CXXXII. “Under the Trees It Was Green and Cool”: F. Scott Fitzgerald

The singer is gone, but the song lingers on. September 24 is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday. This year he would be 120.

September 24, 2016 — F. Scott Fitzgerald came to live in Wilmington, Delaware, in March 1927. With him he brought his wife, Zelda, and his little daughter, Scottie. They stayed two years.

The feudal atmosphere in Wilmington under the du Ponts, thought Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, would provide the creator of The Great Gatsby with the tranquility he needed to finish his new novel, “The World’s Fair,” and give him material for future work.

For $150 a month, they leased Ellerslie, the white three-story 1842 Greek Revival cupolaed mansion on the Delaware River in Edgemoor. Wilmington attorney John Biggs, Fitzgerald’s former Princeton roommate, found the house for them.

For the first few months, life at Ellerslie floated along on the wings of a dream. Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway: “Address for a year – Ellerslie Mansion, Edgemoor, Delaware. Huge old house on the Delaware River. Pillars, etc. I am called ‘Colonel,’ Zelda ‘de old Missus.’”

Scott and Zelda devised a system of calls and echoes so they could find each other among the 14 of the 27 rooms they kept open. Scottie romped the broad green lawn with the Wanamaker and du Pont children. And from the second-story bay window room where Fitzgerald wrote, he could see the lights far across the river.

Ellerslie

Ellerslie, image from the Hagley Museum and Library

At Ellerslie, in the deep night, amid the whispering old oaks, beeches and horse chestnuts, you might glimpse the suggestion of a figure, perhaps Gatsby himself, standing on the pillared portico of the magnificent house, lifting his arms outstretched toward the dark water.

The invitations went out and the crazy weekends began. Fridays the French chauffeur drove to the Wilmington train station to meet the guests who included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, Edmund Wilson and Charles MacArthur. The chauffeur drove them back on Sunday. In between were dinner dances, polo matches staged with plow horses and croquet mallets, and late-night bedside visits by the resident ghost. If things got dull, they caroused the town: John Biggs received the middle of the night phone calls to get them out of jail.

At Ellerslie, Fitzgerald had turned 30. Indeed, a weekend guest recalled one of the parties as being a virtual funeral wake for the passing of his 30th year. His sense of loss plagued him.

“There was a demon within him to be the greatest writer of his generation. He didn’t feel he was accomplishing this,” remembered Biggs.

He got distracted when he started writing. “I get afraid I’m doing it instead of living…. Get thinking maybe life is waiting for me in the Japanese gardens at the Ritz or in Atlantic City or on the lower East Side.”

Zelda wanted to build a surprise dollhouse for Scottie. Fitzgerald and his little girl waited in their car on a quiet red-brick street corner while she disappeared with some papers through a door lettered “Cabinet Maker.”

It was a fine November day. The last golden leaves clung to the trees, sprinkling little shadows here and there on the sidewalk. The daddy yawned. A very little boy walked up the street, taking very long strides. He went up to a door, took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and proceeded to write something under the doorbell.

“He’s making magic signs,” the daddy told the little girl. The daddy then wove a tale of fairy intrigue. ‘The little boy was the ogre and he was holding a princess captive behind the closed curtains of the flat on the corner. The king and queen were imprisoned 10,000 miles under the earth.

“And what, Daddy? What?” demanded the little girl, caught up in the magic. The man continued the story. He wanted to be in his little girl’s fairy world with her. A shutter banged closed, then slowly opened. Suddenly the room turned blue. That meant the prince had found the first of the three stones that would free the princess.

The man could remember that world but he knew he would never again see it or touch it for himself. “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” was published in The Century Magazine, December 1928.

The Fitzgeralds interrupted their two years at Ellerslie voyaging to Paris in the summer of 1928. There, at a dinner party hosted by Sylvia Beach, a Baltimore native and founder of Shakespeare and Company, Fitzgerald met James Joyce, where he was so overawed by the genius of the Irish author that he sank onto bended knee, kissed his hand and later referred to the evening as “The Festival of St. James.”

Leaving Ellerslie for good in March 1929 the Fitzgeralds sailed for Genoa. In April they were somewhere in France. By June they were in Cannes.

After they sailed, Ellerslie was acquired by the Krebs Co.

In Europe Zelda suffered her first major breakdown, most likely bipolar, and spent 15 months in a Swiss clinic. Upon her release the Fitzgeralds returned to the United States to live in Baltimore in 1931, but Zelda broke down again and was treated at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Tender Is the Night, begun in 1925 as “The World’s Fair,” winged its way into the literary world in 1934. One year later, the big square rooms of the sweeping white mansion on the Delaware housed the offices of the DuPont Co. pigments plant.

Fitzgerald published “Afternoon of an Author,” a short story, in Esquire magazine in August 1936. In the story he wrote:

“He went into the kitchen and said good-by to the maid as if he were going to Little America. Once in the war he had commandeered an engine on sheer bluff and had it driven from New York to Washington to keep from being A.W.O.L. Now he stood carefully on the street corner waiting for the light to change, while young people hurried past him with a fine disregard for traffic. On the bus corner under the trees it was green and cool and he thought of Stonewall Jackson’s last words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Those Civil War leaders seemed to have realized very suddenly how tired they were—Lee shriveling into another man, Grant with his desperate memoir-writing at the end.”

Fitzgerald took rooms at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, for the summers of 1935 and 1936. He thought the respite at the inn would help him stop drinking and write more.  Tender Is the Night was not selling well: during the Depression people weren’t inclined to read about the highlife of the rich. He was supporting Zelda’s institutional stay and daughter Scottie’s Vassar education. At the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald turned 40.

The Grove Park Inn, Asheville, N. C.

The Grove Park Inn, Asheville, N. C.

Some years earlier, Scott Fitzgerald had met Asheville native son, Thomas Wolfe, author of the autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel, through Maxwell Perkins, their mutual editor. Perkins and Wolfe marked birthdays around Fitzgerald’s, September 20 (1884) and October 3 (1900) respectively. So, you might regard this story as a triple birthday commemoration. Wolfe and Fitzgerald maintained a correspondence on the philosophy of writing.

In 1937 Fitzgerald went to Hollywood to write for the movies. Gone With the Wind was one of them. He was also working on a new novel, The Last Tycoon. He stayed at the Garden of Allah residential hotel in Hollywood.

Garden of Allah

Garden of Allah

On December 21, 1940, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, lyrical prose writer, author of novels, short stories, poems, essays and plays, died in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, of a heart attack. He was 44.

Thomas Wolfe died on September 15, 1938, in Johns Hopkins Hospital, his brain riddled with tuberculosis.

Maxwell Perkins, a kind father to both these men, died on June 17, 1947 of pneumonia.

Zelda perished in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 10, 1948, when flames ripped through a wooden building where she and eight other patients were housed.

In 1972, the gracious summer home on the Delaware, riddled with termites, was demolished.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, great grandnephew of Francis Scott Key, the author of the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the United States national anthem, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on this day, September 24, 1896. Happy Birthday, Scott.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards
Already with thee! tender is the night

—from Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats

This Ode to Fitzgerald is in part excerpted from a piece I published in the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal, “Only the Memories Remain,” under my byline Carol Child,
April 24, 1986.

Samantha Mozart

12 Responses to CXXXII. “Under the Trees It Was Green and Cool”: F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Hello Samantha,
    I read your tribute to Fitzgerald, and it got me to thinking. I believe he was never really happy after his first book of prominence with The Great Gatsby. Maybe, his own expectations to be like his great grand uncle had something to do with that.
    His legacy is The Great Gatsby. I wonder did he learn to appreciate the jewel that he wrote. How sad if he didn’t.
    I have enjoyed reading about his life. I’ve read The Great Gatsby. It was required literature in my university, but I never really got into Fitzgerald’s life like I have as I read your article.
    Thank you. It is well written and heartwarming for all of us who want to learn more about his genius.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Patricia

    • Hello Patricia,

      F. Scott Fitzgerald’s expectations had nothing to do with Francis Scott Key. He was up against himself, often lacking self-discipline, and then there was Zelda’s mental breakdown. And he envied the rich.

      Of course he appreciated the high quality of The Great Gatsby and said so in a letter to his Scriber’s editor, Maxwell Perkins. What he said is quoted in the forewords to publication editions of Gatsby.

      What’s not as often said about Fitzgerald, sadly, is that he was a serious and meticulous writer, produced a great treasure of pristine short stories and some essays. He wrote plays and movie scripts. He is well-known for his accurate ear for dialogue, his astute recording of The Lost Generation and the Jazz Age, and his prophetic observations. He wrote another of our great American novels, Tender Is the Night. That novel is one of my all-time favorites.

      He wrote much on what makes good writing — worth pursuing, studying and implementing for those who want to be serious writers.

      I cannot say enough about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is one of our great American writers. Also, he discovered Ernest Hemingway and recommended Hemingway’s writing to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, who became their mutual editor and publisher. He invariably spelled Ernest’s last name “Hemmingway.”

      Thank you for coming by and for your thoughtful comments.

      Shalom aleichem,
      Samantha

  2. Robert Price

    My dearest Samantha,

    More like a quadruple birthday commoration — yours was just a few days before. Lovely to read this — it is green and cool…

    Ever,

    R.

    • R — Thank you for the personal birthday commemoration and for your lovely green and cool comment. Thanks always for reading and listening.

      Ever green,
      S.

  3. Here’s another ‘swept away’ on your poesy Carol/Samantha. This was so interesting to read. A time and place – I’m not sure I knew of Zelda’s breakdowns or her tragic death. Didn’t Hemingway meet up with Anais Nin in France, Paris at some stage? I’ll check that out.

    Two weeks ago I attended a one day seminar by visiting Jungian analyst here in Johannesburg on Psyche & Amor (Eros/Cupid). In a space in silence we were encouraged to write, meditate do whatever, I wrote a few short lines, Look Homeward Angel.

    Thank you, this is a lovely piece of writing.

    • Susan, as I said to Gwynn, I do find fascinating the meeting or confluence of historical notables, especially of writers and musicians. It is quite possible that Hemingway met Anais Nin in Paris. They all were there. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a great resource for finding those connections, mostly via Gertrude Stein’s artist soirees. The book is a fascinating read; I’ve read it twice.

      As for Zelda, I think she was always a bit off, though I do believe much of what she said in Save Me the Waltz. Her schizophrenic (as they diagnosed it then) condition intensified at Ellerslie, when at age 29, an age when most dancers’ careers are over, she decided she would become a professional ballet dancer, practicing relentlessly at a barre before a great gilt mirror and then taking classes when they went to Europe.

      You wrote on the subject “Look Homeward, Angel”? Do I understand that correctly? Interesting. That is a very deep subject. It is about the father, as regards Thomas Wolfe and how I experience the novel.

      This is a long response. You spark my thoughts. Thank you, Susan. I appreciate that.

  4. A literary giant, thank you for this detailed post, Samantha. I can just see his imagination take flight in that great, big house, and spurred by all his travels. Like all complicated minds, there are the internal demons, the vice. No enduring art without great struggle, I suppose.
    Interesting path to travel on for this reader. While I knew about his writings, I knew next to nothing about his life.

    • Clearly Scott’s imagination did take flight in that mansion, Silvia, but most often haunting the guests in the middle of the night, playing croquet/polo on the lawn, carousing the town, and less in the direction of his writing. Nonetheless, Scott Fitzgerald is one of our best 20th century writers. His novels, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, as well as many of his short stories are among my favorites. I read them over and over. He is my kindred spirit and my great inspiration. I learned much about writing from him.

      Thank you for coming by, Silvia, and commenting. I really appreciate it. 🙂

  5. I agree with Marsha’s comment. Your post is an amazing history lesson with incredible pictures. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Gwynn. I am particularly fascinated by the meeting of two famous historical figures; in my case, especially writers and musicians. I could discuss/write endlessly on that subject. 🙂

  6. Ahhh! Carol, you have done it again. I’ve been swept away, by your tremendous talent, to another time and place. Thank you for the history lesson and smart prose.