"May Day" (1920) is a short story by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. First appearing in the literary magazine, Smart Set
, the story is inspired by the May Day riots of 1919 during which a march of local unionists and socialists protesting the conviction of Eugene Debs erupted into violence after police demanded that the marchers relinquish their socialist flags. Though the riots took place in Cleveland, Ohio, Fitzgerald's story is set in New York City as a group of young, mostly upper-class Yale graduates meet for a dance while riots go on just outside their social event.
As the story begins, an influx of recently decommissioned World War I soldiers descends on New York. One of them is Gordon Sterrett, an army veteran on his way to the Biltmore Hotel to meet his old friend from college, Philip Dean. From the moment Sterrett sees his old friend, he launches into a sob story about how he needs to borrow money because he is unemployed and is being blackmailed by a woman named Jewel Hudson. Sterrett plans to make a living as an artist but requires $300 first so he can pay off Jewel. Dean is less than sympathetic to his old friend's plight, characterizing Sterrett as "bankrupt—morally as well as financially."
In an effort to change the subject, Dean invites Sterrett to breakfast. There, they discuss a Yale alumni dance hosted by the Gamma Psi fraternity. Dean pays for breakfast and agrees to give Sterrett $80, explaining that he is uncomfortable giving him any more than that. They depart and agree to see one another at the fraternity dance.
Meanwhile, the reader meets two more demobilized soldiers, Carroll Key and Gus Rose. Key and Rose are described as "ugly and ill-nourished." Nearby, a Jewish man preaches on the street about the ill consequences of the war before he is beaten down by a mob of soldiers. The mob grows in size, marching down Sixth Avenue toward Tenth Street. After following the mob for a while, Key and Rose grow bored and endeavor to find some free alcohol. To do this, they go to Delmonico's restaurant where Key's brother, George, is a waiter. George hurriedly corrals the two interlopers into a storeroom that is connected to the ballroom where the fraternity dance is in full swing.
At the dance, the reader meets Edith Bradin, Sterrett's ex-girlfriend. Annoyed with her date to the dance, Peter Himmel, Edith thinks wistfully of Sterrett and hopes to encounter him at the dance. However, when she finally sees Sterrett arrive, Edith is horrified by the unkempt appearance of her former paramour. Himmel, realizing that Edith has lost interest in him, gets drunk with Key and Rose, who have crashed the party. Bored with Himmel and repulsed by Sterrett, Edith leaves the party to meet with her brother, Henry, at the newspaper office where he works as a reporter. Jewel Hudson arrives at the dance, looking for Sterrett. Sterrett apologizes to her for failing to obtain the $300. Jewel says it doesn't matter, and the two leave together.
At the newspaper office, Henry and his colleague Bartholomew explain to Edith the increasingly violent nature of the conflict currently transpiring on the streets outside. Though fired up against war protesters and socialists, the soldiers "don't know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like." Before long, the mob of soldiers—which now includes Key—descends on the newspaper office, threatening the reporters and calling them traitors. In the ensuing madness, Key is thrown out of a window and dies, and Henry's leg is broken.
After the dance, a throng of drunken partiers gathers at Child's restaurant. Most of the revelers, like Dean and Himmel, are wealthy. One exception is Rose, who learns of the death of his friend, Key. Jewel and Sterrett arrive as the scene descends into a kind of chaos not unlike the scene at the newspaper office. However, while the rabble-rousers here are just as aimless as the soldiers, this group is primarily made up of wealthy individuals. As the sun rises, Himmel and Dean are tossed out of the restaurant for threatening a waiter and starting a food fight.
After a short but eventful spree of "breakfast and liquor," Himmel and Dean retire to the Biltmore, but not before passing Edith who avoids them at all costs. The story's setting shifts one last time to a dingy hotel on Sixth Avenue where Sterrett awakens in a drunken stupor to find that he and Jewel got married at some point the previous night. Sterrett leaves the hotel, buys a gun, and returns to his rented room on East Street. There, he shoots himself in the head, dying and bleeding out over his art supplies.
According to Fitzgerald, "May Day" was written to capture the "general hysteria...that inaugurated the Jazz Age."