Top positive review
14 people found this helpful
on July 8, 2012
This biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald is now fifty years old, but it wears well and I could not ask for more in a biography. Andrew Turnbull set out to write a biography that focused on Fitzgerald's personality (as opposed to his literary works), and he succeeded admirably.
In preparation for this work Turnbull interviewed or corresponded with literally hundreds of people. (At the Plaza Hotel in New York he found only one person who remembered Fitzgerald - a bellboy.) Turnbull was aided, and no doubt inspired, by his own recollections of Fitzgerald. They met when he was eleven, Fitzgerald was thirty-six, and Fitzgerald rented an old Victorian house on the Turnbull family estate outside Baltimore. Fitzgerald and his daughter Scottie, joined for periods by Zelda (when she was not in a sanatorium in Baltimore), lived there for about two years, during which time Fitzgerald was quite accessible to and friendly with the Turnbull family.
Fitzgerald could be a showman and a show-off, and frequently he was a boor - especially when he was drunk (a state more common for him than for most people, even more common than for most writers). But the essential Fitzgerald was a Romantic and an archetypal Irishman, a combination that perhaps made the alcoholism inevitable. He was unusually magnanimous, both with his money and his time and attention. He was devoted to Zelda, even after she slipped the traces and drifted off into her own worlds of schizophrenia. He promoted and encouraged numerous other writers. And, of course, he was a brilliant writer himself. Among the tributes from Turnbull: "No one had written more gorgeously than he of America's last fling at adolescence. The gay chic of his style, with the wit and tenderness constantly breaking through, had suited a time whose very tawdriness, in a work like 'Gatsby', he had transformed into lasting beauty."
Turnbull pays due attention to Fitzgerald's relationships with other literary luminaries of the time, especially his friendships with Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway. For a time Hemingway had no bigger fan than Fitzgerald, but Papa did not repay Scott in kind. Towards the end, Scott realized that Hemingway "is quite as nervously broken down as I am but it manifests itself in different ways. His inclination is towards megalomania and mine toward melancholy."
And, of course, much of the book deals with Scott and Zelda. "It was hard to say whether he or she was the leader in this chaos. They complemented each other like gin and vermouth in a martini, each making the other more powerful in their war with dullness and convention. * * * Both were unstable; when they should have called a halt, they egged each other on. They faced life not ignobly but with a mad sort of daring, committed to doing as they pleased and never counting the cost." They both flamed out, in different ways. The book includes a letter that Zelda wrote to Scott in 1936, during one of her lucid moments while at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina (where she died, eight years after Scott, in a fire in 1948). It is one of the most poignant letters I have ever encountered. As a beautiful, mystical, yet tragic love letter, it ranks with anything that Heloise wrote to Abelard. It alone is worth the price of the book.
SCOTT FITZGERALD is a sensitive, affectionate portrayal of one of America's quintessential writers. Plus, it is superbly written and very readable. Anyone looking for a "non-literary" biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald need look no further.
ADDENDUM (25 July 2012): I just finished reading "Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald", by Scott Donaldson. It was written almost forty years after Turnbull's biography, with access to many letters and papers that were not available to Turnbull. In it, Scott Fitzgerald is somewhat shabbier and a little less noble than in Turnbull's biography, and the dreadful alcoholic that he became receives more attention. Also, in Donaldson's book Zelda Fitzgerald is zanier and less likeable than she is in Turnbull's. That said, I still recommend Turnbull's biography.