Bad Behavior

Chasing the Next Gatsby: The Fitzgeralds in the Brandywine

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It was the existence of the wealthy clan of du Ponts who prompted editor Maxwell Perkins to suggest to F. Scott Fitzgerald that he move to quiet Wilmington, Delaware in 1927. What better inspiration material could be found?

Scott had already spent all of his earnings from The Great Gatsby and had burned out of Hollywood in an attempt at screenwriting. He needed another hit novel. His former Princeton roommate, John Biggs, found a house for Scott and Zelda near where he lived in Wilmington, Delaware. He thought, perhaps, the quiet area would inspire Scott to complete his work.

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Affordable Mansions

The Greek Revival mansion they settled in was named Ellerslie and had been built in 1842 with 30 rooms, enough to allow them to live almost separately but still under the same roof. This was important because Scott was desperate to write. At only $150 a month it was a great deal and the Fitzgeralds signed a two-year lease. The large home needed two maids and Zelda designed custom furniture to fill the immense rooms. Scott loved the mansion and called himself the “Eccentric Earl of Ellerslie” while they lived there.

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Zelda planted white roses around the house, painted the furniture and decorated 6-year old Scottie’s room with painted fairytale scenes. She also completed her first oil canvas painting, a view of their historic home. All of her painting and work (and frenzied ballet dancing in the enormous parlor mirror) while there points to the unstoppable mania that would ultimately consume her.

Scott attempted to work on his new novel Tender Is the Night by taking over the third floor of the house but he was continually interrupted by their social life. Zelda took over the ballroom, converting it into her ballet studio, where she obsessively practiced from morning to night. Scottie lived in her own separate area of the house with her governess. Some mingling with the du Ponts, trips to nearby New York City or Philadelphia and aimless walks through the grounds distracted Scott from his writer’s block but didn’t solve the problem. To cope he and Zelda drank heavily as usual.

Biggs, who had found them the house, had to bail them out of trouble after they were arrested by police for drunkenness in a tough section of town nicknamed “Bloodfield.”

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Distractions

There was also the enormous distraction of visitors who came to visit the couple, “frenemy” Ernest Hemingway among them. The Fitzgeralds held glittering parties with moonlit cocktails set to jazz music under the chestnut trees (chestnut trees were unfortunately wiped out in the 1940’s in the area due to disease, just as the peach trees had been). Parties were held for any reason, one was just to celebrate Charles Lindbergh’s flight.

Two years later, by 1929, it was clear the Fitzgeralds would not be accomplishing anything along the Brandywine and they left for France. Not much survived from their time in the Brandywine Valley except for Scott’s short story “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” about daughter Scottie.

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Tender is the Night would become known as Scott’s finest novel, though thanks to the movies and your high school English class The Great Gatsby is still his most popular work. He would complete Tender (in 1934) while staying in Maryland where Zelda had been committed to an institution.

Ellerslie was torn down in 1973 to make way for DuPont’s Edgemoor plant. It was announced in August of 2015 that DuPont would be closing the plant there as part of their merger with Chemours.

Old photos of Ellerslie Mansion.

Ellerslie as it was.

Sources: “The Brandywine: An Intimate Portrait” by W.Barksdale Maynard, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 2

*The photos of roses and blue poppies accompanying this post were taken at Longwood Gardens.