1940 Fifty Years Ago

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On December 21 Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald and his companion, the gossip columnist Sheila Graham, were sitting in her Hollywood apartment listening to the recording of the Eroica Symphony he had bought for her when Fitzgerald unexpectedly stood, gripped the mantle, and fell dead of his third heart attack.

The novelist had wondered throughout his life about the possible destructiveness of his craft, of becoming “used up.” “I have asked a lot of my emotions,” he confided in his notebooks, “120 stories. The price was high … there was one little drop of something—not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these in every story. … Now it has gone and I am just like you now.” Many of his obituaries confirmed this fear, declaring him a wasted writer in the end. Even his admirer John O’Hara lamented that Fitzgerald had become “a prematurely old little man haunting bookstores unrecognized.” Though he had largely quit drinking by his last year and was doing his first serious work in several years, it was too late.

What was left was seven hundred dollars and an unfinished manuscript, thirty-seven thousand words of The Last Tycoon , his planned novel of Hollywood. When it was published the next October, Stephen Vincent Benêt was among the first to recognize that Fitzgerald was far more than a faded relic of the Jazz Age he had christened. “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen,” Benét wrote, “and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”