F. Scott Fitzgerald's father was a gentleman fallen on hard times, a traveling salesman who liked to wear a cutaway and gray gloves on Sunday. His family may have been living in Buffalo, but they were in training for better: Scott was sent to the kind of dancing classes where the boys held handkerchiefs in their right hands, so as not to soil the backs of the girls' dresses. When Fitzgerald was twelve, his father lost even the salesman job. Later, Fitzgerald recalled feeling "that disaster had come to us," praying "Dear God, don't let us go to the poorhouse."
They did not, but near the end of his life Fitzgerald wrote that he had lived as if they had: "That was always my experience -- a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy's school; a poor boy in a rich man's club at Princeton.... I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works."
The pursuit of wealth and fame that wore Fitzgerald out in life proved endurable in his fiction. The Great Gatsby has come to stand as no other novel for him, and his era, and that part of the American Dream in which glows "the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us." Whatever beckoned Fitzgerald on, he and Zelda and the Jazz Age crowd roared through the twenties after it, and it sounds like they had fun: handstands in the Biltmore lobby; Gatsby-esque parties in living rooms described by Ring Lardner as "the Yale Bowl, with lamps"; croquet by car headlight, for $2000 stakes. Even when Fitzgerald fell asleep in his soup, he would wake in time to order taxis and a case of champagne for the ride to the nightclub -- he on the roof, Zelda on the hood of the lead car.
Fitzgerald was the post-war hero, what one contemporary called, "our darling, our genius, our fool." He took his lumps for the folly part: he was beaten up by taxi-drivers, for the fare; by Cubans, for protesting a cockfight; by cops and stairs and swimming pools for just being there. His writing and his relationships got hit even harder: "You were going crazy and calling it genius," he wrote to Zelda in her psychiatric ward later," I was going to ruin and calling it anything that came to hand...."
When not compelled to churn out magazine stories to support his careening lifestyle, Fitzgerald was writing novels which condemned it. If his earlier books were autobiographical, The Great Gatsby went one life better, for it was about his two selves: the Gatsby who wanted and almost had it all, and the narrator Nick Carraway who wanted and knew better. Much of the novel was planned while the Fitzgeralds lived in the estate community of Great Neck, on Long Island. One neighbour was Arnold Rothstein, the well-heeled and big-time crook that became the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in the novel. Rothstein was the alleged mastermind of the Black Sox baseball scandal; in the book, he is "the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919."
Sports and Empire combined in Fitzgerald's blood, although distantly: his parents named him Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald after the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," who was his second cousin, three times removed. Though an anti-anthem, Fitzgerald thought his book would be an American classic; still undecided about a title just weeks before publication, he cabled his publisher, "CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE." When the book came out on April 10th, 1925 it was well reviewed, and greatly respected by the literary community, but it never caught on with the public. In 1927, two years after publication, Fitzgerald got only $153 in royalties; two years after that only $32; by the last year of his life, 1940, only forty copies of all his books were sold, bringing him $13.13.
Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44. There could only have been irony to the phrase in his original will which said he was to be given a funeral "according to my station" -- still, to be sure, he changed it to read "the cheapest funeral possible." Thirty years later, with the Fitzgerald revival well underway, and The Great Gatsby given its due as the American classic Fitzgerald knew it to be, he was reburied, and the last lines from the novel were cut on the gravestone: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."