Philip F. McQuillan was an exemplar of the American Dream that his grandson F. Scott Fitzgerald would respond to so complexly in his fiction. Born in County Fermanagh, Ireland, he moved in 1857 from Illinois to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked as a bookkeeper. Two years later, at twenty-five, he opened his own small business “in the general line.” In 1860 he married Louisa Allen, the daughter of an Irish immigrant carpenter. By 1862 he was a grocery wholesaler. Prospering with the post-Civil War expansion of the Territory, McQuillan became one of the most substantial businessmen in St. Paul and a benefactor of the Catholic Church as McQuillan, Beaupre & Co. grew to two million dollars a year in billings. His home was an impressive three-story Victorian structure with a cupola, and he owned the building at Third and Wabash streets known as the McQuillan Block. When he died in 1877 at forty-three of Bright’s disease complicated by tuberculosis, McQuillan left the then-considerable estate of $266,289.49. There were five surviving children; the eldest was Mary (Mollie), born in 1860. Her father’s success provided Mollie with an education at the Visitation Convent in St. Paul and Manhattanville in New York; and she went to Europe four times.
Almost nothing is known about Scott’s paternal grandfather, Michael Fitzgerald, who may have kept a general store in Maryland. He married Cecilia Ashton Scott of “Glenmary,” Rockville, Maryland, and died in 1855 when their son Edward was two years old. Cecilia’s family could be traced back to the seventeenth century in Maryland—to the first Scotts, Keys, Ridgelys, and Dorseys. The Scotts’ sympathies were Southern: Mary Surratt, Edward’s first cousin, was hanged for conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination, and as a boy Edwardguided Confederate spies during the Civil War. Edward attended Georgetown College (Edward Fitzgerald was enrolled at Georgetown in 1871 as a member of the Class of 1875 but did not graduate) and then went west to seek his fortune.
Edward Fitzgerald and Mollie McQuillan probably met in St. Paul. They were married on 12 February 1890 in Washington, D.C., where Mollie’s mother had a house at 1815 N Street. That Mollie was married in Washington may indicate something about the McQuillans’uncertain social position in St. Paul. Her father had been a respected figure in the city, and there was little anti-Catholic bias since the local aristocrats were descended from the early French Catholic settlers; but the Irish were regarded as common, a step above the Swedes. However, Governor Merriam of Minnesota attended the wedding reception.
At twenty-nine Mollie was approaching spinsterhood. The only one of the three McQuillan daughters to marry, she was not beautiful and seems to have been considered a bit eccentric. Thirty-seven-year-old Edward was a handsome, dapper man with excellent Southern manners but without much force of character; he was uncomfortable among the ambitious men of the Midwest. The couple honeymooned in France and Italy. On their first day in Paris, Edward tried to hurry his bride out of the hotel so they could see the city, and Mollie said, “But I’ve already seen Paris.” This remark became a family anecdote relished by her son Scott.
By 1893 Edward Fitzgerald was listed in the St. Paul directories as president of the American Rattan and Willow Works, furniture manufacturers at 55 and 57 East Third Street. The business did not prosper. In 1894 he was in financial trouble, explaining to his brother John that he was “not in a position” to send him a Christmas remembrance.
Edward and Mollie had two daughters who died in 1896 at the ages of one and three. Their only son was born at 3:30 p.m. on 24 September 1896 at 481 Laurel Avenue in a building known as the San Mateo Flats in the Summit Avenue neighborhood of St. Paul. Forty years later Fitzgerald wrote: “Well, three months before I was born my mother lost her other two children and I think that came first of all though I don’t know how it worked exactly. I think I started then to be a writer.”
Victoria was on the throne of the British Empire. Grover Cleveland was in the White House, and William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan were campaigning for the Presidency. The year 1896 was the birth date of Benny Leonard, Legs Diamond, James Doolittle, Rogers Hornsby, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Philip Barry, John Dos Passos, and Robert E. Sherwood. The first edition of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs was published that year, as was the first trade edition of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The week of Fitzgerald’s birth Joseph Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands was published in America; Princeton University announced plans for its sesquicentennial celebration; Baltimore philanthropist Enoch Pratt left most of his fortune to the Sheppard-Pratt hospital for the insane.
The boy was named Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, a choice that indicates something about his parents’ ambitions for their son. In hard fact, the name was something of an imposture, implying a closer connection than existed: Scott Fitzgerald—he was never called Francis or Frank—and Francis Scott Key were second cousins, three times removed. Philip Key, founder of the Maryland family and Francis Scott Key’s great-grandfather, was Scott’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Scott was baptized on 6 October by Father John T. Harrison at the Cathedral of St. Paul. His first credited word was “up” at ten months. Despite his hefty size at birth—ten pounds, six ounces—thebaby was subject to colds and chest problems, which caused his mother to worry whether she would lose him, too.
Fitzgerald later described his mother as “half insane with pathological nervous worry.” One of the causes for her anxiety was her husband’s business career. His son later became convinced that Edward Fitzgerald had never recovered from the Civil War and that its disappointments had sapped his ambition. The American Rattan and Willow Works failed in 1898, and Edward took a job as a wholesale grocery salesman with Procter & Gamble in Buffalo, New York. The Fitzgerald household moved regularly. In Buffalo they first lived at the Lennox, an apartment hotel, then in 1899 rented a flat at Summer Street and Elmwood Avenue. The family’s standard of living was not limited by Edward’s earnings; Mollie’s money supplemented his salary and provided her son with the advantages of the upper middle class. Scott was treated to frequent trips with his mother.
Mollie spoiled Scott. Sent to nursery school in Buffalo in 1900, he cried so vociferously that he was withdrawn after the first morning. Edward tried to compensate for Mollie’s indulgence by teaching his son standards of conduct from his Southern background. Scott grew up listening to his father’s stories of the war and the lost South: “… so many legends of my family went west with father, memories of names that go back before Braddock’s disaster, such as Caleb Godwin of Hockley-in-ye-Hole, or Philip Key of Tudor Hall, or Pleasance Ridgeley…”
A third daughter, born in 1900, lived only an hour. In 1901 Edward was transferred by Procter & Gamble to Syracuse, New York, where Scott’s sister Annabel was born in July. Fitzgerald later noted in his Ledger that his “first certain memory is the sight of her howling on a bed.” At the beginning of his writing career, Fitzgerald acquired a 9½“ x 14½“ business ledger in which he methodically recorded his professional and personal activities. He maintained this record through 1936, when he moved to California. The Ledger is the best source for the biographical and bibliographical facts about Fitzgerald, and there is nothing like it for any other American author. It is divided into five sections: “Record of Published Fiction” [16 columns giving the publication history of each work], “Money earned by Writing Since Leaving Army,” “Published Miscelani (including movies) for which I was Paid,” “Zeldas Earnings,” “Outline Chart of my Life” [a month-by-month chronology beginning with the day of his birth, partly in the third person]. Fitzgerald probably began keeping his Ledger late in 1919 or early in 1920, but he may have started it in 1922 when he wrote his agent that he was “getting up a record of all my work.” A facsimile of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger has been published (Washington: Microcard Books, 1972). The family moved in Syracuse to apartments on James Street and on East Willow Street. In September 1902 Scott was enrolled in Miss Goodyear’s School, where he made an impression by working out the spelling C-A-T with a girl pupil. Syracuse playmates recalled that Scott’s histrionic instincts found an outlet in declaiming, “Friends, Romans, and countrymen …” from the back of a grocery wagon.
A memorable event of 1903 was the trip to “Randolph,” the home of Edward’s sister Eliza Delihant in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Scott was a ribbon-holder at the wedding of her daughter Cecilia. He much preferred his Maryland relatives to those in Minnesota and retained a lifelong affection for his Cousin Ceci, who was some seventeen years older than he. Scott respected his Aunt Eliza for trying to provide him with discipline; and Cecil’s brother Thomas Delihant, a Jesuit, was for a time one of his heroes.
Both Edward and Mollie were practicing Catholics, though Mollie was more devout than her husband. Scott was raised in the Church and experienced fluctuating periods of piety when a particular religiousfigure or an aspect of ritual appealed to his imagination. But literature was a stronger influence. He acquired his first taste for poetry from his father, who read Poe and Byron to him. Scott became an eclectic reader and would try to imitate the stories that impressed him. He was a loyal subscriber to the St. Nicholas, a popular children’s magazine published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, which he much preferred to the competing Youth’s Companion.
Fitzgerald later wrote in “The Romantic Egotist,” his unpublished first novel, about the impression his reading made on him at this time:
First there was a book that was I think one of the big sensations of my life. It was nothing but a nursery book, but it filled me with the saddest and most yearning emotion. I have never been able to trace it since. It was about a fight that the large animals, like the elephant, had with the small animals, like the fox. The small animals won the first battle; but the elephants and lions and tigers finally overcame them. The author was prejudiced in favor of the large animals, but my sentiment was all with the small ones. I wonder if even then I had a sense of the wearing-down power of big, respectable people. I can almost weep now when I think of that poor fox, the leader—the fox has somehow typified innocence to me ever since.
This story provided Scott with a personal mythology that he would try to apply to his childhood activities. Although he was a small boy, he competed for athletic recognition because sports were a way to distinction or even power among his friends.
In 1903 Edward was transferred back to Buffalo, where the family took an apartment at 29 Irving Place. Scott attended school at Holy Angels Convent—“under the arrangement that he need go only half a day and was allowed to choose which half&”—and “fell under the spell” of Father Michael Fallon, a prominent local preacher.
Samuel Johnson is supposed to have been loved by his schoolmates for his proficiency in Latin, but intelligence and cleverness could not inspire the admiration Scott craved from his contemporaries. More than popularity, he wanted leadership—which made him boastful and bossy. Like many boys with exceptional minds, he found it difficult to tolerate the circumstance that others were not ready to acknowledge his superiority. In 1905 his desire for leadership was complicated by his interest in girls when he entered Mr. Van Arnum’s dancing class at the Century Club in Buffalo. Scott was a handsome boy, with blond hair and eyes that were variously described as green, blue, or gray. He projected an intensity that made people notice him, and he catches theeye in boyhood group photos. He was clothes-conscious and something of a dandy—at seven he carried a cane when he went with his father to have their shoes shined on Sunday mornings. Yet with girls, too, he found that boys he considered to be his obvious inferiors were more popular than he was.
In the fall of 1905 the family moved to 71 Highland Avenue and Scott transferred from Holy Angels to Miss Narden’s, a private Catholic school in Buffalo. A suspicion that he was not the son of his parents, that he was a foundling of royal lineage, developed when he was nine. He imagined that he had been placed on the Fitzgerald doorstep wrapped in a blanket with the Stuart coat of arms—a fantasy that may have been fueled by a growing recognition of his father’s shortcomings. In his Ledger Fitzgerald noted for August 1905: “His father used to drink too much and then play baseball in the back yard.” There is no hard evidence that Edward Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, though he is known to have gone on an occasional “spree.” Whether his drinking contributed to his unprosperous business career cannot be determined.
Scott’s interest in history was initiated by his father’s Civil War stories, which made him a strong Confederate sympathizer. As soon as he could, he read Scottish Chiefs, Ivanhoe, and the Henty books, from which he developed his historical biases. He acquired his Henty library by earning twenty-five cents a day from his Aunt Clara McQuillan for eating a raw egg every day during a vacation in the Catskill Mountains.
At the age of ten Scott achieved his first recognition as a writer with a school essay on George Washington and Ignatius Loyola. He also began writing a history of America and attempted a detective story about a necklace hidden under a trapdoor. None of these was preserved. Like most successful authors, Scott found as a boy that writing came more easily to him than to his friends. It provided a road to the admiration he wanted as well as a substitute for action since he could make life behave on paper. His interests became increasingly literary; he made up plays based on the American Revolution, read Edward Stratemeyer’s Tom Swift books and works of historical fiction for boys—The Young Kentuckian series, Washington in the West, Riding with Morgan—and attended the theater, where he was delighted by E. H. Sothern’s performance as Lord Dundreary in Our American Cousin. He was also becoming a precociously shrewd social observer and began keeping a “character book” in which he recorded his impressions of his playmates.
One piece of writer’s equipment he was polishing was his memory for detail. Most ten-year-olds observe little and remember less. The born writer is a born retainer. Some twelve years later Fitzgerald recalled his 1907 summer camp experience in his Ledger:
He went to Camp Chatham at Orillea Ontario, where he swam and fished and cleaned and ate fish and canoed and rowed and caught behind the bat and was desperately unpopular and went in paper chases and running contests and was always just edged out by Tom Penny. He remembers boys named Whitehouse, Alden, Penny, Block, Blair and one awful baby. He remembers “Pa” Upham singing “The Cat Came Back,” and a sawdust road and a camera and making blueprints and the camp library and “Blow ye winds hiegh-oh” and tournaments with padded spears in canoes and Pa Upham’s Cornell stroke.
One of his earliest surviving letters was written from Orillia:
Dear Mother, I received your letter this morning and though I would like very much to have you up here I dont think you would like it as you know no one hear except Mrs. Upton and she is busy most of the time I dont think you would like the accomadations as it is only a small town and no good hotels. There are some very nise boarding houses but about the only fare is lamb and beef. Please send me a dollar becaus there are a lot of little odds and ends i need. I will spend it causialy. All the other boys have pocket moey besides their regular allowence.
Your loving son,
About this time he told a lie in confession, “saying in a shocked voice to the priest ‘Oh no, I never tell a lie.’” The dramatic opportunity was too good to waste. Fitzgerald wrote in “Absolution” (1924) about a boy who also lies in confession that God “must have understood that Rudolph had done it to make things finer in the confessional, brightening up the dinginess of his admissions by saying a thing radiant and proud. At the moment when he had affirmed immaculate honor a silver pennon had flapped out into the breeze somewhere and there had been the crunch of leather and the shine of silver spurs and a troop of horsemen waiting for dawn on a low green hill.”
The most dramatic family crisis in young Scott’s life came in March 1908 when his father lost his job with Procter & Gamble. Eleven-year-old Scott overheard his mother talk about it on the phone and returned the quarter she had given him to go swimming, because he was sure thefamily would have to go to the poorhouse. When his father came home that day, Scott tried to make him feel important by asking him who would be the next President.
Edward Fitzgerald was fifty-five when he lost his salesman’s job. His son remarked twenty-eight years later: “That morning he had gone out a comparatively young man, a man full of strength, full of confidence. He came home that evening, an old man, a completely broken man. He had lost his essential drive, his immaculateness of purpose. He was a failure the rest of his days.”
The Fitzgeralds returnedto St. Paul in the summer of 1908, when Scott was almost twelve. Scott and Annabel moved in with their Grandmother McQuillan at 294 Laurel Avenue; their parents lived with a friend, Dr. John Fulton, a few blocks away on Summit Avenue. When Louisa McQuillan went abroad in April 1909, the family was reunited at her apartment until they took a house at 514 Holly Avenue in September. Thereafter the Fitzgeralds moved almost annually, in the Summit Avenue section.
The temporary separation of the Fitzgerald family may have been dictated by financial problems. In St. Paul, Edward unprosperously operated as a grocery salesman from his McQuillan brother-in-law’s real-estate office. At this time Scott became familiar with his mother’s comment: “If it weren’t for your Grandfather McQuillan, where would we be now?” Mollie was not a domineering personality, however, and there does not seem to have been unusual discord in the Fitzgerald household. As she became reconciled to her husband’s lack of business acumen, her hopes for her bright and handsome son increased. Although she was not strong or ambitious enough to direct Scott’s life, she spoiled him and contributed to his sense of uniqueness. But she did not encourage his literary ambitions, hoping that he would become a successful businessman. Her opposition to Scott’s literary ambitions may have prompted her destruction of his juvenilia: “… my mother did me the disservice of throwing away all but two of my very young efforts—way back at twelve and thirteen, and later I found that the surviving fragments had more quality than some of the stuff written in the tightened-up days of seven or eight years later.” As a young man Edward Fitzgerald had collaborated on an unpublished novel, and hepraised Scott’s literary efforts; but he seems to have wanted his son to become an army officer. There is little documentation for young Scott’s relationship with his parents. Nearly all of their correspondence has been lost, and Scott rarely spoke about them. His sister Annabel has no vivid memories of them, either; it is as if they scarcely existed.
The amount of Mollie’s capital is unknown, but there were increments as pieces of family property were sold. After the death of Louisa McQuillan in 1913, Mollie’s income of five or six thousand dollars a year afforded the Fitzgeralds a comfortable life in the Summit Avenue area. It is impossible to convert the purchasing power of pre-World War I dollars to 1981 dollars. The usual computation is that the dollar’s buying power was five or six times what it is now—in which case Mollie Fitzgerald’s income would be worth between about $25,000 and $36,000. But no conversion factor can accommodate the availability of cheap servants and low taxes. In 1913 the income tax on $100,000 was $2,390. There is a great deal about finances in this biography. Fitzgerald struggled with debts during his twenty years as a professional author, although he was one of the highest-paid magazine writers of his time. The $4,000 per story that The Saturday Evening Post paid him in 1929 was perhaps the equivalent of $20,000 now. Fitzgerald’s admission that he could not live on $36,000 a year seemed almost incredible in 1924, when two-thirds of Americans earned less than $1,500 a year. Summit Avenue—now regarded as the best-preserved Victorian residential boulevard in America—runs west from the Cathedral of St. Paul four and a half miles to the Mississippi River. The most impressive residence on the street was the mansion of railroad tycoon James J. Hill at No. 240, which provided an icon for the American success story. Summit was the best street in St. Paul, while “Summit Avenue” designated the twelve-square-block neighborhood at the eastern end of Summit above downtown St. Paul. Here the Fitzgeralds lived in apartments or rented houses, a source of chagrin for Scott.
In a neighborhood of imposing houses known by their owners’ names, Scott was keenly aware of his father’s failure. He was Mollie McQuillan’s boy, not Edward Fitzgerald’s son. He played with the children of the well-to-do—E. L. Hersey the lumberman and Charles W. Ames of the West Publishing Company and C. Milton Griggs the wholesaler—but he felt that he was an outsider. Moreover, he was embarrassed by his mother, who dressed carelessly and sometimes seemed mildly confused. When Mollie died in 1936, Fitzgerald told his sister Annabel, “Mother and I never had anything in common except a relentless stubborn quality, but when I saw all this it turnedme inside out realizing how unhappy her temperament made her…” Indifferent to society, Mollie spent much of her time reading sentimental and religious books. (Poets Alice and Phoebe Cary were her favorites.) There were few Catholics among Scott’s playmates; he later remarked that his friends thought Catholics secretly drilled in their churches to overthrow the government.
His sense of differentness in St. Paul sharpened his skills as a social observer and shaped his lifelong self-consciousness. In 1933 he analyzed his social insecurity in a letter to John O’Hara, attributing it to the clash between his McQuillan and his Key-Scott blood:
I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions. The black Irish half of the family had the money and looked down upon the Maryland side of the family who had, and really had, that certain series of reticences and obligations that go under the poor old shattered word “breeding” (modern form “inhibitions”) So being born in that atmosphere of crack, wise crack and countercrack I developed a two cylinder inferiority complex. So if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow after graduating from Eton, Magdelene the Guards with an embryonic history which tied me to the Plantagonets, I would still be a parvenue. I spent my youth in alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.
In September 1908 Scott entered the St. Paul Academy, a non-sectarian private school for boys at 25 North Dale Street, ten blocks from his grandmother’s apartment. Here he resumed his struggle for recognition, playing end for the football second team and pitching for second-and third-team baseball. (He was left-handed in everything except writing.) He was also enrolled in Professor Baker’s dancing class at Ramaley Hall on Grand Avenue, the proper meeting place for the children of good families. Quickly labeled a showoff, he endured the humiliation of seeing the school paper, the St. Paul Academy Now and Then, print in 1909: “If anybody can poison Scotty or stop his mouth in some way, the school at large and myself will be obliged.”
The outsider was not a loner who withdrew into his sense of uniqueness. Scott’s drive for recognition required an audience and admiring companions. Despite his boasting and officiousness, he made friends he treasured all his life—including Richard (Tubby) Washington, Norris Jackson, Gustave (Bobbie) Schurmeier, Reuben Warner, Benjamin Griggs, Cecil Read, Ted and Betty Ames, Sidney Stronge, Marie Hersey, Katherine Ordway, Katherine Tighe, Elisabeth Dean, Margaret Armstrong, Ardietta Ford, Paul Ballion, Bob Clark, and Alida Bigelow. (Some of these Summit Avenue friends later provided models for the characters in the Basil Duke Lee stories about his adolescence: Margaret Armstrong became Imogene Bissell; Marie Hersey became Margaret Torrence; Cecil Read became Ripley Buckner; Paul Ballion became Bill Kemp.) His playmates’ mothers were favorably impressed by his good manners. The Read house at 449 Portland Avenue was a favorite meeting place, and Scott organized secret clubs in its attic ballroom; he also visited the Reads’ summer home at White Bear Lake outside St. Paul. The Ames’s yard at 501 Grand Hill, with its three-story tree house, was the neighborhood rendezvous. Twenty years later Fitzgerald recalled the Ames’s yard in “The Scandal Detectives” (1928) as “one of those predestined places where young people gather in the afternoon”:
It had many advantages. It was large, open to other yards on both sides, and it could be entered upon skates or bicycles from the street. It contained an old seesaw, a swing and a pair of flying rings; but it had been a rendezvous before these were put up, for it had a child’s quality—the thing that makes young people huddle inextricably on uncomfortable steps and desert the houses of their friends to herd on the obscure premises of “people nobody knows.” The Whartons’ yard had long been a happy compromise; there were deep shadows there all day long and ever something vague in bloom, and patient dogs around, and brown spots worn bare by countless circling wheels and dragging feet.
The Summit neighborhood children had an active but supervised social life. A regular winter entertainment was the bob party, when children were taken by horse-drawn wagons or sleds to the Town and Country Club for dancing. Scott avoided winter sports as much as possible; he didn’t like the cold, and his ankles did not support him on ice skates. He played football as back or end—the inglorious line was not for him—on school and neighborhood teams, and was usually “scared silly.” It was a matter of pride for him when he cracked a rib playing football. Scott’s heroes at this time included Yale football starTed Coy, Richard Harding Davis “in default of someone better,” and Theodore Roosevelt.
Mollie decided to take twelve-year-old Scott abroad in the summer of 1909. Their trip was canceled when he developed appendicitis, but surgery was not required. Scott was sent to camp at Frontenac, Minnesota, instead. An indication of Edward Fitzgerald’s relationship with his son—as well as his feeling for words—is provided by a letter he sent Scott at camp, that summer:
My dear Scott:
Yours of July 29th received. Am glad you are having a good time. Mother and Annabelle are very well and enjoying Duluth. I enclose $1.00. Spend it liberally, generously, carefully, judiciously, sensibly. Get from it pleasure, wisdon, health and experience.
Scott’s first distinction at the St. Paul Academy came with his first appearance in print, “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage,” published in the October 1909 issue of the Now and Then. He never forgot the excitement of the day the magazine was distributed: “I read my story through at least sic times, and all day I loitered in the corridors and counted the number of men who were reading it, and tried to ask people casually, ’If they had read it’?” Like most juvenile attempts, “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage” is imitative and overplotted, and has a high quota of absurdities. Nonetheless, the story is competently presented through the device of an obtuse narrator, the police chief, who relates the activities of a brilliant amateur detective. Here is the thirteen-year-old writer wrapping up the loose ends of his story:
“Up the stairs,” shouted Syrel, and we followed him, taking two steps at a bound. As we reached the top landing we were met by a young man.
“What right have you to enter this house?” he demanded.
“The right of the law,” replied Syrel.
“I didn’t do it” broke out the young man. “It was this way. Agnes Raymond loved me—she did not love Standish—he shot her; and God did not let her murder go unrevenged. It was well Mrs. Raymond killed him, for his blood would have been on my hands. I went back to see Agnes before she was buried. A man came in. I knocked him down. I didn’t know until a moment ago that Mrs. Raymond had killed him.”
“I forgot Mrs. Raymond,” screamed Syrel, “where is she?”
“She is out of your power forever,” said the young man.
Syrel brushed past him and, with Smidy and I following, burst open the door of the room at the head of the stairs. We rushed in.
On the floor lay a woman, and as soon as I touched her heart I knew she was beyond the doctor’s skill.
“She has taken poison,” I said. Syrel looked around, the young man had gone. And we stood there aghast in the presence of death.
Scott’s second story, which appeared in the February 1910 Now and Then, is a perfect example of fiction as wish-fulfillment. In “Reade, Substitute Right Half,” a small boy comes off the bench to lead his football team to victory. Scott was learning to use writing as a substitute for action. His third story, “A Debt of Honor” (March 1910), is a Civil War tale about a Confederate soldier who is pardoned by General Lee for falling asleep on sentry duty and redeems himself by an act of heroism. Scott participated in other school activities that required verbal ability and became a debator, taking the negative on “Resolved: The Mexican War was justified” in April 1910.
Despite his intelligence and a store of information gleaned from books, Scott was a poor student. He preferred reading and writing to the dull school assignments: “…I wrote all through every class in school in the back of my geography book and the first year Latin and in the margins of themes and declensions and mathematics problems.” Only one of his teachers, headmaster C. N. B. Wheeler, encouraged him to write. Scott’s major unpublished projects were an imitation of Ivanhoe called “Elavo” (which he may have started in Buffalo) and another story about knights. There is no evidence to indicate that at thirteen or fourteen Fitzgerald recognized his literary destiny and deliberately pursued a program of self-apprenticeship to the neglect of his schoolwork. His literary apprenticeship was a mixture of self-indulgence and aptitude. Writing gave him pleasure. Yet there was a surprising capacity for discipline in the boy who had developed no sound work habits; he was able to complete literary projects—usually in bursts of effort. His reading taste improved, and he claimed that he had read his way through Thackeray by the time he was sixteen. Scott also developed a temporary interest in photography, and in October 1910 his name appeared in the St. Nicholas Magazine roll of honor for a photo he had submitted. His name has not been found on any of the magazine’s honor rolls for writing.
Beginning with September 1910-August 1911 Fitzgerald made a summary in his Ledger at the head of each year of his “Outline Chart of my Life,” judging it in terms of his development or achievement.For his fourteenth year he noted: “A year of Much Activity but dangerous.”
In his third year at the St. Paul Academy he became “an inveterate author and a successful, not to say brilliant debater and writer” and distinguished himself at track. That year he started smoking. Scott’s fourth and final story for the Now and Then appeared in the June 1911 issue after a fifteen-month interval. (There is no complete run of the Now and Then; Fitzgerald may have appeared in the missing numbers.) “The Room with the Green Blinds” offers another version of the fate of John Wilkes Booth. That two of Scott’s first four stories deal with the Civil War indicates the influence of Edward Fitzgerald’s reminiscences. No distinction can be claimed for any of these stories beyond a structural competence. The boy author knew how to tell a story—he had narrative sense—but the writing does not foreshadow the style that would distinguish his prose.
In 1910 and 1911 Scott kept a Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald—of which twenty-six pages survive—where he chronicled his romantic adventures and logged his campaigns for popularity. Violet Stockton was a Southern girl visiting the Finches on Summit Avenue in the summer of 1910:
She had some sort of a book called flirting by sighns and Jack and I got it away from Violet and showed it to all the boys. Violet got very mad and went into the house. I got very mad and therefor I went home. Imediatly Violet repented and called me up on the phone to see if I was mad. However I did not want to make up just then and so I slammed down the reciever The next morning I went down to Jacks to find that Violet had said that she was not coming out that day. It was now my turn to repent and I did so and she came out that evening befor however I had heard several things and, as I found afterwards so had Violet that I wanted to have justified. Violet and I sat down on the hill back of Schultze’s a little away from the others.
“Violet,” I began, “Did you call me a brat.”
“Did you say that you wanted your ring and your picture and your hair back.”
“Did you say that you hated me”
“Of course not, is that what you went horn for”,
“No, but Archie Mudge told me those things yesterday evening.”
“He’s a little scamp.” said Violet Indignantly At this juncture Elanor Michell almost went into histerics because Jack was teasing her, and Violet had to go home with her. That afternoon I spanked Archie Mudge and finished making up with Violet.
The Thoughtbook reveals a self-historiographer, someone for whom things were not fully experienced until he had written about them. It also shows the beginnings of Fitzgerald’s list-making compulsion. All his life he would compile lists, charts, and tables of people and events. His concentration on himself may have been poor preparation for a well-adjusted personality; but it was valuable training for a writer.
Scott’s inventive capacity and his need to be a leader of any activity he participated in found an outlet in the organization of secret clubs— the White Handkerchief Club (he was secretary), the Boys’ Secret Service of St. Paul (he was chief scout), the Cruelty to Animals Society, the Gooserah Club, and the Scandal Detectives. The greatest escapade of the Scandal Detectives was an attack on Reuben Warner, whose popularity with girls they resented—an adventure that provided Fitzgerald with his first Basil story in 1928. The club was also reputed to keep a book of scandal in which damaging information about neighborhood people was recorded.
This period of social activity was accompanied by one of Scott’s religious revivals in which he “became desparately Holy” and by literary effort. He wrote an unpublished, lost poem on “Paris, the night + the Lure of the Dark,” for The Smart Set and commenced playwright with a theatrical group organized by Elizabeth Magoffin, a Summit Avenue drama buff. After acting in A Regular Fix, Scott wrote his first play in August 1911 for the Elizabethan Dramatic Club, as it was called in honor of its founder. The Girl from Lazy J, a one-acter, was performed at the Magoffin home with the playwright acting the lead. Absurdly plotted and freighted with stagy speech, the play does not show particular promise. Why the thief sends this message to his victim in advance of the robbery remains unexplained and unexplainable: “Mr. Kendall, I warn you that on the night of August 12 I will relieve you of the five thousand dollars that you received last week in payment for the yearling steers. Yours very sincerely—D.S.H.”
By the time he was fifteen Scott was accustomed to hearing the drums of destiny beating for him. He knew that he was different from his friends, that he had larger—if inchoate—ambitions, and that some rare fate was reserved for him. As he wrote of his autobiographicalhero, Amory Blaine, in This Side of Paradise, “Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams, the one about becoming a great half-back, or the one about the Japanese invasion, when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”
The summer of 1911 was filled with the anticipation of going away to an Eastern school. A family conference had decided that Scott’s poor academic record at the St. Paul Academy indicated a need for the discipline of a boarding school, and the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, was selected because it was trying to develop a reputation as the Catholic equivalent of the prestigious New England prep schools. Situated forty minutes from New York City, Newman had sixty students “drawn from the Roman Catholic families of wealth in all parts of the United States” and was unusual among Catholic schools in having a lay faculty and lay board of trustees. The basic fee was $850 a year.
With his head full of Owen Johnson’s prep school and college stories, Scott arrived at Newman in September and promptly established himself as the most unpopular boy at school. He was bossy and boastful; he irritated the teachers and students; he was regarded as a coward and a bully; he humiliated himself by running from a tackle in a football scrimmage. He was rebuffed when he tried to join groups of boys and criticized when he kept to himself. He accumulated conduct demerits and did poorly in his studies. His courses at Newman included English, history, mathematics, Latin, French, and a science. None of Scott’s teachers made an impression on him.
Again Scott sought distinction and self-justification through writing. His first known contribution to the school magazine, the Newman News (There is no file of the Newman News. Fitzgerald’s contributions are known from the clippings in his scrapbooks) was a thirty-six-line poem, “Football,” in the Christmas 1911 issue, written after he had disgraced himself on the football field.
Now they’re ready, now they’re waiting,
Now he’s going to place the ball
There, you hear the referee’s whistle,
As of old the baton’s fall.
He later wrote about the circumstances behind the poem:
I remember the desolate ride in the bus back to the train and the desolate ride back to school with everybody thinking I had been yellow on the occasion, when actually I was just distracted and sorry for that opposing end. That’s the truth. I’ve been afraid plenty of times but that wasn’t one of the times. The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas vacation it was in my mind that if you weren’t able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity—it was a back door way out of facing reality.
At Newman, Scott felt the lure of Princeton. He preserved the ticket stub for the 4 November 1911 Princeton-Harvard game in his scrap-book with the caption “Sam White decides me for Princeton.” End White starred in Princeton’s 8-6 victory with a 95-yard touchdown run after a blocked kick. Because it came in the first Princeton-Harvard game since 1896, the upset was regarded as one of Princeton’s great athletic triumphs. Another factor in Princeton’s attraction was the Triangle Club, founded by Booth Tarkington ’93; every year the club produced an original musical comedy, which it took on tour during the Christmas vacation. When Scott saw the printed libretto for His Honor the Sultan, he began trying to imitate it, leaning heavily on Gilbert and Sullivan.
During his period of unpopularity and unhappiness at Newman, Scott was infected by the enticement of New York. His trips to the Broadway theater excited his craving for metropolitan glamour and reinforced his theatrical ambitions: “There was first the ferry boat moving softly from the Jersey shore at dawn—the moment crystallized into my first symbol of New York. Five years later when I was fifteen I went into the city from school to see Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl and Gertrude Bryan in Little Boy Blue. Confused by my helpless and melancholy love for them both, I was unable to choose between them—so they blurred into one lovely entity, the girl. She was my second symbol of New York. The ferry boat stood for triumph, the girl for romance.”
In his Ledger Fitzgerald summarized 1911-12, his first year at Newman, as “A year of real unhappiness excepting the feverish joys of Xmas.” He tried to redeeem himself when he returned to school in January, but it was difficult. Academic problems placed him on bounds—limited to the school grounds. At Easter he visited his cousins Ceci Taylor at Norfolk, Virginia, and Tom Delihant at the Woodstock, Maryland, Jesuit seminary. He won the junior field meet in May, but managed to pass only four of his final exams—getting his only A in ancient history and probably failing algebra and physics. (Fitzgerald’s Newman School transcript at Princeton University is not divided into terms.)
On the train back to St. Paul for the summer of 1912 vacation he drafted a full-length play for the Elizabethan Dramatic Club. An imitation of the popular crook-comedies such as Alias Jimmy Valentine, The Captured Shadow is a much more accomplished play than The Girl from Lazy J, with well-plotted action and clever dialogue. Scott played the lead, Thornton Hart Dudley, the gentleman crook who is not really a thief. The play was presented on 23 August 1912 at Mrs. Backus’s School for Girls in Oak Hall. Assessing this achievement sixteen years later in a Basil Duke Lee story, “The Captured Shadow” (1928), Fitzgerald commented on his young playwright: “It might all have been very bad and demoralizing for Basil, but it was already behind him. Even as the crowd melted away and the last few people spoke to him and went out, he felt a great vacancy come into his heart. It was over, it was done and gone—all that work, and interest and absorption. It was a hollowness like fear.”
Scott started his second year at Newman in the fall of 1912 determined to expiate his first-year sins, and to a large extent he succeeded—except academically. He starred as substitute left halfback in Newman’s 7—0 victory over the Kingsley school, and the Newman News commended him for his “fine running with the ball” that set up the touchdown by Charles W. (Sap) Donahoe, who became a lifelong friend.
Newman was not entirely populated with athletes. Among Scott’s fellow students were Herbert Agar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1934, and future novelists Cyril Hume (The Wife of the Centaur) and Edward Hope (She Loves Me Not). Quarterback Sap Donahoe was editor of the Newman News. A reserved boy from the Northwest, Donahoe went to Princeton with Fitzgerald and becameone of his permanent heroes: “… another man represented my sense of the ’good life,’ though I saw him once a decade… But in difficult situations I had tried to think what he would have thought, how he would have acted.” By this time Scott was a confirmed hero worshiper. He later admitted in his Notebooks: “When I like men I want to be like them—I want to lose the outer qualities that give me my individuality and be like them. I don’t want the man I want to absorb into myself all the qualities that make him attractive and leave him out. I cling to my own inards. When I like women I want to own them, to dominate them, to have them admire me.”
During the 1912-13 school year Scott published three stories in the Newman News: “A Luckless Santa Claus,” “Pain and the Scientist,” and “The Trail of the Duke.” The second of these stories is a negligible spoof of Christian Science; but the other two mark the earliest appearances of a subject that runs through Fitzgerald’s work—the servitude of a man to a woman. In “A Luckless Santa Claus” the young man accepts, with disastrous results, his fiancee’s challenge to give away $25. In “The Trail of the Duke” the lover gets into difficulties searching for a lost duke who improbably turns out to be his sweetheart’s poodle. Although these plots are trivial, both stories foreshadow Fitzgerald’s mature treatment of the young man who performs a grand deed for the sake of his beloved and who sometimes breaks against her selfishness.
Scott’s Newman short stories demonstrate his rapid progress toward a distinctive style and a controlling tone of his own:
It was a hot July night. Inside, through screen, window and door fled the bugs and gathered around the lights like so many humans at a carnival, buzzing, thugging, whirring. From out the night into the houses came the sweltering late summer heat, over-powering and enervating, bursting against the walls and enveloping all mankind like a huge smothering blanket. In the drug stores, the clerks, tired and grumbling handed out ice cream to hundreds of thirsty but misled civilians, while in the corners buzzed the electric fans in a whirring mockery of coolness. In the flats that line upper New York, pianos (sweating ebony perspiration) ground out rag-time tunes of last winter and here and there a wan woman sang the air in a hot soprano. In the tenements, shirt-sleeves gleamed like beacon lights in steady rows along the streets in tiers of from four to eight according to the number of stories in the house. In a word, it was a typical, hot New York summer night.
—“The Trail of the Duke”
The image “sweating ebony perspiration” bears the Fitzgerald mark.
The great event of Scott’s second year at Newman was meeting Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay in November 1912. Fay was Fitzgerald’s ideal priest—a romantic, intellectual figure who made the Church seem glamorous. Formerly an Episcopalian minister, Fay had converted to Catholicism and was ordained in 1910. He was a popularpreacher and as a Church statesman was the confidential adviser to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. A portly man, so fair that he was sometimes described as an albino, Fay had a private income that permitted him to live well and be at home in the highest Catholic society. He had a wide range of enthusiasms. A lover of ritual, he sometimes recited the Mass in Gaelic. In addition to his sermons, which were admired for their scholarship, Fay wrote conventional religious poems.
Clothed with the Sun, the Moon beneath,
The Stars above thy brow,
The Darling of the Trinity,
O Queen of Heaven, art Thou.
—“The Queen of Heaven”
The thirty-seven-year-old priest and the sixteen-year-old student responded to the egotistical qualities they shared and enjoyed their self-analytical conversations. Fay soon became Scott’s surrogate father. Fitzgerald provided a portrait of him as Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise:
He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.
Children adored him because he was like a child; youth revelled in his company because he was still a youth, and couldn’t be shocked. In the proper land and century he might have been a Richelieu—at present he was a very moral, very religious (if not particularly pious) clergyman, making a great mystery about pulling rusty wires, and appreciating life to the fullest, if not entirely enjoying it.
Fay later served as headmaster at Newman, but at the time of their meeting he was living in Washington. Scott visited him in Washington and was introduced to Henry Adams and Shane Leslie. In This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald described Amory’s first luncheon with Darcy as “one of the memorable events in Amory’s early life. He was quite radiant and gave off a peculiar brightness and charm. Monsignor called out the best that he had thought by question and suggestion, and Amory talked with an ingenious brilliance of a thousand impulses and desires and repulsions and faiths and fears.” Fay was the first important person who responded to Scott and encouraged his aspirations.
Shane Leslie (later Sir Shane) was an Anglo-Irish Catholic convert and a successful writer and lecturer. Educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, he was the son of one of the American Jeromesisters and the first cousin of Winston Churchill. Fitzgerald later recorded the impression Leslie made on him as a schoolboy:
He first came into my life as the most romantic figure I had ever known. He had sat at the feet of Tolstoy, he had gone swimming with Rupert Brooke, he had been a young Englishman of the governing classes when the sense of being one must have been, as Compton McKenzie says, like the sense of being a Roman citizen.
Also, he was a convert to the church of my youth, and he and another, since dead, made of that church a dazzling, golden thing, dispelling its oppressive mugginess and giving the succession of days upon gray days, passing under its plaintive ritual, the romantic glamour of an adolescent dream.
Fay and Leslie encouraged Scott to think of himself as one of the brilliant young men who would make American Catholicism socially and intellectually respectable; and under their influence Scott sporadically talked about entering the priesthood to become an American equivalent of the English priest-novelist Robert Hugh Benson. Fay and Leslie also tried to win him to Irish independence as a romantic cause, but it did not seize his imagination as the lost South had—probably because Scott had no sense of his Irish past. His Irish roots were mercantile and unglamorous. A younger Newman student, Stephan Parrott, shared Fay’s attention. Peevie Parrott was the son of a wealthy San Francisco family, and for a few years he and Scott were close on the basis of their brotherhood as Fay’s spiritual sons.
Despite the heady events of 1912-13, Fitzgerald summarized that year in his Ledger with “Reward in fall for work of previous summer. A better year but not happy.” The cause of his unhappiness is unknown. Perhaps it was a feeling that he was marking time at Newman and that his destiny required a larger setting.
Scott and his friends had experimented with drugstore sherry in St. Paul. In 1913 he began to try stronger liquors at Newman. He had his first whiskey in March, and an April Ledger entry notes that he was “Tight at Susquehanna.” His academic situation remained shaky; his Newman School record shows that he failed four courses in two years:
It is normal—almost obligatory—for literary geniuses to get poor grades in math and science; but Scott did not distinguish himself in his English courses, either.
At the end of the term he took the examinations for Princeton, on which he did a little “cribbing.” The entrance exams included French, three exams in Latin, two exams in English, three exams in algebra and plane geometry, and other exams in history, mathematics, and science. He left Newman with medals for elocution and track, and returned to St. Paul to await word of his acceptance by Princeton.
During the summer of 1913 Scott wrote his third play for the Elizabethan Dramatic Club, “Coward,” a Civil War melodrama about a reluctant Southern soldier who proves his courage. He played one of the leads and enjoyed the whole business of rehearsals and backstage crises because he always liked being in charge. “Coward” was warmly received by the local press at its performance at the St. Paul Y.W.C.A. for the benefit of the Baby Welfare Association on 29 August 1913, and a second performance was given “upon urgent demand” at the White Bear Yacht Club on 2 September. Fitzgerald captioned the reviews in his scrapbook: the great event and enter success!
The death of Grandmother McQuillan that summer solved the problem of Scott’s college tuition. When she received her share of her mother’s estate, Mollie may have had as much as $125,000 in capital. The idea that he might be sent to the University of Minnesota to save money had filled Scott with dismay, and he was not attracted by the offer of his maiden aunt, Annabel McQuillan, to underwrite his education at Catholic Georgetown University. It was Princeton or nothing. The other Big Three universities failed to exert the same pull on his emotions: “I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men assissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes. … I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day.” Princeton was the Southerner’s Ivy League college, and Fitzgerald thought of himself as a courtesy Southerner by virtue of his father’s pedigree.
Published as Some Sort Of Epic Grandeur: The Life Of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991 - second edition; 1981 - first edition).