St. Paul loves native son F. Scott Fitzgerald

Summit Hill is a historic neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., one that is full of impressively huge and grand houses. Three are on the National Register of Historic Places. Dozens of others loom among canopies of shade, sprawling lawns and hilltop backgrounds of nothing but blue sky.

It is calm on a recent sun-splashed Sunday, with congenial conversation coming from huge porches, Couples stroll leisurely and the mood is quiet, even though the hum of interstate traffic is not far away.

Also in the neighborhood – but a few blocks from the grandeur – is Laurel Street, a pleasant destination all on its own, but more modest in appearance. It is the perfect place to wander and wonder about the pace of life more than 100 years ago.

It is here, in a flower-filled apartment building, that Francis Scott Fitzgerald – the son of a wicker furniture salesman and an Irish lass who knew how to climb social ladders – spent the first two years of his life.

The baby eventually would be described as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, and St. Paul isn’t about to let anybody forget his association with the city.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps known best today for “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night,” would return to this city and this neighborhood again and again – literally and in his literature – until 1926. He died in Hollywood in 1940, a 44-year-old alcoholic who considered himself a failure.

Fitzgerald’s birthplace – designated this month as a National Literary Landmark – is one of 14 sites in the new “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul: Homes and Haunts” brochure, which provides the guidance for a great, introductory walking tour.

St. Paul is where Fitzgerald wrote “This Side of Paradise,” his first successful novel. It is where the growing pains of adolescence, and Fitzgerald’s exposure to elite social circles, gradually would become rich fodder for his short stories.

His family lived many places in St. Paul and, as a young adult, Fitzgerald frequented elaborate parties here. Wife Zelda gave birth to their only child here, and the family at that time lived less than 10 blocks from F. Scott’s own birthplace.

Other notable walking tour stops include a life-size sculpture of Fitzgerald that stands in Rice Park downtown, and a photograph (one of two dozen famous Minnesotans) that hangs in the bar at The Saint Paul Hotel, which is a beautiful, logical and central base from which to study the author’s life.

One block from the hotel and also new this month is the F. Scott Fitzgerald alcove at the Saint Paul Central Library, a third floor presentation of the author’s writings, plus artifacts from his life. The latter is not an extensive display, but – as library staff say – something to build upon as grant money and donations emerge.

The recent dedication of the Laurel Street birthplace and library alcove coincides with the release of two new books: “A Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul” by John J. Koblas (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $9.95) and “The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page (Borealis Books, $19.95).

The guide describes 106 locations to visit, and it is a fine way to learn about Fitzgerald’s life and character, his schoolboy crushes, heartaches and tumultuous behavior. His parents tolerated F. Scott’s interest in writing but didn’t approve of it.

We also learn that he was a successful young debater, and an insufferable know-it-all among his pre-teen peers. He did not lack female companionship, loved a good joke and saw no need to avoid scandal in his writings or in his life.

There also are contrasts, challenges and hints of disillusionment with an American dream gone awry: The author and the dean of students at a seminary were close friends; the author’s drunkenness disrupted a Christmas Eve church service elsewhere.

“The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald” contains 13 tales that show some sort of link between the author and the city. Each story is put into context, as it is introduced.

Through the legendary author’s hot-handed remarks and cool observations, we better understand his love-hate affair with the city that has both jabbed and caressed him. And although the work of writing short stories paid well, Fitzgerald was not proud of it.

“A short story,” he told a friend, according to the book, “can be written in a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows.”

To learn more about Fitzgerald’s life in St. Paul, and the city’s other attractions, go to www.visitsaintpaul.com or call (800) 627-6101.

To learn about the 70-plus other National Literary Landmarks that have been dedicated since 1987, go to www.folusa.com, the Friends of Libraries USA website.