Zelda Fitzgerald's Baltimore Years

BACK TRACKS 2

June 02, 1991|By Carleton Jones

She and her mother and occasionally her father would take the train every summer to Saluda, N.C., riding up the green ridges from Montgomery, Ala., to a dowdy, cool, porched North Carolina mountain village. There the fried chicken and iced tea and grits and bacon were unrivaled and cheap, and the "pitchershow" was the only entertainment.

Back home in Alabama she would hang off the porches and watch the handsome, uniformed boys of World War I, who would drop by in convertibles and jitneys, carrying flasks of gin and rumble-seat ideas.

These were the twin settings for Zelda Sayre as she was growing up. She would return to the North Carolina mountains late in life, as a patient in a mental asylum. There she died in 1948, burned to death in a fire at the asylum. The mountains were high above the baking flats of the land bordering North and South Carolina. Nearby was hill-bound Tryon, N.C., where her husband-to-be, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once wrote a poem in honor of Missildine's pharmacy and its merciful ammoniated soda pop, great for hangovers.

Those were Zelda's Carolina and Alabama, but there was Zelda's Baltimore, too, a place of tortured years, unfulfilled ambitions and mental disasters. Unfortunately, this sultry beauty suffered deep depressions and chaotic lapses.

In 1932, Scott and Zelda came to Baltimore. His career was on the downslide, her mental condition was increasingly unstable (there had been suicide attempts). The flush '20s -- that long joy ride during which Scott had become famous as a novelist -- were over.

Soon the couple moved into a spacious, cool, old Victorian manse near Towson (since razed for the building of St. Joseph Hospital). La Paix (peace) was the ironic name of the Turnbull estate where the couple settled as Zelda was being treated at Johns Hopkins' Phipps psychiatric clinic. Both Scott and Zelda were subject to alcoholic interludes and both had had adulterous interludes with at least one serious lover.

Zelda improved under treatment here and was able to finish a novel, "Save Me the Waltz," really an essay on Southerners in Europe. It was by no means a trivial effort. In a hospital scene in New York City, the book echoes Fitzgerald's magic with 1920s nostalgics:

"Vincent Youmans wrote a new tune. The old tunes floated through the hospital windows from the hurdy-gurdies while the baby was being born and the new tunes went the luxurious rounds of lobbies, grills, palm gardens and roofs."

There was another literary effort, a poorly coordinated theatrical farce, "Scandalabra," that ran more than four hours at its opening-night production by the junior company of the Vagabond Players in their Read Street carriage house theater.

Zelda painted, too -- works with an odd and arresting sense of tension. Her Baltimore products were exhibited in a New York gallery about the time the couple moved from the Towson area to Bolton Hill, renting 1307 Park Ave.

Her sanity gave way again in 1934. For the rest of the decade and beyond she was under the care of institutions, with rare independent intervals. In 1940, his last novel under way, Scott would die of heart failure. In the end, he believed that he had missed solid achievements like those of his friendly idols and rivals, Hemingway and Conrad.

But there had always been a decisive strain of hope in Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald that was missing from her husband's makeup. In a short story, completed some time after Scott's death, she wrote: "Nobody has ever measured, even the poets, how much a heart can hold." *

(For a definitive account of Zelda Fitzgerald's life, see Nancy Milford's 1970 biography, "Zelda," published by Harper & Row.)

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