481 Laurel Avenue
Richard McDermott died on September 2, and a memorial service was held for him on Sunday September 30 at the University Club in St. Paul. He had been retired for many years from the University of Minnesota, where he worked as a professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology. I wish to write here about a big part of his life that developed most fully after his retirement in 1991. Most readers didn't know Dick McDermott, I realize, but I suspect that a few literature lovers may be glad to know of him—especially fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born in St. Paul in 1896. My hope would be that this essay might seem a small memorial, too.
St. Paul had only been in existence for a half-century when Fitzgerald was born there. It emerged first as a steamboat stop, and then as an important railroad hub for trains passing through from the east to Seattle. Building did not begin on St. Paul's Cathedral until 1906, a decade after the author's birth. Even then, though, St. Paul was a genteel, settled city, one with strong traditions: "just remember," says the protagonist in Fitzgerald's short story "The Ice Palace," "this is a three-generation town." (Fitzgerald broods upon the city in "Absolution" as well.) St. Paul was struck by an epidemic in 1896, Fitzgerald's birth year, and two older sisters, ages three and one, both died a few months before his arrival. The atmosphere in the apartment in which Fitzgerald was born on a Sunday afternoon must have been a sad one, a far cry from the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties to come. Dick Diver in Tender is the Night shares these circumstances, of arriving into the world to a mother still mourning the recent loss of two daughters. Another sister of Fitzgerald's, born a few years later, lived for only an hour.
His father's wicker-furniture business collapsed when Fitzgerald was two, and the family relocated to upstate New York, where Scott's father sold soap around Buffalo and Syracuse. When he lost that job, with Proctor & Gamble, the Fitzgerald family returned to St. Paul, finding a place on the wide, tree-lined lane of Summit Avenue, but no longer as members of its high society. Later Fitzgerald described the avenue's Victorian homes as "turreted, spired, porticoed, and cupolaed" residences. In 1919 he was living at 599 Summit, a red-sandstone, two-family home with a vine-covered facade. He wrote the final version of This Side of Paradise there, and described his setting thus: "In a house below the average, / Of a street above the average, / In a room below the roof."
When the family first returned to St. Paul, it depended on the grocery inheritance of Fitzgerald's mother, and on friends' support. Even as a young boy Scott was aware of the social embarrassment and instability that his family faced. Consider two letters from the son's tenth year, both written from a summer camp in Ontario. "Dear Father, I received the St Nickolas today and I am ever so much obliged to you for it," he writes, referring to his receipt of a popular children's magazine, sounding as if he were forty, or a butler. And the second, blunter letter: "Dear Mother, I wish you would send me five dollars as all my money is used up." This collision of elegance and anxiety would stay with Fitzgerald forever, detectable in his style and informing the themes haunting his fiction.
It saddens me that Dick McDermott will not be around for the inevitable renewal of interest in Fitzgerald with the upcoming film of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. As you'll soon understand, Dick would have embraced this new interest in one his great writing heroes, with whom he shares an unusual connection. Fitzgerald's most famous novel, of course, does not need Hollywood's carousel of actors (Robert Redford, DiCaprio) to ensure its continuing place in the public consciousness. It is one of American literature's great books—a mainstay in classrooms, and placed second, behind only James Joyce's Ulysses, on an influential list of the best hundred books of the 20th century. Gatz, a recent theater production in New York, lasted several hours per performance and included the onstage reading of every word of The Great Gatsby. Against all odds, it was a commercial and critical success. Gatsby's story—its fictions and its losses and darknesses—has assumed even greater resonance for readers struggling through the past few years of what's been called the Great Recession.
For the most part, contentment eluded the man who created Gatsby. Throughout his cut-short writing career and his turbulent life with Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald never lived in a home of his own. No one would have predicted that, I suppose, but then again, only a couple of things about any person's life are settled and certain. The place where we are born is one of those unchangeable things. F. Scott Fitzgerald was born at 481 Laurel Avenue, a three-story brick building in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dick McDermott, whom I was lucky enough to visit once, also lived in St. Paul—in the apartment that was Fitzgerald's birthplace. This fact became one of the passions of his life. It was also one of his consolations during his final days with lung cancer.