirted with other men, but he was the first, she is said to have slept with. Scott was terribly upset when he found out, and though Zelda immediately ended the affair, he never forgave her betrayal. He seems to have felt that he and Zelda had a contract somehow or an understanding that though she might be attractive to other men, but she would never allow herself actually to become involved with Warren. But this had happened, and it created a sort of sadness in Fitzgerald that he never really recovered from. Still reeling from the Jose Anne affair that Fitzgerald went to Paris in the spring of 1925 for the publication of The Great Gatsby. A book that was later made into a big, multi-million dollar movie. The story was set in Long Island at the height of the roaring 20s. Jay Gatsby, the hero, was a man trying to recapture his past. And win the love of wealthy, beautiful daisy Buchanan, the golden girl of his dreams. As with so many of his works, Fitzgerald incorporated his own yearnings and lost hopes into The Great Gatsby. Why didn't you wait for me? Because rich girls don't marry poor boys Jared Gatsby. Haven't you heard? Rich girls don't marry poor boys. But in the end, the hero had to pay a price for his idealism. For no reality could ever match Gatsby's fantasy. Fitzgerald had such high hopes for his new novel, he was deeply disappointed when it failed to sell as well as his first two novels. Gatsby, when it came out, did not get great reviews. It got some good reviews. But it was a slightly different story. I mean, they were deaths. There was a murder. These were not the things that Scott Fitzgerald was supposed to write about. Just two weeks after The Great Gatsby was published, Scott was sitting in a bar in Paris when he met another up and coming American writer, named Ernest Hemingway. Almost immediately the two men became drinking buddies. Though there was always an edge to their friendship. Hemingway was a far more commercially successful writer in the 20s and 30s than Fitzgerald was. On the other hand, Hemingway, I think envied Fitzgerald style. So they both envied in the other what they didn't have in themselves. Their rivalry was intense, and Hemingway, on more than one occasion, would try to promote himself if Fitzgerald's expense. Like the time Hemingway, at lunch with his editor in another writer named Mary column, started talking about his fascination with rich people. He said, the rich are different from you and me. And Mary call him, said wittily, yes, they have more money. And everyone laughed at this put down. Hemingway then turned this entirely around. And had Fitzgerald say the first line, and then had himself Hemingway. Say the good line, yes, they have more money. And made it into a sort of flag that was attached to Fitzgerald's shoe and that he never was able to get rid of this canard that he was a kind of suck up. To the rich. October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, bringing an end to the high flying 20s. Scott's jazz age was finished, as he and Zelda entered the worst phase of their lives. For Scott the next few years were like a horrible nightmare, as he watched Zelda, gradually lose her mind. The trouble began when she decided at 28 she wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. She practiced for hours on end until finally she was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. After her release, Zelda's mental state continued to deteriorate. Her behavior became increasingly irrational, reaching a crisis one day when she grabbed the wheel when Scott was driving and tried to steer them over a cliff. This time, doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic. Over the next 6 years, Scott would take his wife to a series of clinics, desperately searching for a cure. Initially, he probably didn't know how to react. He didn't know what to do. During the first period of her troubles, we see them groping around trying to find the best treatment for her. But as the years went on, I think he came to understand that she would never entirely be well or whole again. Some people later claimed that Zelda was merely eccentric, not so, said Scott


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