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Throughout the pale summer nights of 1919, a light always seemed to be burning in a third-floor front room of a brownstone at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Sometimes a slim figure paced back and forth across the open windows. Up there, amid the treetops, twenty-two-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, subsisting mainly on cigarettes and nervous energy, was working on a novel he desperately hoped would bring him money and acclaim. Not long out of the U.S. Army following the Armistice, which ended World War I, he was being supported by his parents, his career as a writer was stymied, and his girl had broken up with him because she believed he had no prospects.
To get a breath of air, Fitzgerald unlatched a screen on one of the windows and, careful not to disturb the chapter outlines pinned to the curtains, stepped out onto a small landing where he had a sweeping view up and down the boulevard. Summit Avenue crowns a bluff overlooking the Lower Town, St. Paul's business section, and is the spine of the Summit, then the city's most fashionable neighborhood. Nearby, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul - Fitzgerald was christened there - crouched at the intersection of Summit and Selby Avenues "likea plump white bulldog." Wooden Queen Annes, Romanesque sandstones, red-brick faux chateaus with fairy-tale towers, and Renaissance palazzos lined the avenue - "a museum of American architectural failures," in his words.
As a child, Fitzgerald mingled with children whose surnames were the same as the streets on which they played - Griggs and MacKubin and Hersey. It was a good time and a good place to grow up. Scott and his companions saw the coming of the automobile and the airplane, the spread of electric lights and the telephone, and for a nickel they could pass an enchanted hour watching the first movies. Nearby, there were still fields to race across and woods in which to gather chestnuts. These were America's "Confident Years" in which Theodore Roosevelt fought trusts and political bosses at home, made the dirt fly on the Panama Canal, and sent the U.S. Navy's white-hulled battleships around the world.
Fitzgerald went to tea dances at the University Club up Summit Avenue and was invited to parties given by the daughter of James J. Hill, the railroad magnate, at her family's nearby thirty-two-room mansion. In later years Fitzgerald was contemptuous of the Summit, but there was a touch of envy in his feelings, for his family had only a tenuous hold on St. Paul society. Throughout his life, he was always haunted by the terror of slipping from the comfortable assurance of this world into poverty.
Edward Fitzgerald, his father, had claim to a past that was brighter than his present. A small, dapper man with a Vandyke and courtly manners, he had come to Minnesota from Maryland, where his family had been prominent in colonial times. Francis Scott Key, the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," for whom he named his son, was a remote cousin of his mother, but by the elder Fitzgerald's time, the bloodline had thinned. He ran a wicker furniture business and in 1890 married Mary McQuillan, the daughter of a prosperous Irish wholesale grocer. Not long after the couple married, their misfortunes began. The Fitzgeralds' first two children, both girls, died in epidemics, and shortly after Scott's birth, in 1896, the wicker business failed.
Fortunes diminished, the elder Fitzgerald became a salesman for Procter & Gamble and peddled soap powder and other products to stores in various upstate New York towns. He enjoyed only a modest success and the morning mail often contained bills that he crumpled and threw down with a grunted "Confound it." Scott was twelve when his father, then in his fifties, lost even that job. "Dear God," Fitzgerald remembered praying, "please don't let us go to the poorhouse; please don't let us go to the poorhouse." The Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul, where the family resources lay, to become pensioners of the McQuillans.
A rich maiden aunt paid Scott's tuition at Newman, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, and at Princeton. Only a few years before, Woodrow Wilson, the university's president, had vainly tried to democratize the school by closing the exclusive eating clubs, but Princeton was "the pleasantest country club in America" according to Fitzgerald. Although he was a Midwesterner, he wasn't a Jew or a "poler," as grinds were known, and made Cottage, one of the more socially select clubs. At the induction party, he passed out cold for the first time in his life. With his friend Edmund Wilson he wrote skits and lyrics for Triangle Club musicals, flounced on stage as a chorus girl, and contributed to The Tiger and Nassau Lit. He neglected his studies, but had larger horizons. "I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don't you?" he remarked to Wilson.
Fitzgerald was infatuated with Ginevra King, a beautiful debutante from Lake Forest, outside Chicago. "Flirt smiled from her large black-brown eyes," he later wrote of Ginevra's fictional counterpart. But their relationship was troubled. At a house party in Lake Forest, Fitzgerald overheard someone say, "Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls." Before long, Ginevra's letters grew less frequent and then stopped altogether. Soon after, she married a man who owned a string of polo ponies. Fitzgerald never forgot Ginevra King - he saved all her letters - and Jay Gatsby's timeless love for Daisy Fay, who also married a man with a string of polo ponies, undoubtedly had its roots in his memory of her.
On academic probation and unlikely to graduate, Fitzgerald was rescued by America's entry into World War I. He obtained a commission as a second lieutenant in the army, and went to war in a trim uniform tailored by Brooks Brothers. He reported to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for training, where the captain in charge of his company was a West Pointer with a broad grin named Dwight D. Eisenhower. Fitzgerald envisioned himself as a war hero, but was an inept soldier. He bumbled through close-order drill, slept during lectures on "Trench Behavior" and "The Lewis Gun," and claimed with some justification to be "the world's worst second lieutenant."
Weekends were spent in a corner of the officers club, where amid smoke, conversation, and rattling newspapers, he labored over a novel, The Romantic Egoist, that he had started at Princeton. In a hospital in Italy, nineteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway struggled to recover the use of a leg shattered by an Austrian mortar shell and read and reread the words a British officer had written out for him on a slip of paper: "By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once, we owe God a death.... He that dies this year is quit for the next." In France, Private John Dos Passos, U.S. Army Medical Corps, carried away "buckets full of amputated arms and hands and legs from an operating room." And in Baltimore, Henry L. Mencken tapped out the opening chapter of The American Language on his battered Corona while trucks rumbled under the window of his row house on Union Square day and night, carrying the victims of an influenza pandemic to the cemeteries.
Fitzgerald, overcome by the conviction that he was going to be killed in the war like the British poet Rupert Brooke, saw his book as a chance to leave a record behind. "I lived in the smeary pencil pages" of the novel, he recalled. "The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book." He sent the manuscript to Scribners, who rejected it, but he received an encouraging letter from Maxwell Perkins, a young editor, suggesting revisions that might make the book acceptable.
In the summer of 1918, Fitzgerald was ordered to Camp Sheridan, just outside Montgomery, Alabama. Blond hair parted in two wings over his almost girlish features, and wearing the whipcord riding breeches and shiny boots of a general's aide, he cut a handsome figure. He met Zelda Sayre, the spoiled daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge, at a country club dance. She was, he told a friend, "the prettiest girl in Alabama and Georgia." There was something golden about her. At eighteen, Zelda - named for a Gypsy queen who had turned up in her mother's reading - had a mass of honey-colored hair, a lilting grace, and a sparkling deviltry in her eye. If a dance was dull, she would turn cartwheels around the floor to liven things up.
She was popular - the student pilots at a nearby airfield courted her by stunting their planes over her house - but soon Fitzgerald monopolized the Sayres' porch swing. He read Zelda some of his stories and part of the novel he was revising and assured her that one day he would be a famous writer. He loved her from their first meeting for her beauty, her daring, and her originality, and she was in love with him. Ever the romantic, Fitzgerald hoped to impress her with the heroic deeds he intended to perform in France, but the war ended just as his unit was being marched up the gangplank of a transport. And Scribners again rejected his novel.
Following his discharge from the army in February 1919, Fitzgerald asked Zelda to marry him, but she was reluctant to commit herself because of his lack of money and prospects. To improve them, he joined his literary friends from Princeton in New York. With a sheaf of stories under his arm, he made the rounds of the city's newspapers in search of a job as a reporter so he could "trail murderers by day and do short stories by night." No one was impressed. Fitzgerald took a position as a $90-a-month copywriter at an advertising agency, less than his army pay. His biggest success was a slogan for the Muscatine Steam Laundry in Muscatine, Iowa: "We keep you clean in Muscatine."
Bored, Fitzgerald lived in one room in "a high horrible apartment house" on Claremont Avenue in Morningside Heights, lusting after success and his elusive Southern belle. In March, he sent Zelda an engagement ring that had been his mother's. The weeks of separation stretched into months. And the stories Fitzgerald ground out in his spare time failed to sell. Every evening he raced back to his dreary room hoping to find a letter from Montgomery, only to be greeted by a fresh pile of rejected manuscripts. Soon, he had a frieze of 122 rejection slips pinned about his room. Not one contained a personal note or a word of encouragement. In June, Fitzgerald finally sold a story, "Babes in the Woods," to The Smart Set, which under Henry Mencken and George Jean Nathan was the liveliest magazine in America, for which he received $30. But he got little cheer from it because the story was a rewrite of one previously printed in The List. He spent the money on a pair of white flannels.
Mencken met Fitzgerald for the first time at a party at Nathan's apartment in the Hotel Royalton, a center of the city's artistic life. "He was a slim, blond young fellow, tall and straight in build and so handsome that he might even have been called beautiful," the editor wrote in his memoirs. "I well recall that he was still so full of Army ways when we first met, and so shy a young fellow by nature, that he not only misterred Nathan and me but also sirred us."
Unhappy with his progress, Fitzgerald suddenly announced, while lunching one day with friends at the Yale Club, that he was going to jump out the window. No one made an effort to restrain him; in fact, he was cheerfully assured that the floor-to-ceiling French windows were ideally suited for jumping. Fitzgerald quickly thought better of his proposal. Prohibition was not to begin until January 1920, and he haunted the Red Room of the Plaza and the Biltmore Bar and went to "lush and liquid garden parties in the East Sixties" with fellow Ivy Leaguers, debutantes, and party girls.
Like many provincials from "the vast obscurity beyond the city," he was enraptured by the texture and glitter of New York, of youthful forms leaning together in taxis at twilight and tea dances where the bodies "drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor." For the young man from St. Paul, the city was the fulfillment of all his dreams of glamour and money. Years later, Fitzgerald recalled that New York in 1919 "had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world."
The curtain was rising on the Jazz Age, the decade Fitzgerald named and was to make his own. Skirts were going up, young women were drinking in public, painting their faces, and puffing defiantly, if awkwardly, on cigarettes, and "all night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the 'Beale Street Blues' in Harlem." Fitzgerald later wrote that the Jazz Age began at about the time of some anti-Socialist riots on May Day 1919, inspiring cynicism about a war that had not ended all wars and had not made the world safe for democracy. But he was basically apolitical even though he professed a naive Socialism, and an all-night spree of his own is a better benchmark for the beginning of the age he would chronicle.
Following an interfraternity dance at Delmonico's, the crowd adjourned to Childs all-night restaurant, on Broadway, to sober up. At first, Fitzgerald sat in a corner intently mixing hash, poached eggs, and ketchup in a derby belonging to Porter Gillespie, a Princeton friend. Next, he felt the urge to climb up on a table to make a speech and was ejected by the management. Each time the revolving door opened, he tried to sneak back in on his hands and knees. With dawn coming, Fitzgerald and Gillespie returned to Delmonico's where they appropriated the "In" and "Out" signs from the swinging men's room doors, fixed them to their stiff shirtfronts, and drunkenly insisted on introducing each other as "Mr. In" and "Mr. Out."
Then they were off in search of champagne for Sunday morning breakfast. "You buy it," Fitzgerald told Gillespie. "Your father has the money to pay for it." They were refused at several hotel bars but finally got some at the Commodore and ended up rolling the empty bottles among the legs of the early morning churchgoers on Fifth Avenue. In after years, Fitzgerald put the antics of "Mr. In" and "Mr. Out" into one of his best stories, "May Day," which also caught his feelings of frustration and failure at the time.
Not long afterward, Fitzgerald went down to Montgomery where Zelda, who had had enough of an engagement that looked every day less and less likely to lead to marriage, gave him back his ring. Fitzgerald received the blow poorly. "He seized her in his arms and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once," he later wrote in a story called "'The Sensible Thing,'" which incorporated his own experience. "When this failed, he broke into a long monologue of self-pity, and ceased only when he saw that he was making himself despicable in her sight." Zelda saw him off at the train station and he climbed into a Pullman; as soon as she was out of sight, he switched to a day coach, all he could afford.
Back in New York, Fitzgerald borrowed from classmates and went on a "roaring, weeping" three-week drunk. "I was a failure - mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer," he declared. Sheer physical exhaustion put an end to the binge but it had "done its business; he was over the first flush of pain" at Zelda's decision to drop him. "Since I last saw you," he wrote Edmund Wilson, "I've tried to get married and drink myself to death."
Fitzgerald quit his advertising job with relief and left for St. Paul early in July to rewrite The Romantic Egoist with the hope of producing a best-seller, win back Zelda, and become rich. His parents disapproved of his writing ambitions. His mother had hoped he would make a career of the army and his father wanted him to go into business. They were deeply disappointed when he turned down the offer of a "real" job as advertising manager of a St. Paul department store. Yet when he skipped meals they left sandwiches and milk at the door of his room and took his telephone calls so his friends would not distract him. Still, they kept the purse strings tight, fearing he might take off on some fresh escapade.
Working around the clock, Fitzgerald ripped the old manuscript apart. Cigarette stubs overflowed the ashtrays onto the floor of his room. When he ran out, he salvaged butts and relit them. He ruthlessly lopped out chapters and scrawled new ones in pencil. From the beginning, he seemed to write effectively only about himself and those he knew. He threw in elements of previous stories, sketches, and even a one-act play, causing a cynical friend to call the book "The Collected Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald." In the process, he developed an easy narrative style that was rich with images, a sense of comedy, and natural dialogue.
Excerpted from New World Coming by Nathan Miller Copyright © 2003 by Nathan Miller. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 23, 2011
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