Before Zelda, there was Ginevra

Documents tell more about Fitzgerald's relationship with his first love

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- The University Library has acquired a rich collection of documents that reveal previously unknown details about American author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his first love, Ginevra King.

F. Scott Fitzgerald   Ginevra King  

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ginevra King


King was a beautiful and wealthy debutante from Lake Forest, Ill., with whom Fitzgerald had a romantic relationship from 1915 to 1917. King's family has donated her diary and typed versions of her almost weekly letters to Fitzgerald from that period as well as one original letter from Fitzgerald to King and a seven-page untitled short story by King that shows some of Fitzgerald's influences.

"None of Fitzgerald's biographers have seen these letters before -- although researchers knew they existed," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. "So a certain amount of writing about their relationship has been speculation. And there has been a lot of writing about it because she was so central to his image of the American dream and women."

Even though she married William H. Mitchell, "King remained for Fitzgerald an archetype for the alluring, independent and upperclass woman, ultimately unattainable by someone of a modest social background like himself," Skemer said, noting that this continued even after Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, the quintessential Jazz Age flapper who became his wife. "Arguably, Ginevra was a model for Daisy Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby' and is recognizable in many other characters."

Fitzgerald would use details of their meeting in his story "Babes in the Woods" in the Nassau Literary Magazine (May 1917), a piece that he reused with minor changes in "This Side of Paradise" (1920), his first novel, which was set at Princeton.


Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the Princeton University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (standing), and James West, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and the editor of the ongoing series, "The Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald" (Cambridge University Press), examine the diary and letters of Ginevra King, F. Scott Fitzgerald's first love.


While readers may obtain one view of King through Fitzgerald's writing, the newly unveiled materials present a somewhat different picture. "In her letters, we hear Ginevra King's authentic voice, unfiltered by Fitzgerald in prose fiction," Skemer said.

"These materials give us a much more complex picture of the relationship between the two," added James West, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and the editor of the ongoing series, "The Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald" (Cambridge University Press).

"Before, we had to rely only on Scott's voice and on the pictures or the characters based on Ginevra in his fiction," West said. "But it turns out that she was rather more of a person than he might have realized and that their relationship, which he depicted as one-sided, was, in fact, very emotional. She cared a great deal about him too."

The materials were donated by King's daughter, Ginevra Mitchell Hunter of Marshall, Va., and by King's granddaughters, Cynthia Fuller Hunter of Loveland, Colo., and Ginevra King Chandler of Ukiah, Calif. At Princeton, they complement the library's extensive holdings on Fitzgerald, who entered the University as a freshman in 1913.

Mining for dialogue

While home in St. Paul, Minn., on Christmas vacation, Fitzgerald met King in January 1915. At the time, she was a student at the Westover School, a women's preparatory school in Middlebury, Conn.

Fitzgerald visited her at the school. On Feb. 20, 1915, King writes in her diary: "Scott came in afternoon. It was so wonderful to see him again. I am madly in love with him. He is so wonderful .... Marvelous time."

The letters given to Princeton are actually 227 pages of typed correspondence placed in a large binder. At some point -- probably in the late 1920s or early 1930s -- Fitzgerald had King's letters typed and bound. The cautionary title page reads, "Strictly Private and Personal Letters: Property of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Not Manuscript)."

"It is unclear why Fitzgerald had the letters transcribed," Skemer said. "Perhaps he wanted to exploit them for bits of dialogue." The author had a lifelong habit of maintaining notebooks of people, sayings, aphorisms and parables, which he used in his writing.

While the originals were destroyed, the letters are no doubt reproductions of the handwritten text, West said.

"They're genuine, I'm sure of that," he said. "They're her voice -- the expressions of a 16-year-old girl. I've read the letters against the diary, which chronicles the same period, and they match as to what happens on particular days."

The letters from Fitzgerald to King also were destroyed -- at his request after the relationship ended. On July 7, 1917, King writes: "I have destroyed your letters -- so you needn't be afraid that they will be held up as incriminating evidence. They were harmless -- have you a guilty conscience? I'm sorry you think that I would hold them up to you as I never did think they meant anything. If it isn't too much trouble you might destroy mine too."

After Fitzgerald's death in 1940, his daughter, Scottie, sent the bound letters to King. She retained them until her death in 1980, never showing them to anyone.

The ideal girl

Fitzgerald's first biographer Arthur Mizener, a 1930 Princeton graduate, noted in "The Far Side of Paradise" (1951) that King was "the extraordinary 'nice' girl, the beautiful, magnetic girl who was always effortlessly at ease.... The other men were part of her charm, for though she conquered everywhere quite deliberately, she remained essentially untouched, free. This was the girl he was, without much conscious intention, to make the ideal girl of his generation, the wise, even hard-boiled, virgin who for all her daring and unconventionality was essentially far more elusive than her mother -- and, in her own way, far more romantic."

After reading the letters, West has a somewhat different view: "I think she was a match for Fitzgerald. She had a strong personality. She was not vain or self-centered. She was an open, direct young woman. I like her.

"He always depicted himself as a poor boy who idealized the love of a rich girl who was rather standoffish, perhaps even a little calculating. But judging by the letters and the diary, that's not true. She seems to have responded strongly and emotionally to him."

On March 12, 1915, King writes to Fitzgerald, "Oh Scott why aren't we -- somewhere else tonight? Why aren't we at a dance in summer now with a full moon, a big lovely garden and soft music in the distance?"

Despite the ardor expressed in her letters, King was "aware of the choices: That she was a child of wealth and in selecting her serious suitors, she probably couldn't consider a middle-class boy from St. Paul, no matter how charming and clever he was," West said.

A tantalizing tale

This theme is borne out in the short story that is part of the materials. Evidently, King sent the story in a letter to Fitzgerald. In the story, King imagines a time 10 years later, in the 1920s, when she has been unhappily married to a Russian count. King seeks out Fitzgerald, now a rich and successful movie producer. She makes her way to the apartment of 'Mr. Fitz-Gerald' and is admitted by his tall, somber butler.

What happens next? Readers will have to wait, Skemer said. The full text will be published in an upcoming issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, along with commentary and illustrations.

"What makes the story tantalizing," West said, "is that it contains basic elements of the story line of 'The Great Gatsby': the beautiful but restless wife, the wealthy but inattentive husband and the old flame, now rich and handsome, living in elegant quarters. A few of the signature details from 'Gatsby' are even present, including the mysterious servants, the 'Wedding March,' which Gatsby and Daisy hear at the Plaza and a ticking clock.

"I suppose it's a common enough fantasy when romance breaks off. Both sides must think about what it's going to be like years from now when they see each other again. Fitzgerald is the one who embodied all of that in 'The Great Gatsby.' Still, it's very intriguing to see it already in this little story that she has written."

"We know that it was hers," Skemer said. "But it's more complicated than that, in that they were passing ideas back and forth in their letters. I can't believe that some of him is not in that story."

The end of the relationship

The final letters in the binder have to do with King's marriage to Mitchell. On July 15, 1918, she writes to tell Fitzgerald about her engagement.

He responds on July 21, 1918, in the only hand-written letter contained in the materials. The letter is mailed from Camp Sheridan, an army base near Montgomery, Ala., where Fitzgerald met Zelda. He writes: "This is to congratulate you -- I don't know Billy Mitchell, but from all I've heard of him he must be one of the best ever. Doesn't it make you sigh with relief to be settled and think of all the men you escaped marrying?"

In 1937, Fitzgerald and King met for a final time in Hollywood, where he was working at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mizener concluded, "to the end of his days the thought of Ginevra could bring tears to his eyes."

The Princeton library's holdings include the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers, a comprehensive literary archive containing his original manuscripts, working drafts, corrected galleys, personal and professional correspondence, autobiographical scrapbooks, photographs and other original materials. Frances Scott ("Scottie") Fitzgerald Lanahan (later Smith), the Fitzgeralds' daughter, donated the papers to the library in 1950. Acquired at the same time were the Zelda Fitzgerald Papers and annotated books from Fitzgerald's personal library.

The Princeton library has successfully sought out additional manuscripts and related materials since that time. The materials are available to researchers using the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For more information, contact Skemer at 258-3184 or <>.


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