F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, and named after his distant relative Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Fitzgerald was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though an intelligent child, he did poorly in school and was sent to an Eastern boarding school in 1911, excelling in neither athletics nor academics, but exhibiting a penchant for writing and producing plays. He was admitted to Princeton in 1913 where he maintained his academic mediocrity while indulging and expanding his love of literature through his friendships and his prominent role in the Triangle Club, a musical theatre group. Without earning his degree, Fitzgerald enlisted in the army in 1917.

Fitzgerald became a second lieutenant, and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, in Montgomery, Alabama. There he met and fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty named Zelda Sayre. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but her overpowering desire for wealth, fun, and leisure led her to delay their wedding until he could prove a success. After a failed career in advertising in New York, Fitzgerald returned to Minnesota to complete his first novel, This Side of Paradise. It was published to great acclaim in 1920, Fitzgerald became a literary sensation, and the wedding was planned.

Fitzgerald was quickly established as the chronicler of the new post-war America of flappers, alcohol, and the Jazz Age. Though barely funded by his novels and stories, which were more critically acclaimed than financially successful, Fitzgerald also lived the life he described, living extravagantly with Zelda, traveling around Europe among an an elite group of artists, royalty, and wealthy American expatriates. Living in this world of luxurious, graceful excess, Scott finished what is commonly considered to be his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, in 1925. In the late 1920's, the Fitzgeralds spent time on the Riviera in southern France, where they were hosted by Gerald and Sara Murphy among a set that included such notables as Picasso. The extraordinarily sophisticated, graceful, and elegant Murphys became the inspiration for the two central characters of Tender Is the Night, Dick and Nicole Diver.

Despite Fitzgerald's literary success, he and Zelda could not maintain their decadent lifestyle, which took both a financial and emotional toll. As the giddiness of the Roaring Twenties dissolved into the bleakness of the Great Depression, however, Zelda suffered a nervous breakdown as Fitzgerald battled alcoholism, which hampered his writing. Zelda battle with mental illness is reflected in the character of Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night. Yet while Nicole recovers, Zelda did not. (She in and out of sanatoriums for the rest of her life as electroshock therapy and insulin shock treatments took an increasing tool on her. She died in a fire at facility in North Carolina in 1948.)

Fitzgerald published Tender Is the Night in 1934, and sold short stories to The Saturday Evening Post to support his lavish lifestyle. In 1937, he left for Hollywood to write screenplays, and in 1940, while working on his novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, died of a heart attack at the age of forty-four.

Background on Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night was published to mixed reviews in 1934. While some noted its extraordinary elegance and power, many found it objectionable for different reasons. Following the arrival of the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, Americans were far less interested in reading about decadence among expatriates on the Riviera, and the book was criticized for being frivolous.

Ernest Hemingway, among others, accused Fitzgerald of drawing his characters too much upon the templates of real people. Fitzgerald acknowledged these problems along with some more substantive ones, often wishing that he could have altered the chronology of the book or had been able to rewrite the final section. But the book stands today as a lyrical, insightful look into the cultural world of mannered aristocracy and the intimate life of a single, complicated couple.

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