Venice: The City of Dreamers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ruth Sturtevant and the 1921 trip to Venice

Before heading south to Rome, Scott and Zelda spent several days in Venice — the so-called ‘Queen of the Adriatic’. As with Paris and London, little of what they did here was ever recorded. In letters and writings the pair produced after their return home the references and allusions amount to little more than scraps. Many of these are random and occasionally rather surreal. A ride on a gondola. Feeling like an old Italian song. The Pietro. The Sturtevant. It wasn’t for want of trying from his editor, Max Perkins. Scott had written to him from Venice and Max had immediately written back: “If at any time you should feel inclined to write about the things that are happening, do it because nothing would interest me more than to know of them.” Max explained that he been sending out notes about his trip to some of the newspapers. If Scott was able to jot a few things down and mail them to Max he could turn them into “discreet but effective publicity.” Scott had sent pictures of him writing, but when it came to offering anything close to actual words, the author had been stubbornly ungiving. They were enjoying themselves “hugely” and were “as usual” asking for gold — another $1000 to be precise. Whatever he was or wasn’t feeling about Venice — whether it was totally “rotten time” as he was telling Carl Hovey of The Metropolitan or the hugely enjoyable time he was telling Max about — he wasn’t letting on. It was an impudent break with tradition in that respect, profane almost. Practically every other writer who had come to Venice over the years had felt compelled to share their views. Among them two of Scott’s favourite authors, Henry James and Mark Twain, whose stay here had inspired one of his best-selling books, The Innocents Abroad. For Twain this “haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic” was full of shadowy intrigue that was capable of seducing doubter and pilgrim alike. It held a knife to your throat and literally forced the words out, often in an outrageous blood-letting of superlatives. But their own experiences of the place, on paper at least, were like the purulent discharge of dreams, and only ever back to life in the blandest and most disjointed of flashes.

In her later writings, Zelda would recall buying a tea set from a cluttered bazaar. She said that she and Scott had paid in excess of a $1000 for it. She might have been exaggerating but whatever they did pay for the tea set, she cooed, was worth the entire trip to Europe alone. Frustratingly though, the blisteringly hot heat that had exhausted them in France had travelled with them to Italy and Zelda recalls seeing the scorched red backs of the road workers as the couple melted about the maze-like, pedestrianised calli, the relentless rays of the sun intensified by the bright green gloss of the water. At night the water would lollop around the boats and everything would twinkle, but in the day the madness of the heat would place a suffocating gauze around it all. In the more open parts of the city the heat was touching 90 degrees but in the denser parts, where the streets were narrow and the houses high and tightly compact together, it was closer to 100. Even the locals were having trouble going out in the day. On the Lido beach there was little town of bathing houses. Row upon row of them, tall, neat and upright stood attentively on the sands, possessing all the mercifulness of confessional boxes. Practically all summer long the bathers would make these huts their home, only venturing back to their hotels and houses after dark or when there was no other way of avoiding it.

Upon arrival the couple checked into the Royal Danieli, a palatial five-star hotel with a terracotta façade. Today the hotel has changed very little. The huge red face of the building stands out distinctively against the insipid plaster-white of the surrounding properties, puffed-up and boastful. Step out of the doors and you are looking directly onto the waters of the sparkling Saint Mark’s lagoon. If Scott had wanted romance, he’d hit the jackpot. It was everything you could have ever imagined from the books: a perfectly preserved fairy-tale that was so old, so grand and so unashamedly gothic that it seemed forever embalmed in moonlight. Two other writers had checked in at the same hotel that year: Betty Adler, an official correspondent with America’s Peace Delegation in Paris, and travel writer, Edward Hungerford. Adler recalled that life at the Danieli was so cosmopolitan that even the room boys spoke English. But what everyone seemed to remember most was your arrival by gondola. To be transported by gondola from the station to the hotel after the experience of the dirty train put a golden, syrupy glaze around the whole thing. Italy was still suffering from the war and the train rides were anything but sanitary and comfortable. [1] Arriving here was like entering some cosy little magic kingdom. The world around it may have been collapsing, but once you were sliding across Venice’s rippling holy waters you were on another plane entirely. The Royal Danieli would be like nothing they had ever seen. It was a mash-up world of epic proportions. After pushing open the doors of the hotel you be immediately confronted with the hotel’s grand reception hall and its enormous coffered ceiling. Standing among the palms and gilded furniture you would find yourself hovering stupefied among the guests. Above your head would be golden chandeliers. Great, dangling acres of them. Scott’s literary idol, Theodore Dreiser, the author whose book The Genius he had picked up in Paris, had stayed at the same hotel several years before. In a book that Dreiser would write of his travels, the author would describe it as “delicious old Palace”. [2] There would sculptures and divans and a constant procession of porters scuttling along with bags, their humble pedalling feet falling almost without noise, trying as hard as possible to blend into the cool, silky elegance of it all. And along the walls would be a gallery of old masters by men whose names you could barely pronounce let alone recall: Botticelli, Masaccio, Correggio, Donatello, Tintoretto, Veronese. Once your eyes adjusted to its dim, crepuscular lighting you would be staring at the hall’s reef of Persian rugs, getting high on a seemingly impossible cocktail of the Castle of Ontranto and Arabian Nights.

Like Hungerford, the Fitzgeralds had probably taken the Simplon-Orient Express from the South France. Hungerford had described the train as shabby and inconsequential. It had no club cars, observation cars or any other of the standard comforts you’d usually get going between New York and Saint Paul. The train went scooting off cross-country from Paris, through Switzerland and down from the north of the country into Milan. As it was, the beautiful scenery more than made-up for any shortfalls the trains had in terms of conveniences.  It was a spectacular route. For a time the train would rattle alongside Lake Geneva, then through the cold, icy heart of the Alps before arriving on the bright green shores of Lake Maggiore and then Milan — the ‘Detroit’ of Italy. Hungerford described the last leg of the journey from Milan to Venice as like the one from New York to Atlantic City. For miles in every direction were these wide and perfectly flat expanses of marshland bordering the sea. The comparison ended when you got off the train and passed through the portals of the railway station. Right in front of you would be a broad boulevard of water. The surrounding houses were all tightly compact and the once blazing facades, in all sorts of colours, had mellowed with time. The softness they now possessed smothered you like a dream. [3]

Once out of the railway station a waiting Gondola would have taxied them to the Royal Danieli. Unlike the train, these long-flat bottomed boats moved serenely through the water, the Gondolier, standing like a neat and slender column in his blue and white striped shirt, expertly bending the boat around tight corners without ever losing pace.  Twain had called them ‘fairy boats’. The charge for the trip was 35 lira. Quite a hefty price by the standards of Paris, but like everything in Venice, the overwhelming opulence of the place seemed to make any demand seem reasonable. The bonus was that tipping of any kind was now frowned upon in Venice and for the next seven days, no matter how where you went and no matter how good the service, you never paid more for the privilege. When the couple stopped and got out of the boat they would be looking up at a magnificent 800 year old Palazzo. Goethe, Byron, Dickens, Balzac and Wagner were among those who had walked through the doors of the hotel over the years. The Bridge of Sighs may have earned a reputation as a bit of a swindle, but there was nothing disappointing about the Royal Danieli. Even when Venice’s 200,000 inhabitants had been reduced to 20, 000 during the war the hotel had remained open on a reduced-rate basis, the gorgeous, heavy reality of the place seemingly impervious to the thunder of German shelling. Even time itself seemed to leave no mark.

Dreiser had been totally bowled over by what he saw in Venice. Writing about his travels in 1913 he was clearly still energized by the experience, even if the scenes he was anxious to paint occasionally reduced him to the most uncharacteristic sentimentality: “The grand canal under a glittering moon. The clocks striking twelve. A horde of black gondolas … The moon picking out the ripples in silver and black.” Venice at its best, according to Dreiser, was “Distant lights, distant voices. Someone singing, pianos playing at midnight”. And then there were the men, “silhouetted blackly under dark arches” and the soft purr of the water beneath your window and on your doorstep. The water was the thing in Venice. With the water came the whole “eternal rhythm” and the whole “eternal flow” of the place. In Venice, water was a symbol of time. There was nowhere in the world where it was more sensuously, more diligently and more peacefully measured and experienced. No horses, no wagons “just the patter of human feet”. [4] Dreiser had enjoyed practically the same itinerary: London, Whitechapel and the East End, Oxford, Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome. He may have gone further and done more on his travels but there’s no doubting there was the faintest of echoes in Scott’s footsteps. Perhaps in retracing Dreiser’s travels and following him to the doors of the Royal Danieli, Scott thought he could somehow navigate his way to the same acknowledged level of genius. Being the slightly green young talent that he was, perhaps he had undertaken his trip to Europe as a rites of passage to greatness. One thing’s for sure, it probably gave him no end of pleasure to know he got there twenty years ahead of the old masters. Dreiser was forty when he first visited Europe. Twain had been thirty-two. Scott was just twenty-four.

The USS Sturtevant

There’s no doubt it; when it came to the hotel Scott had made an exquisite choice. This fantastically ornate and aristocratic hotel was the go-to choice for princes, kings, diplomats and artists the whole world over. The hall with its multiple tiered balconies was among the most beautiful in the world. So too was the grand golden staircase which stood exactly like it had in the fifteenth century. Nothing though prepared you for what happened when you raised your eyes to the ceiling. The enormous glass roof of the atrium was an astonishing piece of architecture — part-Oriental, part-Gothic. To the couple’s delight, the smoking room just off the hall also had an American bar. Supporting the Royal Danieli’s precious history was an abundance of modern conveniences, the centuries of wax on the windows cheerfully offset by state of the art gambling machines. It was an extraordinary place to meet extraordinary people and, providing the heat didn’t sap your energy, do extraordinary things. Scott would have looked out across the Grand Canal tracing the endless reflections of lanterns and the flashing blades of the gondoliers and thought he was in paradise. But as beautiful as it was, there was also a palpable tension here too. On his return to New York with Scott on the SS Celtic in July, his travel companion Edward Hungerford would give a series of lectures on the political situation in Italy, reiterating the point made by Scott in his letters that there was an unpleasant threat of violence forever bubbling beneath the surface. It might look like the place of kings but the city was now dominated by the Fascisti. A corollary might be found in Wolfshiem’s henchmen hanging around the gardens at Gatsby’s parties. There was something dark and sinister upsetting the gorgeous romance of the place. Hungerford offered a bleak but realistic portrait: at one time the Fascisti may have seemed like the reincarnation of Garibaldi’s men or The Minutemen under Washington, but now, he lamented, they resembled nothing more noble or romantic than the Ku Klux Klan. Hungerford offered a bleak but realistic portrait: at one time the Fascisti may have seemed like the reincarnation of Garibaldi’s men or The Minutemen under Washington, but now, he lamented, they resembled nothing more noble or romantic than the Ku Klux Klan. These young men “showed readily how any undisciplined force, no matter how high its ideals may be at the outset, may speedily become a national menace.” [5] Woe betide any tourist who got in their way, or didn’t treat the place with the respect it deserved. One poor American woman was seen being kicked in the stomach — a sight that disturbed Scott greatly. Mark Twain had been among the first to observe the insanely divided heart of the city. Wherever you went in the city were the grossly incompatible images of peace and war — pictures of Venetian fleets smashing the battlements of Constantinople and next to them the “hallowed portraits of the Virgin, the Saviour of men, and the holy saints that preached the Gospel of Peace upon earth”. When it wasn’t peace, love and understanding it was brutality and humiliation. None of the pictures conveyed the true suffering of either event. Nobody was bleeding. Nobody was screaming for their mothers. There was none of the agony and all of the ecstasy. It seemed like the whole city had been built not on water, but on one great lie.

For the best part of the stay Scott and Zelda behaved like typical tourists. There was a trip to the Basilica of Saint Peter (the San Pietro di Castello), Doge’s Palace and the Giardini Pubblici — a shady area of public gardens on the eastern extreme side of the city with its statue of Garibaldi at the entrance and a constant rota of art exhibitions in its pavilions. They also took rides on the canals and did marathon tours of the markets and shops. But a look over the scrapbook and family photos from this period reveals one of the more unusual events on the trip. In one picture Zelda is pictured with Lieutenant Thomas Hinckley Robbins Jr of the US Navy. Born in Paris in May 1900, Robbins, a naval aviator, would go on serve as a Rear Admiral in World War II. According to the society news columns of the time he was a descendant of Fisher Ames, a leader of the Federal Party and a member of America’s first congress. The grainy black and white snapshot shows the pair sitting on a bench, leaning somewhat unsuccessfully into the shade of a Jasmine tree that fans above them. The location was most likely around the Fermata S. Marco ferry terminal looking out across the Giudecca and the Lido at Piazza San Marco. In the scrapbook, Scott has scribbled at the bottom of the photo a little reminder of their visit: “Goofo vamping the navy”. It’s written in jest as Zelda is looking anything but vampish. She leans, fairly unassumingly into the tall and immaculately uniformed Lieutenant Robbins, her bonnet pulled firmly down on her forehead trying to avoid the glare of the sun. Robbins sits in a relaxed manner, his feet crossed, his white shoes dazzling and his hands cupped loosely in his lap. His Boston-based father had studied medicine at the Ecole de Médecine in Paris after graduating from Harvard in 1899 and returned to America when Thomas was eight.  But Robbins isn’t the story here, the boat is.

At the time the picture was taken Robbins was a crew member of the USS Sturtevant, a torpedo boat destroyer that had recently been deployed by the American Navy on a series of diplomatic missions in the Adriatic. Extraordinarily, the ship had been named after the brother of one of Scott’s closest friends, Ruth Sturtevant. It was the most tragic of tales. Ensign Albert Dillon Sturtevant, the son of a prominent Washington lawyer, had enlisted in the US Naval Reserve Flying Corps in March 1917. Within weeks of arriving at camp his considerable physical prowess and academic accomplishments at the Sheffield Scientific School in Yale had brought him to the attention of Admiral Sims who selected him for aerial reconnaissance training first at Hungtingdon, Long Island, then at West Palm Beach Florida, before eventually being deployed to the British Naval Flying Station in Felixstowe. It was in England that he received his final two-months intensive training. Albert was reported missing in action in the third week of February 1918. A few days later the sad truth emerged. The 24 year old Albert had lost his life on escort duty high above the North Sea Coast in his Curtiss H-12B Seaplane. He and his co-pilot had been in charge of a crew of four, the other men handling the machine-guns. There were no survivors. According to a statement released by Admiral Sims, the young man had been ambushed by ten enemy planes and gone down in flames into the ocean. Another plane in the convoy recognized the hopelessness of the situation and escaped to safety. Albert, as lead pilot, was duty bound to battle on, bringing down two of the enemy aircraft before crippled he ditched in the sea not far from the shoreline of Belgium. No body was ever found and he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for the bravery he had shown in battle.

President Wilson had written personally to Albert’s father expressing a grief that the whole shared: “It was a death in the field of honor assuredly, and there must be great pride in your heart that such was the case, but that does not alter the fact that you have lost a beloved son and my heart goes out to you in genuine sympathy.” [6] Just two years earlier, Albert’s picture had graced the pages of the nation’s papers when his Yale varsity rowing team had earned an historic victory over Harvard. They had won by a bare margin of two feet, their first win in seven years. That same face, handsome and heroic, now stared out from the pages of the country’s newspapers for entirely different reasons; the great ‘Washington flyer’ was dead and he and gallant crew floated lifelessly on the waves between England and Holland. [7] After making the 4,000 mile journey from New York to Venice, Scott was faced with a glaring and uneasy memories of his war service back home. Any satisfaction he’d got in dodging Memorial Day back in Paris had been short lived. Despite all his valiant efforts to avoid the celebrations he had found himself with the most intimate and painful reminder of his failure to serve abroad. It must have been difficult to comprehend: the ship sitting in the harbour in front of him had been named after someone whose family he knew. Did he know it was there? Had this stop-off been planned with a tour of the ship in mind? It’s really very difficult to tell.

The Sturtevants of Washington

Scott had been corresponding with Ruth Sturtevant regularly since the summer of 1915. An entry in Scott’s ledger dated 1915 reads “April Easter in Washington. Helen Walcott & Ruth Sturtevant.” Scott had been making almost annual trips to Washington D. C since March 1912, when after visiting his aunt at the Naval Yard in Norfolk he had stayed with his grandmother Cecilia Fitzgerald and the Forrest family on N Street. The father-in-law of the head of the family, Randolph Keith Forrest, was Commodore William Sturtevant Moore Sr, a prominent Washington naval officer. During subsequent trips to Washington, Scott would meet with his Newman School mentor Father Sigourney Fay who was then alternating his work at Newman with his duties at the Catholic University of America in Washington. It was here with Fay that Scott had enjoyed his very first glass of whisky. Nobody knows the occasion. Perhaps it had been a result of the Saint Patrick’s celebrations going on in the city that month. Fay had been in Washington conducting a series of lectures on the state of Catholicism in the Balkans. Standing before an audience of some four hundred Washingtonians, Fay said that if he’d learned anything on his recent trips to Russia it was that the faith of the people would eventually come back to Rome. With this in mind he was looking to raise some $500,00 in funds for the erection of a Catholic chapel in a campaign being sponsored by Thomas Fortune Ryan in New York. If the campaign was successful it would be the grandest Catholic church in Washington. As Ruth and Albert’s father, Charles Lyon Sturtevant was an influential figure at the Washington Loan & Trust Company, it’s entirely plausible that Scott had first encountered Ruth during one of the many appeals that Fay would be making at society events in Washington. Although it may sound rather cynical to modern readers, Scott’s role in the plot may have been to score the attention of society belles and for Fay to capitalise on the romance with well-timed pitches for donations from the families. Someone who was in absolutely no doubt about Fay’s function with the church was their mutual friend, Shane Leslie. Shane knew that Fay’s role as ‘society priest’ had been to use all his dazzling charm to win the favour of America’s most powerful dynasties on behalf of the clergy in Rome and senior American prelate, Cardinal James Gibbons.

Leslie and Fay had been late converts to the Catholic faith. They had money and they had connections. Like so many things he took on in Washington, Fay’s mission was consular in nature. Until Taft, the Catholic Church had been totally unrepresented in government. The vast majority of the Old Money families were either Presbyterian or Episcopalian. There was suspicion and there was prejudice. Fay’s objective was to try and change all that. In his fuchsia pink cassock, Fay flapped around New York and Washington with a license to influence and lobby at the highest of levels. In his review of This Side of Paradise Shane had compared Fay to Monsignor Catesby in the novel, Lothair —a very poorly concealed portrait of Father Thomas John Capel, the Irish-born Catholic priest whose lobbying of wealthy widows was stained with accusations of corruption, drunken excess and sexual misconduct. [8] As outrageous as it sounds, there’s every chance that Fay had been chiselling away at Scott to form a chip off the old block — the first in a line of ‘next generation’ society priests with proud, enduring links to America’s founding fathers. They were certainly trying to steer the young Scott to the priesthood, that much is known. As Ruth Sturtevant’s father Charles was a member of the alumni chapter, Fratres in Urbe, of the Phi Delta Phi fraternity with former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, it’s a theory that might hold some water. The Sturtevants were, on paper at least, a family who commanded a lot of influence and respect. [9]

As it turns out, Scott appears to have visited Washington with the Princeton theatre troupe in April 1915. A crossed-out entry in his ledger reads, “Easter in Washington. Ruth Sturtevant.” Easter that year was on the April 5th. A series of reports in the Washington Post had tracked the group from rehearsals in New Jersey to their final performance at the New Willard Hotel on April 6th. The Willard was the capital’s first skyscraper and a building that celebrated author Nathaniel Hawthorne once said had earned more right to be called the centre of Washington “than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.” At 1401-09 Pennsylvania Avenue it was practically adjacent to the White House. The newspaper described how the Princeton ‘Glee Club’ proved its vocal and dramatic powers with a series of English and Scottish Ballads and fine old opera tunes. The boys even provided a rousing rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s Rolling to Rio and Song of the Vikings by way of an encore. Those sponsoring the gala that night included many leading society names. Among them were Mrs William Jennings Bryan (wife of the former Presential candidate), Mrs William B. McAdoo (daughter-in-law of President Wilson), Mrs Lindley M. Garrison (wife of the Secretary of War) and Mrs J. Borden Harriman (wife of the Gilded Age financier). At the conclusion of the event the boys were entertained by a dance group that featured Scott’s friend, Ruth Sturtevant and her brother Albert. The tea dance appears to have been organised by their father Charles and hosted by Colonel John Temple Graves and his wife. [10]

Between 1915 and 1918 Scott would make a number of return trips to Washington, often around the time of George Washington’s birthday in February or St Patrick’s Day in March. Meeting him there would either be Fay or Shane Leslie. In November 1917 Leslie would rent the home of Mrs de Frees Critten at 2127 Leroy Place in North West Washington. [11] Residing just eight houses along the road at 2110 Leroy Place was Ruth Sturtevant and her family. They appear to have been living there since the early part of the decade. A society news item in January 1915 tells of a bridge party organised by Mrs Critten that Ruth’s mother, Bessie Sturtevant had attended. [12] The arrangement made a certain amount of sense. For years, Leslie’s wife Marjorie and his brother in law, William Bourke Cockran had been on intimate terms with the Roosevelts and the Crittens. The group’s friendship had started during an expedition with President Taft to the Philippines some ten years earlier. The trip had resulted in a string of holiday romances. It was shortly after this that Leslie’s friend Alice Roosevelt married Nicholas Longworth, William Bourke Cockran married Anna Louise Ide and Mignon Critten had married US Representative, J. Swagar Sherley. Critten’s father was De Frees Critten, a millionaire textile merchant and a good friend of President Taft. [13] Her mother Olive had a long and abiding place in the nation’s history, her Great Great Grandmother, Betsy Ross, being the legendary maker of the first American Flag. The flag, purported to have been stitched together at Ross’s house in Philadelphia, was adopted by George Washington and Congress in June 1777. [14] Ruth Sturtevant’s father Charles had his proud heritage to boast of. According to a book of members of the Mayflower Society, Charles was a tenth generation descendant of the original Mayflower settler (and religious dissenter) James Chilton of Canterbury. [15] Critten’s leasing of the house to Leslie didn’t go unnoticed by the Chicago Tribune who noted that other members of the War Mission like Herbert Hoover, Barnard Baruch and a member of the French Commission had all taken over houses owned by wealthy Washingtonians. [16]

For Scott, the housing arrangement couldn’t have been more convenient. At one end of Leroy Place he had his confidant, Ruth Howard Sturtevant, and at the other his literary muse and mentor, Shane Leslie, whose diplomatic work for the British Foreign office required the firmest and most secure of locations and the most generous of America’s founding families to help extend his reach. As Leslie continued his work with President Wilson’s special adviser Colonel House in the delicate aftermath of the peace negotiations in Paris, his landlady Mrs Critten got to work entertaining the new British Ambassador to America, Auckland Geddes and his wife.  According to the Washington Herald Critten had welcomed the pair to her home in Leroy Place after the pair had struck a friendship as neighbours on Staten Island. It was on the island that Critten had her summer residence. The newspaper described how Lady Geddes had been a frequent visitor to her beautiful Olivecrest home on the arrival the previous year. [17] Another news item in the Washington Herald in March 1921 reveals that as Scott prepared for his trip to Europe, Critten was entertaining Lord and Lady Geddes at a luncheon at Leroy Place where they were joined by her daughter Marjorie and Lady Margaret Scott, a guest of the Geddes at the British Embassy. [18]

Although it’s not clear how and when the pair first met, the friendship that Scott and Ruth struck-up in Washington would be taken to a whole new level when he learned that they had mutual friends in common and, better still, that they’d all been talking about him. Like any boy his age he was curious. The previous autumn, Ruth had enrolled at Miss Porter’s boarding school in Farmington, Connecticut. Also attending the school was Scott’s childhood friend from Saint Paul, Alida Bigelow. During the usual froth and fuss of school banter, Ruth had mentioned meeting a boy in Washington who was also from Saint Paul. His name was Scott and he had this really cute chat-up line he would use on girls; when he met one he liked he would tell them he had the perfect adjective to describe them and would tell them what it was when he got to know them better. Someone had quizzed Alida if she knew this boy back in Saint Paul and Alida said she did. Writing to Ruth from Princeton, Scott couldn’t contain his excitement when he learned he was the subject of their gossip: “Who was the person you met who knew me ? … I know three girls at Farmington, I do, I do. One is Aleda Bigelow who is a lot like you. I think I told her to tell you I said so — awfully good looking dark-haired girl.” The next six years would see a stream of communications between the pair. Although largely confined to cheerful, flirtatious babble about books, friends and mutual aggravations illustrated with doodles and little jokes, Ruth would quickly become a sounding-board for Scott’s profoundly unsuccessful bid to romance his first love, Ginevra King, and to offer words of comfort during a similar romantic roller-coaster when he was dating Zelda Sayre. They may have had their occasional quarrels but by 1919 there was an intimacy between Scott and Ruth that seemed to go well beyond the superficialities of teenage banter. In one exchange, Scott’s unburdens himself in the most dramatic and revealing of ways: “I feel I ought to tell you something because you’re the only person in the world that knows the other half. I’ve done my best and I’ve failed—it’s a great tragedy to me and I feel I have very little left to live for because until everything is as it should be I’ll have that sense of vacancy that only this can give.” After months of persistence, Zelda had laid it on the line to Scott: she was prepared to sleep with him but not marry him. [19] A week after writing to Ruth he had made up his mind to throw in his job at the Barron Collier Advertising Company, leave New York, return to Saint Paul and become a full-time writer.

How much Ruth Sturtevant kept Scott up to date with brother’s athletics achievements isn’t known, but if one takes into account Scott’s continuing daydreams about being a Princeton sporting hero, one can imagine they talked about Albert occasionally, even if the letters the pair exchanged don’t mention him specifically. January 1917 marked a change in tone between the pair. Ruth’s mother Bessie had been taken ill and brother Albert was all set to enlist. Ruth had mailed what Scott had described as an ‘icy’ and ‘circumspect’ letter but his reply showed a kind of sensitivity that he rarely shared with anyone: “I heard that you’re mother has been sick again and I want to write to say what a perfect shame I think it is … Oh Ruth I am so sorry that this is happening to you.” A “perfect shame” probably wasn’t the most warmest expression he could have used, it was awkward to say the least, but he was trying.

Two Weddings and Two Funerals

A few weeks later Ruth’s mother died and one year later brother Albert was dead. The only good news Ruth had was when she announced her engagement to Curtis Ripley Smith in March that year, an announcement that coincided with her society ‘debut’ in Washington. In October 1919 Ruth and Curtis married at the Church of the Covenant. The newspapers described it as “one of the most important and beautifully arranged” weddings of the year. Even by the standards of the Washington elites, it was a beautiful and touching ceremony. At 4.30pm on Saturday the 25th the couple stood in a chapel festooned with yellow chrysanthemums, autumn leaves, palms and ferns. Draped around the pillars supporting the balcony were fragrant, pale green flowers and pretty red berries of the greenbrier bush. For the families of the bride and groom the pews were reserved with oak leaves and the bridesmaids made their entrance in gowns of French Blue “silver-touched” taffeta. Ruth wore a dress of ivory satin and scarf of rose-point lace. In her hands she held a shower of orchids. [20]

Scott had been invited to the wedding but his ongoing dramas with Zelda in Alabama and news of his publishing deal just a few weeks before were consuming much if not all of his time and attention. In a letter he wrote to Ruth a few months after her wedding, Scott explained the situation; since landing his deal with Scribners life had been a bit of whirl and he was only just beginning to get back on his feet. He said he should have written sooner to congratulate her but the frenetic pace of life had just whooshed him along. It was really rather typical of Scott. He was so often preoccupied with his own personal dramas that the suffering and the joys of the people he loved the most often went by unnoticed. He was a self-confessed egoist in every sense of the word. The real reason for his letter was simple. He wanted to let Ruth know that he was well on the way to becoming “an established author.” He had six stories ready for the Saturday Evening Post and in April, his first novel was going to be published. He said he had some “vague recollection” of writing her the previous June when he his world had just collapsed and that he should have written sooner.

When it all boiled down to it, the letter of apology to Ruth was motivated partly by regret, partly by insecurity and almost certainly by narcissism. With Scott, the value of those around him was always relative to how much they could advance his social and literary ambitions. For five years Ruth had been among his count of “enchanted objects”. But he wasn’t losing them like Gatsby, he was casting them aside. Scott would have given anything to have been like Venice. His desire wasn’t to be ‘liked’ or ‘well-received’ but to dominate the imaginations of all those people he knew, either personally or through his writing. Venice may have been an old, hackneyed treasure trove of sorts, something that had more glamour than substance, more sentimentality than sincerity, but it was magnificent all the same. Whether it was the shabby paper lanterns attached to the gondolas, or the painfully contrived singing, people adored it. Visitors were prepared to put up with the mildew, the stagnant waters and the clinging weeds for the few brief moments of magic it would provide. A few years ago, Qatar built a replica of Venice. Those who visited the place said they felt like the whole city was made of wax. It wasn’t real, it was a fake. But they were missing the point entirely; Venice had always been a fake. The centuries of wax on the windows at the Royal Danieli were proof of that. The only thing preventing the place from crumbling into dust were the combined imaginations of the souls who visited. It was their dreams that held it together, just as they held Scott together.

In August 1919 it was announced that Ruth would act as sponsor in the construction of two US warships in Camden, New Jersey, the Destroyer 239 and Destroyer 240. Both ships were to be named in memory of her brother. [21] At 1.00pm on July 29 the following year, Ruth would attend the launch of the ship at the Camden shipyard joined by her father and brothers and several naval attachés. The next day a picture of Ruth christening the ship appeared in the Public Ledger. [22] By November that year the USS Sturtevant was easing its way out of New York Harbour for occupation duty in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea as part of the U.S Naval Detachment at Constantinople. In January 1921 the ship arrived in Venice as part of the American political mission in the Adriatic, an occupation of more than 100 miles of Dalmatian  coastline. The reason the Sturtevant was in Venice was down to Italian aspirations in the Adriatic. Mussolini’s Fascists were disturbing the very delicate balance of power in Italy and the Adriatic and things could go either way. This made the allies nervous.

When Scott wrote from Venice to express his surprise at seeing the ship, he appeared to have no idea that Ruth knew anything about it. Writing from the Grand Hotel in Rome some ten days later, Scott seemed queerly blasé about the whole affair: “Dear Ruth: In Venice we were bored one day and seeing an American destroyer in the harbor we took a gondola out to see it. A very polite officer showed us about + you can imagine my surprise when I saw in the mess room a large photograph of your brother, Al. It was destroyer 240, The Sturtevant”. Scott assumed that Ruth hadn’t seen the ship so took a couple of snapshots that he enclosed within the letter. During a tour of the ship Lieutenant Robbins and his crew had been anxious to know all about her brother and Scott had been only too keen to fill them in. Better still, they were going to send her a painting of the vessel. [23] It was an extraordinary coincidence. The last time the pair had exchanged letters had been in May 1920, just a matter of weeks before the launch of the vessel. In that letter Scott talks of having been forced to leave the Commodore Hotel in Saint Paul and their misery at Zelda not being able to swim every day until they found their  slick little cottage near Combo Beach on The Sound. The letter ended with Scott thanking Ruth’s husband Curt for not making such a big deal over Scott and Zelda’s poor grasp of geography. He was sorry to hear she’d been unwell. Although it seems astonishing to think Ruth didn’t tell Scott about the ship in her reply, there’s no evidence to say she did. Nevertheless, it’s a curious little episode and one that Scott must have sensed a certain amount of kismet about as they continued their journey to Rome.

Within a week of seeing the ship in Venice, the USS Sturtevant would make its way to Odessa and Constantinople. The Sturtevant’s mission in the Adriatic was coming to a close and the ship was on its way to ease the refugee and humanitarian crisis as the White Russian army made its desperate evacuation from Romania and Ukraine. Also in Constantinople at this time was Scott’s brother-in-law, Newman Smith. After parting ways with Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration in August 1919, Newman had found employment as chief auditor at the new office opened by the Guaranty Trust Company in Constantinople. In July 1920, whilst temporarily employed at the company’s Belgium office, Newman set sail for Turkey aboard the SS Megali Hellas, his wife, Rosalind — Zelda’s sister — following him a few weeks later. In an interview that Zeldas sister gave to the Birmingham Age Herald in June 1921, Rosalind gave a moving account of the appalling scenes that she and Newman had witnessed as result of the mass evacuations of Greeks and Russian ‘whites’ to the Turkish borders: “There are Russians by the thousands too: all of Wrangel’s defeated army and the entire population of the Crimea came here, fleeing the Bolshevist and they make a sombre spot on an otherwise gay and carefree place. They are penniless, most of them having come only with the clothes on their backs, and they’re getting food any way they can, selling shoelaces and selling flowers or begging — princes and princesses alike and humble alike.” [24]The Straits (Constantinople, Sykes-Picot) Agreement signed by Britain, France and Tsarist Russia in April 1915 had placed the Near East region at the top of America’s watch-list. The nation’s dream was going global. The future possibilities of imports and exports to and from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmora, and the Black Sea were being described by analysts as unbelievable in their proportions. Having men with solid diplomatic experience like Newman occupy senior commercial and relief positions in the city would have been essential to maintaining some degree of influence, traction and ‘compliance’ in the region. The ‘freedom of the Straits’ was fast becoming a very critical security and economic issue. In October that year, Newman and Rosalind Smith were back in Brussels. Those ‘unbelievable’ opportunities were drying up fast. After some twelve months monitoring the situation, Newman’s bosses at The Guaranty Trust Company were reporting that after a promising start, financial conditions in the country were in a “chaotic state” . In January 1921, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Kemal Pasha had threatened a pact with Soviet Russia which would throw the whole country into turmoil — American and British trade with it. The following year the USS Sturtevant would be one of several American destroyers assigned to investigate potential ports for Newman’s old employers, the American Relief Administration, which was there to relieve the poverty of the region, including post-Revolution Russia. The ship returned to New York in 1922.

The End of a Beautiful Friendship

There appears to have been no further correspondence between Ruth and Scott after his letter about the boat from Rome in June 1921. Roger Lewis, a scholar at the George Washington University in Washington D.C claims that he met with Ruth shortly before her death in 1978. Roger described her as a “tall, angular woman, alert and sympathetic.” Although she was unable to remember the details of their first meeting she did recall that she and her friends were “wary” but quite “charmed by” Fitzgerald. In the scrapbook of items she had kept she showed Lewis Scott’s calling card with a small red ribbon at the top. Ruth doesn’t seem to have offered an explanation for the abrupt winding-up of their friendship. She said there was one brief meeting between the couples in New York in 1920 but chose not to provide him with any further details. Lewis claims her husband didn’t like Scott a great deal. He certainly couldn’t get his name right, that’s for sure. “Is that your right name—“Curt”—or is it “Curtis?” C maybe it’s Kirt, Kurt or Kirk?” Scott asks at one point. The answer might lie in the letter he sent about Venice. Did Scott seriously think that Ruth wouldn’t know that a ship had been named in honour of her brother? A picture of Ruth standing with the boat at its launch in New York had been splashed across the New York, Washington and Philadelphia press. In spite of this he had sent her a picture of it and told of the crew’s plans to send her a painting of it later. It wasn’t just patronising, it was arrogant. Perhaps Ruth had begun to recognize that practically everything Scott did in his life smacked of egotism. Life for Scott was the F. Scott Fitzgerald Show. Everybody else was supporting cast. Maybe the tipping point for Ruth had come when Scott had treated her like a supporting actor in her own life. Of course she would have a picture of the boat, she was its sponsor. It was probably rather typical of Scott to assume otherwise. What he really wanted to say was this: he was loaded, he was important and at long last he had made it to Europe — and Ruth probably knew that. [25]

Scott was a lot like Venice. There were those writers like Henry James who thought it “a repository of consolations … interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd” and there those, like D. H. Lawrence, who thought it an “abhorrent green, slippery city” out to defraud you of every last dime in your pocket. When Mark Twain arrived in the city some fifty earlier he had found that it had very two distinct personalities. There was the daytime Venice, which was grim and disappointing, full of beggars selling trinkets and tacky glass-beads for tourists and there was Venice at night when the “charitable moon” cast her glow on the bland “stained palaces” and turned them white again. It was only in the “treacherous sunlight” that we saw Venice “decayed, forlorn, poverty-stricken, and commerceless—forgotten and utterly insignificant.” The descriptions shared by Twain put me immediately in mind of Gatsby’s parties and the laughter and sound of his “still glowing garden.” All the magic of those evenings took place in the moonlight when the light was poor and all the boring machinations that went in to producing his illusion were miraculously hidden from view. The night belonged the Doges of Venice, just as it belonged to elegant young rough-necks like Gatsby. It was like the legend of Brigadoon, but instead of a town that only came alive only for one day every 100 years, it was a town that came alive at twilight every evening. It was then that the dead rose from their crypts and danced to the everywhere choruses, the string bands and the flutes. It was the same at Gatsby’s parties. When the band struck up and the champagne starting flowing the puppets would spring to life and all those wild and romantic assignations would begin. The crooners of the 1920s dined on this dream for years: “Midnight with the stars and you, Midnight and a rendezvous.” When Gatsby first kisses Daisy on a sidewalk that is “white with moonlight” all that is really missing is Al Bowly with Ray Noble and His Orchestra striking up some dreadful ballad. It was the time of surrender, not just to love and all the beautiful absurdities of romance, but to the imagination itself.

The weakness of the light in Venice didn’t just hide a thousand and one imperfections, it scored a melancholy victory over everything that had ever threatened you with being real. By day it was a city of dreadful damnation and by night, one of beautiful redemption, when one lived in a “half-waking sort of dream all the time.” [26] “We have stood in the dim religious light of these hoary sanctuaries, in the midst of long ranks of dusty monuments and effigies of the great dead of Venice,” wrote Twain, until we “drifted back, back, back, into the solemn past.”  The blades of the boat may have pushing against the ripples of the Grand Canal rather than the waves of the Long Island Sound, but the principle was just the same. The city had been built quite literally on relics and there was a belief among some Venetians that if the relics were ever to be taken away, the city would vanish like a dream. Yes, it was a city that was prone to plagiarism and cliche, but equally, as Dreiser and Mary Shelley saw it, it was a unique “enchanted garden” that had a magic that was all its own. The city of dreamers had found its Mayor.

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[1] Within the Year After, Betty Adler, M.A. Donohue & Co, 1920

[2] A Traveler at Forty, Theodore Dreiser, The Century Company, 1913, p.404

[3] ‘In Italy with American Eyes’, Edward Hungerford, New York Tribune, May 28, 1922, p.2, p.5

[4] A Traveler at Forty, Theodore Dreiser, The Century Company, 1913, pp.400-404

[5] ‘Edward Hungerford Address Students’, The Hill News (Canton) October 24, 1921, p.1

[6] ‘Albert Dillon Sturtevant 12’, Phillips Academy, Andover, In the Great War, Claude Moore Fuess, Yale university press, 1919, p.55-56

[7] ‘A. Sturtevant, Oarsman and Aviator Lost’, Washington herald, February 19, 1918, p.1, p.4

[8] ‘This Side of Paradise’, Shane Leslie, The Dublin Review, Issue. 335, Vol. 167, October-December 1920, p.286. It’s possible that Scott was thinking of Leslie’s reference to ‘Catesby’ when he came up with the name Gatsby. There is a tradition among those who bear the name Gadsby (and its variant Gatsby) was that the name could traced directly to the Catholic gunpowder plotter, Robert Catesby, whose name influenced the Lothair novel.

[9] The Mall, George Washington University Yearbook, 1905, p.293

[10] ‘On Tomorrow’s Calendar’, Washington herald, April 4, 1915, p.12; Washington Times, April 5, 1915, p.9; Old Nassau Rings Out, Washington Post, April6, 1915,p.11

[11] Washington Herald, November 17, 1917, p.10

[12] Washington Post, January 29, 1915, p.7

[13] ‘Cockran Married’,  November 16, 1906, p.1

[14] Critten, Ollie Stillwell (Mrs De Frees Critten), Ancestral Register of the General Society, 1896, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1897, p.89

[15] Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1913, District of Colombia members, p.25

[16] ‘Homes In a Jumble: Washington Society Profits’, Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1917, p.7

[17] ‘Lady Geddes Charms Capital’, Indianapolis Star, May 23, 1920, p.1

[18] ‘Lady Margaret Goes to New York’,  Washington Herald, March 10, 1920, p.5

[19] ‘Ruth Sturtevant and Fitzgerald’ (1916-1921), Roger Lewis, Fitzgerald / Hemingway Annual  1979, 1979; ‘Dear Ruth, June 24, 1919’, Letters of F Scott Fitzgerald, p.461. Ruth’s mother Bessie died in March 1917.

[20] ‘Society’, Sunday Star (Washington DC), October 26, 1919, part II, p.4. Ruth’s marriage followed the low-key remarriage of her father in August 1919.

[21] ‘Destroyer is Sturtevant’, Washington Post, August 6, 1919, p.7

[22] ‘Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger’, July 30, 1920, p.18


[24] ‘Turkey Finances are Near Collapse’, New York Times, March 9, 1921, p.20; ‘The Freedom of the Straits’, Alfred L. P. Dennis, North American Review, December, 1922

[25]  ‘Ruth Sturtevant and Fitzgerald’ (1916-1921), Roger Lewis, Fitzgerald / Hemingway Annual  1979, 1979.

[26] The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, Collins, 1869, p. 151

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