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’.
(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-shirt, daiquiri (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?