St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald got around. Though he didn’t live his entire life in the Saintly City, he certainly left his mark during his stints here. Author Dave Page, a Fitzgerald scholar for 30 years, has collected info on upwards of 180 of the adored novelist’s local hangs -- including friends’ domiciles, relatives’ estates, and downtown attractions -- in his new book F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer & His Friends at Home.
Among the addresses brought to life with Page’s meticulous reportage and Jeff Krueger’s stunning photographs are Fitzgerald’s birthplace apartment at 481 Laurel and the row house at 599 Summit where Fitzgerald rewrote This Side of Paradise, the book that made him an overnight sensation. Summit Avenue, considered the most architecturally intact Victorian boulevard in the United States, plays a prominent role in this geographical biography of St. Paul’s golden boy.
We asked Page about Fitzgerald’s lively social life and his ties to the Capital City, which Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda left for good in 1922.
City Pages: While Fitzgerald moved around a lot – to and from Minnesota as well as within the city of St. Paul – he didn’t stray far from the same neighborhood. Why do you think that is?
Dave Page: Well, it was the neighborhood. His family came from money, and wealthy people in St. Paul lived on Summit Hill. That’s the neighborhood where his grandmother McQuillan had established herself, so of course that’s the neighborhood his immediate family established themselves. They stayed here until they left to go back to the East Coast. That was where people of a certain class lived, and he was of that class.
CP: There seem to be conflicting reports about what class Fitzgerald belonged to. He referred to himself as “poor,” but he wasn’t.
DP: “Poor” in a very relative sense. He was running around with people who certainly had a lot more money than his immediate family. But the Fitzgeralds, who were living on the largesse of the McQuillans, had a nice little chunk of change. He went to private schools. He went to Princeton. He went to dancing class. He went to vacations down in Frontenac and up in Duluth. Only people of a certain class could afford to do those things.
CP: You mentioned Frontenac. Fitzgerald also frequented White Bear Lake. Why were those places important to his social circle?
DP: That was one thing his family didn’t have: a lake cabin. When he and Zelda were here during the summers, they kind of did the lake thing. A lot of people from St. Paul spent their summers at White Bear Lake. One summer, they rented a private home. One summer, they stayed at the yacht club. Supposedly they got kicked out of both places but those stories are really hard to track down and maybe somewhat fantastical. Supposedly the pipes froze in the house he lived in, but I looked up the temperatures from when he got kicked out; it was 60 during the day and it got down to the mid- to upper-30s at night. It wasn’t pipe-freezing weather. Did something else happen maybe? They got kicked out of hotels for running bathwater over, supposedly, so it’s possible. They were young. They were just two crazy kids -- with a daughter.
(481 Laurel, Fitzgerald's birthplace. Photo by Jeff Kruger.)
CP: The University Club was one of Fitzgerald’s infamous haunts. What were some of the others?
DP: There was a pharmacy in W.A. Frost. Kilmarnock Books in downtown St. Paul, which is no longer there. The St. Paul Hotel; they had dances there. He lived at the Commodore a couple different times, he went to tea dances there. The White Bear Yacht Club. He was always wherever the parties were, and there were a lot of private parties in the homes around the [St. Paul] area.
CP: Fitzgerald made contradictory statements about his feelings for St. Paul. In one letter to his ex-girlfriend Marie Hersey, he says, “I no longer regard St. Paul as my home” and in another letter two years later he writes that St. Paul “is still home to me.” How do you make sense of that?
DP: I don’t. He didn’t like the weather. And I don’t blame him. Although it probably was worse when he lived here. In fact, his mother would take him South in the winters. Later, I think he started missing the hometown, what it meant to him, and the connections and all the friends he had. By then, his health was shot. Too much smoking. Too much drinking. I know he had good times here in St. Paul. I think he started getting more nostalgic for his hometown. I’m guessing a lot of people do. That’s all I can speculate.
CP: Did you get a sense of how Zelda felt about St. Paul?
DP: I imagine Zelda didn’t like it very well. Once again, weather. But also, I think she did find it a little bit stifling. She’s this vivacious, smoking, drinking Southern belle. I’m guessing the wives thought she was a little too flirtatious. They probably didn’t like it. That’s what she was raised to be like -- I don’t mean to sound bad about that. Flirting wasn’t meant as a means to an end. It was the end. She wasn’t trying to steal their husbands away, but I think some of them saw it that way. She golfed and swam. She had a few friends here, but she was only here a couple years. It takes a while to develop friendships.
(599 Summit, where Fitzgerald worked on This Side of Paradise. Photo by Jeff Krueger.)
CP: A couple of the places where Fitzgerald lived are recognized as historical sites. Do people live there?
DP: 599 Summit is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was just sold. 481 Laurel, his birthplace, is now a condominium and someone lives there. It’s a National Literary Landmark. It’s not as high in honor. Yeah, people live in them.
CP: Do they get bothered by tourists?
DP: If you buy one of those places, you kind of have to be prepared. Richard McDermott [the founder of the non-profit organization Fitzgerald in St. Paul who lived at 599 Summit] had hundreds of people from around the world come and knock on his door and he loved it. He was so gracious about it. He said Fitzgerald kind of saved his life. He was going through some kind of hard times and all of a sudden he had all these guests and they cheered him up.
CP: You’re a Fitzgerald scholar. What was the first spark that made you realize you wanted to study his life in-depth?
DP: Back in 1984, there was a Fitzgerald conference that was organized by the University of Minnesota Extension. I did an article [about it] for City Pages and they put it on the front page. I about peed my pants. Quote me on that! I was so excited. And I got paid! That City Pages article, that was it. Everybody knew me. It’s that kind of publication. In the Twin Cities, it’s a big deal. Because of that article, I met Jack Koblas, one of the premier Fitzgerald scholars of the Twin Cities. This is my fourth book on Fitzgerald. I’m not getting rich, but it’s fun.
IF YOU GO:
Dave Page discusses F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer & His Friends at Home
Common Good Books
7 p.m. Wed., July 19