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The Tenth Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference Takes the Bus

October 9, 2009
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F. Scott Fitzgerald conference attendees at the Mencken House | Image by Chris Landers

The crowd at the 10th annual conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society that gathered in Baltimore Sept. 30-Oct. 3 was older, but not uniformly so, and perhaps a bit tweedy, but not entirely. The society’s vice-president, Kirk Curnutt, a novelist who teaches at Troy University in Alabama, was not tweedy at all. Curnutt wore Chuck Taylors and sunglasses and said the conference included roughly 130 attendees this year. “Many of them are teachers,” he said, “so they aren’t arriving until the weekend.” On this Thursday afternoon, the Fitzgeraldians exited a downtown hotel to board a pair of buses for a tour of Fitzgerald’s Baltimore.

John DiGaetani, a veteran of several Fitzgerald conferences who teaches English at Hofstra University in New York and has written several books about opera, took a seat in the third row. “You could make an interesting worldwide tour just visiting the hospitals that Zelda stayed at,” he said.

The bus tour was upbeat, but it is generally agreed that the years Fitzgerald spent in Baltimore were not happy ones. The conference is held annually in former Fitzgerald haunts around the world. Here in Baltimore, where the writer stayed while his wife received treatments for mental illness, conference-goers attended panels on Fitzgerald’s life and work before heading out in search of more concrete evidence of the author’s presence.

DiGaetani was fresh from his presentation about the 2008 Fitzgerald movie adaptation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which had been a topic of conversation throughout the conference, specifically whether it was faithful to Fitzgerald’s story—verdict: it wasn’t—and whether Brad Pitt was a good actor. Among the marks against the movie was the change in location, from Baltimore to New Orleans. Rollins College’s Gail Sinclair, DiGaetani’s fellow presenter, defended the move, noting that Pitt was active in the post-Katrina rebuilding of New Orleans. “That’s a nice thing to do,” Digaetani said. “Although Baltimore could use some rebuilding, too.”

Johns Hopkins Hospital was the tour’s first stop; Zelda Fitzgerald was hospitalized there in 1932. Joan Hellman, a reading and English teacher at Community College of Baltimore County, apologized for traffic as the driver threaded the bus through the beginning of rush hour. “You need to do it at, like, three o’clock in the morning on a Sunday,” Hellman said, as the bus merged onto Baltimore Street, “but nobody wanted to do that.”

Hellman, who is also a member of the Thomas Wolfe Society, has extensively researched the five years Fitzgerald spent in Baltimore with Zelda and Scotty, his daughter. The previous day she had presented a slide show entitled “Fitzgerald’s Baltimore,” and earlier Thursday spoke on “The Vagabond Theater Premiere Production of ‘Scandalabra.’”

There is naturally a certain amount of Fitzgeraldiana that is assumed knowledge at a conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society—the phrases “You know the story of” and “As you all know” pepper the presentations. And as you all know, Scandalabra was a play written by Mrs. Fitzgerald, which she had hoped would make it to Broadway, but was performed by the local theater troupe’s junior company in 1936. From all accounts—including Hellman’s—the play is not very good, but it premiered at the Vagabond Theater, then on Read Street.

At Hopkins, the Fitzgeraldians disembarked the bus for a look at the statue “Christus Consolator,” which appears in Fitzgerald’s Tender is The Night. The lobby was also the path Fitzgerald took to visit Zelda at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, and it is dominated by the 10-foot tall representation of a robed Christ, with the inscription at the base that reads COME unto ME all that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you REST.

Back on the bus and around the block for a glimpse of the Phipps clinic, then onward toward the Poe House. Waiting at the light to cross President Street, Hellman polled the bus for fans of The Wire. There was one.

“Fantastic show,” Hellman said. “Coming up on your right and ahead of us is the courthouse, that’s where The Wire was. . . . Robert Chew, who played Proposition Joe, you know Prop Joe? Back there, the person who knew about The Wire? He has a little drama school for children after school, for elementary and younger children. Just a fantastic person. I’ve seen him many times just walking around the street here. Great actor.”

Past the Hippodrome Theater, where a performance of George and Gracie Allen inspired Fitzgerald to try his hand at comedy sketch writing—the result, Hellman said, involved the couple living at Fort Meade, and ended with Gracie destroying a house with a large gun. Past Poe’s grave, then his house (“It is in a terrible, terrible neighborhood,” observed someone in the back of the bus) before stopping at the Mencken house for a tour and some pretzels, then back to Charles Street, heading north through Mount Vernon.

This neighborhood was the territory Fitzgerald described in the short story “Afternoon of an Author.” The author of the title pauses to reflect on “a boy and a girl, sitting without any self-consciousness on the high pedestal of the Lafayette statue, their attention fast upon each other.” The eponymous Author (and Fitzgerald) lived further up, at the Carlyle Arms across from Hopkins, and the tour bus would pass there, but not before rolling past the Stafford Apartment, once the Stafford Hotel, where Fitzgerald lived in 1936; the former site of the Vagabond Theater, which is now a parking lot at Charles and Read; and the Belvedere Hotel, where Fitzgerald gave his daughter a sweet-16 party that ended with a drunken author and a roomful of terrified children.

Fitzgerald’s house on La Paix Lane in Towson, which was located at the site of the present emergency room for St. Joseph’s Medical Center, was the penultimate destination of the tour before the conference moved to a reception at Johns Hopkins’ Evergreen House. This Towson street was what first inspired Hellman’s Fitzgeraldania. “It was about 1994, in the fall, and I was reading yet another Fitzgerald biography, and my husband and I were driving down York Road, and all of the sudden I saw a street sign—La Paix Lane,” she told the conference Wednesday. “I made him do a U-turn right away—we didn’t get a ticket—and of course, you come to a dead end. There is a fence there, but for me it wasn’t a dead end. I saw an old house. I saw a Stutz Bearcat riding down that lane. It was the beginning of a whole journey for me.”

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