Using his art to get to the heart of writer's illness-filled darkness Paradise lost: A psychotherapist probes the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald to explain why he came apart.

April 11, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On a bright April morning in 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald woke up in a furnished apartment overlooking the Johns Hopkins University feeling better than he had for weeks.

He was no longer the golden youth who had written "This Side of Paradise," the 1920 novel of collegiate life at Princeton that made him the first real superstar in American literature. Illness and alcoholism had plagued him for years. He was pushing 40 and felt like an old cracked plate. He was, in fact, living the years of "The Crack-Up," his classic account of an artist coming apart.

Today, 60 years later, Rene J. Muller, a psychotherapist for Union Memorial Hospital, will try to diagnose Fitzgerald's illness and understand his crackup in a humanities lecture at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Mr. Muller has scoured Fitzgerald's writings and his biographies for clues. He has a passion for Fitzgerald's work. He has read "The Great Gatsby" five times ("one of the most perfect books ever written"), "Tender is the Night" twice. He has come up with what psychotherapists call "a multiaxial diagnosis."

His diagnosis will be part of the "Authors and Their Illnesses" seminars presented by the Office of Cultural Affairs. Seminar talks have included poet Rose Burgunder Styron's discussion of the depression of her husband, William Styron, the author of "Sophie's Choice"; British novelist Julian Barnes' talk on Gustave Flaubert's epilepsy; and Dr. Paul R. McHugh's analysis of the ordeal of Evelyn Waugh, the English satirist.

Way back in the 1920s, before the movies talked and we were all wired into cable-vision and cyberspace, "This Side of Paradise" zoomed Fitzgerald to a celebrity comparable to present-day rock stars, computer barons, film stars and Michael Jordan. He was 23, just married to Zelda Sayre, the belle of Montgomery, Ala. Together they embodied the Jazz Age he wrote about.

Scott and Zelda passed sunswept days on the Riviera beaches at Cannes and Nice and Monte Carlo. They flitted from hotel to hotel, drifting in a gondola from the Royal Danieli in Venice "like a soft Italian song," eating strawberries served in gold dishes at Claridge's in London, gamboling in the fountain in front of the Plaza in New York.

They drank claret and Burgundy and champagne and pilsener and Prohibition scotch and Alabama white mule from Zelda's hometown and it all seemed mad and glad and bad and gay and innocent when they got drunk and commandeered a taxi to ride down Fifth Avenue with Zelda atop the hood like some fine, glorious radiator ornament.

The ride ended with the stock market crash of 1929, and everything turned dark in the Great Depression. Zelda was in an asylum and Scott just drank -- a lot.

They came to Baltimore in 1932 and stayed five years while Zelda received treatment for mental illness at Johns Hopkins Phipps Psychiatric Clinic and Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. Scott went into Hopkins eight times for treatment of alcoholism and tuberculosis.

They lived for a while in a rambling Victorian shingle house called La Paix, long ago torn down in the expansion of St. Joseph's Hospital, and in a fine old Bolton Hill townhouse on Park Avenue. But on April 8, 1936, Zelda entered Highland Hospital, a sanitorium in Asheville, N.C., where she lived off and on for the rest of her life. She died in a fire there in 1948.

Scott stayed on in Baltimore with their 14-year-old daughter, Scottie. They lived in the Cambridge Arms Apartments, which is now a residence for Johns Hopkins University students called Wolman Hall after a great sanitation engineer. Nothing marks Fitzgerald's stay there.

But that's where he had two eggs, orange juice, toast and tea for breakfast on that April morning when he felt a little better. Scottie had already gone off to school at Bryn Mawr. After breakfast, he fiddled around with a story he was writing. He saved some good phrases and tore up the rest.

Then, because it was a fine spring day, he took a double-decker bus downtown and, just past "Athenian" Penn Station, he saw some pretty girls who made him think life might still be worth living.

Fitzgerald would live only another four years. He was 44 when he died in Hollywood, Calif., on Dec. 21, 1940, his comeback novel "The Last Tycoon" unfinished. He is buried in the family plot in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville. Zelda and Scottie, who died in 1986, lie beside him.

His father, Edward, was born in Rockville. He is buried near Scott in the churchyard. Fitzgerald was proud of his Maryland antecedents. They included his great-uncle and namesake, Francis Scott Key, composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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