F. Scott and Zelda’s Excellent Adventure

A serendipitous road trip led to a night at The Jefferson.

(Illustration by Maddalena Carrai)

They were newlyweds in July of 1920 when, on a whim, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald set out on an eight-day road trip that would take them through Virginia.

Zelda longed for the breakfasts she’d known at home in Montgomery, Alabama: peaches and soft, flaky Southern biscuits, and Scott would do anything to make his bride happy. The two had met at a country club dance in 1918. Vivacious, beautiful, and emotional Zelda Sayre had been reluctant to marry Fitzgerald until his success as an author was assured.

To win her over, Fitzgerald pressured Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, to hurry the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Perkins, editor to Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, complied, advancing Fitzgerald money against the book to support the couple’s lavish lifestyle. (Perkins himself would visit Richmond while editing Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume R.E. Lee: A Biography, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1935.)

Fitzgerald’s novel, published in late March of 1920, captured the zeitgeist of the post-WWI generation, making him famous at 24. The couple married in New York just days later, on April 3, and settled in Westport, Connecticut.

More than 1,100 miles of road stood between Westport and Montgomery, with Richmond at the halfway mark. They packed three fully loaded suitcases and took along “a four-inch map, torn out of the circular of More Power Grain and Seed Company, two mournful tools, and a pair of goggles with the glass out of one eye,” as Fitzgerald would later write in his story, “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.”

Their Marmon 34C Speedster—the story’s title character—was a two-seater with spoked wheels and a six-cylinder engine. Although it could hit 70 miles per hour, the Marmon was prone to breaking down.

In a letter, Zelda later recollected driving “through the haunted swamps of Virginia, the red clay hills of Georgia, the sweet rutted creekbottoms of Alabama.” The trip spooled out like a romantic fever dream. “We drank corn on the wings of an airplane in the moonlight and danced at the country club and came back,” Zelda wrote. “I had a pink dress that floated and a very theatrical silver one.”

The Marmon blew a tire in Philadelphia. And in Washington D.C., it lost a wheel before the battery died, forcing them to stay overnight at the Willard Hotel. The next morning—Saturday, July 24—was Zelda’s twentieth birthday. They patched up the car and headed south on what is now U.S. Route 1, taking turns behind the wheel as they drove through Virginia’s Civil War battlefields, past the ruins of once-stately mansions, just 57 years after the war’s end.

South of Fredericksburg, Zelda gunned the Marmon past a robber who tried to stop them after dark, “in the middle of a bottomless swamp.” The notorious Chopawamsic Swamp, on the Stafford-Prince William county line created “America’s greatest barrier to road touring,” the Alexandria Gazette lamented in 1917. Local farmers made extra cash towing cars from the bog.

With Richmond in sight, they secured a much-needed gallon of gas before pulling into The Jefferson Hotel, where the electric trolley cars of the Richmond Union Passenger Railway—the first such system in the country—ran past the hotel’s Main Street entrance.

A life-sized Carrara marble statue of Thomas Jefferson stood in the hotel’s Palm Court. There, live alligators lounged in two shallow marble pools surrounded by palms, bay trees, and cactuses. Local children called The Jefferson the “Alligator Hotel.”

The alligators had arrived after outgrowing the bathtubs of Richmonders who’d brought them home as babies, souvenirs from vacations in Florida. They occasionally wandered from the lobby down the hall into the library, where one allegedly became a footstool for an elderly woman engrossed in a novel. Nine-foot-long Old Pompey slept in a lobby chair each night.

Weary from the drive, with both dressed in knickerbocker pants—scandalous for any woman in 1920—Scott worried that The Jefferson might turn them away. The desk clerk at The Willard had assigned them a room only after Fitzgerald had pleaded.

“We’ve got to have a bath with a room,” he told the clerk, explaining that they were traveling through from Connecticut.

“The Richmond hotel,” Zelda noted, “had a marbled stair and long unopened rooms and marble statues of the gods.” Each of the 79 rooms on The Jefferson’s second floor had a washbowl with hot and cold running water, but only a few had private baths with bathtubs. Bathrooms stood at the end of each corridor.

“They gave us the bridal suite!” Zelda wrote of room 291. “An immense and imponderable affair, as melancholy as a manufacturer’s tomb.”

Virginia banned alcohol sales four years before Prohibition began in January of 1920, but guests could order liquor from the hotel’s speakeasy. Scott would have packed gin—his favorite, least likely to be detected on the breath—in his luggage. His favorite cocktail, the Gin Rickey, was made with gin, lime, and club soda, mixed in a highball glass with ice.

Sunday’s Richmond News-Leader brought news of This Side of Paradise. The paper’s “Literary Gossip” column said Fitzgerald’s novel “gives an extraordinarily-frank picture of the thoughts and actions of our younger American generation.”

Not everyone was charmed. “A good many mothers and elderly people have been shocked by this book,” the News-Leader reported. “But the younger generation seem to be reading it with an undisguised delight.”

Of that July Sunday, Fitzgerald later wrote, “We wandered about Richmond, drenched by an unbelievable heat and humidity. We visited the Confederate museum and pored for an hour over shredded battle flags and romantic sabres and grey uniform coats [sic].” The exhibits, he said, were “dimmed only a little by the interminable lists of living women who had managed in some way to get their names linked up with these trophies.”

He never described The Jefferson’s Beaux Arts beauty. Instead, in his fictionalized account of the road trip, published in Motoring magazine in 1924, Fitzgerald wrote, “This exhausted Richmond—we discovered nothing else of any possible interest.” As they headed south toward Oxford, North Carolina, Fitzgerald probably had biscuits and peaches on his mind—and the 600 miles of road that lay before Montgomery.

Today, guests enter The Jefferson on Franklin Street, through the “women’s and family entrance” of the 1920s. Each guest room has a private bath with a tub. Old Pompey, the Palm Court’s last surviving alligator, died in 1948. And you won’t find Fitzgerald’s novels in the library, now a dining room.

But at breakfast, you can still get buttermilk biscuits and fresh fruit.

And there’s plenty of gin at the bar.



The Gin Rickey (Fitzgerald’s favorite cocktail)
Shutterstock

Gin and Lime in a faceted glass

“We drank in long greedy swallows.”

—Tom Buchanan after mixing a Gin Rickey for his wife, Daisy, in The Great Gatsby

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 oz. Gin
  • 1/2 Lime
  • Club Soda

Add the gin to a Collins glass full of ice. Add the juice from the lime half, and then drop the shell into the glass. Top with soda water.


This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue.

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