Sunday, April 5, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Fitzgerald Lampoons Economizing)

April 5, 1924—In a comic essay published on this date in the Saturday Evening Post, F. Scott Fitzgerald discussed "How to Live on $36,000 a Year."

The piece, filled with more humor but as much irony as his other fiction, before and afterward, came midway through a decade in which the author’s extravagance mirrored his country’s. It resulted from a personal audit in which Fitzgerald and wife Zelda concluded that a $2000 monthly budget would not only cover their expenses for the period, but would leave them with $12,000 over the course of a year.

Amazingly, however, the couple had run through $113,000 in four years. It was not unlike the discovery by “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities that in 1980s New York, he could not afford to live on $1 million a year.

(Staggering living beyond one’s means is not the only item that Bonfire has in common with a work by Fitzgerald. The other shared element is the central incident that drives the plot in both Bonfire and The Great Gatsby—a rich man whose mistress, driving his car, kills a pedestrian in a hit-and-run accident.)

How did the Fitzgeralds spend so much so fast? Let’s count the ways:

* Living in Great Neck, N.Y., in a $300-a-month house (in that light, owning a secondhand Rolls Royce constituted economizing)
* Nights on the town in New York City (a quick ride on Northern Boulevard would get them in in no time)
* Lavish parties, many thrown at his home on 6 Gateway Drive (Chuckle, as you must, at the sign the Fitzgeralds posted for guests--"Visitors are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess”—then imagine the waste involved).

The essay includes a flippant remark that Fitzgerald made to Zelda: “We're too poor to economize. . . . Our only salvation is in extravagance."

One month after publication, however, the couple decided that Great Neck had become too extravagant and exhaustive of even their resources, so they decamped to the French Riviera, where, he believed, he could live more cheaply and with fewer distractions. His upcoming novel, he promised his friend Thomas Boyd, was becoming “more and more extraordinary” and would surpass “any novel ever written in America.”

Fitzgerald was not engaging in mere braggadocio when he wrote this. In The Great Gatsby, he caught forever not just the “capacity for wonder” behind his hero’s dreams but also the recklessness, waste and cost involved in them.

He knew all of this intimately well, even as he was helpless to curb his own attraction to it—until the point when the stock market came crashing down, along with the mental health of Zelda, fully a match for him in charisma and trouble.

In the 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” later part of the collection The Crack Up, Fitzgerald summed up the Roaring Twenties with almost epigrammatic brilliance: “Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

Sound familiar?

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