F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters still resonate

As a new adaptation of 'The Great Gatsby' opens, they continue to mirror our own successes and failures

MINNEAPOLIS — Few, if any, American authors have come to be so closely associated with an era like F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Roaring Twenties.

Funny thing is, despite being that link to a bygone period, Fitzgerald and his work are proving timeless.

With the fourth film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," which opened Friday, the St. Paul, Minn., native has come, well, roaring back into our consciousness — that is, if he ever actually left.

Plaques still mark two of his childhood homes in St. Paul, nighttime hotspots in the Twin Cities often resemble a scene out of Fitzgerald's flapper-happy, party-hardy heyday, and "Gatsby" remains a high school staple; it is among the novels listed for 11th-graders in the Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states.

That makes sense, according to Fitzgerald chronicler Patrick Coleman. "I was once told by an English teacher that this is the quintessential book to give high school kids," said Coleman, acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society, "because everybody in high school is trying to be somebody else, they're trying on this disguise. So (a similarly masquerading Jay Gatsby) naturally resonates with adolescents."

It doesn't hurt, Coleman added, that the novel "is just so beautifully written, those sentences are stunning sometimes, and that's what prompts these revisits to the big screen."

The latest celluloid iteration finds Leonardo DiCaprio succeeding Robert Redford (1974), Alan Ladd (1949) and Warner Baxter (1926) in the title role.

The timing of this release, as well as the 1974 release during the Watergate/ Vietnam/ oil crisis era, is no coincidence, said Macalester English professor James Dawes.

"There are two F. Scott Fitzgeralds," Dawes said of the author's turbulent career and life. "One is successful, and one is a failure. When Americans are facing crisis or are afraid of failure, the Fitzgerald who was a failure becomes culturally useful to us. He helps us work through our feelings about failure in a way that allows us to have compassion for ourselves. When things are exuberant and successful, he represents an America that is crass and overdone."

St. Paul got glimpses of Fitzgerald in both modes. After World War I (when the dapper young man reportedly had his Army garb tailored by Brooks Bros. he landed in New York to work in advertising. When that ended badly, a humbled Fitzgerald moved into the third floor of his family's home at 599 Summit Ave., where he finished "This Side of Paradise."

That debut novel sold out its first printing in three days, rocketing Fitzgerald to immediate fame. "He was a wild commercial success," said Fitzgerald scholar Patricia Hampl. "No writer can become famous overnight, like a rock star, the way he did anymore. I don't think rock stars can."

The book's publication convinced Zelda Sayre that Fitzgerald was worthy of betrothal, and after their wedding they stayed in New York for several months, basking in his newfound celebrity. The "successful" Fitzgerald and his wife then headed back to St. Paul, moving into the Commodore Hotel in a neighborhood that has changed so little that, as Coleman said, "he would know where he was if he came back today."

The couple caroused at the University Club, the White Bear Yacht Club and the Commodore (although the Art Deco bar at the now-private residence, which many believe was a hangout, was not crafted until the 1930s).

Not long after their daughter, Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald, was born here in 1921, the Fitzgeralds embarked for France, where they hobnobbed with other literary luminaries and he wrote his most enduring work, "The Great Gatsby."

Although some people regard the lead character as autobiographical, Hampl disagrees.

"Fitzgerald should not be conflated with Gatsby," she said. "The action is in New York and Long Island, but the story is told from a St. Paul perspective. It's a faux memoir by (narrator Nick Carraway, a St. Paul native), who himself has kind of given up an attempt to be a stylish person in New York and come back home, in effect a failure."

Fitzgerald's post-Gatsby career would veer between lofty peaks and deep valleys, with huge paychecks for short stories in magazines, alcoholism, a lucrative "Gatsby" silent-film adaptation (now lost) and Zelda's lengthy hospitalization for a bipolar disorder. Fitzgerald's last royalty check was for $13.13, Hampl said, and he died in 1940 "a humbled man who saw with clarity how this country savages its darlings."

But the image most folks carry around today is of the Fitzgeralds' halcyon days as a freewheeling, carousing couple out on the town.

That scene occasionally is re-created during private parties at the Prohibition bar in Minneapolis' "W" Hotel, said sales and marketing director Molli O'Rourke.

She added that customers in general "are really excited about the cocktails of that era," especially in a space "with these elegant elements that have been there since the building was built (in the 1920s), with an old romantic feel and all this gossip behind it."

Sounds like a place where F. Scott and Zelda would have felt right at home.


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