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Louisville: The Beginnings of The Great Gatsby

By Trish Foxwell

“You can’t repeat the past, why of course you can.” – Jay Gatsby to Nick Carraway

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribners)

When F. Scott Fitzgerald stepped off the train in Louisville in 1918 to begin training at Camp Taylor and travel to France and the Great War, he was not the acclaimed writer he would later become after writing This Side of Paradise, his first novel.  

The Saint Paul, Minnesota-born author with his striking Irish good looks and fierce determination to become a serious writer had not yet met Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama. His trip to Louisville, Kentucky, was his first foray into the Deep South even though his father, Edward, came from Maryland stock.

Although Fitzgerald only spent a month in Louisville, he became acquainted with its Southern ways and manners, and the city made an indelible imprint on him. It was there that the beginnings of The Great Gatsby were born.

Louisville provided the lovely backdrop for Jimmy Gatz/Jay Gatsby meeting the belle of Louisville, Daisy Fay, who became the love of his life and dramatically changed it. Tracing his footprints and elements of the novel is made easy on a visit to the city as the key landmarks are all close to one another and well worth it for admirers of the writer and his novel.      

Seelbach Hotel by Trish Foxwell

Three primary landmarks: the Seelbach Hotel, Cherokee Triangle and Union Station all played a significant role in the novel and the story of Gatsby, with the Seelbach by far the most important site to visit. The hotel is a prime Fitzgerald haunt and, although it is not known for sure if the writer overnighted at the hotel, he was certainly drawn to it and its romantic sensibilities. The fact that he placed the elaborate wedding of Daisy Fay to Tom Buchanan in the grand ballroom makes this an irresistible stop.

“In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before. He came down with a hundred people in four private cars and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Seelbach Hotel Ballroom by Trish Foxwell

The hotel, beautifully restored and listed in the National Trust’s Historic Hotels Collection, was constructed in 1905 by Otto and Louis Seelbach, who wanted to bring a taste of Old-World elegance to Louisville. The ornate lobby with Italian marble and a towering grand staircase evokes memories of Fitzgerald who became acquainted with the hotel while stationed at Camp Taylor.

The Rathskeller, located in the hotel’s basement, was the location of the USO and, following a week of training, the writer would often mix and mingle with fellow soldiers in the dimly lit cavernous room with its Rookwood pottery design, one of the few remaining intact in the world. On one visit, he ventured up to the tenth floor and discovered the grand ballroom. The room, accented with gold and cobalt blue and glistening crystal chandeliers, ushers in thoughts of the wedding scene in the novel. Whether Fitzgerald ever attended a social event in the room remains uncertain, but the eloquent lines in the novel will surface as you scan the room’s beautiful interior. The hotel has also named its primary restaurant “Gatsby’s on Fourth” after the novel, which remains so closely identified with the hotel. Guests can also book the Fitzgerald Suite on a visit and purchase copies of The Great Gatsby at the front desk.  

Cherokee Triangle by Trish Foxwell

Cherokee Triangle, Louisville’s most fashionable neighborhood, is two miles from downtown and the Seelbach. It is believed that Fitzgerald, along with other officers, was invited to a social event in the neighborhood as was customary during the war. Although never confirmed, it’s easy to visualize the strapping young lieutenant in his freshly starched Brooks Brothers uniform, walking up the steps of one of the homes and charming Louisville society.

One address that repeatedly gets mentioned with a Fitzgerald association is 2427 Cherokee Park with its white columns and cascading steps. Privately owned and off limits to visit, the house, built in 1903, aptly fits the description of Daisy’s house by Jordan Baker: “the largest of the banners and largest of lawns belonged to Daisy Fay’s house.” In the novel, Fitzgerald delves deeper in his description of the house when he writes, “It had the largest of lawns and I think what gave it its air of breathless intensity was that she lived there. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of the bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cooler than other bedrooms of gay and radiant activities taking place through corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motorcars and dances where flowers were scarcely withered.”   

As you stroll along the sidewalks, you can easily visualize the moonlight walks of Daisy and Gatsby mentioned in the novel. “One fall evening we walked down a street where leaves were falling on the sidewalk and stopped at a place where there were no trees and the sidewalks were white with moonlight, it was then that we turned to one another and walked by houses where quiet lights were visible from the windows. I moved close to her and my heart beat faster as her lovely face came up to mine. We then kissed and she blossomed like a flower.”  

Union Station, Louisville, by Trish Foxwell

Although Camp Taylor, six miles southeast of downtown is long gone, the final stop on your Fitzgerald journey should be Union Station at 1000 W. Broadway. The building, designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque design in 1891, is no longer a rail depot, but has been artfully restored to reflect its historic past and is an essential stop on a visit. In the novel, Fitzgerald brings Gatsby back to Louisville after the war to recapture his past and memories of Daisy.

Gazing up at the building, thoughts of Gatsby’s final departure from Louisville is vividly brought to mind and hauntingly described in the book. “He came back from France,” Fitzgerald wrote, “when Tom and Daisy were still on their wedding trip and made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville on the last of his army pay. He stayed there a week walking the streets where their footprints had clicked together through the November night and revisiting the out-of-the-way places to which they had driven in her white car. Just as Daisy’s house had always seemed to him more mysterious and gayer than other houses, so his idea of the city itself, even though she was gone from it, was pervaded with melancholy beauty.”    

And when Gatsby bids farewell to the city for the very last time and waits for the train that first carried him to Louisville, the memory of Daisy again surfaces in his writing. “The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot where she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.”

Seelbach Hotel by Trish Foxwell

At the end of your literary journey, make a final stop at the Seelbach and raise a glass or two in honor of this renowned American writer who endowed us with this classic literary masterpiece. You might even catch a glimpse of a vintage white roadster traveling through the city that became so important to him.

For more information, contact the Louisville Visitor Center at 301 S. Fourth St.

Trish Foxwell is a career journalist and has written two travel books. She is a graduate of the University of Louisiana college system and also studied at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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  • Mimi haha / August 17, 2022

    How is Louisville considered the deep South?

    • Sydney / August 27, 2022

      Louisville is not the deep South, but it is the Gateway to the South.

      Deep South: y’all

      Louisville: you-all.