September 24, 2014 — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 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 excerpted from a piece I published in the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal, “Only the Memories Remain,” under my byline Carol Child,
April 24, 1986.
Wow! I didn’t know all of this about Fitzgerald, even though I have read one or two of his books. I was never that crazy about him, but you have opened my eyes to his pain. I believe that is a pain that many writers go through: the pain of producing a manuscript that has life and is better or just as good as the first manuscript that was published.
So thank you. I also had forgotten that he had died young and that he had lived in Delaware, so your post really filled in lots of gaps.
I enjoyed reading it because I saw a side of Fitzgerald that I had not seen before.
When I had to read “The Great Gatsby” for a college course back in 1960, Patricia, I have to admit I skimmed over it and couldn’t see the big deal. But soon after, something, I don’t recall what, connected me to Fitzgerald, and I’ve since felt he is my kindred spirit. I read everything I could find that he wrote on how to be a good writer, and, truly, he was my first teacher; I still follow his guidance more than that of any other writer.
I think few know he and Zelda lived in Delaware for two years. When I found out, I jumped on that and wrote the piece for the Wilmington newspaper. I typed it on an IBM Executive typewriter, before computers, and had notes, research material and drafts all over the place. Looking back, I don’t know how I got it done without a word processor; but those were the days.
I like what you say “I saw a side of Fitzgerald” — well-put: “This Side of Paradise” or “This Side of Fitzgerald.” I’m glad I discovered a little about a writer that few know about him, and it made me feel like I know him better. He gave me a respect for him and a respect for writing and other writers, an appreciation of all the hair pulling and moments of wanting to just quit that result in making the final output look like it flowed easily.
My Dear Friend,
I just to say that I feel the same way toward John Gardner. When I read the first book from him, On Becoming A Novelist, I thought he had looked into my soul. Since then, I have almost every book from him and I read him over and over. He is really my teacher, a kindred spirit, who I learn from over and over. He is also one of my mentors sitting around my invisible roundtable.
Next year, I plan to attend the Breadloaf Writer’s Workshop in Erice, Italy, where Gardner left many imprints about his own philosophy of writing. And he too died young. He was 49 when he died in 1982 from a motorcycle accident with consequences no one could explain. The sun was shining and he was not under the influence of any kind of alcohol and not a drug abuser. He was on his way home from helping his sick father who had a farm in a small city in New York. The police were baffled at how it could have happened because his motorcycle was also not going at a fast speed.
We lost a great writer with John Gardner.
I’ve never read John Gardner, Patricia, although I’ve heard of him. But, looking at his works just now on Amazon, I see I should be reading him. So, he is on my list. It’s amazing the number of writers and books I want to read: I could read and read all day, every day (my pleasure to do so) and still not catch up. One of my goals is to read as many authors as I can before I die — that’s a big order. I’ll do my best. I have many books on my personal library shelves that I have not read. I continue to collect them.
Thanks for reminding me of him, dear friend.
I meant to say, Patricia, I envy your going to the Breadloaf Writer’s Workshop in Erice, Italy, next year. Wow. An experience of a lifetime. Good for you! Can’t wait to hear all about it.
Such a rich history of Fitzgerald in Wilmington! I so enjoyed imagining the setting for The Great Gatsby through your words Samantha thank you! It was also interesting about the future tenants of Ellerslie when they left for further adventures.
May the history of life continue to dance for you Samantha!
I crafted an artful reply to you, Susan, when my browser crashed, so I’ll try again, but be brief.
It’s easy to imagine the history of Ellerslie as I saw mostly through the evocative writings of Fitzgerald.
Zelda and I had one thing in common, besides our writing, that of deciding we would begin studying ballet at age 30, a time when most ballet dancers’ careers are over. She erected a ballet barre in Ellerslie’s great hall in front of a huge, gilt mirror and practiced relentlessly, later studied in Europe.
After the arrival in Wilmington of the Swedish, Dutch and English, E. I. du Pont de Nemours arrived and founded a gunpowder plant on the hilly, wooded banks of the Brandywine River in the Wilmington area (the river so named for its color). Before that, the du Ponts were active in France during the French revolution, knowing Louis XVI and were friends with Thomas Jefferson. The du Ponts built Delaware, were like royalty here, cousins marrying cousins — resulting in some strange offspring — hence the feudal atmosphere. (I tried to research specific details re the du Ponts in France, for I no longer recall them exactly, but that’s when my browser crashed.) Both my parents worked for the DuPont Co.; that’s how we got to Delaware from Philadelphia.
Thanks, as always, for commenting.
A very interesting post Samantha. You are lucky to be surrounded by such wealth of history. You did an incredible job on this. I enjoyed it very much.
Thank you for commenting, Gwynn. I am lucky to have the mental and emotional awareness of the history that surrounds me. I am interested in and curious about nearly everything. And learning that my kindred spirit author spent time here in Wilmington, well….
Fitzgerald did not convene with my 2011 “Nights at the Round Table” guests. Perhaps he was basking on the Cote d’Azur. I’ll see if he can make it for the second convening. Perhaps he and Zelda can dance on the table while boiling women’s purses in a pot on the stove in the kitchen — under Moriarty’s oversight, of course.