Fitzgerald’s past and the writing of The Great Gatsby

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in September 1921
in Dellwood, Minnesota, about a month before their daughter,
Scottie, was born. Image from Creative Commons;
originates with Minnesota Historical Society.

Literary biographer and author of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Toward the end of 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald underwent one of his periods of remorse for the reckless style of life he and Zelda were pursuing in and around New York. They’d lived in Westport for a time, and he embedded some of that experience in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922) – a book that sold well but that lacked the passionate authorial involvement of This Side of Paradise (1920), the youthful first novel that won him a wife and began to forge his reputation as a chronicler of the Jazz Age. The Fitzgeralds next came to St. Paul for the birth of their daughter Scottie and returned east to a house in Great Neck, Long Island (or West Egg, in Gatsby).

In Great Neck they became involved with people from the news and entertainment fields – producer Gene Buck and his actress wife Helen, the talented and alcoholic writer Ring Lardner, and eminent journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, among others. They partied away their nights and Fitzgerald, hungover, wasted many of his days. So he excoriated himself in confessions to his editor Max Perkins. He promised Perkins – and himself – to change the way he was living. He needed to buy time for a new novel that was beginning to take shape in his subconscious, and he needed a place, far from the revels of Great Neck, where he could write it.

But he was also nearly broke: he and Zelda were careless about money. So he buckled down early in 1924, went on the wagon, and turned out some of his most forgettable but still salable short stories. By April he was $7,000 ahead, and ready to escape to the French Riviera, where favorable exchange rates drove down the cost of living. It was there, in an elegant rented villa above St. Raphäel, that Scott Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece. “Living in the book” as never before, he abandoned the riotous diversions that had become habitual in his marriage. He may also have neglected his husbandly duties. Zelda found new companions on the beach – three young French aviators – and paired off with one of them, Edouard Jozan, in a serious relationship. Jozan, who later became an admiral in the navy, gallantly denied that he and Zelda slept together. We do not know what did or did not happen between them. Female critics and commentators on the Fitzgeralds are generally inclined to doubt that the affair became adulterous. Most of their male counterparts assume that it did.

There is no question, though, that Zelda felt a strong physical attraction to Jozan – for evidence, readers might look at her novel, Save Me the Waltz – and that Scott was undone when he looked up from his desk to discover what was going on. The incident caused a rift in their marriage, and it may well have given Fitzgerald the emotional jolt to create scenes of confrontation between husband, wife, wife’s lover, not only in Gatsby but again, a decade later, in Tender Is the Night.

I don’t mean to suggest that Daisy Fay Buchanan is modeled on Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. No, it was Ginevra King who sat for his portrait of Daisy: Ginevra, the beautiful girl from wealthy exurban Lake Forest he’d fallen in love with during his years at Princeton; Ginevra, who casually jilted him to marry one of her own sort; Ginevra, whose father once remarked in his hearing that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

That was the story Fitzgerald was telling in the great “Winter Dreams,” a run-up to The Great Gatsby set in St. Paul, and “Black Bear Lake.” As in most of his best writing, the power derived from a sense of loss. Fitzgerald was a romantic, and loss was his great theme: loss of the golden girl, and still more the loss of illusions. It’s in this sense that Nick Carraway can conclude that Jay Gatsby was worth more than whole damned bunch of East Eggers – Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker – put together. At the end Nick still disapproves of Gatsby for his pink suits and circus wagon of a car, his materialistic display of many-colored shirts, his ridiculously ostentatious parties, his criminally gotten gains. Yet Nick values above all Gatsby’s unwillingness to give up his dreams or allow himself to be disillusioned. When the inevitable ending comes, Jimmy Gatz is still waiting for the telephone call from Daisy that was never going to come. When she rang him, he still believed, they could continue repeating the past together.


Scott Donaldson, author of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the nation’s leading literary biographers. Among his many books are By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway; Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, winner of the Ambassador Book Award for Biography; and Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship.

“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

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