It was a perfect beginning for a sentimental tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Baltimore: A golden September afternoon at Mount Vernon Place where artists and book lovers soaked up the inspirations of poetry and Rhumba Club music. It was a scene that might have inspired the enervated author as he stared out of his Stafford Hotel window at the statue of John Eager Howard, a particularly vigorous ancestor.
Yesterday, 28 Fitzgerald fans motored up from Rockville -- where the author is buried -- to visit spots where he lived, wrote and drank in Baltimore. The bus tour was an outing of the 1999 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, an event held annually at Montgomery College on a weekend near the writer's Sept. 24 birthday.
From 1932 to 1935, as his wife Zelda tried to regain her sanity in Baltimore hospitals, Fitzgerald struggled to finish his fourth novel, "Tender Is the Night," to control his alcoholism enough to write and to create a stable household for the couple's then 11-year-old daughter, Scottie.
The stay proved a particularly bleak turning point during which the writer realized his schizophrenic wife would never recover. Five years later, at the age of 44, he died of a heart attack in Hollywood, believing himself a failure as a writer.
Joan Hellman, professor of English and Humanities at Catonsville Community College, is one of a legion of Fitzgerald lovers committed to proving him wrong. Engaging and enthusiastic, she has written numerous articles about the writer and served yesterday as a guide to his local haunts.
From Mount Vernon Place, she directed the tour to the Cambridge Arms apartment overlooking Johns Hopkins University, to the grounds of Sheppard Pratt, to St. Joseph Hospital -- the former site of La Paix, the Victorian mansion Fitgerald rented -- past the third-floor porch of his Bolton Hill home and to the Eutaw Place memorial to Francis Scott Key, another Baltimore relative.
"Francis Scott Key was a second cousin three generations removed on his father's side," Hellman said. When the Minnesota- born writer moved to Maryland, she explained, he discovered he had many blue-blooded roots, including the Ridgelys, builders of Hampton Mansion.
Hellman's audience of teachers, graduate students, writers and other Fitzgerald enthusiasts were mostly from Maryland and surrounding states. Ellie Caffery, a retired biochemist from New Orleans, said her father was a contemporary of Fitzgerald's at Princeton and that she went to Vassar while Scottie Fitzgerald was still there.
Perhaps the most popular spot on the tour was the Belvedere Hotel, site of the famed Owl Bar, a place where Fitzgerald spent many a long evening.
"This is the place where he brought his friend Lou Azrael, the Baltimore newspaperman, just after 'Tender Is The Night' went out to be published," Hellman said. "It was here he said to Lou: 'This novel is the test of whether I'm just a flash-in-the-pan or a real author.'
"He was very worried," she paused. "And it got very mixed reviews."
Perhaps even more important to a man struggling to pay his wife's hospital bills and his daughter's tuition, the book was a commercial failure.
Yesterday, Fitzgerald admirer Rae Meltzer was keen on righting another injustice: Fitzgerald's lack of recognition at the Owl Bar.
"I was on this tour last year, and looked everywhere but couldn't see any picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald," she said. "There are all these other pictures of famous people, but no Fitzgerald! So I told this story to the manager, and she said 'We'll take care of it.'
"Well, I've looked all around. And they still haven't!"
The tour's last stop was the immense statue of Jesus Christ in the Rotunda building of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Fitzgerald knew the hospital well from his visits to Zelda in the Phipps clinic -- and from his own periodic attempts to dry out.
"He mentions the statue in 'Tender Is the Night,' " said Hellman. "He wasn't exactly a religious man, but he placed it in his work. The statue was brought to Hopkins in 1896, the same year he was born. Somehow that statue, Christus Consolator, stuck in Fitzgerald's mind.
"And so we end things there," she said. "It's kind of a good ending."
But yesterday's book fair provided another ending, one the author might have enjoyed even better. Across the street from the old Stafford, visitors gathered all afternoon to read two huge yellow oilcloth pages filled with the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language books of the 20th century. Some folks were even copying them down.
No. 2 on the list, right after James Joyce's "Ulysses," was Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." And "Tender Is the Night," the object of so much hope and anguish for the author while in Baltimore, had placed an enviable 28th.