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F. Scott Fitzgerald Essay

September 25, 2010

Written by Madeline Anne Horan with research by Francesca Cavilia as part of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Birthday Bash and Season Opener show.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the son of Edward and Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald, was born Sunday, September 24th, 1896 in the back bedroom of the family's third-floor walk-up apartment at 481 Laurel Avenue, a stone's throw east of Dale Street, the western border of the solidly built-up section of St. Paul. Mollie was 36, Edward 43. Two daughters, aged one and three, had died in the influenza epidemic not long before his birth. He later wrote: "Three months before I was born my mother lost her two other children...I think I started then to be a writer."

His mother, schooled at the Convent of the Visitation in St. Paul, attended daily Mass, and had him baptized at the Cathedral a month after his birth. At five months, he laughed; at eight months he crawled; at ten months he uttered his first word: "Up."

St. Paul was a railroad city of 150,000 population, headquarters of James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway, and from downtown a person could ride east-west streetcar lines along University, Como, Selby, Grand, or Randolph Avenues or West Seventh Street, across rural neighborhoods to outlying "railroad suburbs" such as St. Anthony Park, Merriam Park, Desnoyer Park, or Macalester Park. Summit Avenue extended west from the St. Paul Cathedral, with Mr. Hill's stone mansion leading a parade of stately homes where the wealthy and eminent lived, the Weyerhaeusers, Lindekes, Griggses, Schunemans, Livingstons, and Deans, and the Louis Hill family. The Fitzgeralds were renters living in the shadow of Summit.

Fitzgerald said: "I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions. The black Irish half of the family had all the money and looked down on the Maryland side of the family who had, and really had, that certain series of reticences and obligations that go under the poor old shattered word 'breeding' I developed a two-cylinder inferiority complex."

Scott's mother was the eldest child of Philip F. McQuillan who made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business in the years following the Civil War. He died in 1877, thirteen years before Mollie married. The McQuillan family was listed in St. Paul's Social Register and belonged to the exclusive White Bear Lake Yacht Club. Mollie's sister Annabel served as bridesmaid for the marriage of James J. Hill's daughter, long-remembered as the social event of the decade.

Mollie lacked her sister's social graces, and was described by a relative as frumpy and homely. She dressed older than her age (people said she looked as if she'd "worn the same dress all her life"), and was considered eccentric, often going out in public with unkempt hair and mismatched shoes. She went to a beauty parlor to have only her right hand manicured, saying she could do the left herself. She was a great reader, but absent-minded, and Scott avoided her as he grew up. When he went away to summer camp in Ontario in 1907, he discouraged her from visiting him:

"Dear Mother, I received your letter this morning and though I would like very much to have you up here I don't think you would like it as you know no one hear except Mrs. Upton and she is busy most of the time I don't think you would like the accommodations as it is only a small town and no good hotels. There are some very nise boarding houses but about the only fare is lamb and beef. Please send me a dollar because there are a lot of little odds and ends i need. I will spend it cautiously. All the other boys have pocket money besides their regular allowance. Your loving son Scott Fitzgerald."
Fitzgerald described her as "a neurotic, half insane with pathological nervous worry."

When she died in August, 1936, Fitzgerald did not attend her funeral, though he had come to see her earlier that summer in Baltimore, where she lay dying. He had broken his right shoulder in a diving accident and was in a cast and said he could not travel.

Edward was a handsome and well-bred Marylander, a great- grand-nephew of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He gave his son the famous forebear's name, which Scott bore with pride. Edward did not fare well in St. Paul. His company, American Rattan and Willow Works, which made wicker furniture, struggled along and closed in the Depression of 1897. Scott sympathized with his father's troubles, admired his good manners, and when Edward died of heart disease in January, 1931, Scott wrote, "He had a good heart that came from another America." He traveled from France, where he was living at the time, to attend his father's funeral.

In 1898, after the failure of the wicker factory, Edward took a job as a wholesale grocery salesman for Procter & Gamble and relocated the family to Buffalo, New York where they moved from one rented apartment to another. When young Scott came down with a chronic cough in the cold wet air of Buffalo, his mother, having already lost two babies, imagined she might lose him to tuberculosis, and became over-protective, keeping him close to home. In Buffalo, Mollie lost another child, an hour after the baby was born. This deepened her anxiety over Scott, and she coddled and cosseted him. He was dressed in a sailor suit and made to sing for visitors, "Way Down in Colon Town" and "Don't Get Married Anymore". When he was sent at last to nursery school at the age of 4, he wept so piteously that she took him back home after the first morning. In grade school, he was allowed to attend half-days the day and to choose which half.

Edward was transferred to Syracuse where Scott's sole sibling, Annabelle, was born in 1902. At Miss Goodyear's School, Scott began to make an impression on his peers. Playmates recalled the boy declaiming "Friends, Romans, and countrymen..." from the back of a grocery wagon.

Edward did not thrive with P&G. He began drinking heavily and, in 1908, when he was 55, the hammer fell. Scott later wrote: "The phone rang and my mother answered it. I didn't hear what she said but I felt that disaster had come to us. My mother, a little while before, had given me quarter to go swimming. I gave the money back to her. I knew something terrible had happened and I thought she could not spare the money now. Then I began to pray. 'Dear God, please don't let us go to the poorhouse.' A little while later my father came home. I had been right. He had lost his job. That morning he had gone out a comparatively young man, a man full of strength, full of confidence. He came home that evening, an old man, a completely broken man. He had lost his essential drive, his immaculateness of purpose. He was a failure the rest of his days."

Their living gone, the family moved back to St. Paul, and the support of Grandmother McQuillan, in the summer of 1908. Scott and his sister lived with their grandmother at 294 Laurel Avenue; Edward and Mollie stayed with friends a few blocks away on Summit. These arrangements lasted a year, until Edward rented a home for his family at 514 Holly. The family moved almost annually in the Summit Avenue area while Edward operated as a grocery salesman from his McQuillan brother-in-law's real-estate office in town, with very little success. Grandmother told Scott: "Why, if it wasn't for me, where would we be now?" The McQuillan name was still an honored one in St. Paul and so young Scott mingled with the well-to-do on Summit Avenue and played tennis with the grandchildren of James J. Hill. The Ames house at 501 Grand Hill, with its three-story tree house, was a favorite meeting place for the neighborhood children. Scott also frequented the Read house at 449 Portland Avenue, occasionally also visiting the Reads' summer home at White Bear Lake. He was an inventive boy, who organized other children into games. One was called "Indian," using croquet mallets for rifles. He played in the back yard of Theodore Ames's house at 501 Grand Hill, which he described in his story, The Scandal Detectives ----" of those predestined places where young people gather in the afternoon....large, open to other yards on both sides, and it could be entered upon skates or bicycles from the street. It contained an old seesaw, a swing and a pair of flying rings; but it had been a rendezvous before these were put up, for it had a child's quality....there were deep shadows there all day long and ever something vague in bloom, and patient dogs around, and brown spots worn bare by countless circling wheels and dragging feet."

At 11, Scott acquired his first girlfriend, Violet Stockton, visiting from Atlanta to spend the summer with her aunt who lived in a white, balconied, ivy-covered house at 245 Summit. The girl was "very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes, big and soft, and spoke with a soft Southern accent." In September, he wrote in his journal: "Not much has happened since Violet went away."

The McQuillan name gave Scott entrée to the St. Paul Academy and Professor William H. Baker's dancing class in 1908. Weighing just 68 pounds, he was selected captain of the Academy football team, though he admitted the he was "usually scared silly." The team won one, lost one, tied one, and Scott broke one rib. He shied from tackling larger ball carriers, but gained attention and popularity writing about football for the Academy's paper. His journal reflects: "...if you weren't able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity - it was a backdoor way out of facing reality."
His first published fiction, "The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage" (in which no mortgage is mentioned) appeared in the October 1909 issue of the Academy's literary magazine, Now & Then. His classmates considered him conceited, and he was voted "Freshest Boy." A schoolmate wrote "Will someone poison Scotty or find some means to shut his mouth?"

His reading ranged from Dickens to Alice in Wonderland, and he was a regular theatergoer from an early age, riding the Selby Avenue streetcar downtown to sit in the balcony of the Paramount or the Orpheum or the Shubert for the Saturday matinee and then go back up the hill to tell the story of the play, with as much dialogue as he could remember, to his mother and father and sister. Scott became a Boy Scout and learned the Boy Scout call: "Zinga, Zinga, Boom-boom." A bout of appendicitis made him "desperately Holy."
He formed a number of clubs, including "The White Handkerchief" which included his friends Arthur Foley, Adolph Strolly, George Gardner, Cecil Read, and Phil Foley. "The Goosrah Club" met in Cecil Read's third-floor ballroom. Scott kept in touch with his St. Paul friends the rest of his life and sent Cecil a sterling platter for his wedding, inscribed, "To remembrance of 1000 misdeeds - Scott." He created secret languages and felt the first of "faint sex attractions" which inspired a poem entitled "Paris, the Night, and the Luxe of the Dark," written when he was 14 years old.

The family moved frequently, first to 509 Holly, the former residence of Stuart B. Shotwell. (The Shotwell residence became available when a young woman ran him down in a car, killing him. Scott witnessed the accident.) After a year there, the family rented quarters at 499 Holly. His grandmother's membership in the White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood permitted him to exercise his charm on beautiful young girls, and the club at its society supplied the setting for his short story Winter Dreams. His close confidante was a girl named Elisabeth Dean, who lived on 415 Summit, and he had a crush on Marie Hersey, who lived at 475 Summit. He wrote to her, "My love you can not kill Marie / And tho' you treat me ill Marie / Believe me I am still Marie / Your fond admirer / Scott."

At 15, he was 5 feet 4 inches tall, about average for a boy his age. He attended the 1912 Minnesota State Fair: "one of the most magnificent in America. There were immense exhibits of grain, livestock and farming machinery; there were horse races and automobile races and, lately, aeroplanes....and a tumultuous Midway with Coney Island thrillers to whirl you through space, and a hoochie-coochie show. As a compromise between the serious and the trivial, a grand exhibition of fireworks, culminating in a representation of the Battle of Gettysburg, took place in the Grand Concourse every night."

In 1913, he was admitted to Princeton. Back home for Christmas, he got drunk and walked into St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church at Kent and Portland during Christmas Eve services, walked unsteadily down the aisle, looked up at the pulpit and said to the rector, "Don't mind me, go on with the sermon," then stumbled out. He remembered this as the "most disgraceful act" of his life.

At Princeton he was selected for Cottage, one of the prestigious eating clubs, and also Triangle Club, which produced a musical comedy every year. Scott threw himself into these productions, at great cost to his studies. Home for Christmas his sophomore year, he met a beautiful debutante from Chicago, Ginevra King. She was his first great love. He wrote her long letters and dreamed of a future with her but she broke up with him in January, 1917. He was told at a party, "Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls," and the loss of her haunted him for years.

By spring, 1917, it was clear that Fitzgerald would fail his courses and be dropped from Princeton's rolls. The dean wrote a letter of reference saying that Fitzgerald was leaving for medical reasons, and attached a small note for the departing student: "This is for your sensitive feelings. I hope you will find it soothing." He came back to his parents, at 593 Summit, depressed, heartsick over his rejection by Ginevra King. It was, he said, "a year of terrible disappointments & the end of all college dreams. Everything bad in it was my own fault." The United States entered the First World War in early April and Scott quickly enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Snelling, was commissioned as a lieutenant and in October was sent for training to Montgomery, Alabama. He met Zelda Sayre at a dance for officers held by the Montgomery Country Club. She was beautiful and willful ---- as a child, bored one day, she called the fire department and told them there was a child stranded on her family's roof and then climbed the roof and kicked away the ladder. She never cared for the company of other girls. She loved dapper boys, her "jellybeans." The year that spanned his meeting Zelda, winning her, losing her, and winning her again was "the most important year of my life. Every emotion and my life work decided. Miserable and ecstatic but a great success."

He mustered out of the Army shortly after the 1918 Armistice, went to New York and got a job as an advertising copywriter while working on his novel. He and Zelda were crazy about one another, but she had many suitors. She rejected his proposal of marriage because he had no money. In April, Scribner's rejected his novel and he was in a state of "hysteria." He returned to St. Paul moving in with his parents in a small rental rowhouse at 599 Summit, ".a house below the average on a street above the average...". He wrote and slept in the attic, papers spread on the floor, plot diagrams tacked to the walls. His friend Richard ("Tubby") Washington gave him money for Cokes and cigarettes, which he purchased from W.A. Frost's drugstore on Western and Selby. In those evenings, he liked to smoke on the veranda of Mrs. Charles Porterfield's Summit Ave. boardinghouse, discussing literature with Donald Ogden Stuart and the headmaster of Saint Paul Academy, John Briggs. Sometimes he would be joined by Father Joe Barron of the St. Paul Seminary, a handsome priest who listened to Fitzgerald discuss his loss of faith. "Scott," he admonished, " quit being a damn fool."

He finished the novel and sent it off again to Scribner's. While he waited for word from New York, he got a job as a laborer at the Northern Pacific Railroad car barns which lasted four days. On September 16,, 1919, he got the letter from Maxwell Perkins saying that This Side of Paradise had been accepted for publication ----the novel "abounds in energy and life," the letter said. Scott ran out onto Summit Avenue and stopped cars to tell everyone the news, running down the street blinded by happiness. It was published March 26th, 1920, and sold out the first printing, a sensational success. Fitzgerald was hailed as the voice of the Jazz Age. (It would be the biggest commercial success in his lifetime.) Zelda now accepted his proposal, and a few weeks later, they married in a small ceremony at the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. The couple spent their first nights together at the Biltmore Hotel, telling one another stories until the sun rose. They annoyed the bellmen, going around in the revolving door for hours in the afternoons.

The Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul in 1921, Zelda was pregnant. They rented a cottage in Dellwood where he worked on The Beautiful and Damned, his second novel, and then moved to the Commodore Hotel on Western Avenue. "While leaves blew up in the street we waited for our child to be born." Daughter Scottie was born October 26, 1921. The parents rented a house at 646 Goodrich Avenue where Scott wrote his short story, "Winter Dreams". In the spring, they moved to the White Bear Lake Yacht Club, where their loud parties made them unwelcome. They were asked to leave. They left Minnesota, never to return.

After Scott's death, Zelda wrote of him:

"Now that he won't be coming east again with his pockets full of promises and his notebooks full of schemes and new refurbished hope, life doesn't offer as happy a vista.... He was as spiritually generous a soul as ever was...In retrospect it seems as if he was always planning happiness for Scottie, and for me. Books to read - places to go. Life seemed so promissory always when he was around: and I always believed that he could take care of anything.I grieve for his brilliant talent, for his generous and vibrant soul that never spared itself, and never found anything too much trouble save the fundamentals of life itself. Maybe he wanted his rest: come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."

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