On motivation, love, and the Roaring Twenties: Some reflections on F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literary biographer of many, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Winfield Townley Scott, John Cheever, and Archibald MacLeish

You mentioned in an interview this year that Fool for Love is the best writing you’ve ever done. Why?

A couple of reasons. One is that I felt a greater kinship with Fitzgerald than with any other subject. I grew up in Minneapolis, across the river from Fitzgerald’s St. Paul. I went to Blake school, the Twin Cities rival to his St. Paul Academy. My mother, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s, was raised in St. Paul, and attended St. Paul Central high, as did many of Scott’s boyhood friends. I like to think that she – the pretty, red-haired Ruth Evelyn Chase – may have danced with the handsome young Fitzgerald. But that’s merely speculation, for she died while I was in my early teens, before I knew anything of Fitzgerald, and so we never talked about that possibility.

The point is that Fitzgerald and I came from much the same background, thirty years apart: somewhat privileged midwestern kids yet not among the socially predominant class. He was tremendously sensitive about the divide that separated him from the elite, and it’s a major theme in his writing—not only in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night but also in many stories, perhaps most powerfully in the great “Winter Dreams.” Much recent criticism has focused on race, gender, and class in literature, and it seems to me that Fitzgerald’s ranks as the best writing on the issue of social class in American literature. I could understand why that mattered so much to Fitzgerald and to his aspiring young protagonists, even thought I could imagine my way into his mind, or at least come close.

A second reason is that the book is based on a surprising amount of fresh material. Fool for Love came out after biographies by Arthur Mizener and Andrew Turnbull and Matthew J. Bruccoli, and after Nancy Milford’s book on Zelda. These predecessors had read through all of Fitzgerald’s published writing, yet I was the first to spend an entire semester at Princeton’s Firestone Library, scanning through the massive Fitzgerald materials there, including scrapbooks, notes, drafts of stories and novels, false starts, and correspondence.

“What are you doing this year?” people would ask me.

“Reading Fitzgerald’s mail,” I’d flippantly reply, but it was more important than that, for there is much to be learned about writers from the writing that does not find its way into print.

A third reason—the one I had in mind when Bill Morris asked where I’d done my best work in an interview for The Millions—is that I wrote a substantial section of Fool for Love at the MacDowell Colony on a month-long stay as a visiting fellow. At the MacDowell, which admits musicians and composers, visual artists and filmmakers, as well as writers, the conditions are wonderfully conducive to getting one’s work done. Each morning you walk from Colony Hall to your assigned cabin in the New Hampshire woods. At noon a knock announces the arrival of a box lunch left outside the door. Otherwise there are no interruptions until you walk back in the late afternoon. No phones, no mail, no conversation. You’re alone with your typewriter and your banker’s box of notes for eight hours, and it’s amazing how that solitude motivates and stimulates you. I wrote “Darling Heart” and “Genius and Glass,” the two chapters on the relationship between Scott and Zelda, during that visit to the MacDowell, and believe they stand as the very best I’ve done.

What is the most shocking detail you uncovered about Fitzgerald?

That discovery came in the form of two “notes to self” in the Fitzgerald archive at Princeton, and is discussed midway through the “Genius and Glass” chapter. Both notes were written in 1933 or 1934 as his marriage was falling apart. By that time he had arrived at a conviction that men and women were compulsively engaged in a war between the sexes (Tender Is the Night is the most prominent work of fiction based on that theme). But I was surprised by the vehemence and bitterness of the notes about the conflict between Zelda and himself – a conflict exacerbated by his alcoholism and her schizophrenia.

“KEEP COOL BUT FIRM” in red ink begins the first note, manifestly written as an argument for divorce. Then there followed:

As I got feeling worse Zelda got mentally better, but

it seemed to me that as she did she was also coming to

the conclusion … [that] if I broke down it justified her

whole life … Finally four days ago told her frankly &

furiously that had got & was getting rotten deal trading

my health for her sanity and from now on I was going

to look out for myself & Scotty exclusively, and let

her go to Bedlam for all I cared.

The second note was still more shocking. In brief chilling fashion Fitzgerald presented a diabolical plan to make sure that Zelda went “to Bedlam” (Fool for Love provides details of the plan). It could only have been written by a man convinced that he and his wife were locked in a struggle from which only one of them would emerge alive and well. No other biographer happened upon this “Plan – To attack on all grounds” that would “probably result” in a “new breakdown” with “All this in secret.” Fitzgerald, thankfully, did not follow through with this plan.

What can you tell us about Fitzgerald’s years in St. Paul?

He was born there in 1896, but in the following year his father’s job with Procter & Gamble took the family east to Buffalo and Syracuse for the next decade. When the firm decided to let Edward Fitzgerald go, they limped back to St. Paul and remained there throughout the rest of Scott’s boyhood and adolescence. “All one can know,” he later observed, “is that somewhere between thirteen, boyhood’s majority, and seventeen, when one is a sort of counterfeit young man, there is a time when youth fluctuates hourly between one world and another – pushed ceaselessly forward into unprecedented experiences and vainly trying to struggle back to the days when nothing had to be paid for.” During those years he attended S.P.A., where he was probably the only student from a Catholic family who did not own a house of their own – they moved almost every year from one row house to another, several of these on Holly just off the more fashionable Summit Avenue – and whose father was out of work. The money to support them came from grandfather McQuillan, who had migrated from Ireland to establish a prosperous wholesale grocery business. His daughter – Scott’s mother Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald – spoiled her son badly, and understandably so, for her first two children died only three months before he was born. For his mother, her brilliant good-looking boy could do no wrong. Until he was fifteen, he commented, he didn’t know anyone else was alive. At S.P.A. he was too cocky to be popular with the other boys. He did better with the girls.

How is Fitzgerald a Fool for Love?

Fitzgerald was driven by a compulsion to please, to gain the approval and admiration, the friendship and love, of others. He wasn’t very good at attracting male friends. He asked too many questions, some of them embarrassing. Princeton classmates were put off by his repeated inquiries about their financial and social standing. And at their first meeting in April 1925 in Paris, he asked Hemingway whether he had slept with his wife Hadley before they were married. “I don’t know,” Hemingway answered. “I don’t remember.”

He was much more successful with women, for he had an amazing capacity to understand their ways of thinking. He looked on courtship as a competitive sport, and he played it well. In boyhood he kept a record of precisely where he stood in the affections of various neighborhood girls. At eighteen he wrote an instruction manual for his younger sister Annabel, telling her how to present herself to boys at dances – what to wear, what to say and what not to say. One of his own overtures was to tell a girl, early in the evening, that he had thought of the one adjective that really, really captured the way she was, but that he wouldn’t tell her until later. That got their attention.

That youthful view of courtship as a competition in which the winner was the one most admired did not wear well with age, eventually transforming itself into the battle between the sexes that troubled his marriage. Yet in his final years Fitzgerald grew out of his obsession with pleasing others, his need not to love but to be loved. You can see the change in his letters to Scottie, after Zelda was institutionalized and he had in effect to become both parents to her. In cautioning her against making the same mistakes he had, he emphasized that it was doing one’s work that mattered most. Never mind the plaudits of the crowd: do what you can do well, and keep doing it as long as you can. In Hollywood, from 1937 to 1940, he stopped drinking, became responsible and caring, wrote most of what was going to be a wonderful book, and shook off his obsession with pleasing other people. He died tragically young, at only forty four, but not before he had achieved a very real triumph over himself.

What do you make of the resurgence of interest in the Roaring Twenties: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the success of Gatz off Broadway, the new film The Great Gatsby due out next year, and the Paris Wife revisiting of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway?

It may be, as Malcolm Cowley believed, that American literary culture flowers about once every thirty years. So then, beginning in the 1920s when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby and Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and most of his best stories and Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury and Dos Passos wrote Manhattan Transfer the succeeding decades of the 1950s (lots of good books then) and the 1980s and now the 2010s should produce bumper crops. Or at least a reflowering, here in the 2010s, of the magical 1920s.

Fitzgerald, of course, saw himself as reflecting in his own life the boom of the 1920s and the bust of the 1930s. Never again, as he wrote in the poignant 1937 essay “Early Success,” would he be able to recapture the intense excitement of the young man who stopped cars along Summit Avenue to tell people that his first novel This Side of Paradise (1920) had been accepted. But there were still times when he could go back into the mind of that youth who walked the streets with cardboard soles, “times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring morning in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county.”

Literary biography, no matter how well done, cannot match writing like that.


Scott Donaldson is one of the nation’s leading literary biographers. He is author most recently of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

“The most penetrating psychological examination of the author ever written.”
—James L. W. West III, editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A stunning portrait. Full of intriguing insights. Donaldson comes close to what the inner man must have been.”
—Publishers Weekly

 “Written with great polish and researched as fully as any work on Fitzgerald.”

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