It had been a year and a half since I had a drink. What better situation to end that streak than with his drink in his bar?
Last week I posted about my recent visit to the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. It was exciting and fascinating, but made me realize I was remiss in failing to write about an even greater intersection I had with the ghost of my favorite author earlier this year. While it was only a few months ago, it is already a nostalgic leap that is shaded with all the colorings of an event many years passed.
Following my father’s death in February, my friends Paul and Shira, (who happen to be two of the greatest people you could ever meet), invited me to stay with them at their home next to the Baltimore Harbor. After spending the previous two years stuck in the suburbs of Orlando, it was beautiful and wonderful to be in a city again where a car is not necessary for survival. With my job being online, I was able to take my work with me, with a view of the harbor out of their second story room that became my home for some three weeks.
With gratitude to Mrs. Smith, I can say I first became a devotee of Fitzgerald’s prose during my sophomore year of high school. Since then I’ve delved deeper into his work, an incredible output for a relatively short career. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to focus my reading on the Lost Generation, extending it beyond Fitzgerald and Hemingway to take on the entire fascinating decade of the 1920s and its aftermath in the 1930s. It was with that foundation that I found myself in Baltimore.
After a week or so in the city, I found that one of Fitzgerald’s favorite bars still stood in an old hotel that had since been converted to condos. It was a weekend morning. The sun was pouring through the windows. I woke early and began looking up everything on Fitzgerald’s time in the city. In late 1931, when they were living in the Montgomery home, Zelda had a breakdown. Fitzgerald wrote to H.L. Menken for advice, who suggested the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins. Zelda was admitted in early 1932 and that spring they left Alabama to rent a Victorian cottage named La Paix. During her time at Phipps, Zelda would finish her only novel, Save Me the Waltz.
The family stayed at La Paix until November 1933 – their lease being cancelled after Zelda started a fire while trying to burn papers in a fireplace. They then moved to a townhouse at 1307 Park Ave. in the Bolton Hill neighborhood. In April 1934 Tender Is the Night was published, but to little success. Eventually, in October 1935 Fitzgerald and his daughter moved to the Cambridge Arms Apartments. He would leave the city for good in 1937. His most well known place for drinking in the city was The Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel, built in 1903.
Overwhelmed by being so close to ground that he trod without realizing it, of the history, the ability to feel a connection with him, I decided I wanted to have a drink in the bar, my first in a year and a half. Since about 14 I have had the oft-known love/hate relationship with alcohol. In early 2012 I was living in Orlando, had few friends and daily watched my father be taken over by cancer. In a rare clarifying moment I realized he was going to die and that I needed to face his death sober. I gave up all alcohol then and there. In another clarifying moment I saw the ideal opportunity to enter into an adult relationship with drink and let go of clinging to my tumultuous history with it.
Finding my friends still in bed (for I am an early riser these days), I told them of my plan and found them supportive. We begin the day by going to a huge outdoor farmers market that was filled with the wonderfully alive sights, smells and sounds of life that would disappear in just a few hours. From there we traveled to Bolton Hill and found his townhouse on Park Avenue. (La Paix has since been demolished). I recognized it instantly from seeing pictures online – a gray, three-story townhouse.
Still a private residence, it was sold earlier this year and so we were unable to go inside, but I was overjoyed to simply sit on the front step, imagining him standing there, smoking a cigarette, struggling with story ideas, Scottie inside listening to music. We went around back and peered in between the cracks of the fence then walked all the neighborhood. History is evident throughout. We went to find the park named after Fitzgerald after a 20 or so year battle by a Professor that I had read about. (Unfortunately I cannot find the article now, so it may not have been that long, but it was some silly amount of time). It turned out to be the smallest park I have ever seen – a bench, a few flowers, and a sprinkler which we promptly jumped into.
I don’t remember any thoughts as we drove over to the Belvedere, only that I couldn’t stop smiling. It had been a long, long time since I was this excited. The revolving door delivered us into the lobby, grand as I imagine it was in the day. The bar was to the back left. The walls in the hallway leading to it were full of pictures of celebrities who had drank there, but Fitzgerald was not among them.
It was unclear to me what parts of the original bar remain (well, except for the completely unnecessary giant TVs), but in the end I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to experience this place, this hotel, this room, these smells, the company of people who would drive me all around the city so that I could be a fanboy to my literary idol who died over 70 years ago. This bar, perhaps this railing. The owls watching me (used during prohibition their eyes flashed when alcohol was being served). He was here, drank here. Incredible. I promptly ordered a gin rickey and took in the entire room. We were the only ones there. I felt like a child. I had never had a gin rickey before, and quickly found it to be a new favorite. Shira joined me in one and Paul had an iced tea and we sat. We made plans to come back at night but it never happened. But that’s okay. It was a highlight. We toasted one another and him, and I toasted my father. It was one of those moments where everything stops and absolutely nothing else is necessary. The mind, for once, is in the present, not clinging to the past or longing for the future. In that moment, for me, all time existed.