We beginwith the McQuillans, for they are the source of energy in this story.
In 1843 a lad of nine named Philip Francis McQuillan emigrated to this country from County Fermanagh, Ireland, and settled with his parents in Galena, Illinois. The parents drop out of sight, but Philip Francis, or “P.F.” as he came to be known, appears in the Galena directories of 1854-56 as a clerk in a clothing store. In 1857, aged twenty-three, he moved to St. Paul—a raw boom town and capital of the newly organized Minnesota Territory, well on its way to becoming the biggest wholesale distributing center of the Northwest. McQuillan would ride this prosperity and see St. Paul take on the lineaments of a small city. When he arrived, however, the streets were unpaved, Indians were much in view, and the air was redolent of the hides that hung in the shop windows.
McQuillan went to work as bookkeeper in a grocery concern, and at the end of two years started a grocery store of his own in a small, one-story frame building. In 1860 he married his Galena sweetheart, Louisa Allen. Business prospered, and he moved to larger quarters in 1862, becoming a wholesale dealer exclusively. He moved again in 1869 and again in 1872—this time to a four-story warehouse of his own construction, one of the largest buildings in the city. By now his health had begun to fail. He suffered from Bright’s Disease and died in 1877 at the age of forty-three, leaving a personal fortune of $266,289.49 and a business with annual sales in the millions.
So ended a career which the obituaries called “a living romance, for in the brief period of twenty years [McQuillan] passed, by his own unaided exertions, from the humblest beginnings to a place among the merchant princes of the country.” Thirty-nine wholesale houses shut their doors the day of his funeral. Among the mourners were St. Paul’s “leading business men, professional men, educators, and men and women in all walks of life,” as well as the boys and girls of the Catholic Orphan’s Home, “an institution that had no more generous friend than [McQuillan].” Large numbers were turned away from the Church and a procession of a hundred carriages followed the coffin to the cemetery, “making one of the most imposing demonstrations of the kind ever seen in the city.”
The success of his Grandfather McQuillan was the great social and economic fact in Scott Fitzgerald’s background. It was the base he had to work from. For a boy growing up in the Midwest there was more substance in it than in the patents of nobility— the descent from old Maryland families—which came down to him on his father’s side. From Grandfather McQuillan, he inherited his self-reliance and his honorable ambition. There was little of the idler and nothing of the sponge or the chiseler in Fitzgerald, who reserved his deepest respect for the self-made man.
A few years before his death “P.F.” had built his family a residence in “Lower Town,” the old (now the business) section of St. Paul. Like many houses of the period it had a cupola, but unlike them it was approached by a seashell walk bordered with conches—a detail which intrigued Fitzgerald who used to tell his daughter about it. Here, amid comfort rather than luxury, “P.F.’s” widow raised her five children of whom the eldest— Fitzgerald’s mother—was born in 1860 and the youngest in 1877 after the father’s death. Louisa McQuillan, Fitzgerald’s grandmother, is remembered as a quiet homebody, always impeccably neat in the black silk ladies wore in those days. After her family, the Church was her chief concern. Every few years she took her brood to Europe (Fitzgerald’s mother had been four times before her marriage), and it was said she went primarily to pay her respects to the Pope. Her children profited from their travels, for those were the days when going abroad meant staying awhile. You settled in the country of your choice and learned the language and brought home objets d’art, like the copy of the Sistine Madonna which hung in the McQuillan parlor.
In St. Paul of the 1880’s the McQuillans cut the figure of good, respected Catholics with what might snobbishly be called “a very nice position.” “P.F.” had been in wholesale rather than trade and that was considered “all right.” The oldest boy, Allen —educated at Stonyhurst—danced well and belonged to the exclusive Cotillion Club. Annabelle, the second girl, was maid of honor in the wedding of Clara Hill, daughter of J. J. Hill, the railroad tycoon. But on the whole the McQuillans weren’t fashionable, and the children inherited a strain of shyness from their mother who made no effort to launch them.
Fitzgerald’s mother, Mollie, was romantically inclined though not romantic to look at. There were twists of amusement at the corners of her wide, comical mouth which someone likened to an old-fashioned syrup pitcher. Her face was a round moon, the features flattish. Her green-gray eyes, strikingly pale beneath dark, heavy brows, were the eyes of her son—beautiful in his face though in hers a little eerie. She read a great deal: current novels, biography, anything that came to hand, without stopping to evaluate. Not as shy as her sisters, she was eager to marry but men were less attracted to her than she to them. There was something about an army officer which came to naught, and then —approaching thirty with no other prospects—she decided to marry Edward Fitzgerald, a suitor of several years’ standing.
Fitzgerald had been born in 1853 on Glenmary Farm near Rockville in Montgomery County, Maryland. Little is known of his father, Michael Fitzgerald, who died when Edward was two. Edward’s mother, Cecilia Ashton Scott, was descended from Maryland families that had figured prominently in the colonial legislatures and on the governors’ councils. Edward Fitzgerald’s great, great grandfather was the brother of FrancisScott Key, and Edward’s first cousin was the son-in-law of Mrs. Suratt, hung for complicity in the assassination of Lincoln. After Scott Fitzgerald reached fame, his parents wanted him to write a book exonerating Mrs. Suratt, but he said she was either guilty or a fool and in neither case was he interested. [Through his mother Edward Fitzgerald was related to the Scotts, the Keys, the Dorseys, the Ridgeleys, the Tildens and the Warfields. Save for the Keys, who immigrated in 1720, these families had been in Maryland since the first half of the sixteen hundreds. Cecilia Ashton Scott’s lineage can be traced back twenty-eight generations to Roger Bigod, a surety for Magna Carta, Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk and 15th in descent from Sveid, the Viking. Born about 1150 Bigod died in 1221, having married Isabelle, daughter of Hameline Plantaganet.]
Rockville, though behind Northern lines during most of the Civil War, was Southern in its sympathies. When Edward Fitzgerald was nine, he had rowed Confederate spies across the river, and all one morning he sat on a fence watching Early’s battalions stream toward Washington in the last Confederate thrust. The Civil War was the drama of his youth and indeed of his entire life. In the early seventies, after completing the equivalent of third-year high at Georgetown “University,” he went west to seek his fortune with less happy results than “P.F.” McQuillan before him. He worked in Chicago for a while before coming out to St. Paul where, in the late eighties, he was running the American Rattan & Willow Works, a small wicker furniture business.
That Edward Fitzgerald had been cut out for failure was not altogether apparent at the time of his marriage. There was an air of distinction about this small, dapper man with the Vandyke, the rich, well-cut clothes, the erect carriage, the leisurely gait, the manner courteous yet not without a twinkle. His looks were fine, almost too fine—like a pencil sharpened to the breaking point. One would never believe that this well-moulded head and delicate, sensitive profile could be a mask for dullness or stupidity. And yet—what sometimes amounts to the same thing—Edward Fitzgerald lacked vitality. As his son said, he came from “tired, old stock.” In him there lingered a Southern indolence or gentleness or possibly just fatigue, that made him unadaptable to the hustling Midwest.
After their wedding in February, 1890, Edward and Mollie went to Europe for their honeymoon. From Nice Edward wrote home, “I have drawn a prize in a wife, one has to know her well to fully appreciate her.” And Mollie in her romantic vein: “It was beautiful tonight when we had our walk. Nice is right on the Mediterranean Sea you know. The color of the water isso blue and the moon was shining so bright and altogether it was a perfect night for people in our situation. John [Edward’s brother], if you ever get married and want a good time, in fact a perfect one, come here to Europe and spend a week at Nice. Ted and I have had a lovely time here and whatever happens in the future this one time in our lives will be without a flaw to look back upon.”
Back in St. Paul, their misfortunes began. Their first two children, both girls, died in epidemics shortly before Scott was born. “I wonder sometimes if I will ever have any interest in life again,” Edward wrote his mother, “perhaps so but certainly the keen zest of enjoyment is gone forever.” Mollie buried her grief. She never spoke of the dead children in after years, but Scott felt the repercussions and linked them with his career. “Three months before I was born,” he wrote, “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.”
It was understandable that Mollie should spoil her beautiful boy who came in the wake of so much suffering.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born at 3:30 in the afternoon on September 24, 1896, at 481 Laurel Avenue. He was a strapping baby of ten pounds six ounces. The first recorded event of his life is found in his mother’s Baby Book for October 6, 1896: “Mrs. Knowlton [the nurse] carried little ‘Scott’ out for a few minutes. He went over to ‘Lambert’s’ Store and into ‘Kanes’, the most important places around.” It is further recorded that he spoke his first word, ‘Up,’ on July 6, 1897. Among his early bright sayings was, “Mother, when I get to be a big boy can I have all the things I oughtn’t to have?”
When Scott was a year-and-a-half, his father’s business failed, and the Fitzgeralds went east to Buffalo where Edward Fitzgerald worked as a salesman for Procter & Gamble. In 1901 they moved to Syracuse and in 1903 back to Buffalo. The events of these early years were later pieced together by Fitzgerald in his “Ledger,” which contains a diary of his life by months. Here, in his own words and with his own unorthodox spelling, are some of the things that happened to him between his first and his seventh birthdays [Much has been made of Fitzgerald’s bad spelling, partly the result of a keen ear which led him to spell words phonetically. Yet he was also capable of such fanciful misspellings as “knaw” for “gnaw.”]:
1897 Dec. Bronchitis. A specialist was summoned but as his advice was not followed the child pulled through.
1898 Apr. Tiring of St. Paul he went east to Buffalo, New York, where with his parents he installed himself at the Lennox.
1899 Jan. He put on bloomers and went to Washington to spend the winter at the Cairo Hotel.
Apr. He returned to Buffalo and moved into a flat at Summer Street and Elmwood Ave.
June A persistent cough drove him to Orchard Park, New York. His mother feared consumption for him.
Aug. He returned to St. Paul, visiting his grandmother McQuillan in her house on Summit Avenue near Dale Street. [Grandmother McQuillan had moved to upper, residential St. Paul, the railroad yards having appropriated the site of her former house in Lower Town.]
1900 Jan. His mother presented him with a sister who lived only an hour.
Feb. He celebrated the new century by swallowing a penny and catching the measles. He got rid of both of them.
Mar. His parents sent him to school but he wept and wailed so they took him out again after one morning.
Sept. He had a party to celebrate his birthday. He wore a sailor suit about this time & told enormous lies to older people about being really the owner of a real yatch.
1901 Jan. He now went to Sarycuse where he took Mrs. Peck’s appartment on East Genesee Street.
July His sister Annabel was born. His first certain memory is the sight of her howling on a bed.
Aug. Again he went to Atlantic City—where some Freudean complex refused to let him display his feet, so he refused to swim, concealing the real reason. They thought he feared the water. In reality he craved it. Also he attended the Buffalo exposition, the Pan American.
1902 Jan. He now moved from East Genessee Street to the “Kassou” on James Street. He remembers Jack Butler who had two or three facinating books about the civil war and he remembers hitting a delivery boy with a stone and cutting his head.
May He went to Randolph to his aunt Eliza Delihant’s place in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he made friends with a colored boy, name forgotten —name Ambrose.
Sept. He entered Miss Goodyear’s school and he and another little girl, name unknown, worked out the phonetic spelling of C-A-T, thus becoming the stars of the primary class.
1903 Jan. Naturally he moved again—this time to a flat on East Willow Street. He begins to remember many things, a filthy vacant lot, the haunt of dead cats, a hair-raising buck-board, the little girl whose father was in prison for telling lies, a Rabelasian incident with Jack Butler, a blow with a baseball bat from the same boy—son of an army officer— which left a scar that will always shine in the middle of his forehead, a history of the United States which father brought me; he became a child of the American Revolution [A member of the National Society of Children of the American Revolution]. Also he boxed with Edgar Miller thegrocery man’s son, egged on by his father. [Long afterwards this same Edgar Miller wrote him a fan letter which said, “My Dad ran a store and market at the corner of Catherine and E. Willow Sts. and you lived across the road and a hobby of yours at that time was to ride in the rear of the delivery rig and recite Friends, Romans, and Countrymen etc. at the top of your voice.”] His nurse pierced her ear for rings and he howled.
Apr. He went south to Randolph again where he was a ribbon holder with Jack Garland at his Cousin Cecilia’s wedding. After the wedding he turned on his two black friends Roscoe and Forrest and with the help of a bigger boy tried to tie them up with ropes. He remembers crying one day in fury over the irrevocability of a decision—he had decided once too often that he did not want to go down town. He found his father’s soap boxes and apricots quite diverting. He went on a trip with his father.
July He wandered off on the Fourth of July & was spanked in consequence, so he sat on the porch with his breeches down and watched the fireworks. [Fitzgerald elaborated this incident elsewhere: “I ran away when I was [six] on the fourth of July—I spent the day with a friend in a pear orchard and the police were informed that I was missing and on my return my father thrashed me according to the custom of the nineties—on the bottom—and then let me come out and watch the night fire works from my balcony with my pants still down and my behind smarting and knowing in my heart that he was absolutely right. Afterwards, seeing in his face his regret that it had to happen, I asked him to tell me a story. I knew what it would be—he had only a few, the story of the spy, the one about the man hung by his thumbs, the one about Early’s march.”] On Sunday mornings he walked down town in his long trousers with his little cane and had his shoes shined with his father. There was also a boy named Arnold who went barefooted in his yard and peeled plums. Scott’s freudian shame about his feet kept him from joining in.
Sept. He had a birthday party to which no one came. [The children stayed home because it rained. “Then,” says Fitzgerald in another account, “I went sorrowfully in and thoughtfully consumed one complete birthday cake, including several candles (for I was a great tallow eater until I was well over fourteen.)”] He moved to Buffalo, New York, possibly in consequence where he had a dog named “Beautiful Joe”, a black cocker spaniel, and also a bycycle—a girl’s bycycle. He was sent to school at the Holy Angel’s convent under the arrangement that he need only go half a day and was allowed to choose which half. He lived at 29 Irving Place. … He remembers ‘Nana’, Annabel’s nurse…. He remembers the attic where he had a red sash with which he acted Paul Revere…. He fell under the spell of a Catholic preacher, Father Fallon, of the Church of the Holy Angels….
Irving Place, where Fitzgerald spent the next two years, was a single tree-lined block—a lovely, sheltered spot for a poet to grow up in. Children played ball in the dappled shade or raced their buckboards down the sloping street, one of the first where asphalt had replaced the universal cobbles. Next door to the Fitzgeralds lived a boy named Ted Keating, and when spring came and the days weren’t long enough to exhaust their young blood, Ted and Scott went to bed each with a string around his big toe, and the first one up in the morning ran over to the other’s window and yanked the string.
But Scott’s best friend, because of their mutual interest in the stage, was Hamilton Wende. Hamilton’s family knew the Farnums; Dustin Farnum, later a star of the Westerns, and his brother William were acting in Buffalo summer stock. Each Saturday Hamilton got two complimentary tickets to the matinee at the Teck Theatre and always gave one to Scott. Chin cupped in hands, elbows on knees, Scott seldom spoke or took his eyes off the stage during the performance, and afterwards he and Hamilton rushed home to re-enact what they had seen. Scott’s memory was prodigious; he could repeat long sections of the dialogue almost by heart. He was also a good prop man who, with a pillow case and a scarf of his mother’s, could transform himself into a Turk or a pirate or a cavalier. Hamilton’s contribution to their wardrobe was a tin sword and a couple of Teddy Roosevelt “Rough Rider” hats, and with costumes thus improvised and a sheet on a string for a curtain, they gave performances for the neighborhood children and charged admission.
Wende found Fitzgerald a generous, gay, appreciative, good-natured companion. Their only disagreements were over sports. After a day at school Wende would want to play football or baseball while Fitzgerald wanted Wende to accompany him to the Public Library. An indoor child who had spent most of his life in apartments and hotels, Fitzgerald shied away from athletics. “Sissy,” however, was too strong a word for him. “It must have been about this time,” says his Ledger, “that he gave a boy a bloody nose and ran home [from school] in consequence with a made up story. He and Jack Butler being the youngest boys in the neighborhood, were the most frequently chased. He hit John Wylie with a stick and ended their friendship.”
Mollie seldom intruded on her son’s occupations, but she was ambitious for him. If he and Hamilton were going to a party, she would tell Scott not to stay with Hamilton all the time but to get around and meet the other children. On several occasions she took Hamilton aside to explain that Scott was related to Francis Scott Key and second to none in honor of birth. About her son’s clothes she was as fastidious as she was neglectfulof her own. Other parents considered the local branch of Browning King’s quite good enough, but Scott’s Eton suits had an extra elegance, as if they had come by mail order from De Pinna’s in New York. And when the other boys were wearing four-in-hands, Scott had a set of silk bow ties, each of a different hue, to go with his Eton collars.
In September 1905, when Scott was nine, the Fitzgeralds moved to 71 Highland Avenue. Eternally restless, Mollie could always think of a reason why some house a few blocks away, or even in the next block, was superior to the one they had. In this case they were moving to a more prosperous neighborhood where Scott quickly made friends, but not his parents who never got their roots down in Buffalo. To the other residents of Highland there was something secretive and forbidding about the Fitzgeralds’ life in the clapboard house with the single turret that resembled a witch’s hat, and Scott was more apt to be playing at neighbors’ houses than at his own.
He frequented the Powells’ across the street where there was usually a crowd of youngsters on the porch. Some of the girls were starting to have beaux, and Scott questioned these older ones, surprising them with his large vocabulary and his ability to size people up. In contrast to his playmates, so uncertain of their futures, he had definite ideas about his own. He knew, for example, that he was going to Princeton—his parti pris being based on a Princeton Glee Club Concert, during which he had been convulsed by a song about Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.
He was, at this stage, a small-boned, pretty child with blond hair parted in the middle and large, luminous eyes—variously gray or green or blue. He was a tease but took it well if you teased him back, and there were signs of a precocious freshness. One day he got spanked because he thought it was funny to bow to everyone. Another time, at Miss Nardin’s Academy, the Catholic School to which he had progressed from the Holy Angel Convent, he insisted that Mexico City was not the capitalof Central America, with results which he later dramatized in a short story:
” ‘So the capital of America is Washington,’ said Miss Cole, ‘and the capital of Canada is Ottawa—and the capital of Central America—’
‘—is Mexico City,’ someone guessed.
‘Hasn’t any,’ said Terence absently.
‘Oh, it must have a capital,’ said Miss Cole looking at her map.
‘Well, it doesn’t happen to have one.’
‘That’ll do, Terence. Put down Mexico City for the capital of Central America. Now that leaves South America.’
‘There’s no use teaching us wrong,’ he suggested.
Ten minutes later, somewhat frightened, he reported to the principal’s office where all the forces of injustice were confusingly arrayed against him.”
Though Fitzgerald was a rebellious student, he liked to read on his own. “First there was a book,” he remembered, “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 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.”
From such beginnings Fitzgerald’s taste evolved through Scottish Chiefs, Ivanhoe, and the Henty series to “the thrill of the ‘Washington in the West’ & ‘Raiding with Morgan’ series in their crisp tissue wrappers.” Literary snobbism had set in; he scorned The Youth’s Companion in favor of the St. Nicholas.He wrote a history of the United States which got no further than the Battle of Bunker Hill; also a detective story about a necklace hidden in a trap door under the carpet, and an imitation of Ivanhoe called “Elavoe” and “a celebrated essay on George Washington & St. Ignatius.” His father read him Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Bells” and Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon.” Their mystery echoed in his soul, and on a trip to Niagara he heard “enchanting voices in the dusk.”
There were other trips—to Chautauqua, the Catskills, and Lake Placid. He went to Camp Chatham in 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 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 heigh-oh’ and tournaments with padded spears in canoes and Pa Upham’s Cornell stroke.”
Back home Fitzgerald began to take more interest in sports. At a basketball game “he fell madly into admiration for a dark-haired boy who played with melancholy defiance.” On the Highland Corner football team known as the Young Americans he was “guard or tackle and usually scared silly.” His parents gave him a pair of ball-bearing roller skates that were too fancy to be any good. He was growing more manly by degrees, but there remained a chaste, delicate part of his nature which shunned life’s coarseness and sweat. A playmate remembers Scott’s father, a soft-spoken gentlemen if there ever was one, saying he would give five dollars to hear Scott swear. Scott’s idea of a reproach was more subtle. Once, when an older boy took advantage of him in a game of quoits, Scott went into the house and came back bandying a phrase which no one understood; it was Latin for “king of the quoits’ cheaters.”
Girls had entered his life. He was one of the stars of Mr. Van Arnum’s dancing class where manners were taught as well as the intricacies of the waltz and the Newport, where bows and curtsies had to be just so, and where the boys danced with handkerchiefs in their right hands so as not to soil the backs of the girls’ dresses. Scott wore a black suit because his father had ruled that blue ones were “common,” and he was the only boy with evening pumps.
His romance with Kiddy Williams began when he chose her as his partner to lead the Grand March. “Next day,” wrote Fitzgerald in the Thoughtbook he kept locked up under his bed, “she told Marie Lautz and Marie repeated it toDorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. I don’t remember who was first but I know that Earl was second and as I was already quite overcome by her charms I then and there resolved that I would gain first place.” The climax occurred at “Robin’s party” where “we played post office, pillow, clapp in clapp out, and other foolish but interesting games. It was impossible to count the number of times I kissed Kitty that afternoon. At any rate when we went home I had secured the coveted 1st place. I held this until dancing school stopped in the spring and then relinquished it to Johnny Gowns, a rival…. That Christmas I bought a five pound box of candy and took it around to her house. What was my surprise when Kitty opened the door, I nearly fell down with embarresment but I finally stammered ‘Give it to Kitty’ and ran home.”
Edward Fitzgerald, all this time, had been receding into the background. As a salesman he walked the streets and came home too tired to take much part in family life. His dismissal by Procter & Gamble in March, 1908, was the trauma of Scott’s childhood.
“One afternoon,” he recalled long afterwards, “the phone rang and my mother answered it. I didn’t understand what she said but I felt that disaster had come to us. My mother, a little while before, had given me a quarter to go swimming. I gave the money back to her. I knew something terrible hadhappened and I thought she could not spare the money now.
“Then I began to pray, ‘Dear God,’ I prayed, ‘please don’t let us go to the poorhouse; please don’t let us go to the poor-house.’ A little while later my father came home. I had been right. He had lost his job.
“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.
“Oh, I remember something else. I remember that when my father came home mother said to me, ‘Scott, say something to your father.’
“I didn’t know what to say. I went up and asked, ‘Father, who do you think will be the next President?’ He looked out the window. He didn’t move a muscle. Then he said: ‘I think Taft will.’ “
The blow was both a sorrow and a stimulus. Fitzgerald loved his father and always cherished such meager camaraderie as they had known. He admired his father’s style and breeding, and the beautiful manners which were more than breeding— which sprang, Fitzgerald knew, from a gracious heart. But Fitzgerald was ambitious, and it strengthened his ambition to feel that in a sense he was the man in the family and that great things were expected of him.
That summer the Fitzgeralds moved back to St. Paul where the family resources were.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).