The embers of La Paix

September 24, 1996|By Gwinn Owens

F.SCOTT FITZGERALD, born 100 years ago today, died in 1940, only 44 years old, worn out by alcoholism, private misfortune and the specter of professional failure. My direct connection with one of the century's finest novelists was a brief and accidental event of my 12th birthday -- 63 years ago -- and as a result his ghost has relentlessly pursued me.

Fitzgerald's success flamed up and flamed out while he was still young. Now, many decades after his death, he has become a literary icon, studied by a gaggle of experts enchanted by his command of words but fascinated also by his tempestuous life.

Though I am not one of those experts, I was, nevertheless on the program last week at the Fitzgerald Centennial Conference at Princeton, and will appear again in the next few days at the Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville (he is buried there), before the Smithsonian Associates in Washington and at the Players, the most venerable actor's club in New York.

It all harks back to that momentous birthday, June 16, 1933. My father had presented me with some workshop tools and my 19-year-old brother had driven me to Stebbins-Anderson in Towson to buy some wood. As we emerged from the lumber yard a couple of fire engines screamed south on the York Road. Of course we jumped in the car and followed them.

The engines turned into a lane south of Towson where, at its end, a rambling old Victorian house was engulfed in smoke. Its occupants, I learned from bystanders, were ''the Fitzgeralds.'' The names meant little to me, but one of the children clustered with us said he was a ''famous writer.'' We were joined on the slope by a little girl in a blue dirndl dress. ''Scottie, are you all right?'' one of the children said.

My brother decided he was going to help save the Fitzgeralds' belongings. He joined others braving the smoke and went into the house, as I waited fearfully. He emerged, along with other heroes, toting armfuls of books that they dumped on the front lawn, and re-entered, emerging again with more treasures. Eventually a heap of Fitzgerald possessions was piled up in front of the house.

The house was La Paix, which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rented in the nadir of lives that had been wrecked by gin and madness. In 1930, only months after the great stock market crash that ended the Jazz Age -- which the Fitzgeralds personified -- Zelda had suffered a collapse into schizophrenia, from which she never recovered.

They were in Baltimore only so she could be treated at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had not written a book since his celebrated novel ''The Great Gatsby'' in 1924. In debt, tortured by Zelda's condition and fighting alcoholism, he was desperatedly trying to finish ''Tender Is the Night.''

When the fire had died down (the damage was minor), Scott and Zelda, making a joke of the situation, came out of the house and settled into two chairs in the midst of their rescued possessions. A photographer for the Baltimore News-Post took their picture. For the ages, I am standing in the background.

The demolition

In 1962 La Paix was torn down to clear the land for St. Joseph Hospital. I went to watch the demolition, the first time I had been on this site since the fire, 29 years earlier. Aroused by the memory of that unforgettable day, I persuaded my bosses at WJZ-TV, for whom I was editorial director, to produce a documentary on Fitzgerald. Andrew Turnbull, who had known Fitzgerald as a childhood neighbor and friend, had just written his biography (the third of many). I set to work on the documentary, loosely based on Turnbull's matrix.

For the next few months I buried myself in Fitzgerald research, with full cooperation of his daughter, Scottie (the little girl with whom I watched the fire), who turned over all her scrapbooks and memorabilia, and agreed to appear in the film. As any biographer knows, one becomes obsessed with the subject and even begins to identify with him. At the end of a long session of research, I had become Fitzgerald. That magic and tragic life is permanently burned into my memory.

The documentary, produced and directed by my colleague, the late John Q. Quigley, was broadcast in 1963 and was well received locally. Quigley had included interviews with four intimates who profoundly influenced Fitzgerald's life, But because of a copyright problem with the background music, the program was never shown again. I kept the only print of it for 33 years, until, last year, Joan Hellman, a professor of English at Catonsville Community College, learned of its existence and had it transferred to videotape.

This opened the floodgates. Fitzgerald buffs are zealots, and apparently nothing like this documentary has ever been produced. The interviews with Fitzgerald associates long dead (including Scottie) have made it a diamond in the Fitzgerald archives, coveted wherever his memory is treasured. Hence that fire at La Paix, smoldering in my memory for six decades, has flared up and enveloped me on this Fitzgerald centennial.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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