MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — For years, the door buzzer to Richard McDermott’s condo usually meant that a pilgrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald was waiting in the stone portico. They might be from Germany, or Iran, or New Ulm. He’d often grab his pipe and sit with them a bit, telling how the author’s birthplace was nearly destroyed, “but I usually learned so much from them, too.”
Those days are over. McDermott is dying of cancer, receiving hospice care in the St. Paul apartment where Fitzgerald’s infant wails once resounded.
To honor the man who changed his life literally by the luck of a draw, McDermott is donating $250,000 to create Fitzgerald In Saint Paul, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the author’s legacy, perhaps even to serve as seed money for a future interpretive site.
“What an irony it is, in regard to the rather somber developments in my life, that there are all these new beginnings with Fitzgerald,” McDermott, 84, said weakly, but with delight. “It’s a real upper for me.”
After receiving his diagnosis, he’d wanted to donate the condo at 481 Laurel Ave. to a nonprofit group, but that quickly proved too complex. Instead, he decided to fund the creation of a nonprofit that would interpret Fitzgerald’s importance to the St. Paul area, and to future generations.
“We have an array of activities that we’re going to move toward,” said Stewart Wilson, the former executive director of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library who heads the group’s steering committee. “But one of the biggest missing pieces here is an actual physical site for Fitzgerald’s legacy.”
For nearly 40 years, McDermott, a gracious man, has lived in the apartment where Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on Sept. 24, 1896. McDermott was among those in 1974 who saved the imposing stone building and its twin from being razed after they were declared “unfit for human habitation,” a designation hobbling the entire Selby-Dale area as it spiraled into decline.
A neighborhood group, Old Town Restoration, sought 12 people to buy and renovate the 12 apartments. Asking price: $19,000. “I remember their flier said, ‘Be a part of history,’ ” McDermott said. “My friends thought I was crazy — and I wasn’t so sure they were wrong.” The restoration company had hopes, but little experience, McDermott said, “and we (buyers) had even less.”
With sweat equity, they dug into piles of beer cans, dragged out rusty bedsprings and tore out slap-dash walls to finally reveal the bones of the Pullman-style apartments that were among St. Paul’s most luxurious when built in 1893.
Beyond saving the building, McDermott is gratified by how the neighborhood also began its slow, but determined recovery. He recalled Mary Weeker, a longtime resident who lived across the street. Filthy from a day of tearing out plaster, he’d walked over to seek a drink of water. She was almost in tears, he said, “saying that ‘you don’t know, but you’ve added years to my life.’ ” Weeker also confirmed that the Fitzgeralds lived in McDermott’s second-floor apartment, which he’d happened into purely by luck when the 12 new owners drew lots to see who would live where.
In 1991, McDermott retired as a professor in the department of speech pathology and audiology at the University of Minnesota. It was then that Fitzgerald truly began to inhabit his life. “I think it’s no exaggeration to say that my life has been transformed by the happenstance of living in this building,” he said.
Scholars from Europe, South America, even Outer Mongolia have pressed the buzzer. But there also were hundreds of ordinary readers swept up by the tempestuous tales of the 1920s. An especially meaningful visit was from Azar Nafisi, who in 2003 wrote “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” about the furtive book club she formed to expose young Iranian women to “forbidden” books, among them, Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Nafisi was a huge fan of Fitzgerald, even writing in the book that she left Tehran in 1997 “for the green light that Gatsby once believed in” — a reference to the light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, at which Gatsby would gaze hoping to rekindle their love. “The people who have been drawn here are so fascinating and I’ve learned so much from them,” McDermott said. “It’s been an enormous pleasure for me to live here, and to start this nonprofit has enhanced these last few weeks of my life.”
Wilson, now a library consultant, called the donation “a springboard” for all sorts of possibilities. “One of our biggest goals is education, to provide resources to the public to foster an understanding of Fitzgerald’s written work.”
The idea that this venture also may serve as a sort of green light for future readers of Fitzgerald clearly gives McDermott some comfort, and some clarity about the decision he made in 1974 to be an urban pioneer. Gently, he slapped his knee. “It is so exciting.”