David Silvette studied under his father, artist Ellis Silvette, and later with Cecilia Beaux and Charles Hawthorne. Silvette’s portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the National Portrait Gallery is not his only work in Washington, D.C. His portrait of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. can be found in the collection of the Treasury Department. Silvette executed this painting, the only known life-sitting of Fitzgerald, in 1935. Although the writer had commissioned the portrait, he was unable to pay for it and never owned it.
The image might be characteristic of the Jazz Age myth of the expatriate F. Scott Fitzgerald, professorial and sophisticated, but it is not a portrait of the personal horrors Fitzgerald was experiencing in the 1930s. The 1920s were Fitzgerald’s zenith. He published This Side of Paradise in March of 1920 and enjoyed the fame brought by this work—along with The Beautiful and Damned (1922) and his short stories—for a decade. (The Great Gatsby, which now sells more than a quarter of a million copies annually, hit the literary market with a slight thud in April of 1925.)
By the 1930s Scott was drinking thirty-plus bottles of beer a day, or, on a beerless day, a quart of gin. He smoked constantly, and his wife Zelda bounced in and out of sanitoria from April of 1930 until her death in 1948.
A combination of Zelda’s medical bills and their extravagant lifestyle compelled Scott to seek employment writing in Hollywood. Of Fitzgerald’s experience writing for the movies, biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes:
"During his last trip to Hollywood—a life sentence—he failed as a screenwriter. He worked on sixteen films between 1927 and 1940 as one of the highest-paid writers in the business, but received only one credit. He polished ten scripts, worked on three for less than a week, labored on ten that were either rejected or not produced, and was dismissed from three of them. It was a dismal record."
F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940. He is buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church, Rockville, Maryland.
Listen to Warren Perry's Face-to-Face talk on F. Scott Fitzgerald (16:38)
The birthplace of F. Scott Fitzgerald: 481 Laurel, Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photos by Ian Cooke)
The 13th annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will be held at Montgomery College in Rockville on October 25, 2008. More information is available here.
F. Scott Fitzgerald/David Silvette, 1935/Oil on canvas/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution