To celebrate the opening of the Barnes & Noble at The Fitzgerald at UB, the University’s School of Communications Design sponsored two writing competitions, one for fiction and one for creative non-fiction. The Fitzgerald Project is so named because it’s located just a few blocks from the Park Avenue house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in the 1930s; he wrote most of Tender is the Night in that house, apparently, while pacing back and forth on the balcony. I decided to enter the creative non-fiction competition and although I didn’t expect to win (and didn’t) I had such a wonderful time researching and writing the piece that I wanted to post it here.
“Civilized and Gay and Rotted and Polite”
When Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald arrived in Baltimore in 1932 he was no stranger to the region. His father had been born on a farm near Rockville in Montgomery County, Maryland. The famous relative for whom he was named, and who we are told was his second cousin three times removed, was born in western Maryland in what is now Carroll County, and he had studied law in Annapolis before he wrote about “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” in 1812.
But it wasn’t family nostalgia that brought F. Scott Fitzgerald to Baltimore. In 1930 his wife and muse, Zelda, had suffered her first emotional breakdown in Europe, where they were living it up in true Jazz Age style following the success of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby. After her second breakdown in 1932, Zelda was admitted to a psychiatric clinic at Johns Hopkins, and Scott and their daughter, Scottie, moved to Baltimore to be near her.
Somewhat to his surprise, Fitzgerald loved Baltimore more than he thought he would. He felt the resonance of his ancestors, and he described the city in a letter to his secretary as “civilized and gay and rotted and polite”. He might just as well have been describing his own writing – or aspects of his life. His writing is a prime example of life imitating art and vice versa. In his first published novel, This Side of Paradise, based on material he had originally written while still a student at Princeton, the central character, Amory Blaine, attends Princeton, serves during World War I (as Fitzgerald had done, although he didn’t see active service) and is rejected by the woman he loves. At the time he was writing the book, in 1919, Zelda Sayre, his “golden girl” as he called her, had broken off their engagement. Part of his motivation for writing the novel was to become a successful celebrity and win her back. He did both.
Fitzgerald’s third book, The Great Gatsby, the most popular and enduring of his four completed novels, is the least autobiographical. To be sure, it is set on Long Island, where Scott and Zelda lived during the roaring 20s, and it conjures up their lifestyle during the decadent Jazz Age (a term he coined) with the undercurrents of romantic intrigue. But it is in This Side of Paradise and, most particularly, The Beautiful and Damned and Tender Is the Night, that Fitzgerald probed the complexities of marriage and fidelity, and of alcoholism and wasted potential, which were the themes that seemed to inform his life.
He wrote Tender Is the Night on an estate called “La Paix” in Towson outside Baltimore and at 1307 Park Avenue in the city, while Zelda was in and out of psychiatric clinics. The subject matter, dealing as it does with the draining relationship of a psychoanalyst and a patient who becomes his wife, was very close to the bone. It draws on the some of the same material that Zelda used in her own semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, which she quickly wrote and published while she was under psychiatric care in Baltimore. This was a point of some professional jealousy between them,
While he was living in Baltimore and working on Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald was constantly struggling to make ends meet, and had to ask his editor and agent to advance him cash. He always wrote sober but he continued to be plagued by the alcoholism that had been a part of his life since his student days. He had a combative although still mutually dependant relationship with Zelda. It’s as if his time in Baltimore was an encapsulation of the ups and downs of his life – writing an extraordinary novel, yet feeling as if his potential was unfulfilled; having the celebrity of a renowned novelist, yet being financially embarrassed; loving his wife and daughter, yet ultimately not being able to take care of them.
After Baltimore, Scott and Zelda became estranged, and he worked as a self described Hollywood hack in California, where he died at just 44 years old. His remains were brought back to Baltimore, and he and Zelda were finally laid to rest in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland. In retrospect, the four years in Baltimore were a seminal time for Fitzgerald, for good or ill, and the city can feel a touch of ownership to have shared that part of his history with him.