In themoment of crisis Scott had prayed his family wouldn’t go to the poorhouse, but thanks to the McQuillan inheritance there was no danger. The Fitzgeralds had enough to get along on, to keep a servant and send their children to private schools, and after Grandmother McQuillan’s death in 1913 their principal rose to $125,000—a tidy sum for those years before the First World War. The McQuillan money was their sole support. Edward Fitzgerald made practically nothing as a broker in wholesale groceries. He kept his samples of rice and dried apricots and coffee in a roll-top desk in his brother-in-law’s real estate office, but his wife was so clearly the source of all revenue that he was known to charge postage stamps at the corner store. [The figure of $125,000 was supplied by Scott Fitzgerald’s sister, Mrs. Clifton Sprague.]
“If it wasn’t for your Grandfather McQuillan, where would we be now?” Mollie would say to Scott, who never knew hardship but rather the shabby gentility that has spurred so many of the great strivers and adventurers in history.
The first year after their return to St. Paul the Fitzgeralds lived with Grandmother McQuillan, who had sold her house on Summit and moved to lesser quarters on nearby Laurel. Thus Scott was propelled into the Summit Avenue community which, at the time, meant fashionable, residential St. Paul. Summit Avenue, a spacious wooded boulevard, sat picturesquely on a bluff that overlooked commercial Lower Town and the encircling Mississippi. The community, extending to the four parallel streets on either side, covered an area almost a mile square.
In this larger, more complex arena than he had previously known, Fitzgerald’s personality quickly asserted itself. The other children were curious about the sprightly, keen-featured youth whose mother still dressed him in Eton caps and collars. He had an awareness, a pseudo-sophistication they hadn’t met before though in other respects he seemed like one of them. He hid in the barns and chased about the alleys and threw stones at the “Micks” from Lower Town and invaded trunks of old clothes to put on masquerades. He starred in “Truth and Consequences”; when he had been in St. Paul only a month, five girls confessed that he was their favorite boy.
His favorite girl was Violet Stockton, a summer visitor from Atlanta. Showing the future novelist’s eye for detail, he wrote in his Thoughtbook, “She was very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes big and soft. She spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r’s. She was a year older than I but together with most of the other boys [I] liked her very much.
“She had some sort of a book called flirting by signs 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 therefore I went home. Imediately 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 receiver. The next morning I went down to Jack’s 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. Before, however, I had heard several things and as I found out afterwards so had Violet that I wanted to have justified. Violet and I sat on the hill back of Schultze’s a little way from the others.
‘Violet,’ I began, ‘Did you call me a brat?’
‘Did you say that you wanted your ring and your pictures and your hair back?’
‘Did you say you hated me?’
‘Of course not, is that what you went home for?’
‘No, but Archie Mudge told me those things yesterday evening.’
‘He’s a little scamp,’ said Violet indignantly. At this juncture Elenor 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.”
In September, Fitzgerald entered the St. Paul Academy where he came under the tutelage of “Pa” Fiske and C. N. B. Wheeler. Fiske, dispenser of Latin, Greek, and mathematics, was almost a caricature of the old-fashioned pedagogue. His locks were all in a tangle behind, and his pince-nez slid down toward the end of his nose as he sat in his chair twirling a pencil which he occasionally dropped. One day when Fitzgerald, along with several others, was kept after school, he asked Fiske if he knew any Latin jokes. Fiske thought a moment and came up with a Latin pun which amused no one, but showed Fitzgerald’s disposition to create entertainment from the most unlikely materials.
Wheeler was more Fitzgerald’s type. A small, wiry man with a goatee, he taught English and history and coached athletics. In later years he would remember Fitzgerald as “a sunny light-haired boy full of enthusiasm who fully foresaw his course in life even in his schoolboy days. … I helped him by encouraging his urge to write adventures. It was also his best work, he did not shine in his other subjects. He was inventive in all playlets we had and marked his course by his pieces for delivery before the school. … He wasn’t popular with his schoolmates. He saw through them too much and wrote about it. … I imagined he would become an actor of the variety type, but he didn’t. … It was his pride in his literary work that put him in his real bent.”
Soon the school magazine was announcing that “young Scottie is always bubbling over with suppressed knowledge,” and asked whether someone would poison him or find a means to shut his mouth. In class his mind wandered as he scribbled away at “sketches” behind a propped-up geography book. This eccentric activity, which no one paid much attention to, was coupled with an attitude more difficult to ignore—a vague cockiness and aggressiveness as if to say, “I’m not much now, but wait and see.”
Already Fitzgerald was living an inner life apart, yet he did not scorn the more mundane pursuits of his fellows. On the contrary, he had a healthy urge to compete, especially in athletics where his talents were mediocre. Though fast and fairly strong, he was small and not too well coordinated. But he tried hard and could force himself to be brave, as if he had a conception of what a hero should do and was determined to do it.
Once, in a football game, he lay on the field after a scrimmage with the breath apparently knocked out of him. A moment later he was up, eager to resume play, but the coach made him quit because his chest was hurting (it was later found that he had a broken rib). As he limped off the field, he said, “Well, boys, I’ve given my all—now let’s see what you can do.” Another time he dropped a pass that lost the game and realizing the enormity of his act, he burst into tears—evoking a response from his teammates of “Oh, hell, Scott, forget it—it’s not that vital.” Perhaps his most memorable feat was performed against a much heavier team from Central High. As Central’s captain, the biggest player on the field, bolted back with the kick-off, the St. Paul team parted like the Red Sea until finally Fitzgerald made the tackle. But again he was hurt and had to leave the game. A friend who called on him next day found him strapped up and lying in bed, clearly relishing the role of the wounded veteran.
The truth was he didn’t much care for sports though a sense of showmanship made him realize their importance. He approached them as would an actor who sees himself in the starring role, and if he couldn’t be pitcher, or captain and quarterback, he might refuse to play. Once, in a relay race, he insisted on being anchor man to reap the utmost glory. When his opponent overtook him at the last moment, rather than lose the race outright Fitzgerald intentionally slipped and fell. Afterwards he explained what he had done to a friend as if it were perfectly natural.
Deeply ingrained in him was a streak of exhibitionism which his mother encouraged. She would get him to sing for company (he sensed this was a mistake, he didn’t have much of a voice), and when they called on the nuns at the Visitation Convent, he stood on the front steps for a quarter of an hour declaiming something he had written. To the nuns he seemed beautiful and animated, so intent was he, so brimming over with his subject. When it came to words—their color, shape, and sound —Fitzgerald would always shine, though finding ideas to fit them was sometimes an occasion for bluffing. Thus he would memorize the titles in bookstores and speak confidently of what was in the books without having taken them off the shelves.
Life at his grandmother’s was mildly depressing for someone as convivial as he. Each morning his two spinster aunts, all in black, went to Mass with prayerbooks under their arms, and later in the day Mollie, also in black, set off with her bag of books to be exchanged at the Public Library. Behind the dim, row house was a narrow cinder-gritty yard. The stables across the alley went with the houses on the other side, and Fitzgerald liked to watch the coachmen in rubber aprons and boots wash down the carriages of these more prosperous and privileged mortals.
Mollie was determined that her children shouldn’t be dragged down by their father’s failure. She had the proper entrees, and in December, 1909, Fitzgerald entered the dancing class that became his “crowd” for the rest of his life in St. Paul. The class met at Ramaley Hall, an oblong salon with pink walls and white stucco trimmings like the frosting on a cake. The dancing master, Professor Baker, was a round little man, white-mustached and bald on top, sometimes smelling of rumbut always nimbly maneuverable when demonstrating the mazurka or the two-step. At times he would shout and develop apoplectic symptoms unbecoming the dignity and grandeur of Ramaley’s, for his rule was incomplete. “One day a week ago,” wrote Fitzgerald in his Thoughtbook, “some of the boys including Arthur Foley, Cecil Reade, Donald Bigelow & Laurence Boardman refused to do the Grand March. They went out in the hall and began to put on their [street] shoes. Mr. Baker almost had a fit but his efforts to make them march were unavailing. Those of us that were in the march mushed it up every which way and now the grand march is abolished and we have three other dances in its place.”
The wealthiest children came to Ramaley’s in black limousines with monograms and coats-of-arms on the doors and liveried chauffeurs in attendance. Those less wealthy drove with their mothers in the family electric, and those not wealthy at all rode the streetcar or trudged through the snow, swinging their patent leather shoes in a slipper bag. The girls wore frilly dresses of white lawn or dotted swiss with bright sashes, their hair done in pompadours and falling to shoulder length behind. The boys wore blue serge knickerbocker suits, and once a year there would be a cotillion with favors spread out on tables for the girls.
Dancing class epitomized the youthful struggle for popularity which went on in other forms all over the countryside, children in those days spending more time outdoors than they do now. They hiked in the woods, they bicycled and roller-skated along Summit, and far into the scented twilights they played hiding and running games in the big yards around the houses. The long winters, which gave Fitzgerald his images of tinkling sleighs and frosty breath, were the season of bob-sled and toboggan parties.
“These sleighrides,” Fitzgerald remembered: “Nowhere but in Minnesota had they such sleighrides. It would be three when we set out in thick coats and sweaters, the girls flushed and consciously athletic; the boys slightly embarrassed but rakishin jumping off and on with complete abandon, to a chorus of little shrieks of simulated anxiety. At a dusky five o’clock we’d reach our destination; usually a club, and have hot chocolate and chicken sandwiches and a dance or two by the graphophone. Then the dark and the crisp frost would come down outside and Mrs. Hollis, or Mrs. Campbell or Mrs. Wharton would take the boy who had frozen his cheeks on the way out, home in her limousine, while the rest of us loitered on to the verandah and waited for the sleighs under the pale January moon. On the way out the girls always sat together, but going back things were different. Then there were mixed groups of four and six, and more than occasionally, of two; and the only unmeltable elements were at the front of the sleigh where the cross-eyed girl talked with painful concentration to the chaperon and in the back where the half dozen shy boys lurked and whispered and pushed each other off.”
Girls, as a rule, liked Fitzgerald. He had conversational flair, and if they weren’t susceptible to his refined good looks, they had to admit he was neat and presentable. His knickers were always the whitest and crispest at a party, his Norfolk jacket (pleats in front, belt all around) the best cut, and his high, chafing Belmont collar the most snugly joined over a diminutive knot. With boys his status was more ambiguous. He was a mixer, yet he seemed to withhold a part of himself in some secret, perhaps untrustworthy niche of his being. Too unorthodox to be a leader in the broad sense, he came up with so many ideas and was so deft in their execution that he would have to be called a catalyst. He was prime mover in a succession of boys’ clubs that had brief, strife-torn existences. The Fitzgerald touch is noted in the initiation rites to one of them. “The first member was Cecil, and Paul and I subjected him to a most horrible initiation which consisted of having him eat raw eggs and of operating on him with saw, cold ice, and needle accompanied by a basin.”
In Fitzgerald’s presence boredom was unknown. Imagine that you and he were confined to the house of a rainy afternoonand the question arose of how to amuse yourselves. Fitzgerald has been leafing through the classified section of the phone book, and pausing at “Artificial Limbs,” he picks up the receiver. Without the trace of a smile he calls the Minnesota Limb & Brace Co. to order a wooden leg. They ask him to come in for a fitting. He says he can’t walk with only one leg. They ask to visit him, but he raises objections. Then he questions them about their product in excruciating detail. Does it squeak? (By now you are laughing so hard that he has to flag you to be quiet.) If it squeaks, what brand of oil should you use? Can it be equipped with a rubber heel? If you kick another person, will it break? His curiosity satisfied, he repeats the performance with St. Paul Artificial Limbs, United Limb & Brace, and the J. A. McConnell Co., which boasts “the latest suspension techniques for above the knee amputations.” Tiring of the sport at last, he has not only made an hour go by in several minutes but has gathered considered lore about artificial limbs which he files away for future reference.
His St. Paul theater companion was Sam Sturgis, son of an army officer. Every Saturday they went to the vaudeville matinee at the Orpheum, and at parties they re-enacted what they had seen. Fitzgerald made such a plausible drunk that some of the girls told their mothers that he had been drinking, but far from minding this adverse publicity, he reveled in his reputation of a thirteen-year-old roue.
Sometimes he staged his drinking act on the streetcar, and when the conductor tried to help him, Fitzgerald spurned his aid. There was also the father and son act, with Fitzgerald playing the father and Sturgis the son, though they appeared to be the same age and size. Asked for his fare, Fitzgerald would go through all his pockets before producing a wallet which opened into a sort of miniature accordion. Each of the thirty or forty compartments had to be searched for the non-existent change. When the conductor, bent on doing his duty, turned to Sturgis, Fitzgerald pointed to the sign which said that children six and under paid no fare. The conductor now lost patience and Sturgis burst into tears. Fitzgerald deplored the injustice of it, provoking the laughter of the other passengers. A further object of the game was to keep it going till the car reached the top of the hill on Selby Avenue whence it was an easy walk home.
Bright, gentlemanly, attractive, Fitzgerald had no trouble making his way in St. Paul. He was asked everywhere, but his parents didn’t circulate among the parents of his friends, for Edward and Mollie Fitzgerald were on the fringes of society as it was then constituted.
Before the Civil War St. Paul had had an aristocracy of blood. An occasional pioneering immigrant bought into the upper crust, but for the most part society was made up of old, established Eastern families, the young men having gone west for their health or for adventure. They were by and large a professional group that looked down on business. During the boom of the sixties and seventies, however, a number of merchant and banking families had come to the fore. Some of the old aristocrats moved back east, while others moved away from Summit Avenue, repelled by the influx of nouveaux riches. When Fitzgerald was growing up, there was still a sprinkling of Eastern aristocrats at the top, but their importance was dwindling before the sons and grandsons of business magnates who had made their fortunes in groceries, plumbing, or shoes. Aristocracy had become synonymous with wealth, though because of its Eastern ties there remained more of a sense of hierarchy in St. Paul than in other Midwestern cities. St. Paul was a “three-generation town”; Minneapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee could boast of only two. [For my understanding of the social structure of St. Paul I am specially indebted to Mrs. Blair Flandrau (the author, Grace Flandrau). The St. Paul families referred to by name in The Great Gatsby (“Are you going to the Ordways? the Herseys? the Schultzes?”) were not old Eastern aristocrats but the newly rich.]
St. Paul, however, was typically Midwestern in that for a man to be important he must do something, he must have a solid, remunerative calling, and Edward Fitzgerald—a well-bred enigma—did nothing that anyone could see. Mollie might still have established herself, for the McQuillans were “good old settlers” and families of less note had forged to the top ina generation or two. But by worldly standards Mollie was not attractive; she was thought a little “goofy” and her appearance was odd. Her sallow skin had grown surprisingly wrinkled, there were dark discolorations beneath her pale eyes, and her fringing, cascading hair was a byword; daughters told their mothers, “For heaven’s sake, comb up your hair or you’ll look like Mrs. Fitzgerald.” She dressed, as someone said, “like the ark.” Everything sagged. The plumes of her antique bonnets drooped as if perpetually rained on, and in an era when skirts were excessively long and full hers were longer, fuller, and more apt to be trailing in the dust than anyone else’s. Somewhat broad for her height, she walked with a slight lurch, and she spoke in a droll manner, dragging and drawling her words. If she hadn’t seen you for a while, she might greet you with, “Oh, how you’ve changed!”—accompanied by a dire look which implied that the change was not for the best. Or, if you merited such attentions, she would criticize your hat and ask to go with you next time you bought one.
But she was kind and people were cruel about her. They called her a witch and made fun of her high buttoned shoes, which she wore with the top buttons unbuttoned because she suffered from swollen ankles and this type of footgear gave her relief. Her great hope was her son, whom she loved extravagantly as a woman will when her husband has in some way disappointed her. Fitzgerald, however, was embarrassed by his mother—by her faux pas as well as by her complete lack of style. (As the model for the mother in his first novel he chose a grande dame who was also eccentric, but whose eccentricity ran to white leather furniture, tigerskin rugs, Pekingeses, and toucan birds that ate only bananas.) Fitzgerald resented the way his mother coddled him—her urging him to lie down or soak in a hot bath—and her sentimentality made him wince. She hung texts in his room on the order of “The world will judge largely of Mother by you.”
He was less critical of his father who had the elegance and decorum his mother lacked. Edward Fitzgerald carried a cane, and wore a cutaway and gray gloves on Sunday, and was very proud of his son who wanted desperately to admire him. But life had not been kind to Edward Fitzgerald. His failure gnawed at him, and much of the time he seemed old and depressed. He soothed his discouragement by drinking more than he should, though in this regard he wasn’t offensive.
Thus Fitzgerald loved his father but could not respect him, and though he grudgingly respected his mother for running the family and keeping it solvent, he found her difficult to love. Because both parents fell short of his ideal, Fitzgerald, a fierce perfectionist, liked to imagine himself a foundling. In The Romantic Egotist, an early draft of This Side of Paradise, the hero tells neighbors that he was discovered on the doorstep with a label designating him the descendant of Stuart kings. In the story “Absolution,” the little boy believes he is not his parents’ child, and Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s alter ego, springs from “his Platonic conception of himself.” In a late autobiographical piece, “Author’s House,” Fitzgerald recalled “my first childish love of myself, my belief that I would never die like other people, and that I wasn’t the son of my parents but a son of a king, a king who ruled the whole world.” [Fitzgerald’s attitude towards his family parallels James Joyce’s attitude towards his. At home Joyce felt “his own futile isolation.” He felt that he was scarcely the same blood as his mother and brother and sister, but stood to them “rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, foster child and foster brother.” (Portrait of the Artist)]
The fall of 1909, his second year at the St. Paul Academy, Fitzgerald began publishing in the school magazine. His first contribution, “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage,” bespoke the influence of Gaston Leroux and Anna Katherine Green, whose detective fiction he had been devouring and analyzing. Later he recalled the exaltation of his literary debut.
“Never will I forget the Monday morning the numbers came out. The previous Saturday I had loitered desperately around the printers down-town and driven the man to indignation by persisting in trying to get a copy when the covers had not been bound on—finally, I had gone away and almost in tears. Nothing interested me until Monday, and when at recess, a big pile of the copies were brought in and delivered to the business managerI was so excited that I bounced in my seat and mumbled to myself, ‘They’re here! They’re here!’ until the whole school looked at me in amazement. I read my story through at least six times, and all that 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?’ “
Fitzgerald published three more stories in the next two years. “Reade, Substitute Right Half” tells of a “light-haired stripling” who enters the game when his team is losing and single-handedly turns the tide. In “A Debt of Honor” a Confederate who has fallen asleep on sentry duty is pardoned by General Lee and redeems himself at Chancellorsville by a heroic act which costs him his life. “The Room with the Green Blinds” mixes history and fantasy. Fitzgerald imagines that John Wilkes Booth has escaped after the assassination of Lincoln and for years has been hiding in a ruined Southern mansion. The story tells of his being captured and killed.
The spring of 1911 a new intoxication entered Fitzgerald’s life. The headquarters for his group was the Ames’s yard at 501 Grand Avenue. “It had a child’s quality,” he remembered. “… 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.” Here the children played games called “Run Sheep Run” and “Beckons Wanted,” told secrets in the treehouse, and showed off on the rings and horizontal bars. Sometimes the boys snatched the girls’ hair ribbons and darted off with them, returning them for a kiss which meant a brush on the cheek. Here it was that Fitzgerald experienced his “first faint sex attraction,” recaptured long afterwards in one of the stories about Basil Duke Lee, who is a portrait of the artist as adolescent.
‘Basil rode over to Imogene Bissel and balanced idly on his wheel before her. Something in his face then must have attracted her, for she looked up at him, looked at him really, and slowly smiled. She was to be a beauty and belle of many proms in a few years. Now her large brown eyes and large beautifully shaped mouth and the high flush over her thin cheekbones made her face gnome-like and offended those who wanted a child to look like a child. For a moment Basil was granted an insight into the future, and the spell of her vitality crept over him suddenly. For the first time in his life he realized a girl completely as something opposite and complementary to him, and he was subject to a warm chill of mingled pleasure and pain. It was a definite experience and he was immediately conscious of it. The summer afternoon became lost in her suddenly —the soft air, the shadowy hedges and banks of flowers, the orange sunlight, the laughter and voices, the tinkle of a piano over the way—the odor left all these things and went into Imogene’s face as she sat there looking up at him with a smile.”
In real life Imogene Bissel was Marie Hersey. Hubert Blair, who takes her away from Basil in the story, was Reuben Warner. A year younger than Fitzgerald, Warner had an animal magnetism, a purely masculine appeal which the more sensitive and cerebral Fitzgerald felt unable to compete with. Warner was the self-assured man of action Fitzgerald longed to be; Warner tap-danced, played the drums, excelled in a number of sports, and did stunts and parlor tricks which made him the center of all eyes. Like Basil, Fitzgerald came to realize a little sadly “that though boys and girls would always listen to him while he talked, their mouths literally moving in response to his, they would never look at him as they had looked at Hubert.”
Remembering that impassioned spring, his last at the St. Paul Academy, Fitzgerald wrote, “My imagination ran riot through the breezy mornings with the window open at [school] and the long cool evenings when [Bobby Schurmeier] and I would walk down town to the stock-company and see the week’s offering and wander home by the ever romantic lamp-light. The [Ames’s] yard grew stale and we longed for bigger fields, so we romanced by night as we loitered in the dim streets and built air-castles that stretched to Mont Martre where we were to have dinner together when we were twenty-one, and to the glorious international intrigues to be managed in an atmosphere of cafes and dark women and secret messages.”
During the summer Fitzgerald began to smoke and acquired his first long trousers in anticipation of the fall when he was going East to boarding school, for his parents had decided he needed disciplining. Shortly before he left, a song by the young composer Irving Berlin cast its spell over him. It was called “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it had in it the lift and beat of the new century. [Fitzgerald’s sister told me that Aunt Annabel McQuillan sent her to Rosemary Hall but did not pay Fitzgerald’s way at Newman, as was previously thought. Aunt Annabel did, however, offer to pay Fitzgerald’s way at college if he would go to Catholic Georgetown University where his father had gone.]
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).