F. Scott Fitzgerald's brilliant, awful life

May 24, 1994|By John Gallagher | John Gallagher,Knight-Ridder News Service

In 1921, when F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "This Side of Paradise" came out, the Manchester Guardian in Britain sniffed at the new genre of "lost generation" novels: "But what people! What a set! They are well lost."

The Guardian may as well have been talking about Fitzgerald himself. A few years later, by the age of 30, Fitzgerald had already written his best work. He was drinking himself into an early grave, was crippled by neurosis and low self-esteem, and had surrendered to the hack work that would bring him much money but little happiness during the remaining 14 years of his life.

With such a dismal and well-known story, why, then, another biography? Because, first, Fitzgerald won immortality with "The Great Gatsby," still perhaps our best dissection of the American Dream. Second, because better than almost any other life, Fitzgerald's passage illustrates the tenuous links between life and literature, fame and decline, love and illusion, talent and madness.

Jeffrey Meyers tells this tale in lucid detail. He resolves at the start to be more analytic and interpretive than racier past biographies of the writer. He also assumes his readers already know a fair amount about Fitzgerald and his crowd. His somewhat dry and cerebral tone makes this the PBS version of Fitzgerald's life, not the "Geraldo" one. Nonetheless, Mr. Meyers gives us the best version yet of Fitzgerald as a complete personality.

Born to a middle-class, Irish-Catholic family in St. Paul, Minn., in 1896, Fitzgerald was marked by brains, blond good looks and a narcissistic self-absorption.

"I didn't know till 15," Fitzgerald wrote, "that there was anyone in the world except me, and it cost me plenty."

Stories flowed easily from his pen, and by his early 20s he was a star of the enormously popular Saturday Evening Post. His novel "The Great Gatsby," published in 1925, expressed some of the great themes of American literature: the attempt to recapture the innocent past, the predatory power of wealth, the limits of modern love, the doomed attempt to sustain illusions. It was an immediate hit with critics.

But "Gatsby" also prompted a crisis in Fitzgerald's life. The book, which would sell millions of copies after Fitzgerald's death, produced disappointingly small profits in his lifetime.

Burdened by debt, Fitzgerald found the easy money from the slick magazines too good to pass up. He churned out formula stories that he as well as anyone knew stultified his literary gifts.

His pal Ernest Hemingway warned him he was "whoring" and ruining himself, but Fitzgerald merely agreed and kept on drinking.

In Mr. Meyers' version, as in others, Fitzgerald's beautiful but unstable wife, Zelda, comes off the heavy. She belittled her husband's sexual prowess, got him drunk to interrupt his writing, cheated on him, mocked him before friends and taunted him into attempting dangerous stunts, like diving off high cliffs into the sea on the Riviera. "Nothing could have survived our life," she told him candidly.

Fitzgerald's own pranks, once innocent, turned boorish and mean. One day in France, he stopped to admire a shopkeeper's tray of daintily displayed nuts and candies. Responding to who knows what inner furies, Fitzgerald kicked the tray into the street. He apologized, but as Mr. Meyers writes, he "certainly helped create the image of the rich and vulgar American in France."

A biographer of Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allan Poe and others, Mr. Meyers has the credentials to bring this story to life. If there's a problem with his book, it's Fitzgerald himself. After a certain amount of fascination with him, the accumulated weight of all his meanness and drunkenness and wasted talent strikes a reader as profoundly depressing.

Fitzgerald's daughter, Scottie, gave some indication of what the life was like close-hand. "In my next incarnation, I may not choose again to be the daughter of a famous author," she wrote. "People who live entirely by the fertility of their imagination are fascinating, brilliant and often charming but they should be sat next to at dinner parties, not lived with."


Title: "Scott Fitzgerald"

Author: Jeffrey Meyers

Publisher: HarperCollins

+!Length, price: 432 pages, $27.50

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