My Trip Through the Underrated Literary Scene of Montgomery, Alabama

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum

Courtesy of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum

It took me a moment to remember where I was when I woke up. As my eyes opened, everything was blurry, but I could make out the chair in the corner with the embroidered pillow I had seen the previous night. I already remembered what it said before putting on my glasses: “Those men think I’m purely decorative, and they’re fools for not knowing better.” This was a quote from Zelda Fitzgerald—whose former room I was sleeping in—written in a letter to her husband, author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was in Montgomery, Alabama, staying in a two-story Craftsman-style house built in 1910 that was rented by the Fitzgeralds with their daughter Scottie from 1931 to 1932. This house, in the historic neighborhood of Cloverdale, is where Zelda wrote her only novel, “Save Me the Waltz” (the book jacket’s author photo was taken in the foyer), and where F. Scott wrote parts of “Tender Is the Night.” Zelda was born in Alabama’s capital city and met F. Scott in her hometown; he was stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan in July 1918 as a second lieutenant during World War I. Zelda was a popular socialite at the time, and F. Scott would frequently travel from the camp to court her until they married in 1920, the same year his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” came out. It was quickly acclaimed, and they soon traveled to New York and then Europe, living out the quintessential, glamorous 1920s lifestyle often depicted in his works.

Zelda, who was a dancer, painter, and writer, struggled with mental health problems, and F. Scott was an alcoholic, leading to a tumultuous marriage, even as they were fixtures of the glamorous Jazz Age. F. Scott left the Montgomery house by the end of 1931 to go to Hollywood and try to be a screenwriter. Zelda’s father died a month later, leading her to have a breakdown, and she was eventually committed to the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was in and out of sanitariums until her death in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1948. This house on Felder Avenue in Montgomery was the last place the couple ever lived together.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, Gatsby suits
Courtesy of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum 

Today, the ground floor of the house hosts the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, the world’s only museum dedicated to the literary couple, and two upstairs apartments both bookable on Airbnb. One is the one-bedroom F. Scott Suite, and the other just across the hall is the two-bedroom Zelda Suite where I spent the night. Anyone who books a stay in the suite gets a free guided tour of the museum as I did (otherwise entry is $8), which is filled with original letters, manuscripts, artwork by Zelda, clothing and jewelry belonging to the family, photographs, books, and other memorabilia.

I’ve always been an ardent reader—I was the kid who stayed up under the covers reading with a flashlight—and my love of books stayed with me as I went on to major in English Literature and work as a book editor for seven years. “The Great Gatsby” was the first book I read in high school that struck a chord with me. I relished reading about the 1920s lifestyles but also related to the tale of achieving the American Dream—most of my grandparents were immigrants, and I grew up hearing their stories. When I moved to New York City in 2005, I made a point of exploring Long Island. I have family in Great Neck, where the Fitzgeralds lived for part of their time in New York, and Great Neck along with Cow Neck were the inspiration for the East and West Eggs in “The Great Gatsby.” Naturally, I jumped at the chance to have a sleepover in the same house where F. Scott and Zelda once lived.

Montgomery, well-known as a significant setting in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, offers plenty of history to explore in addition to an impressive literary scene—and it’s perhaps not surprising that those are inextricably linked. NewSouth Publishing, a small local press, has published books related to Southern culture since the 1990s, and its corner storefront is home to bookstore Read Herring. More recently, 1977 Books (opened in the fall of 2019 in the newly reimagined Kress Building) is a nonprofit abolitionist library-bookstore-community space started by LGBTQ activists. Carefully curated shelves are filled with black feminist books, poetry, memoirs, children’s books, and fiction by queer, trans, black, and indigenous authors. Additionally, the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum has a stellar shop filled with important literature on slavery, civil rights, and the African American experience.

Living in Brooklyn, I often feel like I have access to the best of most things, but Montgomery, a city of just under 200,000 people, reminded me that smaller cities and towns can also offer serious literary chops. And the Fitzgerald house offered a unique chance to immerse myself in both the history and literature.

The Zelda Suite—my room for the night—has two bedrooms, one tastefully decorated to look as if it were Zelda’s while the other is dedicated to the Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Scottie. There’s also a living room, small kitchen, dining room, bright sunroom, and tiled bathroom.

The apartment is filled with period furniture and antiques (though not original to the home), a working record player with curated music from their time, framed letters between Zelda and F. Scott, and family portraits on the walls. Zelda looks down from a painted portrait above the fireplace mantel in the living room, and quotes of hers adorn various throw pillows. These pillows are also sold in the museum gift shop, and they are one of the few modern embellishments in the suite. There is no television, but thankfully the apartment is set up with Wi-Fi.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, books on coffee table
Courtesy of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum 

Unpacking for my stay, I gingerly placed my belongings in one corner, feeling like a guest in someone else’s home. I alternately read passages from both Zelda and F. Scott’s books that had been dutifully left on the coffee table, tried to listen to records (but failed to figure out how to make the seemingly broken player work), perused the framed replica letters on the wall that were used in the Amazon television series “Z: The Beginning of Everything” (the real letters are downstairs in the museum), and jumped at every creak emitted from the old building.

It was equal parts thrilling and creepy, particularly for some reason standing inside Scottie’s room with its odd twin beds, antique vanity, and original paintings by Zelda. Looking at a photo of Zelda in a flapper dress, I felt extremely anachronistic in my sweats. And to my surprise more than anything else, using the bathroom made me feel like I was really standing where they once stood. While the furniture was not original, the toilet, sink, and bathtub sure were. Is it strange that I felt Zelda’s presence the most while I looked at myself in the mirror above the tiny bathroom’s pedestal sink?

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, benches under the magnolia tree
Courtesy of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum 

The next morning, after getting dressed and packing up my things, I stared out the large living room windows to the lawn below. A massive magnolia tree was the centerpiece of the front yard, with two benches placed underneath it. Seeing the tree, which was probably as old as the house itself, I imagined Zelda and F. Scott enjoying its shade and smelling its flowers—or just as likely, returning home late after a party to have a drunken argument underneath it. My trip to Alabama—and what felt like almost 100 years back in time—coming to an end, I was ready to return to my family in Brooklyn, where our worst arguments usually revolved around mundane problems like taking out the trash.

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