Over a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would become famous for his novels The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and the Damned, This Side of Paradise, and others, set foot in Charles Town, WV for the first time. The July 1917 trip was organized by Charles Town’s own John Peale Bishop, who became fast friends with Fitzgerald while they both studied at Princeton.
A detailed source of information about Fitzgerald’s visit comes from a narrative written by Bishop’s friend and neighbor, Elizabeth “Fluff” Beckwith MacKie, who socialized with Fitzgerald practically every day of his month-long stay.|
Fluff ran with a group of friends, all of whom were in their late teens and early twenties, who spent most days together for lack of anything else to do in the fairly quiet Charles Town. Bishop, who was a few years older due to an illness in his late teens that delayed his entry to Princeton, had told of Fitzgerald’s impending visit and the group was enthused to add another number to their ranks.
According to Fluff, John and Scott were quite different. John was a full head taller, reserved, dignified, and seemed interested in befriending intellectuals, like her sister Eloise. Scott, on the other hand, she found to be more handsome and athletic, as well as very impulsive. She argued the friendship between the two men was built upon a mutual love of art and literature.
Fluff had recently returned from boarding school in Washington, DC, when Scott arrived by the Valley Branch of the B&O Railroad. Their first meeting occurred at a party held at her house and she wrote of her first impression that “night had drained the color from his face and hair, and left him pale, but beautiful. He was 20 years old. It was the face of a poet without sensuality.”
While she was somewhat swept off her feet by the initial meeting and his attempted wooing of her, she soon found that it was his standard practice with nearly every young woman he met. Fluff observed that she soon decided he didn’t act in such a way to minimize the individuality of women, but to make each one feel special, in that moment, even if it was fleeting.
On that first night they spent some time dancing, which she decided he was only marginally adept at doing. Her term for his actions was “lively,” and she admitted he did more talking than concentrating on the movements of his feet. She also discovered that another friend of John’s, Townsend Martin, who had visited the previous month and for whom Fluff fell head over heels, had encouraged Scott to make her acquaintance. While Townsend liked Fluff, he had already indicated the life of a bachelor was for him and didn’t reciprocate her romantic interest. The night ended with Scott asking Fluff for a date.
Fluff writes with both fondness and amusement about Scott’s arrival at her house the next day. He showed up in his swimming attire, complete with a hat and a book. Scott was the first person she met who insisted upon bringing a hat to go swimming. He explained it away as necessary to protect his skin from the sun.
The Shenandoah River became the scene for many more dates between the two. Fluff writes that on some evenings, they would be sitting in a canoe, drifting down the river when the sun would begin to set and a female chaperone would appear, as if out of the ether, to stand on the bank and ensure everything was propitious.
A habit of Scott’s was to bring up subjects, often taboo at the time, to attempt to shock female companions. Often the conversation involved sex. Fluff observed he was clearly unaccustomed to being around Southern women, as they found Southern men to be far less verbose and much more aggressive in their pursuits. She asserted he was fun, but not “a very lively male animal.”
From time to time the group of friends would go horseback riding and Scott, unaccustomed to horses, was determined to excel at the pursuit. He turned out to be a terrible rider, though on one occasion when an old horse bolted and he fell, he got up, brushed himself off, and got right back on.As his time in Jefferson County began to come to an end, Scott gave Fluff a poem he wrote on yellowish paper called “When Vanity Kissed Vanity.” Shortly thereafter he went back to St. Paul. In August, Fluff met her future husband.
It took nearly 14 years for her to next see Scott. Fluff and her husband were in Baltimore and the Fitzgeralds were there as well, as Zelda, Scott’s wife, was receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins. Fluff reflected that he bore many of the same characteristics as before, but was often seen with a drink in his hand. Upon reflection, she recalled she had never seen him take a drink during the entire time he was staying in Charles Town.
Fluff and Scott did keep in touch over the years, as she did with John. In her narrative she lamented that both F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Peale Bishop died too soon.
Fitzgerald would go on to include a likeness of John Peale Bishop, named Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, in his book This Side of Paradise.
The Charles Town Library has copies of This Side of Paradise in circulation, as well as a biography about John Peale Bishop, for those wishing to learn more.