By Doc Lawrence –
MONTGOMERY, Alabama—Timing is everything. On the eve of the release of the new movie of “The Great Gatsby,” I’m standing in the living room of the home where the author of the classic novel once lived. America remains fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, enjoying tales of the “Lost Generation,” glimpses of life through the Woody Allen movie, “Midnight in Paris,” and the new best-selling novel, “Z,” a wonderful tale about Zelda, the muse of the jazz age and the world’s first flapper.
Two very beautiful women represent the South in the world’s imagination. Scarlett O’Hara is fictional while Zelda Fitzgerald was as real and vibrant as she was talented. During my time in her hometown and region, she became my inspirational tour guide, a transformational journey where she led me into Alabama’s living culinary, visual and performing arts heritage. Marked by unspoiled fertile land and pure water, this is Americana, the childhood home of Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole and Zelda Fitzgerald.
My official responsibility was to judge a wild game cook-off and tour much of Alabama’s Black Belt Region, an impressive stretch of outdoor recreation, small towns and cultural opportunities defined in part by omnipresent dark fertile soil. The hundreds of miles traveled allowed for food enjoyment from fine dining in Montgomery to small cafes and diners along the rural pathways with time in between for festivals, live theater, a Civil War battle re-enactment and a poignant moment, the conclusion of a search for the grave of my great, great grandfather, one of the victims of the tragic conflict 150 years ago.
More than a celebrated femme fatale, Zelda Fitzgerald was an accomplished artist and writer who embraced the freedoms and excesses of an era making her the quintessential liberated woman and unchallenged queen of the Jazz Age. She lives forever in the many characters in her husband’s books and short stories. Without Zelda, many have said, and there would never have been “The Great Gatsby” and Daisy Buchanan.
The Deep South is more resistant to change than other parts of the country and the experiences in today’s Montgomery and other cities I visited aren’t much different than they were when Zelda frolicked around town with her childhood friend Tallulah Bankhead, meditated in Oakwood Cemetery (where Hank Williams is buried) and dined in the restaurants or attended plays and concerts, sometimes performing as a gifted ballet dancer.
The Montgomery home of America’s most celebrated romantics is now the Fitzgerald Museum, containing some of Zelda’s paintings, family photographs, Scott’s daily ledger and important correspondence with other literary giants like Ernest Hemingway. Montgomery is the city and culture that shaped Zelda, the girl with the gypsy name who remains an iconic figure among women. Men were drawn to her, but at a great price. An oracle should have warned: “Beware! You have only your heart to lose.”
Derk’s Filet & Bar has a fine wine retail shop and a hot bar with at least seven entrée items surrounded by racks of boutique beers. Packed for lunch with diners enjoying fresh local grown vegetables and Southern-style main items, everything is just a few feet away from an impressive selection of wines including a favorite of Zelda and Scott, Sauternes, a regal white wine from Bordeaux.
Zelda’s father was a prominent Supreme Court judge in Alabama and I often serve as a judge for non-legal matters, primarily food and wine competitions. Judging the tasty dishes found at the Alabama Wildlife Federation / Alabama Army National Guard Tri-County Wild Game Cook-Off prompted my vote in favor of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures win for Best Overall that included a spectacular dish, House Cured Wild Hog with Jalapeno Cheese Balls.
Life was a stage for Zelda and while enjoying “The Hallelujah Girls,” at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, I could envision her in one of the lead roles that required a feisty but alluring woman. The comedy, with homage to Zelda’s ambitions, acknowledges that time is precious, and if you are going to achieve dreams, act when opportunity appears or everything will slip away.
Favoring vodka with lemonade while Scott preferred gin cocktails, Zelda defied the stereotype of Southern women, eschewing the docile and accommodating role in favor of the uninhibited Daisy Buchanan of “The Great Gatsby.” Zelda was the embodiment of all things modern and fresh, inspiring her husband to write, “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect . . .”
My final moments in Montgomery were dancing to the John Lennon song “Imagine,” and as stars were falling on Alabama, I was somehow in step with Zelda or her literary twin Daisy. I understood what Scott Fitzgerald meant when he wrote, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”
It’s not often you get a dance with a genuine flapper who wrote below her high school photograph, “Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow. Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.”