Scott Fitzgerald
by Andrew Turnbull


Fitzgerald called the next four months the most impressionable of his life. “New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue, and the girls were instinctively drawn East and North towards them—this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air.”

With his Triangle scores under his arm he made the rounds of the newspapers but failed to get a job. Then he met an advertising man who steered him to the Barron Collier Agency, where a light verse writer was needed in the copy department. At ninety dollars a month Fitzgerald was put to work writing slogans for streetcar cards. In later years he laughed over the hit he made with a slogan for the Muscatine Steam Laundry in Muscatine, Iowa: “We keep you clean in Muscatine.” “I got a raise for that,” he recalled. “ “It’s perhaps a bit imaginative,’ the boss said, ‘but still it’s plain there’s a future for you in this business. Pretty soon this office won’t be big enough to hold you.’ “

Fitzgerald was living at 200 Claremont Avenue in Morning-side Heights—“one room in a high, horrible apartment-house in the middle of nowhere”—while in his imagination he already occupied a honeymoon suite with Zelda. She would join him as soon as he was ready, by which she meant able to support her with a margin of comfort. “I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence,” she wrote,—“because you’d soon love me less—and less.” Fitzgerald had written her parents of his intentions, and she, in turn, wrote his mother, getting back “just a nice little note, untranslatable, but she called me ‘Zelda.’ “ In March Fitzgerald sent Zelda a ring.

But as the weeks of their separation stretched into months, his life became intolerable. His job bored him, and he couldn’t sell the plays, stories, poems, sketches, lyrics, jokes which he composed in his off hours. Each evening he hurried back to his room to find a rejected manuscript which he immediately mailed to another magazine. Then he wrote something new and sent that off, and concluded his day by getting more or less drunk.

Running into Paul Dickey, his musical collaborator on the Triangle, Fitzgerald suggested they take a fling at Tin Pan Alley, but Dickey had decided to settle down in his father’s business. Fitzgerald often ate at the Yale Club, with which the Princeton Club had temporarily merged, and one day, drinking martinis in the upstairs lounge, he announced that he was going to jump out of the window. No one objected; on the contrary, it was pointed out that the windows were French and ideally suited for jumping, which seemed to cool his ardor. After another cocktail the incongruities of his life began to pour out of him. The twenty-odd dollars he earned in a week barely sufficed to pay for a piece of lingerie he was sending Zelda. Someone said he probably wasn’t worth twenty dollars a week, and that if the lingerie seemed expensive, he shouldn’t have bought it. But Fitzgerald felt victimized, and during an entire meal he regaled his companions with the stupidities and sterilities of the advertising business.

One of his diversions was apartment hunting, and when a blowsy landlady in Greenwich Village told him he could bring girls to his room, the idea filled him with dismay. Why should he want to bring girls to his room? He had a girl—or did he?— Zelda’s letters left room for doubt. She mentioned other men and described parties at which she seemed to be enjoying herself. “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers,” Fitzgerald wrote her, and in April Zelda replied, “Scott, you’ve been so sweet about writing—but I’m so damned tired of being told that you ‘used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers’—You’ve written that verbatim in your last six letters! It’s dreadfully hard to write so very much—and so many of your letters sound forced—I know you love me, Darling, and I love you more than anything in the world, but if it’s going to be so much longer we just can’t keep up this frantic writing.”

Next day Fitzgerald went to Montgomery, accomplishing nothing. Though Zelda was very much in love, she wouldn’t marry him. He returned to Barron Collier’s in a state of nervous exhaustion, carrying a revolver which someone in the office spirited away. Having told the boss that a family emergency had required his presence in St. Paul, he now confessed the truth and asked to be fired. “You’ve been more than kind,” Fitzgerald said, “but I can’t adjust to business routine and I don’t deserve another chance.” The boss told him to go home and get some sleep. Next morning he came to work revivified.

Zelda’s letter thanking him for his visit renewed his hopes. “I’ve spent today in the graveyard…. ,” she wrote, “trying to unlock a rusty iron vault built in the side of the hill…. It’s all washed and covered with weepy, watery blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes—sticky to touch, with a sickening odor. … I wanted to feel ‘William Wreford, 1864’. Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much and Grey is so convincing, but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived—All the broken columns and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances—and in a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue—of course, they are neither—I hope my grave has an air of many, many years ago about it—Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves—when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful—so very beautiful—We will die together I know—Sweetheart.” [Zelda’s description of the graveyard was copied almost verbatim into This Side of Paradise (pp. 303-304).]


When Fitzgerald wrote that the Jazz Age began about the time of the May Day riots in 1918, he was thinking less, perhaps, of those anti-Socialist demonstrations than of an all-night binge of his own which signaled the decade he chronicled. After a Yale fraternity dance at Delmonico’s, he and a Princeton junior named Porter Gillespie went to Child’s Restaurant at 59th and Broadway where the dance crowd was sobering up. At first Fitzgerald sat off by himself, mixing hash, poached eggs, and catsup in Gillespie’s derby. Tiring of this, he would go up to a Yale man and while addressing him earnestly, would scrunch his fried eggs or shredded wheat, then shake hands as they parted. Soon food was being thrown and Fitzgerald was expelled. While Gillespie finished eating, he watched Fitzgerald trying to sneak back in on hands and knees each time the restaurant door opened.

In the early dawn the two of them returned to Delmonico’s, where they took the “In” and “Out” signs off the coatroom doors and fixed them to their shirt fronts, thenceforth introducing each other as “Mr. In” and “Mr. Out.” After waking their friends at the Biltmore on the house phone, they crossed over to the old Manhattan Hotel and ordered champagne for breakfast. “You buy it,” Fitzgerald told Gillespie. “Your father has the money to pay for it”—his way of finding out whether Gillespie’s father did. When the champagne was refused them, Fitzgerald went up to a priest and said, “Father, can you imagine anything more embarrassing than being refused champagne on Sunday morning?” They finally got some at the Commodore and ended up rolling the empty bottles among the churchgoers on Fifth Avenue.

In after years Fitzgerald put the antics of Mr. In and Mr. Out in a story called “May Day,” which also caught his feelings of failure and frustration. Unable to get started as an illustrator, Gordon Sterrett is a dissipated wreck sponging off friends (a depth to which Fitzgerald never descended). Sterrett embodiesFitzgerald’s horror of poverty—a poet’s horror—reminiscent of Poe’s remark that he wouldn’t put the hero of “The Raven” in poor surroundings because “poverty is commonplace and contrary to the idea of Beauty.” “May Day,” a brilliant bit of social history, ranges far and wide over the city’s fevered life. Here are the college boys and debutantes Fitzgerald knew so well but also clerks, waiters, shop girls, policemen, and returning soldiers. The mob assault on the Socialist newspaper was inspired by an actual raid on the New York Call. And Sterrett’s suicide at the end echoes that of a young Princetonian who shot himself in similar circumstances.

Later Fitzgerald could see the large pattern of events, but at the time all he cared about was winning Zelda. Her letters, full of Junior League shows and trips to men’s colleges, brought little encouragement. He was caught between two worlds. “As I hovered ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon,” he remembered, “or went to lush and liquid parties in the East Sixties or tippled with Princetonians in the Biltmore Bar, I was haunted always by my other life—my drab room in the Bronx, my square foot of the subway, my fixation upon the day’s letter from Alabama—would it come and what would it say?—my shabby suits, my poverty, and love.”

Fitzgerald made a second trip to Montgomery in May and a third one in June, but Zelda was not to be stampeded. He plead with her, even stooping to a long monologue of self-pity, and finally she decided to break it off. His wild rush and her knowledge that his work was distasteful to him had made her afraid. Then too she was ambitious, and the prospect of living in a two-room flat and shopping at the A&P did not intrigue her. She loved Fitzgerald, and it cost her to say no, but after their rupture she went back to her proms and theatricals without visible sadness or depression.

Fitzgerald wrote a friend that it was a great tragedy and that unless Zelda changed her mind he would never marry. Back in New York, he quit his job—he had already given a month’s notice—and went on a drunk that lasted several weeks and gave him one of the most vivid episodes in This Side of Paradise. When Prohibition began July 1st, he sobered up and considered his next move. One incident had mitigated the despair of the past month. After collecting a hundred and twenty-two rejection slips which were pinned in a frieze around his room, he had sold a story to Smart Set for thirty dollars. The story, however, had been written for the Nassau Lit two years before, and since his more recent efforts had been rejected, the implication seemed to be that he was on the downgrade at twenty-two.

He still had hopes for his novel, but all spring he had been in the position of the fox and the goose and the bag of beans: if he stopped to rewrite the book he lost his girl. Now, having lost the girl anyway, he decided to live off his parents in St. Paul and concentrate on the book.

His poverty was relative after all since his parents were there to fall back on. At school and college they had given him the money he needed, which was only a fraction of the money he wanted, for he dreamed of splurging like a Renaissance prince. His mother had hoped he would make a career of the army, and his father wanted him to enter business, but they backed him now in his dubious venture—keeping the purse strings tight, however, lest he go off on one of his escapades. His desire to break away from his humiliating dependence strengthened him in his work.

He wasted no time and proceeded systematically, with a schedule of chapters pinned to the curtain of his top-floor room. For some one so youthful and impulsive he was already surprisingly organized and professional about his work. He refurbished the old material and wove in new, some of it drawn from stories written and rejected during the spring. The cigarettes accumulated under the corners of his rug where he put the butts and stamped on them; when he ran out, he would salvage a butt and relight it. His head became a kaleidoscope of marvelous shapes and colors as inspiration drove him on he knew not how. When a friend, reading his manuscript, asked what a certain word meant, Fitzgerald said, “Damn if I know, but doesn’t it fit in there just beautifully?” He worked around the clock, skipping meals and having sandwiches and milk brought to hisroom. His parents stayed out of his way—that was one thing he would say for them—his mother taking his phone calls and keeping his friends from interrupting him.

By the end of July he had finished a first draft. “While [The Romantic Egotist],” he wrote Scribners, “was a tedius, disconnected casserole, this is a definate attempt at a big novel and I really believe I have hit it. … If I send you the book by August 20th and you decide you could risk it’s publication (I am blatantly confident that you will) would it be brought out in October, say, or just what would decide its date of publication?”


That summer he was seeing a good deal of Father Joe Barron, the youngest priest ever ordained in the diocese of St. Paul. At twenty-four Barron had been made Dean of Students at the St. Paul Seminary, and now at thirty-one he was a compact, florid man with blue eyes and reddish, wavy hair. During the winter Fitzgerald stayed home from Princeton, he had often gone out to the Seminary to consult Father Joe about things he was writing. Leaning back in his deep leather chair with his cassock wrapped around his legs against the cold, Father Joe would hold forth on all manner of subjects, sacred and profane. His darting, journalistic mind appealed to Fitzgerald; he was witty and sociable yet inflexible on matters of religion. It seemed to him that this brilliant, unstable youth was straying from the Church at his peril. When Fitzgerald got off one of his iconoclasms—oblique yet loaded with a delicate scorn—Barron would hear him out and then say quietly, “Scott, quit being a damn fool.” [Fitzgerald may well have felt that his religion stood in the way of his literary success. Before his time the only Irish Catholic writer of national reputation was Peter Fin-ley Dunne. (See Malcolm Cowley, The Literary Situation, p. 153.)]

Fitzgerald’s current religion was his novel. As he wrote Edmund Wilson, “My Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory —no that’s wrong it’s more than that; at any rate I go not to Church nor mumble stray nothings over chrystaline beads.” Wilson was planning a volume of stories about the war, to be written by different authors from different points of views, and he asked Fitzgerald if he would like to contribute. “For God’s sake, Bunny,” Fitzgerald wrote back, “write a novel & don’t waste your time editing collections. It’ll get to be a habit. That sounds crass & discordant but you know what I mean.” The crass discordancy did not sit well with Fitzgerald’s former mentor on the Nassau Lit. “Don’t worry about me,” Wilson replied. “I’m not writing a novel, but I’m writing almost everything else,—and getting some of it accepted.—I hope your letter isn’t a fair sample of your present literary methods: it looks like the attempt of a child of six to write F.P.A.’s column…. I don’t think any of your titles are any good.” (Fitzgerald had asked Wilson’s advice on three: The Education of a Personage, The Romantic Egotist, and This Side of Paradise.)

On September 3rd Fitzgerald sent his novel to Scribners with a feeling of elation. “It is a well-considered, finished whole this time,” he said, “and I think its a more crowded (in the best sense) piece of work than has been published in this country for some years.” While waiting for Scribners to decide, he found employment at the shops of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Told to wear old clothes, he came in a polo shirt and dirty white flannels, which seemed rather exotic to the other laborers appropriately dressed in overalls. One of his jobs was roofing freight cars, and when he sat down, instead of kneeling, to hammer the nails, the foreman scolded him for loafing.

The ordeal was soon over. On September 16th he received a special delivery from Scribners accepting This Side of Paradise. “The book is so different,” wrote Maxwell Perkins, “that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.” That day Fitzgerald was drunk, but not on wine. He was full of a sense of life-intoxicated youth bursting. He quit work at the Northern Pacific and ran along the streets stopping automobiles and telling anyone who would listen about his good fortune. A few days later he reeled off the following letter to Alida Bigelow, a friend at Smith College:

1st Epistle of St. Scott to the Smithsonian
Chapter the I
Verses the I to the last—

(599 Summit Ave
In a house below the average
On a street above the average

In a room below the roof
With a lot above the ears
I shall write Alida Bigelow
Shall indite Alida Bigelow
As the world’s most famous gooph

(This line don’t rhyme)

(September 22nd 1919)

What’s a date!
Stop this rot.
Mr. Fate
Keep a date,
What’s a date?
Can’t berate
Father time,
Mr. Fate?
Mr. Scott
Such a lot
He is not
To berate,
Marking time:
Tho I hate
It’s too late
To a dot!
So, in rhyme

Most beautiful, rather-too-virtuous-but-entirely-enchanting

Scribner has accepted my book. Ain’t I smart!

But hic jubilatio erat totam spoiled for meum par lisant une livre, une novellum, (novum) nomine “Salt” par Herr C. G. Norris—a most astounding piece of realism it makes Fortitude look like an antique mental ash-can and is quite as good as “The Old Wives Tale.”

Of course I think Walpole is a weak-wad anyhow.

Read Salt young girl so that you may know what life B.

In a few days I’ll have lived one score and three days in this vale of tears. On I plod—always bored, often drunk, doing no penance for my faults—rather do I become more tolerant of myself from day to day, hardening my chrystal heart with blasphemous humor and shunning only toothpicks, pathos, and poverty as being the three unforgivable things in life.

Before we meet again I hope you will have tasted strong liquor to excess and kissed many emotional young men in red and yellow moonlight—these things being chasterners of those predjudices which are as gutta percha to the niblicks of the century. I am frightfully unhappy, look like the devil, will be famous within 1 12 month and, I hope, dead within 2. Hoping you are the same

I am
With excruciating respect
F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. If you wish you may auction off this letter to the gurls of your collidge—on condition that the proceeds go to the Society for the drownding of Armenian Airdales.


Every morning now he awoke into a world of “ineffable top-loftiness and promise.” He pleaded with Scribners to publish his book at once—by Christmas at the latest—“because I’m in that stage where every month counts frantically and seems a cudgel in the fight for happiness against time.” Meanwhile he poured out short stories which he sold to Smart Set and Scribners magazine. Hoping to break into the top-priced Saturday Evening Post, he sent some of his output to Paul Revere Reynolds, a New York literary agent.

At one point during the excitement he had written Zelda and asked to visit her. Her reply was friendly but self-possessed. As she was just recovering from “a wholesome amour with Auburn’s ‘startling quarterback,’ “ her health and her disposition were excellent though mentally he would find her somewhat deteriorated. She would love to see him and told him to bring a bottle of gin, as she hadn’t had a drink all summer. After his last visit every corner the maid started cleaning had yielded up a bottle, or bottles, so his reputation was already ruined in this respect.

In November Fitzgerald went to Montgomery and Zelda agreed to marry him. There was an ecstatic moment when they wandered into a cemetery, and as they lingered among the headstones of the Confederate dead, Zelda said Fitzgerald would never understand how she felt about those graves, but he said he understood so well he would write about it—and did in his story “The Ice Palace.” After he left, Zelda wrote him, “I hate to say this, but I don’t think I had much confidence in you at first. I was just coming [to New York] anyway. It’s so nice to know you really can do things—anything—and I love to feel that maybe I can help just a little.”

Victory was sweet, though not as sweet as it would have been six months earlier before Zelda had rejected him. Fitzgerald couldn’t recapture the thrill of their first love, and now that he was a professional writer, his enchantment with certain things Zelda felt and said was already paced by his anxiety to put them in a story. When he wrote her as if they were two old people who had lost their most precious possession, she answered that they hadn’t really found it yet. “All the fire and sweetness—the emotional strength that we’re capable of is growing—growing —and just because sanity and wisdom are growing too and we’re building our love-castle on a firm foundation, nothing is lost. That first abandon couldn’t last, but the things that went to make it are tremendously alive—just like blowing bubbles— they burst, but more bubbles just as beautiful can be blown— and burst—till the soap and water is gone—and that’s the way we’ll be, I guess.”

From Montgomery Fitzgerald went to New York where he lived in state at the Knickerbocker Hotel, having by now sold his first story to the Saturday Evening Post. One afternoon three Princeton boys he had known in St. Paul called on him in his room and found him pleasantly intoxicated, with several bellhops helping him get dressed. Twenty and fifty dollar bills were scattered about, and on his way downstairs Fitzgerald inserted one in each vest and coat pocket, so that they protruded for all to see. Before leaving the hotel, his friends got most of them away from him and left them with the cashier. Fitzgerald insisted on taking them to “his bootlegger”—bootleggers were still a rarity—and buying each a bottle of Scotch. When he got back to the hotel, the management was incensed because he had left the tap running and caused a minor flood.

People and parties were a constant temptation to Fitzgerald, who nevertheless knew the meaning of discipline. During Christmas week in St. Paul he stayed home from a fancy-dress ball in order to write, though his friends kept phoning to tell him what he was missing. A well-known man-about-town had disguised himself as a camel, and with a taxi driver as his rear half had managed to attend the wrong party. Fitzgerald spent the next day collecting the facts, which he later expanded into a 12,000-word story in twenty-one consecutive hours. Beginning at eight in the morning, he finished the first draft at seven in the evening, copied it over between seven and half-past-four, and mailed it at five. The Post bought “The Camel’s Back” for five hundred dollars. It was as easy as that.

By now Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop had read the manuscript of This Side of Paradise. “The most poetic thing in the novel is the title,” said Bishop, “—couldn’t be better.” He called the over-all performance “damned good, brilliant in phases and sins chiefly through exuberance and lack of development.” Wilson was less enthusiastic. “Your hero as an intellectual,” he wrote, “is a fake of the first water and I read his views on art, politics, religion and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know. … It would all be better if you would tighten up your artistic conscience and pay a little more attention to form. … I feel called upon to give you this advice because I believe you might become a very popular, trashy novelist without much difficulty…. Cultivate a universal irony and do read something other than contemporary British novelists: this history of a young man stuff has been run into the ground and has always seemed to me a bum art-form, anyway. … I really like the book though; I enjoyed it enormously and I shouldn’t wonder if a good many other people would enjoy it, too.”

The split in Fitzgerald’s ambition was already apparent—the dilemma he had mentioned to Alfred Noyes. He wanted to be a serious artist yet make a great deal of money, and the astringent, pessimistic tales which came naturally to his pen were out of keeping with the bland optimism of the high-priced popular magazines. He asked his agent whether there was “any market at all for the cynical or pessimistic story except Smart Set, or does realism bar a story from any well paying magazine no matter how cleverly it is done?” With regard to the new novel he was contemplating, he raised the same question: “Do you think a story like C. G. Norris’ Salt or Cabell’s Jurgen or Dreiser’s Jenny Gerhard would have one chance in a million to be sold serially? I’m asking you for an opinion about this beforehand because it will have an influence on my plans.”

In January he went to New Orleans and holed up in a boarding house to write, but his powers had begun to flag after the crescendo that followed his book’s acceptance. Twice he went to see Zelda in Montgomery. To celebrate the sale of his first story to the movies he gave her a diamond-and-platinum watch and a flame-colored ostrich fan. These fans were the last word in chic; Fitzgerald had eyed them longingly in the rich stores during his impecunious spring in New York.

As soon as the book came out, he and Zelda would be married. Mrs. Sayre was reconciled though she thought them fearfully young and irresponsible. “As you know,” she wrote Fitzgerald with brilliant understatement, “Zelda has had several admirers; but you seem to be the only one to make anything like a permanent impression…. Your church is all right with me [the Sayres were Episcopalians]. A good Catholic is as good as any other good man and that is good enough. It will take more than the Pope to make Zelda good: you will have to call on God Almighty direct…. She is not amiable and she is given to yelping. But when she yelps just give her your sweetest smile and go quietly about your business and in a little while you will hear that tuneless song ‘Bum-bum-bom-bom-bom’ and everything will be all right again.”

Fitzgerald went north in mid-February and installed himself at the Cottage Club to await Zelda’s arrival. On March 26th This Side of Paradise was published. Struthers Burt, an author living in Princeton, never forgot a bright cold day when “shortly before noon, the front-door bell rang and a young man walked in. He looked exactly like an Archangel, and he had the strange aloofness and evasiveness you associate with Archangels. He was beautiful and a little eerie.” As an admirer of Burt’s short stories, Fitzgerald said he had come to present him with the first copy of This Side of Paradise. If Fitzgerald was being accurate and not just charming, it was the first of countless books he inscribed, usually with some personal or idiosyncratic flourish, for few occupations delighted him more.

Zelda wrote him that “our fairy tale is almost ended, and we’re going to marry and live happily ever afterward just like the princess in her tower who worried you so much—and made me so very cross by her constant recurrence.” The night before she left Montgomery she lay awake with a friend plotting ways to attract attention in New York, such as sliding down the banisters of the Biltmore where she and Scott would be staying. As soon as she reached New York, Fitzgerald sent her shopping with a girl whose taste in clothes he admired, for the frills and furbelows that constituted Zelda’s idea of style would never do in present surroundings. They were married the morning of April 3rd in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with Ludlow Fowler, a Princeton classmate of Scott’s, as best man. Zelda’s sisters, Marjorie and Clotilde, were present, but no parent on either side.

When Fitzgerald left St. Patrick’s that April noon, his prospects were boundless. He had won the girl of his dreams, and This Side of Paradise was already in a second printing. Not only that, but the boom was in the air, America stood on the verge of “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” and Fitzgerald would be there to tell about it.

Next: chapter 8

Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).