On the Author of The Great Gatsby

To coincide with the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, we thought we’d offer some interesting facts about the author who wrote this masterpiece of the ‘Jazz Age’.

TELEVISION PROGRAMME.....OMNIBUS....F SCOTT FITZGERALD... Pictur

(Left: composite picture of Fitzgerald, pictured right, with Ernest Hemingway.) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald – he was named after Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the lyrics to the patriotic American song ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and a distant relation of the family. (He was also the first cousin of Mary Surratt, a woman hanged in 1865 for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.) Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota in 1896, and completed just four novels:  This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender is the Night (1934; the title of which was borrowed from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). A fifth novel was left unfinished at his death: for many years this was known as The Last Tycoon, though it is more properly known by the full title The Love of the Last Tycoon, in keeping with Fitzgerald’s preferred choice of title.

While in Paris with his wife, Zelda, in the 1920s, Fitzgerald became friends with numerous other writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway considered Zelda ‘insane’ (she would be hospitalised for schizophrenia in the 1930s) and a bad influence on Fitzgerald: Hemingway thought she encouraged her husband to drink when he should have been working. Zelda returned the compliment by describing Hemingway’s early novel The Sun Also Rises, which she hated, as being about three things: ‘bullfighting, bull-slinging, and bullshitting’.

Fitzgerald popularised the term ‘Jazz Age’ to describe 1920s America and the setting for The Great Gatsby (the ‘action’ of which takes place during 1922). Among the many working titles Fitzgerald considered for the novel were Gatsby, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover (what a title!) and the title Fitzgerald almost insisted on at the last minute: Under the Red, White and Blue, which carries patriotic echoes of the song written by his distant relation and namesake. (However, he requested this change too late, so the former title stuck.)  The Great Gatsby was first filmed in 1926, just one year after the novel was published, in a silent movie adaptation of the stage version. Although it is now the novel he is best remembered for, and is undoubtedly his masterpiece, his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was his bestselling book during his lifetime.

The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate (and veteran of WWI) who takes a house on Long Island next door to the mysterious eponymous millionaire, Jay Gatsby, known for throwing parties. We’re not here to offer spoilers for those who’ve yet to read the novel (or see the film), so we won’t say more than this. Suffice to say that the novel’s evocation of 1920s America, a time of prohibition, cocktails, and the ‘American Dream’, has helped to ensure its place among the great American novels of the twentieth century, or, indeed, any century.

The actress Sigourney Weaver took her ‘stage’ name from Sigourney Howard, a minor character mentioned in The Great Gatsby (and the character’s name, ‘Mrs Signourney Howard’, actually refers to the husband, so Sigourney is a male given name in the novel). Before then, the name was rare – it still is – but Weaver’s adopting of the name has helped it to become a more popular girls’ name in the last thirty years.

Despite his talent for prose, Fitzgerald was reportedly a bad speller who spelt his friend’s name as ‘Earnest Hemminway’ and could not spell ‘definite’ correctly (instead falling into the common trap of spelling it ‘definate’).

Towards the end of the 1930s, Fitzgerald began writing for Hollywood, although he considered such work degrading to someone who wished to write novels first and foremost. (However, much of his income in these later years came from sales of short stories.) Perhaps his most famous achievement in the film world was his work on the classic 1939 film Gone with the Wind – although, unfortunately, his contribution to the script was never actually filmed. During these final years, he drank bottles of Coca-Cola by the case, in an effort to stave off alcoholism.

A year later, at the age of just 44, he died, four days before Christmas. It is now believed that he suffered from a form of tuberculosis, although this was thought at one stage to have been a cover for his heavy drinking during the 1920s. However, he died of a heart attack – he had suffered two attacks earlier in his life, but this third was to kill him. At his funeral service, the American wit Dorothy Parker is supposed to have murmured, ‘the poor son-of-a-bitch’ (a quotation from The Great Gatsby).

The Great Gatsby has been called a ‘Great American novel’, and the Modern Library Publishing House has stated that it is the second greatest novel of the twentieth century, behind James Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this new film will become the definitive adaptation of this classic novel remains to be seen.

Fitzgerald is credited, in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the first citations of the words T-shirtdaiquiri (a cocktail containing rum and lime, named after a region of Cuba), stinko (slang meaning ‘of a very low standard’), and even wicked (as in ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’). With the exception of stinko (which comes from a letter of 1924), all of these early uses of these words are found in Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. Perhaps this earlier novel deserves more recognition?

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51 thoughts on “On the Author of The Great Gatsby

  1. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby when I read it, but I don’t think I agree with the ‘second greatest’. In fact there are problems with ranking books like this as all are great in some way, less so in others and speak to different people at different times.

    • That’s very true. I’m sure other polls have shown GG and Ulysses to be regularly among the most regarded and celebrated novels of the 20th century, but I agree, this sort of thing can only ever be greatly subjective…

  2. I’m terribly worried that the film is going to completely ruin the raw and desperate love of Gatbsy and make it all too glam and cinematic! This is a great overview of Fitzgerald and his ‘Jazz Age’ – thank you!

  3. The Grove Park Inn, is an Arts and Crafts style hotel in Asheville NC, and designed by E. W. Grove, in the early 1900’s. Many former presidents, dignitaries, artists, writers, and ghosts are said to have roamed its rooms and land. While doing historical and literary research in the Asheville library, I found out that the Inn also employed a fortune teller. This woman dressed in fortune telling garb, while telling the fortunes of guests and visitors to the hotel. Supposedly, she befriended Fitzgerald during one of his more intoxicated and semi lengthy hotel stays. It is said, that he hired her as a typist, and she typed one of his manuscripts. I wish I can remember her name and which work she typed. Maybe another reader can fill in my gaps. I also worked in an Asheville building that was a former “mental” hospital where Zelda died when the hospital caught fire.

    • I wonder if anyone can shed light on this. I didn’t know about the fortune teller. Would be great if she typed The Great Gatsby! Prof Sarah Churchell of UEA would know if anyone does – she’s written much about Fitzgerald and has a book coming out on Gatsby.

      • Asheville was also home to Thomas Wolfe, one of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries. In fact, I am pretty sure that Zelda stayed in the boarding house that Wolfe’s mother owned and was immortalized in “Look Homeward, Angel.”

        • I’m right down the street from the Grove Park hotel where Fitzgerald stayed while Zelda was here getting treatment in a mental hospital. She was working on her own novel and awaiting electro shock therapy when a fire broke out at the hospital, killing her.

  4. I’ve read this book several times over the years and each time got something new from it. I saw the 1970s film but although good, it lacks the depth of the book. I don’t think I will see the new one – it’s very rare someone else’s visualisation of one of my favourite books works!

    • Very true, though curiosity will probably drive me to the cinema all the same. I’m going to reread the novel over the next few weeks when I get a spare moment, as I agree – every time there’s something new to be gained from the language, the mood, the description…

  5. If the promos for “The Great Gatsby” are any indication of the film’s impact on me I’m prepared to be disappointed. I don’t rank the book as highly as some expecially in view of Faulkner’s work. My concern over the new film is that the novel was a tightly written narrative and Lurhmann’s movie is being promoted as having an expansivenss and sprawl to it that I didn’t feel in the novel. But to be fair I’m basing my comment on movie trailers that may have little to do with the film’s artistic content.

    • I think it’s not just the movie trailers but the first impressions from those who’ve been able to see the film already – most appear to have been underwhelmed. Oh well. I think it’s been hyped so much that expectation was always going to exceed satisfaction…

  6. Such a long time since I read The Great Gatsby but there is such a lot of discussion about it now the new film is coming out I feel a re-read coming on.

    Thanks for the refresher on F. Scott Fitzgerald, IL … I do feel he had a sad sort of life and had forgotten how poignant I felt it was.

    • Yes, it was a sad life in so many ways. I need to get copies of his other novels, as Gatsby is the only one among the IL bookshelves … and then perhaps we’ll be able to shed more light on Fitzgerald’s life and work. Must be more tales to tell…

  7. I don’t know about the new film…I think Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is a perfect fit but everything about the preview looks too flashy. Also I don’t know about the Jay Z soundtrack. How is that representative of the ‘Jazz Age’ if rap is playing in the background?

    • Yes, I wondered about the soundtrack. Seems a very odd choice. If it’s to make it contemporary and ‘twenty-first century’, then they need to be careful they don’t lose the wonderful Jazz Age feel which gives Gatsby much of its magic…

  8. Somehow this post and the talk of hemmingway ,zelda, fitzerald reminded of the movie ‘midnight in paris’ thought it was pretty unique. I am having hard time believing he couldn’t spell definite. Was it different spellings in those times or his education or he was simply bad at it?.

    • I’d forgotten about Allen’s film – thanks for the reminder! And I’m not sure about Fitz’s spelling, so will look into it some more. I think spelling was pretty regulated by then so ‘definate’ would have been odd/wrong when he wrote it. The ways of genius are always mysterious…

  9. Interesting tidbits – I didn’t know about his family connections to Key and Surratt. Have you read the new book out about Zelda? I haven’t had the chance, but a review of it said that some of Fitzgerald’s words were in fact his wife’s. I wonder how much of that might be true.

  10. My favorite book, or sometimes my second favorite behind Of Mice and Men. I actually hated it in high school and didn’t get it at all. Now I love it.

    Thanks of the bio.

  11. Thanks for the follow, actually Fitzgerald and me have something in common, I don´t spell all THAT good, not all that bad either. Very interesting facts(wrote the stars spangle banners…interesting stuff, I´ll keep reading since at the same time it gives me ideas when I write my short stories, which are not the crazy ironic ones on the blog, I´m waiting for the best to come out, in the next century maybe) This is like like Wikipedia, except for things that I like. Thanks again for this blog, Stay frosty.

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  14. Some very interesting details there. I can’t help feeling Hemingway was somewhat harsh to blame Zelda for her husband’s drinking. The account – presumably rooted in fact – of Hem and Scott’s trip to Lyon in A Moveable Feast contains a pretty horrifying depiction of the latter’s alcoholism. It gives the impression of a man self-destructing under his own speed.

  15. When I read Gatsby in high school, I fell in love with Fitzgerald and read everything I could find about him and Zelda. She definitely was a bad influence on him and continually competed with him to prove her own worth. I would go with the critics who say she destroyed him. He loved her and was too weak to escape her bad influence. It was basically the story of Jay Gatsby and Daisy.
    IMO Gatsby was his only great work. The other 3 novels disappointed me greatly.
    (And, yes, his spelling was atrocious! Those were, however, the days, when editors were still prepared to fix it.)

  16. This reminded me of Woody Allen’s movie, “Midnight in Paris”–worth seeing for the scene where Hemingway explains what it takes to be a great writer (basically facing death and being truthful) and advises aspiring writers to never give their work to another writer to read because if it’s good he/she will say it’s bad bead because of envy.. ..

  17. Interestingly, I just wrote a review of the movie. And since the Fitzgeralds lived in NC for a while – they were friends of Thomas Wolfe, a writer from Asheville, NC – and Zelda died in a mental hospital there, we North Carolinians proudly claim them too. In spite of what some may think of the movie, the revitalized interest in The Great Gatsby is marvelous!

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  19. I don’t spell that great either, best fact here though, other than F. Scott Fitzgerald coming from a distinct family tree is that he was the first person to use wicked as in excellent, all the way back in 1922, wow.

  20. Interesting article about Fitzgerald! I’ve read and enjoyed Great Gatsby, although would not rank it among my favorite books but I havent seen any of the movie adaptations as I dont think a movie can do justice to the book!!

  21. I think what can be seen to make The Great Gatsby the “second greatest” is Fitzgeralf’s ability to capture so well the atmosphere of the ‘Jazz Age’ – he could trick a reader into idolising it only to then trip them up at their shallowness later on. I think Fitzgerald is clever in his books in a twisted, cruel sort of way.

    • I know: I follow a Fitzgerald scholar on Twitter so need to ask her, as she’ll know if anyone does. Mind you, maybe it’s like great physicists being bad at basic arithmetic – they overcome such obstacles and excel in their field nevertheless. But it’d be good to know if it is really true, I confess…

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  23. Loved this post! My friend and I had a very rigorous school project centered around the 1920’s and how they were a turning point in American culture. I learned so much reading about Fitzgerald and Hemmingway and the whole “Lost Generation.” Reading this post has reminded me just how much I love learning about that time. Thanks for the follow! (:

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  27. Pingback: The Great Gatsby / F. Scott Fitzgerald / Classic Books | Recommended Books

  28. If anyone is interested, I wrote a book about The Great Gatsby, called Gatsby: The Cultural History of the Great American Novel. I demonstrate the novel’s lasting impact/consequence through contemporary American history. It is essentially a biography of the book.

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