All his life, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald took inspiration from his love affairs for material. The two main characters from The Great Gatsby (1925) are a sort of imagined version of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda at the dizzying heights of their time together: young, wealthy and beautiful.
The Great Gatsby follows a small group of characters living in the fictional towns of West Egg and East Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. The story focuses on the young and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his obsession with the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, greed and excess, creating a portrait of the Roaring Twenties that serves as a cautionary tale of the American Dream.
The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby is one of the most celebrated pieces of cover art in literature. It depicts disembodied eyes and a mouth over a blue skyline, with images of naked women reflected in the irises. A little-known artist named Francis Cugat, brother of bandleader and Carmen Miranda spouse Xavier Cugat, was commissioned to illustrate the book while Fitzgerald was still writing it. The cover was completed before the novel; Fitzgerald was so enamored with it that he told his publisher he had “written it into” the novel. Fitzgerald’s remarks hint at the novel’s fictional optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, depicted on a faded billboard which Fitzgerald describes as:
“…blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.”
He also describes the character Daisy Buchanan as:
“…the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs.”
The Great Gatsby did not have the commercial success of his two previous novels, This Side Of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful And Damned (1922). It went through two initial printings, yet some of these copies remained unsold years later. Fitzgerald blamed poor sales on the fact that women were the main audience for novels, and The Great Gatsby did not contain a likable female character. Fitzgerald only earned $2,000 from sales of the book. Still, a stage adaption and the Paramount Pictures silent film version, both from 1926, brought him more money.
In 1940, Fitzgerald died believing his work would be forgotten. In 1942, a group of publishing executives created the Council on Books in Wartime. Its purpose was to distribute paperback books to soldiers fighting in World War II. The Great Gatsby was one of these books. It proved to be as popular as pictures of pin-up girls among the soldiers. 155,000 copies of Gatsby were distributed to soldiers overseas.
By 1960, the book was steadily selling 50,000 copies per year, and it is now considered a classic of American fiction. The Great Gatsby has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and remains Scribner’s most popular title. In 2018, the e-book version sold 185,000 copies. Scribner’s copyright is scheduled to expire next year.
The Fitzgeralds’ marriage suffered from alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness and infidelity, and ended with the pair separated. Fitzgerald became an unemployed alcoholic living in Hollywood, and Zelda, a long-term resident of mental institutions died in her sleep eight years after her husband, in a fire in the hospital she was living in.
Like Gatsby and Daisy, Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre met during the time of World War I. He was an officer in training, having flunked out of Princeton. Fitzgerald was handsome and charming. She was the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, and the prettiest in Montgomery, Alabama. She was modern and headstrong, scandalously swimming with boys while wearing a flesh-colored bathing suit and smoking in public.
Their courtship lasted for years. It was not until Fitzgerald’s first novel was accepted by a publisher, and he was, as he wrote: “the man with the jingle of money in his pocket”, that Zelda agreed to marriage. Dorothy Parker wrote that they: “….always looked as if they had just stepped in out of the sun”.
The Fitzgeralds ignored the fact that they were a couple of limited means. He wrote short stories for magazines. He was highly paid and published 160 in his lifetime, despite all that drinking and debauchery. They lived in Great Neck, a wealthy village on Long Island that would provide the inspiration for Gatsby’s West Egg. This where he worked on The Great Gatsby, but failed to finish it. In 1924, they moved to France so he could write.
Of course, being the Fitzgeralds, France meant Paris and the Riviera, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, nightclubs and parties. While Fitzgerald worked on The Great Gatsby, his wife was left lonely and lost. She had an affair with a French pilot, but when famous dancer Isadora Duncan spent too long talking to her husband at a party, she threw herself down a flight of stairs.
With the stock market crash of 1929, Fitzgerald wrote: “The most expensive orgy in history was over”. In 1930, Zelda was committed to an asylum in Switzerland, having suffered a breakdown brought on by her efforts to become a ballerina. She spent the rest of of her life in psychiatric institutions. Her treatment included electric shock therapy and morphine. In 1932 she began her novel Save Me The Waltz. Her husband was infuriated that she was using the same material, their marriage, that he was using for his book Tender Is The Night (1934).
Money was tighter than ever, with his wife’s medical bills. Their daughter was being brought up by their friends.
In 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with MGM as a screenwriter. He contributed to the screenplay for Gone With The Wind script, but went un-credited. He was unsuccessful in Hollywood, and he died suddenly in 1940, at the home of his lover, columnist Sheilah Graham. He was just 44 years old. In the The Crack-Up published in Esquire in 1937, he writes:
“I had only been a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent.”
At his funeral Dorothy Parker cried: “the poor son-of-a-bitch”, a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral. His final novel, The Last Tycoon was published posthumously in 1941.
The Great Gatsby has been adapted into a musical, a ballet, an opera, a computer game, four plays and five films. Although it received mixed reviews, I have a soft spot for the 1974 version directed by the very British Jack Clayton from a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, with Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, handsome young Sam Waterston, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Scott Wilson and Lois Chiles, with Howard Da Silva (who appeared in the 1949 version), and Edward Herrmann. It won two Academy Awards: Theoni V. Aldredge for Costume Design and Best Score (Nelson Riddle); and a Golden Globe Award for Karen Black, with nominations for Dern and Waterston.
Fitzgerald is the cousin of Mary Surratt, who was hanged in 1865 for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Surratt is played by Robin Wright in The Conspirator (2010), directed by Redford, who played Gatsby.
It seems obvious to me that Nick Carraway was in love with Jay Gatsby, but then, I am always being accused of “making things gay”. There are some important gay connections to their story: Zelda told her husband that the trouble with their sex life was because he was “a fairy” and she believed he was having an affair with Hemingway. Tennessee Williams used the Fitzgeralds’ lives in his play Clothes For A Summer Hotel (1980). The original screenplay of the 1974 The Great Gatsby was written by Truman Capote. Capote described his screenplay as: “Nick was a homosexual and Jordan Baker a vindictive lesbian”. Following the rejection of Capote’s script, Coppola wrote a draft in three weeks, even though he was unfamiliar with the book.
Fitzgerald is portrayed by gay actor Malcolm Gets in the film Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle (1994). He is played by Timothy Hutton in Zelda (1993); Jason Miller in F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood (1976); in F. Scott Fitzgerald And The Last Of The Belles (1974) by Richard Chamberlain; by Gregory Peck in Beloved Infidel (1959); and Last Call (2002) has Jeremy Irons as the famous writer.Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill appear as the Fitzgeralds in Woody Allen‘s delightful Midnight in Paris (2011), and Guy Pearce and Vanessa Kirby portray the couple in the 2016 television series Genius.
The Fitzgeralds are buried together. Inscribed on their tombstone is the final sentence of The Great Gatsby:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”