Where was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite bar?
Fitzgerald drank in a lot of places, and over the years, many joints claimed to be his favorite. Fitzgerald drank, it seems, in more places than Abraham Lincoln supposedly slept. Given his prodigious thirst, Fitzgerald was likely thrown out of more places than ever hosted the Kentucky-born President for a night.
But we do know that when Fitzgerald was in Kentucky — specifically, Louisville — his favorite bar was at the Seelbach Hotel. In fact, it can be argued that one of the greatest writers of the 20th century walked into one of the most iconic bars in the South and walked out with a masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.”
According to Seelbach lore, Fitzgerald, then a young, reluctant soldier, escaped the confines of Camp Zachary Taylor on weekend passes and headed to the big city. A college dropout, desperate to leave his naiveté behind with his dismal grades, Fitzgerald put on the impeccably tailored uniform he had recently acquired at Brooks Brothers and instantly became the handsomest and most dangerous man in the bar.
The hotel did its bit for the World War I effort by turning its famous Rathskeller into a USO. Young recruits hobnobbed with the city’s belles in the Bavarian cave of a nightclub, the walls lined with hand-painted Rockwood pottery, the vaulted ceiling covered in hand-tooled leather, surely the most unusual USO anywhere. Bartender Max “Scoopie” Allen presided over the copper-topped bar. Romances bloomed and wilted in the space of a brisk quickstep. The music was zippy, and the gin was cold. The girls were pretty, and the soldiers were anxious. The whole world speeded up, and anything might happen at the Seelbach.
Fitzgerald already believed at 21 that he was a genius — or at least knew he badly wanted to be. He expected to die in the war and was already at work on his first novel (the never-published “Romantic Egotist”). There is nothing as glamorous as a doomed genius. He went to the Seelbach looking for some worldly wisdom and, as any writer would, for inspiration.
To walk into the lobby of the Seelbach was to walk into infinite possibility. In 1918, hotels were still special places, the province of the wealthy and glamorous. This was no “garden inn,” no dial-your-own-cereal breakfast buffet, no suitcase on wheels and an empty minibar. This was a Beaux Arts jewel box brimming with mystery.
Everyone looked more beautiful, more elegant and more mysterious at the Seelbach. The hotel seemed to promise something, anything, everything. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, preferably immediately.
Seelbach history says Fitzgerald met George Remus, aka The King of the Bootleggers, at the hotel. The big man from Chicago, a lapsed lawyer, overcome with greed and envy for his more thuggish clients, took up bootlegging during Prohibition and became fabulously wealthy. Remus scoured the Volstead Act for loopholes. He styled himself a pharmacist, bought up pre-Prohibition bonded liquor, dispensed it for medicinal purposes, then had his henchmen highjack the trucks so he could sell it at the highest price. A fair bit of his liquor was post- rather than pre-Prohibition, made in the attic of a house, sent down via dumbwaiter to a tunnel where it was carted to waiting vehicles. Remus made $40 million in three years.
The King of the Bootleggers was renowned for lavish parties at the Marble Palace, his Cincinnati mansion. At one party, he presented all his female guests new Pontiacs, and, at another, gave each male guest a diamond stickpin. Scantily clad aquatic dancers performed in an in-ground pool. Flowers overflowed from the house as if someone had delivered a greenhouse.
Any of this sounding familiar?
George Remus was the inspiration for Fitzgerald’s most famous character, Jay Gatsby. Or was he?
Louisville sits tantalizingly on the line where the law sometimes gets a little fuzzy. In pre-Civil War days, it was a terminus on the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves who made it across the Ohio River were free. In Prohibition days, the city sat amid 80 percent of the country’s whiskey production. There were strips of riverfront territory that became a jurisdictional no-man’s land: Racetracks, speakeasies, and casinos flourished. Louisville was (as it remains today) famous for fast horses, beautiful women, quality tobacco, and golden oaky bourbon that warmed all the way down.
And because all of those things are better enjoyed in elegant surroundings, the Seelbach flourished from the day it opened in 1905. The Seelbach, in its belief that its customers are always right, had as elastic an interpretation of the law as the city that hosted it.
The hotel’s Oak Room was built for billiards, with baize tables ranked between heavily carved square oak columns, a low-ceilinged masculine venue redolent of cigar smoke and clinking ice cubes. The bar hid behind an oil painting sliced in half that could be closed as quietly as a bedroom door. Al Capone, a blackjack lover, had a mirror installed in a private card room, so he could literally watch his own back and peek at his cross-table opponents’ cards. Spring-loaded doors could be tripped from behind the discrete lobby desk if police arrived unannounced. Card players had time to get their money off the table and pretend they were enjoying a convivial evening over dinner — or to hightail it out the secret tunnel hidden behind the paneling.
Horsemen cruised into Louisville to train thoroughbreds so brushed and pampered they looked sheathed in patent leather. The Seelbach was and is the only place to stay for the Kentucky Derby. Bourbon, cigars, and bookies; gamblers and debutantes; the King of the Bootleggers and the country’s most notorious gangster; diminutive jockeys and lanky socialites: The Seelbach has seen them all.
Louisville’s most beautiful, most fascinating, most desirable belle, according to “The Great Gatsby,” is Daisy Fay. When Gatsby lingers in Europe — or somewhere — after the war, Daisy marries Tom Buchanan.
“Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” Buchanan sneers at the nouveau riche Gatsby. Daisy refuses Gatsby because he is poor; she accepts Tom, who gives her a string of pearls worth $350,000 ($4.8 million in 2017 dollars). Daisy and Tom take an entire floor at the Seelbach and marry in the Grand Ballroom, because of course. Where else?
Novels should never be fact-checked. Reality excises mystery as well as genius.
Still, the fact is that the Army transferred Fitzgerald from Louisville to Montgomery, Alabama, where he quickly met and wooed the city’s most fascinating, most desirable belle, Zelda Sayres. She refused him because he was poor. Zelda, of course, is every woman Fitzgerald ever wrote, a character no actress has ever captured, despite repeated efforts. Movies, operas, radio dramas, none of them have captured Daisy’s equal parts mystery, excitement and glamor. Daisy is eternally the one who got away, tantalizing but unattainable, unknowable, literally too good to be true.
So far, the facts line up nicely with the fiction. Daisy is Zelda transposed to Louisville. The backdrop of the Seelbach adds the proper aspirational opulence, which the poor soldier transformed in his book into waterfront mansions full of beautiful 1-percenters. Gatsby, who owns a chain of pharmacies, is George Remus, a parvenu bootlegger / gambler / who knows what. Tom Buchanan is a lout and an ugly drunk — both of which Fitzgerald could be, but also rich, which Fitzgerald never quite was.
“The Great Gatsby” is about chances missed, about chasing the myth of youth and possibility. The book’s narrator tells Gatsby that you can’t recapture the past. “Why of course you can,” Gatsby replies. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before. She’ll see.” The book is essentially an account of the most elaborate, expensive, and doomed courting dance ever performed.
Fitzgerald describes Tom Buchanan in detail, a large, imposing man, a former football player. He wears riding boots to lunch. Daisy calls him “a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen.”
Gatsby is not described at all. We never learn how tall he is, what color hair he has, whether he talks in a booming voice or a whisper. He wears a pink suit on the fateful trip to New York but aside from his overly eager bad taste, he remains as much a mystery to the reader as to the other characters.
In other words, Daisy falls in love with a man who doesn’t exist. Even his name is invented. He calls himself Jay Gatsby, the man he wants to be. Fitzgerald is ordinary; Gatsby is extraordinary, not to mention rich, from a good family, and respectable. Daisy accepts him at face value, for isn’t that love, that leap of faith? Don’t we all fall in love with a dream? Don’t we all pretend to be our best selves, our unrealized ambitions, for the ones we love? Don’t we all hope that love will turn us into the person who realizes those dreams? Don’t we all fall in love with what might be rather than what is?
This is fiction. Writing it into believability is genius. Does it matter that it doesn’t match the facts?
Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Taylor in 1918. Prohibition did not begin until 1920, the same year George Remus moved to Cincinnati.
Larry Johnson, the concierge and historian of the Seelbach, an employee for 35 years, stands in the hotel lobby wearing a cutaway coat and striped trousers, a pearl stickpin in his ascot, as if ready to drop everything and usher a wedding. He insists that Fitzgerald and Remus were the “best of friends,” that they met when the bootlegger noticed the would-be novelist scribbling notes on cocktails napkins. There is, however, no evidence that their paths ever crossed. Most significantly Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Taylor for only a month, according to the late Matthew Bruccoli’s extensively researched biography, “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur” — hardly time to wander the plush corridors of the Seelbach in search of more than his next drink. Fitzgerald was thrown out of the Seelbach’s USO three times in four weeks, which, even by the standards of a possibly doomed raw recruit during a world war, is impressive drinking.
Much of the speculation about Fitzgerald’s inspirations and their Seelbach connection is exactly that, speculative hindsight. Of course, the essence of creativity is calling on many disparate sources to create something entirely original. Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota, and none of his books take place in the South. Yet there is no doubt that the region was one of his most significant inspirations, starting with the women.
The belle is a uniquely Southern concoction. Neither vamp nor virgin, neither sexy nor pure, neither innocent nor well behaved, always polite but often naughty, a good girl who likes a good time without being a good-time girl, with just a little craziness thrown in for that all-important soupçon of danger. In other words, Daisy, aka Zelda.
Then, there is the heat — hot, humid days and stifling nights. The day Daisy and Tom marry is so hot that one of the guests faints. “The Great Gatsby” builds to its climax in a screaming match between Gatsby and Tom on the hottest day of the year — significantly, perhaps, in a hotel room. Even with all the windows open, it is so hot that Daisy asks someone to “telephone for an axe.” Where else but the South does heat make everyone so crazy that fatal accidents or even murders are the result?
And then there is the pace of the thing. “The Great Gatsby” has that uniquely Southern combination of languor and drama. People are idle. It’s too hot to move. There is no urgency to anything and yet everything is fraught, weighted with possibility, on the verge of something … something big.
Sensual, bathed in color, as headlong as jazz, as polite as a cotillion at the Seelbach, as promising as a building full of beckoning bedrooms, “The Great Gatsby” reads as as much of a masterpiece today as when it was published in 1925. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald walked into that bar and walked out with two masterpieces: He created Gatsby. He also created the Seelbach of Southern myth.
Max “Scoopie” Allen was making an Old Fashioned in the Seelbach Hotel Rathskeller in 1917. Whether someone bumped him or was walking by with an open bottle, somehow champagne splashed into his mixing glass. I think I’m onto something, Scoopie thought, and thus was born the Seelbach, one of the most delicious cocktails ever to come out of bourbon country.
Bob Knott, today the bartender in the Old Seelbach Bar, serves at least 100 Seelbachs every single Saturday and hundreds more throughout the week. Out-of-towners lope about hoisting champagne flutes proclaiming, astonished, “This is delicious! You gotta try it.”
Into a mixing glass filled with ice, pour:
1½ ounces of Old Forrester bourbon
1 ounce Cointreau
7 dashes Angostura bitters
- 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir until well chilled. Strain into a champagne flute and top with champagne. Garnish with a section of orange peel, its oils expressed over the top of the drink.