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F Scott Fitzgerald - Proving there could be a second act in American lives




F Scott Fitzgerald is now recognised as a great American writer and perhaps the ultimate chronicler of 'the jazz age', but in his lifetime, it was a different and much sadder story


Tomorrow, September 24th, is the 120th anniversary of the birth of F Scott Fitzgerald. He is now recognised as a great American writer and perhaps the ultimate chronicler of 'the jazz age', but in his lifetime, it was a different and much sadder story.

His first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a critical and commercial success and marked Fitzgerald out as the brightest tyro in the US literary world of the early 20th Century.

What it also did was make possible his marriage to rich, southern, golden girl, Zelda Sayre. The couple got engaged in 1918, but Zelda broke it off, unconvinced that her fiancé’s (then not terribly successful) writing career could provide her with the lifestyle to which she had not only become accustomed but which was all she'd ever known.

When This Side of Paradise was published in 1920 and became an instant hit, however, the engagement was back on and they were married a year later. Which is, possibly, where Fitzgerald's troubles began.

He would go on to write three-and-a-half more novels: The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), Tender is the Night (1934) and The Love of The Last Tycoon (unfinished at the time of his death in 1940, but published a year later). Hardly prolific. And none, not even Gatsby, was hugely successful at the time.

Fitzgerald had a tempestuous, alcohol-fuelled friendship with Ernest Hemmingway who, in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, claimed that Zelda encouraged Scott to drink so as to distract him from working on novels and, instead, bang out short stories that could be sold to magazines for the instant cash needed to fund their partying.

Later, he would move even further away from his 'art' and, work to commission in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, "whoring", as he called it.

He parodied himself and this period of his life in a series of short stories featuring Pat Hobby, a rather tragic and wholly biographical Hollywood hack. Ironically, these stories garnered some of the best reviews of his life.

It wasn't a long life. Fitzgerald died aged just 44. Zelda, also an alcoholic and a schizophrenic to boot, had by then been committed to the Highland Mental Hospital. She died in a fire there in 1948.

Fitzgerald's life fits the template for burning brightly and crashing spectacularly - complete with addiction, glamour, doomed romance and an early demise.

His most famous quote is probably that "there is no second act in American lives", and yet his own was ample evidence to disprove the assertion.

Thankfully, a reappraisal that saw him posthumously recognised as a great and important writer rather than a drunk who frittered away his promise meant there was a third act in this American's death.

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