'Gatsby' getaway

A conference in St. Pete Beach will focus on the Fitzgeralds' 1932 visit to the Don CeSar.

Published April 15, 2007

Countless visitors to the restored 1920s splendor of the Don CeSar Beach Resort have marveled that it looks like someplace F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald might have stayed.

They're right. The icons of the Jazz Age, the man who wrote The Great Gatsby and his beautiful flapper muse, visited the Pink Palace 75 years ago. Saturday and next Sunday, the St. Pete Beach Library offers a glimpse into that glamorous snippet of American literary life at "Fitzgerald's Florida," a two-day conference.

Roberta Whipple, the library administrator who spearheaded the event, grew up in the area and says there had long been rumors that the Fitzgeralds vacationed at the Don. But the first time she ran across a verified version was when she read Nancy Mitford's 1970 biography of Zelda.

Whipple was home from college at the time and could see the Don CeSar, then empty and derelict, from her family's house. "I was so excited that they had actually been there," she says.

Three decades later, with the Don long since rescued from the wrecking ball, Whipple was still interested in the Fitzgeralds' sojourn. After visits to the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Ala. Zelda's hometown, and a seminar on Zelda's paintings at Rollins College in Winter Park, she began organizing the library's event.

Whipple lined up several leading Fitzgerald scholars, including Gail Sinclair of Rollins and Jackson Bryer, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and the editor of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Theirs was one of the great literary love stories. Scott dropped out of Princeton to enlist in the Army when the United States entered World War I, and the couple met in Montgomery in 1918. Scott was in officer training at nearby Camp Sheridan, and Zelda Sayre was the belle of the town. He was smitten, but it took him a long while to convince her that, as a writer, he could support her.

One of his offerings to her, the 1920 short story The Offshore Pirate, had a Florida connection in its coastal setting, although he hadn't yet been here. Published in the Saturday Evening Post, the tale of a strong-willed young woman who falls for a pirate was Zelda's favorite of Scott's stories, Whipple says (although critics haven't been as kind).

Scott's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published to acclaim in 1920, and he and Zelda married a week later. They spent much of the '20s in Europe as part of an expatriate community that included Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Scott published his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, in 1926. Despite his success, the Fitzgeralds always lived beyond their means, and Zelda also began to show signs of the mental illness that would engulf her.

After she was hospitalized for a breakdown in 1930, the couple returned to the United States. Their visit to the Don occurred in January 1932 and was noted in the society pages of the St. Petersburg Times and the Evening Independent, which called Scott the "author who translated modern youth to litera- ture."

Whipple says they may have chosen St. Pete Beach rather than fashionable Palm Beach because of Scott's affection for Ring Lardner's 1922 story The Golden Honeymoon, set in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Fitzgeralds wrote about swimming and deep-sea fishing during their stay at the Don in "Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number -," published in Esquire in 1934 and billed as a "journal of a thousand and one nights in hotel rooms, in the gilded dawn of the Jazz Age." It was reprinted in The Crack-Up, a collection of pieces from various magazines and other sources, in 1944.

The Fitzgeralds' stay at the Don was brief; they soon went home to Baltimore as Zelda's condition, diagnosed as schizophrenia, continued to deteriorate. She would spend the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions; she died in one, in a terrible fire, in 1948.

Scott spent his last years in Hollywood, trying to earn enough as a screenwriter to care for her and their daughter, Scottie. He died of the effects of alcoholism and heart disease in 1940, at age 44.

Speakers at "Fitzgerald's Florida" will talk about the visit to the Don in terms of its literary and historical significance, and the event also includes a film, a staged reading of The Offshore Pirate and a tour of the hotel.

And, of course, a few glimpses of the glamor and tragedy that shaped Fitzgerald's fiction.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

If you go

Fitzgerald's Florida

The St. Pete Beach Library and the Florida Humanities Council present the conference Saturday at the Don Vista Cultural Center, 3300 Pass-a-Grille Way, and April 22 at the library, 365 73rd Ave.

The free event includes several lectures, a radio play presentation of The Offshore Pirate, a short film and a tour of the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa. Visit www.tblc.org/spb.