A Brief Life of Fitzgerald
The 1936-1937 period is known as “the crack-up” from the title of an essay Fitzgerald wrote in 1936. Ill, drunk, in debt, and unable to write commercial stories, he lived in hotels in the region near Asheville, North Carolina, where in 1936 Zelda Fitzgerald entered Highland Hospital. After Baltimore Fitzgerald did not maintain a home for Scottie. When she was fourteen she went to boarding school, and the Obers became her surrogate family. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald functioned as a concerned father by mail, attempting to supervise Scottie’s education and to shape her social values.
Fitzgerald went to Hollywood alone in the summer of 1937 with a six-month Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer screenwriting contract at $1,000 a week. He received his only screen credit for adapting Three Comrades (1938), and his contract was renewed for a year at $1,250 a week. The $91,000 he earned from MGM was a great deal of money during the late Depression years when a new Chevrolet coupe cost $619; but although Fitzgerald paid off most of his debts, he was unable to save. His trips East to visit his wife were disastrous. In California Fitzgerald fell in love with movie columnist Sheilah Graham. Their relationship endured despite his benders. After MGM dropped his option at the end of 1938, Fitzgerald worked as a freelance script writer and wrote short-short stories for Esquire. He began his Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, in 1939 and had written more than half of a working draft when he died of a heart attack in Graham’s apartment on December 21, 1940. Zelda Fitzgerald perished at a fire in Highland Hospital in 1948.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing himself a failure. The obituaries were condescending, and he seemed destined for literary obscurity. The first phase of the Fitzgerald resurrection — “revival” does not properly describe the process — occurred between 1945 and 1950. By 1960 he had achieved a secure place among America’s enduring writers. The Great Gatsby, a work that seriously examines the theme of aspiration in an American setting, defines the classic American novel.
Matthew J. Bruccoli’s “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald” originally appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Bruccoli with the assistance of Judith S. Baughman (New York: Scribners, 1994.); essay reprinted courtesy of Simon & Schuster.