Benjamin Button and how F. Scott Fitzgerald decided where to send his characters to college.

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Dec. 23 2008 6:59 AM

Harvard, Yale, or Princeton?

Benjamin Button and how F. Scott Fitzgerald decided where to send his characters to college.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald. Click image to expand.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

There's a chapter in the life of nearly every major F. Scott Fitzgerald protagonist—after boarding school, before dissipation in New York—when he attends Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. The hero of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Fitzgerald's short, fantastical story about a man who ages backward, is no exception: Benjamin goes to Harvard. Sadly, this detail is absent from David Fincher's new screen adaptation. Compared with other liberties the film takes with the story—Benjamin now has a black adoptive mother—this omission may seem inconsequential. But if you're a Fitzgerald devotee, it's a significant change. Cut out the Ivy League pride, and you might as well read Hemingway.

Fitzgerald's reason for name-dropping schools is no secret. His lead characters tend to be either gentlemen or aspiring to that rank, and as Muriel Kane puts it in The Beautiful and Damned, a gentleman is "a man who comes from a good family and went to Yale or Harvard or Princeton, and has money and dances well, and all that." What's less obvious is how Fitzgerald decided among the three colleges. Like Benjamin Button, Anthony Patch (The Beautiful and Damned)and Perry Parkhurst ("The Camel's Back") matriculate at Harvard. Nick Carraway ( The Great Gatsby), Dick Diver ( Tender Is the Night), Anson Hunter ("The Rich Boy"), and Basil Lee ( The Basil and Josephine Stories) all attend Yale. Amory Blaine, from Fitzgerald's debut novel, This Side of Paradise, goes to Princeton, as does Horace Tarbox from "Head and Shoulders." This list is far from exhaustive.

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When Fitzgerald arrived at that crucial choose-an-alma-mater moment, did he just throw a dart at a crimson, orange, and blue board? Or did he have a more rigorous admissions process? A conversation between Amory and his mentor Monsignor Darcy in Fitzgerald's most autobiographical work, This Side of Paradise, offers some insight into how the author perceived the three schools. "I want to go to Princeton," says Amory, Fitzgerald's stand-in. "I don't know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes. … I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day. Harvard seems sort of indoors—" Monsignor finishes his thought: "And Yale is November, crisp and energetic." So, are Fitzgerald's Harvard men effete? Are his Yalies autumnal? And are the Princetonians layabouts?

Anthony Patch from The Beautiful and Damned is the very definition of a sissy. Fitzgerald writes that while at Harvard, Anthony "became an exquisite dandy, amassed a rather pathetic collection of silk pajamas, brocaded dressing-gowns, and neckties too flamboyant to wear." And he was definitely an indoor type. In his "secret finery," Anthony "would parade before a mirror in his room or lie stretched in satin along his window-seat looking down on the yard." Perry Parkhurst is a dandy, too: "Montmorency & Co. dispatch a young man post-haste every three months to see that he has the correct number of little punctures on his shoes." Benjamin Button, however, is a rough-and-tumble kind of guy. During the annual Harvard-Yale football game, he played "so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a cold, remorseless anger that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals." Maybe he saw the game as an opportunity to get back at the Elis—Benjamin had wanted to attend brawny Yale, but the school's administration was disturbed by his appearance. (He's only 18 when he applies but looks about 50.)

Fitzgerald's Yalies are a brisk bunch, just as Amory says. You can positively smell November on Tom Buchanan, Gatsby's rival and a Yale alum. He was "one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven"; when the reader meets him he's "in riding clothes … standing with his legs apart." Anson Hunter is tall and thick-set with a brusque style. Check. Dick Divers suits Amory's description, too, at least initially. His complexion is "reddish and weather-burned," and there's a "layer of hardness in him, of self-control and of self-discipline." (By novel's end, though, he's lost control of his wife and slides a bit toward the sissy end of the spectrum.) But Gatsby's Nick Carraway doesn't fit the mold at all. He's reflective, a good listener, and passive to a fault, preferring to observe rather than act. He should have gone to Princeton. Perhaps Fitzgerald thought it was more important for Nick to have known Tom at school than for him to attend the Ivy best suited to his personality.

Amory's choice of Princeton makes perfect sense—and not just because he's charming and rather idle. For This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald borrowed heavily from his own life. Both Amory and Fitzgerald are from the Midwest, go to boarding school on the East Coast, and have failed romances with debutantes. Fitzgerald went to Princeton—he called it "the pleasantest country club in America"—so naturally he sent Amory there, too.

Yet not all the characters who share elements of Fitzgerald's autobiography attend his alma mater. As Matthew J. Bruccoli argues in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Basil, of The Basil and Josephine Stories, is transparently a young Fitzgerald: "[T]he chief episodes were drawn from the author's experiences … his unpopularity at Newman [a Catholic school in Hackensack, N.J.], his love for Ginevra King." Basil, however, is a Yale man. Maybe, as Fitzgerald scholar Ruth Prigozy suggested in a phone interview, after Paradise Fitzgerald was tired of the public assuming that all his novels were romans à clef. He might have stopped sending his protagonists to Princeton to create a little distance between himself and his characters.

Ironically, given his infatuation with the Ivy League, Fitzgerald never graduated from Princeton. He was a careless student, far more likely to stay up drinking than studying. In the fall of 1915, when Fitzgerald was a sophomore, he was diagnosed with malaria and temporarily dropped out. He returned for his junior year but cut too many classes and was on the verge of flunking when he left—this time for good—to join the Army. So, his experience there was brief but, evidently, influential. It was as natural for him to specify a protagonist's alma mater as to mention where he grew up or to describe the color of his hair. Had Fitzgerald lived to see "Curious Case" adapted for the screen, he surely would not have permitted the filmmakers to deprive poor Benjamin of his Harvard days.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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