Poor man in a rich man’s club
With the sale of his first short story, Fitzgerald bought a pair of white flannel pants, similar to the ones worn by Nick as he crossed Gatsby’s lawn. All the Princeton boys wore them, most often paired with a blue blazer to affirm their allegiance to the campus’s sporting culture. Like a convenience store’s first dollar, Fitzgerald kept the pants until 1934. Fashion mattered to Fitzgerald because he was riddled with anxiety about his own socioeconomic status. Literary critic and longtime friend, Edmund “Bunny” Wilson joked that many perceive Fitzgerald as “a typical well-to-do Middle Westerner with correct clothes and clear skin who had been sent to the East for college.”1 Contrary to appearances, financial distress plagued much of the author’s life, and clothing was a means of controlling his public image in spite of his private insecurities.
Much like the characters he created, F. Scott Fitzgerald had a keen understanding of class in American society. He knew it because he lived it. In The Crack Up (1938), Fitzgerald reflected, “that was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor man in the rich man’s club at Princeton…I had never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.”2
From his earliest childhood, Fitzgerald was confused about his place in the socioeconomic pecking order. When his maternal aunt Annabel began to finance his education he was able to attend St. Paul Academy and then Newman, a private school in New Jersey. In these situations, surrounded by children of the upper class, Fitzgerald became even more insecure about his social standing. In his biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur , Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli notes that the financial instabilities of Fitzgerald’s adult life are simply a continuation of those from his youth. He writes, “It is not entirely paradoxical that he threw his money away. His carelessness with money expressed his superiority to it.” He is, after all, the man who at twenty-two spent the last $30 he had on “a magenta feather fan for a girl in Alabama.” The girl was Zelda Sayre.3
Despite the public’s desire to remember her as a fashion trendsetter, Zelda Sayre was not. When his fiancée, came to New York in 1920 to be married, Fitzgerald insisted on a makeover. Despite her beauty and Southern charm, Zelda lacked cosmopolitan polish. He called upon a friend from St. Paul who was attending school in New York to help transform his bride-to-be. Marie Hersey remembered Fitzgerald’s plea: “‘My God Marie,’ he said, ‘You’ve got to help me! Zelda wants to buy nothing but frills and furbelows and you can’t go around New York in that kind of thing; you go shopping with her.’” 4 With Hersey’s help, Zelda bought a Patou suit, the epitome of chic in 1920.
1. Edmund Wilson, “F. Scott Fitzgerald” in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Arthur Mizener, 82.
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, As Ever, Scott Fitz-, eds. Matthew Bruccoli and Jennifer M. Atkinson (New York, 1972), 357.
3.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up (New York, 1945), 14
4.Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise (Cambridge, 1951), 109.