F. Scott Fitzgerald: Alone in a Crowd
Updated: May 20, 2020
By Tara Mae
Even in a crowded room, you can still feel like the loneliest person in the world. At once the life of the party and an outside observer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work reflects these feelings of isolation. From 1922-1924, he lived with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Great Neck, Long Island, hosting and attending lavish gatherings while also desperately writing a cache of short stories that he described as “trash....it could nearly break my heart,” to offset debt he incurred from his failed attempt at developing a play. His experience on Long Island was the inspiration and impetus for The Great Gatsby, which he began drafting in a room above the garage of his Mediterranean style mansion.
When the Fitzgeralds moved to Long Island, they were already known as the golden couple of the Jazz Age (a term taken from his collection of short stories called Tales of the Jazz Age). Famous for their glamour, infamous for their drunken decadence, they settled in Great Neck so that F. Scott could be close to Broadway as he attempted to turn his short story “The Vegetable” into a play. Although he had already established himself as a masterful creator of elegant, illustrative prose, his work was not consistently successful; the play’s one preview was a dismal flop.
While living on the North Shore, the Fitzgeralds encountered both old money and new money sets. The old money was in Sands Point, represented as East Egg in Gatsby; the new money was in Great Neck/Kings Point, represented as West Egg in the novel. Zelda was a rich socialite, and he was a working writer; together they sporadically had little to no money and plenty of debt. This paradox, combined with their extravagant lifestyles, caused a recurring struggle: money made could be quickly spent, and the price of their renowned excesses was a monetary and emotional toll.
A Southern belle from a prominent family, Zelda was descended from early European settlers of Long Island. By the time she was born, her family was well-established in Alabama. F. Scott, a descendant of Francis Scott Key, spent the first decade of his life in upstate New York, before relocating with family to St. Paul, Minnesota. After being stationed at Camp Mills, Long Island, during WWI, he and Zelda spent formative years of their marriage and lives on Long Island and in New York City.
Zelda, the youngest child of an Alabama Supreme Court justice, grew up with the protection of her family’s social standing to insulate her from the fallout of any “unladylike” escapades, such as wearing a tight flesh-colored bathing suit to fuel gossip that she swam nude. F. Scott, from an upper middle-class Irish-Catholic family, always acutely felt like an “outsider” among his more monied peers at school and Princeton University. His last name did not afford him the same insurance that Zelda and his classmates enjoyed, and he lacked personal fortune.
F. Scott’s initial dearth of available funds thwarted one relationship and threatened another. Before meeting Zelda, he courted socialite Ginevra King, whose father reportedly informed him, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” Following the demise of that relationship, he met and first wooed Zelda while stationed in Alabama. He was then called to Camp Mils but soon returned, and their relationship intensified. Concerned about his heavy drinking and unenthused by his Catholicism, her family would not approve of a marriage unless he proved he could financially support himself and Zelda. So, he returned to New York and completed This Side of Paradise. With the publication of his novel came Zelda’s acceptance of his proposal. She joined him in New York and thus began their reputation for wild frivolity and tempestuous passion.
Their intense relationship, fueled by strong personalities and stronger libations, inspired or influenced the majority of F. Scott’s work. It blurred boundaries while isolating them in complementary, but fraught, roles: muse and artist, subject and observer, writer and plagiarizer. A very creative being in her own right, Zelda’s interests were at various times overshadowed by F. Scott’s efforts. Their life in general, and Zelda, in particular, were F. Scott’s greatest sources of material. Character traits, mannerisms, even her own words make appearances in his writing. In The Beautiful and the Damned, which he published before The Great Gatsby, he uses dialogue taken directly from her diary, a practice to which she did not consent. Arguably, their marriage represented what so many couples in his stories embody, individuals who at least appear happy together, but are in some way alienated from each other’s needs.
They may have fought privately, but publicly they were the star guests of any gathering. As a writer, F. Scott was a keen student of human nature and behavior. He also recognized and assessed his own personality; he was a participant in and witness to these parties and his own persona. F. Scott catalogued this information for later use; a recurring theme of his work is the sensation of being utterly alone while immersed in a bevy of frequently merry people.
In The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway is both part of the crowd and distant from its hedonistic drive. Jay Gatsby, party purveyor and focal point of the West Egg’s social scene, is revealed to be an amiable, aspirational fraud. Constantly surrounded by his closest strangers, in the end he really only has one friend to mourn him. F. Scott gives a bit of himself to each of these characters. Carraway is not an idle voice in the novel; he influences actions as he inspects the motivation and morality of its participants. Gatsby’s mysterious origins and grand displays of wealth belie his true purpose: to be accepted as a member of a class into which he was not born, so he can win over the woman who would not have him as a poor man. Carraway is ultimately repulsed by the dangerous cost of such glitz and glamour. Gatsby is ultimately dead. F. Scott may have appreciated the quest for the finest things in life, but he recognized its danger.
Earlier in the decade, he had dubbed Zelda “the first American flapper,” and their coveted roles on the New York party scene gave him great insight into the almost frenzied pursuit of a good time. Living this way was a gamble. When the risk paid off, it was a grand reward, but when the risk did not, it was a colossal loss. No such highs were sustainable; he saw and suffered the resultant lows, partly caused, in his case, by too much drinking and financial uncertainty. In The Great Gatsby, he writes “There is a loneliness that only exists in one’s mind. The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” The big, bombastic facades that hide the wounded, petty, or mean traits of his characters in Gatsby were meticulously recorded from his own interactions.
The Fitzgeralds maintained connections to New York, but only stayed on Long Island for two years. They went to Europe, where F. Scott completed what would become his most popular work. All writers draw from their own circumstances, but F. Scott excavated and amplified all his relationships, including the one with himself. This was not accidental or haphazard; one reason he wrote was to form and foster universal connections with other secretly solitary souls. As he once noted, “That is the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”