Born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota to an upper middle class Irish Catholic family, Fitzgerald was named after his famous second cousin, three times removed, Francis Scott Key, but was referred to as “Scott.” He was also named after his deceased sister, Jean Scott, one of two sisters who died shortly before his birth. His parents were Mollie (McQuillan) and Edward Fitzgerald.
Scott spent the first decade of his childhood primarily in Buffalo, New York (1898–1901 and 1903–1908, with a short interlude in Syracuse, New York between January 1901 and September 1903). His parents, both practicing Catholics, sent Scott to two Catholic schools on the West Side of Buffalo, first Holy Angels Convent (1903–1904, now defunct) and then Nardin Academy (1905–1908). His formative years in Buffalo revealed him to be a boy of unusual intelligence and drive with a keen early interest in literature, his doting mother ensuring that her son had all the advantages of an upper-middle-class upbringing. In a rather unconventional style of parenting, Scott attended Holy Angels with the peculiar arrangement that he only go for half a day—and was allowed to choose which half.
When Scott was eleven years old, his father was fired from Procter & Gamble, and the family returned to Minnesota, where Fitzgerald attended St. Paul Academy in St. Paul from 1908–1911. His first literary effort, a detective story, was published in a school newspaper when he was 13. When he was 16, he was expelled from St. Paul Academy for neglecting his studies. He attended Newman School, a prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1911–1912, and entered Princeton University in 1913 as a member of the Class of 1917. There he became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson (Class of 1916) and John Peale Bishop (Class of 1917), and wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club. His absorption in the Triangle—a kind of musical-comedy society—led to his submission of a novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons where the editor praised the writing but ultimately rejected the book. He was a member of the University Cottage Club, which still displays Fitzgerald’s desk and writing materials in its library. A poor student, Fitzgerald left Princeton to enlist in the US Army during World War I; however, the war ended shortly after Fitzgerald’s enlistment.
Fitzgerald had been an alcoholic since his college days, and became notorious during the 1920s for his extraordinarily heavy drinking, leaving him in poor health by the late 1930s. According to Zelda’s biographer, Nancy Milford, Scott claimed that he had contracted tuberculosis, but Milford dismisses it as a pretext to cover his drinking problems. However, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli contends that Fitzgerald did in fact have recurring tuberculosis, and Nancy Milford reports that Fitzgerald biographer Arthur Mizener said that Scott suffered a mild attack of tuberculosis in 1919, and in 1929 he had “what proved to be a tubercular hemorrhage”. It has been said that the hemorrhage was caused by bleeding from esophageal varices.
Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in late 1940. After the first, in Schwab’s Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. He moved in with Sheilah Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Ave., one block east of Fitzgerald’s apartment on North Laurel Ave. Fitzgerald had two flights of stairs to get to his apartment; Graham’s was a ground floor apartment. On the night of December 20, 1940, Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham attended the premiere of “This Thing Called Love” starring Melvyn Douglas and Rosalind Russell. As the two were leaving the Pantages Theater, Fitzgerald experienced a dizzy spell and had trouble leaving the theater; upset, he said to Ms. Graham, “They think I am drunk, don’t they?”
The following day, as Scott ate a candy bar and made notes in his newly arrived Princeton Alumni Weekly, Ms. Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, gasp, and fall to the floor. She ran to the manager of the building, Harry Culver, founder of Culver City. Upon entering the apartment and assisting Scott, he stated, “I’m afraid he’s dead.” Fitzgerald had died of a massive heart attack. His body was moved to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary.
Among the attendants at a visitation held at a funeral home was Dorothy Parker, who reportedly cried and murmured “the poor son-of-a-bitch,” a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The remains were shipped to Baltimore, Maryland, where his funeral was attended by twenty or thirty people in Bethesda; among the attendants were his only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald was originally buried in Rockville Union Cemetery. Zelda died in 1948, in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith worked to overturn the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s ruling that Fitzgerald died a non-practicing Catholic, so that he could be buried at the Roman Catholic Saint Mary’s Cemetery where his father’s family was interred. Both Scott’s and Zelda’s remains were moved to the family plot in Saint Mary’s Cemetery, in Rockville, Maryland, in 1975.
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