x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Instant Expert: F Scott Fitzgerald

The life and times of The Great Gatsby author.

THE BASICS Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald - named after the author of the US national anthem, who was a distant cousin - is acclaimed as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. He wrote novels and short stories, coined the term "Jazz Age", and was a celebrated member of the "Lost Generation" of American expats in Europe in the 1920s. He died, a broken man, in Hollywood on December 21, 1940.

THE BEGINNINGS Fitzgerald grew up in St Paul, Minnesota. His first published writing was a detective story in the school newspaper when he was 13. He went on to Princeton University, but on academic probation and unlikely to graduate, joined the army in 1917. Charles Scribner's Sons twice rejected his novel The Romantic Egotist, but the editor Maxwell Perkins accepted it in 1919 as the rewritten This Side of Paradise.

THE SOUTHERN BELLE The 1920 publication of his novel won Fitzgerald his wife. He had courted Zelda Sayre, the prototypical Southern belle, in 1918 when he was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Alabama. But she refused to live on the pittance he earned in the advertising business after his army discharge, and broke off their engagement. In late 1919, however, he had begun to make money from his short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and The Smart Set magazines, and he married his "golden girl" a week after his book launch cemented his success.

THE ROARING TWENTIES The couple epitomised the highs - young love, wealth, fame and riotous living - and the lows - alcoholism, failure, madness and early death - of the American Dream. But, ah, the highs! Manhattan, Long Island, the French Riviera, Paris, Rome, flappers, cocktails, the Charleston - above all, unfettered optimism and unbounded joie de vivre. And, oh, the lows, notably Zelda's descent into schizophrenia and the crushing debt her hospital stays and medical bills saddled her husband with.

THE STELLAR ACHIEVEMENT Fitzgerald followed Paradise with another autobiographical novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922). But his masterpiece was The Great Gatsby (1925), a sombre and lyrical study of aspiration. Its sales were low, but it is now a literary classic. The eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg, the valley of ashes, the green light at the end of the dock - the Instant Expert challenges you to posit a more brilliant use of symbols in one work of fiction.

THE HOLLYWOOD YEARS After Tender Is the Night (1934) earned mixed reviews and tepid sales, Fitzgerald spent much of the last half of the 1930s demeaningly doing script work in Hollywood. Estranged from Zelda, he fell in love with the gossip columnist Sheila Graham, in whose flat he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. His Hollywood novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941), was published posthumously.

A SOUL LAID BARE The Crack-Up (1945), also published posthumously, is a collection of previously unpublished letters and notes and three essays written for and published in Esquire magazine in 1936. The essays - The Crack-Up, Pasting It Together and Handle with Care - are the revelations about his nervous breakdown by a bloodied but unbowed man of character. The psychological agony is heart-wrenching.

SUMMING UP Almost no one came to a visitation for Fitzgerald at a funeral home in Hollywood. One who did, the writer and friend Dorothy Parker, looked at the corpse, crying, and - echoing a line from Gatsby about Gatsby - murmured: "The poor son of a bitch".

THE DISSENTING OPINION Yes, much of Fitzgerald's early work was juvenile, slick and commercial. But he was an insightful artist and the peerless chronicler of the Jazz Age. And as Don Birnam, the protagonist of Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend, says to himself, referring to Gatsby: "There's no such thing... as a flawless novel. But if there is, this is it."


Gatsby on screen

Leonardo DiCaprio has the title role as Jay Gatsby in the fifth film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which began shooting in the Australian director Baz Luhrmann's homeland this month. The earlier versions were:

1926 A lost film, meaning no copies are known to exist. A Paramount Pictures silent, it was based on a stage play adapted from the novel, and starred Warner Baxter as Gatsby, Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan and Neil Hamilton as Nick Carraway.

1949 Based on both the book and the stage adaptation, this second version was made by Paramount as a vehicle for its star Alan Ladd. It got the full lush treatment, including costumes by Edith Head.

1974 Paramount's third pass was praised for its interpretation of the story and for being faithful to it, but criticised for lacking any true emotion. There certainly is no chemistry between Robert Redford as Gatsby and the miscast Mia Farrow as Daisy. Truman Capote, Francis Ford Coppola, Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth all contributed to the screenplay.

2000 This TV film starred Toby Stephens, Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd.