White tables and chairs, damp from the rain, littered the front lawn. Some laid askew on the soggy ground beneath a string of darkened lights that drooped overhead. These vestiges of a garden party greeted my arrival at the house where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Montgomery in the early 1930s. All that was missing was empty Champagne bottles and lipstick-stained cigarette butts to complete the feeling of having stayed too long at a party, a social crime often associated with the high-flying Jazz Age couple.
The scenario set the appropriate mood for a recent visit to the only museum dedicated to “The Great Gatsby” author and his flapper wife. The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum is one of the highlights on the Southern Literary Trail, which promotes the former homes and museums of significant 20th-century authors and playwrights in the South. Not technically a trail — there is no map — the collaborative nonprofit program was created by colleges and humanities councils in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Among the authors it showcases in those states are Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Tennessee Williams.
Occupying the space where a beloved author lived or sitting at a desk where a favorite book was born can be a transformative experience that enriches an appreciation for a literary work and provides insight into the real person behind the famous name. The modest Fitzgerald museum does not disappoint, especially for fans of Zelda.
Built between 1905 and 1909, the two-story brick home in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood of Montgomery was rented by the Fitzgeralds for a year, from 1931 to 1932. It was a critical time in the couple’s lives. She was recovering from a psychotic episode, having been hospitalized for over a year in Europe. He was struggling with alcohol addiction and desperate to generate income. They’d come to Montgomery, where Zelda was born, because her father, a state Supreme Court justice, was dying.
While living here, Zelda wrote her semi-autobiographical novel “Save Me the Waltz” and reconnected with her 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, from whom she’d been separated during her illness. Scott worked on his novel “Tender Is the Night” when he wasn’t in Hollywood writing a screenplay. It was the last home in which the family would live together. Zelda was hospitalized again in 1932 and spent the rest of her life in and out of institutions. Scottie was sent to boarding school, and Scott moved to Hollywood, where he died from a heart attack in 1940. Zelda died eight years later in a fire at a mental institution in North Carolina.
The Fitzgeralds were the last family to inhabit the house as a whole. After they moved out, it was converted into apartments. When the museum opened in 1989, the ground floor was returned to its original configuration of foyer, parlor, kitchen, sunroom and bedrooms. Few of Scott’s personal effects are on display, except for a writing pen and some books. But there are some original furnishings from Zelda’s childhood home, including tables, banisters, a family Bible and a baby grand piano that Scott reportedly played at parties and drunkenly fell off the bench. There are also first edition copies of all their books, as well as a temporary exhibition of movie memorabilia from various film versions of “The Great Gatsby,” including costumes from the 2013 Baz Luhrmann-Leonardo DiCaprio version.
In what is believed to be Scottie’s former bedroom, the walls are hung with Zelda’s original paintings and prints of dreamy cityscapes and ethereal figures. A glass case in another bedroom contains some of her belongings: a foot-long cigarette holder, a painted perfume bottle, hairbrushes and a flapper-style headpiece she made herself.
Upstairs are two suites, the Zelda Suite and the Scott Suite, which can be rented for overnight stays through Airbnb.com. Connected by a small reading nook at the top of the stairs, each suite has its own parlor, kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms comfortably appointed in period furniture donated by friends of the Fitzgerald family who lived in the neighborhood. Having been converted into apartments, the rooms don’t have the same layout as when the Fitzgeralds lived there, but I still get a thrill knowing I’ll be spending the night where Zelda once lived.
Among the books lining the shelves upstairs are several titles by or about the couple, including “Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.” That night I have trouble sleeping, so I curl up under a blanket on the couch and read the letters Zelda sent to Scott in Hollywood while she was living here. I marvel at her humor and the fanciful way she describes the mundane affairs that occupied her days. And I’m saddened by the obsessive insecurities that tormented her. She was particularly fearful of losing Scott, a notorious philanderer.
I eventually go to bed and fall asleep hoping to catch a whiff of the perfumed scent some overnight guests have reported smelling in the Zelda Suite. According to director Alaina Doten, the aroma they describe is reminiscent of Scott’s Bay Rum cologne. The skeptic in me says that’s hogwash, of course. But my romantic side likes the idea of Scott’s spirit standing watch over the place where Zelda might have spent some of her last happy days.
IF YOU GO
Montgomery, Alabama, is 160 miles southwest of Atlanta on I-85 South.
“Gatsby’s Here.” An exhibition of costumes and memorabilia from a stage play and four film versions of “The Great Gatsby” runs through May 31, 2020.
Roaring ‘20s New Year’s Eve Party. Mark the arrival of 2020 with a Jazz Age party. 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Dec. 31. $100. Includes open bar, Champagne toast, dancing, live musical entertainment and more.
Eat & Drink
Leroy Lounge. Casual, low-key bar in Old Cloverdale specializing in creative cocktails, $9-$14; plus a rotating selection of beers on tap and bar snacks. 3-11 p.m. Sundays-Wednesdays; 3 p.m.-midnight Thursdays-Saturdays. 2752 Boultier St., Montgomery, Alabama. 334-356-7127, leroylounge.com.
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