They'd Dance Half Naked and Were Obsessed with Luxury. Meet the First Posh and Becks; Sixty Years after His Death, a Tribute to One of the First Hell-Raisers of Literature

Daily Mail (London), December 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

They'd Dance Half Naked and Were Obsessed with Luxury. Meet the First Posh and Becks; Sixty Years after His Death, a Tribute to One of the First Hell-Raisers of Literature


Byline: PHILIP NORMAN

HE WAS America's first celebrity writer, as famous as any modern pop idol with his crinkly fair hair, luminous eyes and angelic mouth.

In the New York of the Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were the Posh and Becks of their day, endlessly written about and photographed as they caroused in luxury hotel suites, sported half-naked in public fountains or danced the Charleston on top of taxi cabs.

Sixty years ago today, this forgotten American writer dropped dead at the Hollywood home of his gossip columnist girlfriend, just minutes before a doctor was due to call and

examine his worn-out heart.

He was perhaps the greatest novelist of the 20th century, a man whose short life symbolised both the American dream at its most golden and the American nightmare at its most horrifying and heartless.

He is today renowned chiefly for The Great Gatsby, a tale of Prohibition era gangsters and bootleggers, as relevant to our celebrity - and sensation - hungry modern times as it was in 1925, when the 29-year-old Fitzgerald first published it.

Only two of his four remaining novels command a readership comparable with Gatsby's.

Tender Is The Night is a sombre chronicle of American expatriates on the French Riviera, based on the mental breakdown of Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda.

And there is The Last Tycoon, a novel about Hollywood moviemaking that Fitzgerald left unfinished when he suffered his fatal heart attack, aged only 44.

Fitzgerald is regarded as one of modern literature's more reprehensible bad boys, a drunk and a hell-raiser who squandered his 'beautiful talent' on film screenplays that were never produced and shallow romantic stories for popular magazines.

He was wild and spendthrift, and an alcoholic even more vicious and self-destructive in drink than his friend and arch-competitor, Ernest Hemingway.

But he was also a man of honour who made heroic efforts to find an answer for Zelda's mental problems, cure his addiction, pay off his mountainous debts and provide a fit education for his daughter, Scottie.

AS TO the 100-odd short stories on which he supposedly wasted his talent - stories he could turn out in a single all-night sitting - the best of them rank him alongside the great works of the Russian masters Chekhov and Pushkin.

As a writer, I have taken almost daily dips into Fitzgerald stories such as The Diamond As Big As The Ritz, Crazy Sunday, Absolution and the heartbreaking Babylon Revisited.

Though written in an age now almost as remote as the Roman Empire, they are stunningly modern in feel as well as limpidly beautiful in expression.

For all his feckless ways, no wordsmith ever laboured and sweated as Fitzgerald did to produce flawless prose.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born of Irish-American parentage in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. His father was an unsuccessful business executive who, nonetheless, scraped together the money to give his only son a first-class education.

FITZGERALD attended an exclusive private boarding school, then Princeton University, where he dreamed of becoming a star footballer, and wrote and starred in college musicals, sometimes disguised as a bewitching young girl.

In World War I, he became a lieutenant in the infantry and was posted to Alabama. There he was smitten by the 'belle' of the district, a judge's daughter named Zelda Sayre, as magnetic and flighty as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.

Desperate to earn enough to marry Zelda, Fitzgerald moved to New York, where he worked as an advertising man, and completed his first novel, This Side Of Paradise.

Published in 1920, it was an instant best-seller, establishing Fitzgerald as spokesman for a young post-war generation - the era of short-skirted 'flappers', cocktails, madcap gaiety and wild, syncopated rhythm that he himself dubbed The Jazz Age. …

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