Of all the famed folk who called Baltimore home at one point or another, F. Scott Fitzgerald may be the least-commemorated locally. But the city played a substantial part in the author's life, something the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society will underscore during its international conference here this week.
The society meets every two years, alternating between U.S. and European sites with connections to Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, from St. Paul, Minn., (F. Scott's birthplace) to the south of France (where "The Great Gatsby" was written). More than 100 of the society's 1,000 members from several countries will attend the Baltimore meeting.
"Fitzgerald was a fairly itinerant person," says society president Jackson R. Bryer, a professor emeritus of the University of Maryland and co-editor of "Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald."
"He never owned a place, always rented. But he lived in Baltimore for five years, one of the longest times he spent in one place," Bryer says. "He finished 'Tender is the Night,' here, a novel he had been working on for 10 years. It could be argued that the stability of being in one place helped him finish that novel."
Zelda arrived first, in February 1932, but not in the best way. She was admitted to the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital after a relapse of the mental illness that had first surfaced two years earlier in Europe. Her husband moved to Baltimore in May and rented a house on the La Paix estate in Towson.
Although Zelda was in and out of Phipps and Sheppard Pratt, she did get to spend outpatient time with Fitzgerald and their daughter, Scottie, who attended Bryn Mawr School. "This was really the last time they were together as a family, their last interludes of normal family life," Bryer says.
Adds the society's vice president, Kirk Curnutt: "This is an overlooked period of theirs. It's a little dark."
Baltimore was "where Fitzgerald lost hope that Zelda would ever be curable," says Margaret Galambos, a local member of the Fitzgerald Society who is retired from the Johns Hopkins University Press. "But Scottie was very happy here and always considered Baltimore home."
Fitzgerald left the city in January 1937, almost a year after Zelda was moved to a clinic in North Carolina. But he "loved Baltimore and felt like he fit in here," says Joan Hellman, a professor emeritus of Catonsville Community College.
She and Galambos will lead attendees on a "Fitzgerald in Baltimore" bus tour. Among the stops will be the former Cambridge Arms, now a Hopkins dorm, where Fitzgerald had an apartment.
He also rented a home in Bolton Hill, at 1307 Park Ave. "He liked to walk down the street and see the statue of Francis Scott Key," Hellman says. The author's full name, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, was a nod to his distant cousin, only one of his ties to Baltimore.
"When he lived here he also discovered that his father's ancestral family was from this area," Hellman says. "The first house of the La Paix estate was built by his ancestors. The Ridgelys of Hampton House were also ancestors of his. And Fitzgerald wrote the forward to a book about historical homes of Maryland. "Between Zelda's fragile condition and Fitzgerald's weakness for drink, the Baltimore years were hardly trouble-free. "But in spite of their problems," Galambos says, "they were very productive people. Zelda wrote her novel 'Save Me the Waltz' here."
And Zelda's play, "Scandalabra," was produced by the Vagabond Junior Players during her years in Baltimore.
"Legend has it that it's an awful piece of work, but during the conference we're going to try to find what's interesting about it," says Curnutt, who is on the faculty at Troy State University in Zelda's hometown, Montgomery, Ala.
That Southern city also happens to be the hometown of H. L. Mencken's wife, and it was Mencken, as co-editor of "Smart Set," who published Fitzgerald's first short story in 1919. Once relocated to Baltimore, Fitzgerald and Mencken consumed a good deal of time and liquor together, often at the Owl Bar in the Belvedere Hotel.
"Mencken was a huge influence on Fitzgerald," Curnutt says. "But he hated 'Tender is the Night.' "
Fitzgerald scholarship continues to generate "new takes on his work, some more compelling than others," Curnutt says.
Adds Bryer: "If anybody is jaded about Fitzgerald, I'd be it. I've been at this for almost 50 years; I did my master's thesis on Fitzgerald in 1960. But I'm always surprised by the fact that people come up with new things about him ... [and] very different ways of looking at the literature."
Many of these fresh ideas are first espoused at Fitzgerald Society meetings. The organization also devotes attention to education. On Friday, there will be a workshop for area high school and college teachers aimed at "expanding the possibilities of teaching Fitzgerald," Bryer says. "This is one way for the conference to be more than a navel-gaze."
If you go
The 2009 International F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference will be held Wednesday-Saturday at the Radisson Lord Baltimore Hotel, 20 W. Baltimore St. Nonmembers can buy day passes (priced from $45 to $60, depending on the day) to a variety of events. For more information, call 410-433-4575 or 410-486-2719, or go to fscottfitzgeraldsociety.org.