It may have been a flop, but the recent Baz Luhrmann film version of “The Great Gatsby” spawned a branding bonanza: You can get Gatsby-themed furniture, paint colors, jewelry, shirts, hardwood flooring, garden doo-dads and all manner of Jazz Age junk. But F. Scott Fitzgerald historian Dave Page is still worried that the writer will be forgotten.
“It’s hard to keep his memory alive in a certain way. There’s a lot of superficial stuff that gets associated with him, and everyone has a story about some bar that he signed. Yes, he was a drunk. But he was so much more than that,” says Page, who teaches Fitzgerald’s work at Inver Grove Community College, and is part of Fitzgerald in St. Paul, a newly formed organization that is working to keep the writer’s legacy alive in his birthplace.
‘Not a museum or monument’
“You go to Chicago, there’s all this Hemingway stuff, and in Key West, of course, but you come to St. Paul and there’s not a museum or a monument to one of our greatest writers,” said Page. The group is supported by the Richard P. McDermott Fitzgerald Fund of The Saint Paul Foundation. McDermott, a U of MN professor who died last September, purchased an apartment at 481 Laurel Avenue in 1976, and then discovered that he was living in the birthplace of Fitzgerald. He restored the apartment and welcomed Fitzgerald enthusiasts from around the world to see it. (The condo has since been sold.)
“Richard took his role as the keeper of the shrine very seriously, and his legacy will be the efforts we make to keep Fitzgerald alive in his hometown,” said Page.
To that end, the group sponsored a Fitzgerald summer film series, and this fall will host a number of Fitzgerald events, including a walking tour of notable sites from the writer’s youth in the Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, and a celebration to mark the publication of “The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary” (University of Minnesota Press), a juicy little pamphlet of gossip and observations Fitzgerald made during his boyhood years. Page contributes an extensive introduction and explanatory notes throughout that help readers understand the rarefied social setting the young writer circulated in, as well as the seeds this diary contains that later expanded in his future work.
The Thoughtbook was first published in 1965, in a limited run of 300 copies (Page has one). This version contains several photographs of the writer, St. Paul landmarks, and his friends, who included the children of many of Minnesota’s wealthiest families, including the Ordways, Herseys, and Schulzes. Fitzgerald’s father lost his job during his adolescence, and the family lived in scaled-down middle-class comfort amid their wealthier friends, due to his mother’s modest family fortune. But the schism between his modest life and the grandeur of Summit Hill created a troubled “double vision” that Page sees throughout Fitzgerald’s work.
“The Thoughtbook is completely cheerful, and it’s obvious that he was a leader among peers, and fully accepted by the children of the wealthy — he plays with them, jokes with them, and had many small romances in that crowd,” he said. “But the major themes in his work — youth, money, beauty — have their origins with his origins, and you can see glimpses of them in this book.”
Another theme, that of the Southern Belle, makes an appearance in the Thoughtbook as well, in the form of a sweetheart, Violet Stockton, who along with Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, formed the inspiration for many of the novelist’s female characters. Page is currently at work on a book about Stockton, although her life after Fitzgerald is largely a mystery. Another mystery Page would like to see solved is that of the missing first seven pages of the Thoughtbook, which somebody tore out at some point, and which have never been recovered.
“In his day, Fitzgerald was phenomenally successful. He was in the top 1 percent in terms of income, during the Great Depression. Everyone knew his work, although he made a great deal of that money writing for Hollywood. He made a deep impression on the culture, so it’s important we don’t forget him or his world,” says Page, who says his students appreciate the ways this seemingly old-fashioned writer understood the essence of youth. “He really took young people seriously. A lot of his stories show that. And this book shows that his own youth, despite all that followed, was happy.”
As for that Luhrmann movie? Of course Page saw it.
“I thought it was great. I actually wrote [Luhrmann] a fan letter to tell him so, because I felt bad about all the horrible reviews the film got. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Sept. 21 and 22, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Fitzgerald Walking Tour, St. Paul. James J. Hill House.
Sept. 24. Fitzgerald Triple Celebration. Celebrate Fitzgerald’s 117th birthday, the publication of the Thoughtbook, and the formation of the group Fitzgerald in St. Paul.
Oct. 8, 7 p.m. Reading at Subtext Bookstore, St. Paul.
Oct. 15, 7 p.m. History Lounge Event/Reading at the Minnesota History Center.
Oct. 22, 7 p.m. Magers & Quinn Booksellers.