On the morning of December 21, 1940, American writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940), better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald, was reviewing the Princeton Alumni Weekly when he felt discomfort in his chest before succumbing to a heart attack at the youthful age of forty-four. The author who had published The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise had struggled with his health in the years before his death. In the years following his untimely passing, his novels have gained popularity and Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. In 2013, actor Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the Hollywood production of The Great Gatsby, which earned mixed reviews. Fitzgerald remains a literary icon, but I could have never imagined the turmoil that existed in his personal life. I saw this book in my recommendation list and was intrigued by the high ratings. Having finished the book, I can say that it was worth the purchase and revealed a side of the author that highlights the lines between genius, insanity, and tragedy.
This book was originally published in 1951, eleven years after Fitzgerald’s death but reading it on an electronic device removes the sense of time and the story flows as if it were written today. However, there are clues in the form of now outdated terms that set the time definitively. Mizener’s account is written beautifully and after revisiting Fitzgerald’s childhood spent between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New York City, we are introduced to the writer who made a name for himself in his shorty yet extraordinary life. And the person that emerges is a complicated figure in a complicated life. As the author points out,
“There never was,” as Fitzgerald said in his Notebooks, “a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He’s too many people if he’s any good.”
Thus, the search begins for the real F. Scott Fitzgerald. His friend and author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) provides his observations of Fitzgerald in the story as do several others. But surprisingly, it is Scott himself who provides an open window into his innermost thoughts due to the collection of materials he left behind. Like every great writer, he was both tormented and encouraged by his success. And he was not immune to the seduction of intoxicants. This is undoubtedly one of the darker aspects of the book in addition to the impact of his wife Zelda (1900-1948), whose story is equally as tragic as Fitzgerald’s but not as widely known. In fact, Mizener accurately points out that,
“A good deal of injustice has certainly been done the Zelda of the twenties because she later went insane and it is difficult not to let the knowledge that she did so affect one’s view of what she was like before 1930.”
As I read the book, I could not help but to notice the stark contradiction between the successful writer known the public and the financially inept and abusive person under intoxicated. For all his success, he is always close to destitution throughout the story. And the tumultuous relationship between him and Zelda should not be overlooked. Fitzgerald comes across as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was aware of his insecurities and struggles. However, he could not overcome his demons and that theme forms the crux of the narrative. Regardless of whom he was interacting with, Fitzgerald could be his own worst enemy. And as can be seen in the book, his unpredictable nature and dark habits resulted in scandalous situations and the involvement of law enforcement. The story is not easy to read, and a forgotten victim is the couple’s daughter whose voice does not appear in the story. Paradoxically, Fitzgerald was devoted to her and his concern for her well-being despite his own fragile condition is heartwarming.
Zelda plays a crucial role as his wife in the story, for better and worse. When her symptoms first appear, it is not clear why she is having issues, but the author slowly reveals her plight. And as their conditions deteriorated, they became co-dependent and continued to exist in a relationship that is nothing short of surreal. Readers will see the writing on the wall and following their decline is like waiting for a car wreck to happen. We know they will not come out of this the same way but to say that they had rough lives would be an understatement. They lived fast and died young but along the way, they also left their mark. Towards the end of the story, Zelda is removed from the story for reasons readers will discover and later in life, Fitzgerald became involved with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (1904-1988). Their relationship was no less turbulent than his marriage with Zelda, as the story reveals. Sheilah’s appearance in the story is brief but she remained with Fitzgerald until the end. Despite their differences, she did have a positive influence over him. Ironically, at the time of his death, he had finally come to terms with the demons he had been fighting and repaired strained relationships. But the damage he had done to his body was extensive. Even Sheilah could not prevent the inevitable.
Though the book is a biography, Mizener does discuss selected works of Fitzgerald’ and the back stories behind them. But he makes sure not to let the book become a critique of Fitzgerald’s work and keeps the focus on his life, and despite the tragedy playing out, there are bright moments in the book, and when not under giving in to his demons, Fitzgerald shines brightly in personality and creativity. Sadly, he did not think he would live to old age and in the end he was right. The warning signs had been there, but Fitzgerald lived on his own terms. The roaring twenties were a remarkable sight and for F. Scott Fitzgerald, some of the best times in his life. His story, as told by Arthur Mizener, is one of success, tragedy, self-sabotage, and the painful reality of addiction. The genius in him left us with books that have stood the test of time. But the insanity that became his life, resulted in him leaving the world before his time. After his death, Zelda has a rare moment of clarity about her late husband. Mizener relays the fitting quote,
“Though she was ignorant of much of Fitzgerald’s life after 1934, Zelda was substantially right when she wrote, a few days after his death, “Scott was courageous and faithful to myself and Scottie and he was so devoted a friend that I am sure that he will be rewarded; and will be well remembered.”
More than seventy years later, he is still remembered.