Scott Fitzgerald conceived of the story which would become The Great Gatsby on Long Island, where man, in the person of a crew of Dutch sailors, was placed “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That was in the spring of 1924. He wrote most of it, though, in a villa above St. Raphaël on the Riviera, with Roman and Romanesque aqueducts within sight, and beneath a skyline that reminded him of Shelley’s Eugenean Hills. There was a beach where he and Zelda swam daily, and came to know a group of young French naval aviators. Otherwise, he worked steadily at what he jokingly spoke of to friends as “a novel better than any novel written in America.” By late October the manuscript was ready to be mailed to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s.
He knew very well that the book in hand was far finer than anything he had attempted before. In April, on the eve of his departure for Europe, he told Perkins that “I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I am capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of.” He would not be alone in that feeling; Perkins himself would say that the novel possessed the Fitzgerald glamour, but also “a kind of mystic atmosphere at times.” He may have been remembering Fitzgerald’s words in that April letter: “So in my new novel I’m thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world.”
He had first, however—and this would become a recurring problem—to clear himself of debt. He was at the beginning of a decade in which he would be one of America’s best-paid writers of fiction, but money kept vanishing as though at the command of an evil sorcerer. Renting a mansion on Long Island Sound could not have helped, of course, nor could driving into Manhattan for parties and hotels, or living next door to his friend Ring Lardner, a notorious alcoholic. Or a staff that included a live-in couple, a nurse for the baby, and a laundress. When he had dug himself out of the hole, he wrote an insouciant account of the matter for The Saturday Evening Post, which he had come to think of as his guardian spirit. “Over our garage is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o’clock with a 7,000 word story.”
By April, he had sold enough commercial fiction to clear himself of debt, and to take himself and Zelda to France, where he would be free to write the novel. “I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart and my iron constitution.” But they were going to the “Old World to find a…
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