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.
Dick first encountered the birthplace site when it and the building at 475 Laurel Avenue were the deteriorating San Mateo Flats. Built in 1893, the once prosperous Pullman-style residences had long ago been divided up into smaller rooms for rent, with tenants sharing a bathroom in the hall. Dick called the divided spaces "rabbit-hutch apartments." The entire Selby-Dale area was in decline, reeling from crime and drug-related problems. These buildings were declared uninhabitable and soon would be torn down. A nonprofit preservation group hoped to save them, although any potential restorer would have to face multiple pages of building-code violations. In March 1975, Richard and his wife were interested enough to go for it, to become one of twelve buyers. They thought of themselves as "urban pioneers." The course of rehab and occupancy, however, rarely does run smooth. Costs were double the original estimates, and the new owners resorted to doing their own demolition work, removing plaster and trim and rusted box springs on weekends. The first owner moved in, and soon original wood was uncovered under layers of paint, and a fireplace found behind poorly built dividing walls. Dilapidated cars near the buildings began to disappear.
The twelve owners drew lots to determine who would live in which unit. Dick ended up on the west side of the second floor, and soon received confirmation from neighbors, including a 90-year-old woman across the street, that his was the Fitzgeralds' old apartment, where the famous author had been born. It was no exaggeration, he remarked, that this "happenstance" of living there transformed his life.
I came to know of Dick and his special residence a few years ago, shortly before visiting St. Paul to participate in a poetry reading. My wife's stepmother learned of my upcoming trip, and told me I should visit her cousin, who lived in F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthplace. When I think about it, I can still feel my initial reaction in my facial muscles, as a courteous smile works hard to restrain deep skepticism. Was it really possible that I had a relation, even an indirect one, living in Fitzgerald's birthplace? But before I knew it, we had arranged a visit. I first thought it was a special thing that Dick would allow a distant relative he didn't know to stop by, but soon I realized that he welcomed in practically anyone with an interest in being there. This meant a dozen visitors a month sometimes. If he were on the second-floor deck watering plants, and he saw someone below looking around curiously, he would invite him or her up and give a tour. Over the years, there accumulated a large folder of thank-you notes, addresses, and business cards.
During the weekend of the poetry reading, I enjoyed a delightful visit with Dick. Approaching 481 Laurel Avenue, I first noticed the stone porch, above which were decks on the second and third floors, with planters hanging in the open spaces between the columns. A "Friends of Libraries" plaque on the outer brick announced the building's inclusion on the Literary Landmarks register. The inside of the building was beautifully restored, with a grand oak staircase and paneling immediately noticeable. Dick's condo was also elegant and immaculate, with high baseboards and some period furniture. The residence seemed more accurately curated than lived in. He clearly enjoyed sharing the building's history, and his personal connection to it, and I enjoyed hearing it. And we both had fun talking about all things Fitzgerald. His enthusiasm led him to compile quite a collection of Fitzgerald's books, as well as critical works about him and memorabilia relating to him. He showed me a framed copy of the author's birth certificate. I also found memorable Dick's enthusiasm for the Twin Cities' other literary luminaries: Garrison Keillor and, at the University of Minnesota, Patricia Hampl and Charles Baxter. Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is at one point told by his father to refrain from criticizing others and to remember "a sense of the fundamental decencies." That phrase, too, fit Richard McDermott well. His hospitality and sweet energy were a highlight of my short trip.
Back home, I could now see better a baby photo of Fitzgerald reprinted in one of the biographies. He is on the sidewalk, shortly after learning to stand, I would guess. His mother hovers on the grass just above him. You can see behind the pair the familiar porch and two front decks of the Laurel Avenue birthplace. It and the nearby buildings seem to shine with newness. The trees in the background are not very tall yet. Fitzgerald, wearing the filigree-collared baby clothes common for his day, looks like a little girl or young Japanese emperor. In another photo, Fitzgerald the toddler wears a white outfit and a black beret, and sits atop a black-and-white hobby-horse. He holds a tiny riding whip in one hand, and wears an expression of slight alarm. Maybe, deep in his little boy's psyche, he was already feeling the unease, the restlessness, the psychically exilic condition that would propel his many travels later in life. Patricia Hampl writes in Blue Arabesque that "All my heroes—my saints, as I think of them—have been traitors, one way or another, to their homeplace." Her list includes Matisse, Katherine Mansfield, and "Scott Fitzgerald, shrugging off his (and my) likewise Catholic St. Paul." Hampl asks, "Doesn't everything start at home? Especially the desire to escape it. Then, having escaped, to live in a permanent elegy, drawing from the well of your own hard-hearted ambition and proud rejections all the refused tendernesses, all the provincial complacencies you determined to abandon. And did abandon."
And yet—how fortunate for there to be someone willing to maintain the home fires, so to speak. Dick stayed busy with activities relating to his home and its famous former inhabitant. He corresponded with the curious, welcomed literary pilgrimages by scholars and enthusiastic readers, and hosted nearby school kids who visited for the sake of a research project. Sometimes he organized literary events at the home, bringing a spirit of eventfulness to Laurel Avenue and the Ramsey Hill neighborhood. In an interview with him in a newsletter, I can infer from one quotation his gentle irony and the smile that projected and softened it: "Thanks for getting to know me, now that I am an interesting person." His buzzer kept ringing, as graduate students and famous authors stopped by, or visitors from Mongolia and Belgium. "I usually learned so much from them, too," Dick said in another interview, in the Star Tribune.
When I next saw Dick at a family function, he was keen to show me a carefully made facsimile of a note from one of his recent visitors, the Iranian teacher Azar Nafisi, author of the popular 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. She now lives and works in Washington, D.C., but much of Nafisi's book focuses on her teaching classics of western literature and forming secret book clubs in Iran. The suspicion and resistance she encountered were considerable, but she persisted in her love of writers such as Fitzgerald. In her own book, she refers to the "green light" visible at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock in The Great Gatsby. Nafisi writes in Reading Lolita that she left Tehran in 1997 for the same green light in which Gatsby placed his hope. She was understandably moved, then, when she had the chance to visit Fitzgerald's birthplace, following a reading she gave in the Twin Cities. It was clear from Dick's and my conversation that he had been dazzled to host her, and the correspondence and words of thanks that they soon exchanged had the courtesy and good will of messages exchanged between two courtiers, pursuing different functions but both serving in Literature's retinue. In their notes to each other, they both referred to the green light.
As he received hospice care this summer, Dick was working with a circle of friends and brainstorming about a new nonprofit, the Fitzgerald in Minnesota Fund. The group promoted a number of outreaches—a prize for local authors, an annual conference, and contributions of Fitzgerald materials to the St. Paul library. Dick donated $250,000 from his estate to create this new foundation, dedicated to preserving Fitzgerald's legacy in these ways, and making Minnesotans more aware of the local connection. Amid what he knew full well were the final days of his life, Dick felt excitement at the planning going on around him. "It's a real upper for me."
You may be wondering if there was talk of Dick's residence becoming a tiny museum. There was, but the prospect of a single condo in a six-unit building being given to a fledgling foundation held legal complications, and besides, Dick was concerned about his neighbors soon growing tired of the noise and activity of visiting tour groups. This may seem a disappointing development, but it may be for the best in the long run. This is clearly Anne Trubek's view in her recent book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. "If you are trying to preserve literary history, you could do a dozen more sensible things than convert an old (and ever growing older) house into a museum," she writes. "First of all, houses are not the product of writers. Books are." In her book, Trubek visits residences associated with Whitman, Dickinson, Faulker, and various other authors, and she describes her experiences as usually "deadening." These homes "expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers," she explains.
For me, writers' houses are by definition melancholy. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet and dark. They remind me of death. And they aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination.
Trubek mentions Dick and the Fitzgerald birthplace in her first chapter. She mentions the site's designation as a national landmark, but makes it clear the building is not a museum. "Probably a good thing, too." It probably is, and Trubek's scrutiny provides a strange comfort in view of the upcoming sale of Dick's residence, and a roundly argued support of the new foundation's goals. Even so, it was beautiful while it lasted, and I am glad I was able to visit Dick and his special home.
Fitzgerald, down on his luck in 1940, wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins that, even if his books were no longer widely read, there was nothing he wrote that "doesn't slightly bear my stamp—in a small way I was an original." Richard McDermott, in his quiet, Minnesotan literature-loving way, was an original, too. He will be missed. Because of Dick, the artistic community in St. Paul is in far less danger these days of forgetting F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of its great native sons. Thanks to the new foundation, there is some consolation that Dick may be remembered for a long time in St. Paul, too. And if no longer so easy to visit now, there still remains the building and literary landmark on Laurel Avenue where he once lived, and where he died. But he'd rather you think of it in a different light—as, most of all, a birthplace, and a place where he, proud and enthusiastic, felt lucky to live as its fortunate tenant for 36 years.
Copyright © 2012 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.