Worth Reading: The Perfect Hour

Carol Sonenklar
January 30, 2006

The courtship was conducted largely through correspondence. When it ended, the young woman destroyed the young man's letters, at his request. He was to do the same. However, instead the young man had the letters transcribed and then put them into a loose-leaf binder where they remained for almost a century.

book cover for “the perfect hour”

With the 2005 publication of his book The Perfect Hour, author James L. W. West III draws upon these long-overlooked letters and other documents to shed light on the brief but intense romance between the young man—none other than dashing, ambitious F. Scott Fitzgerald, then a sophomore at Princeton University—and his first love, 16-year-old Ginevra King from Lake Forest, Illinois.

"The romance was influential on Fitzgerald's later fiction. We know that Ginevra was one of the models for the wealthy and elusive Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby," says West, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English. "She certainly encouraged his fixation on wealth and the privileges of the upper class."

The two met in 1915 at a sledding party in St. Paul, Minnesota. The debutante daughter of a successful Chicago stockbroker, King had legions of admirers. Fitzgerald, the son of a wholesale grocery salesman, was all too aware of his financial and social limitations, but he pursued her nonetheless, relying on his writing talent to win her over. And he did. For two years they were a part of the social scene around New York, at dances, parties, and campus events. King eventually became engaged to another man, paving the way for Fitzgerald's famous love affair with Zelda Sayre, the southern belle whom he eventually married.

Scottie, Fitzgerald's daughter, found the letters in 1950 and decided not include them in the papers she donated to Princeton, home to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers. She gave them back to King, who put them on a closet shelf in her home. Years later, when King's granddaughter was moving, she found the letters—and a diary—and called Princeton. West, a leading Fitzgerald scholar and editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, learned of the letters' existence when he was contacted by Princeton.

"As soon as I began reading them, I realized how important these letters were," says West. "At first I felt like a voyeur, reading a young girl's letters and diary, but that feeling soon passed and I became fascinated."

Although Fitzgerald scholars were aware of his early romance with King, its impact on his themes and characterizations was often overlooked.

"As most readers know, wealth and privilege are major concerns in Fitzgerald's work," says West, who points out that Ginevra King's family was in a higher financial and social stratosphere than that of Zelda Sayre. "It's easy to see Zelda in many of his female characters, but Daisy Buchanan, in particular, has King's famous melodic voice, and Daisy's husband, Tom, is very much like King's father."

Supplementing the letters with photographs and pages from King's diary, West, who is also director of the Penn State Center for the History of the Book, wanted to demonstrate to readers how biographies are written.

"You use detective work to reconstruct a romance that happened a hundred years ago," he explains. "Because I know so much about Fitzgerald's later years, these early pieces made sense, and it all fit together."

James L. W. West III, Ph.D., is Edwin Erle Sparks professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts, and director of the Penn State Center for the History of the Book. He can be reached at jlw14@psu.edu. West's book, The Perfect Hour, was published in February 2005 by Random House. This review first appeared in LAzine, the online magazine of the College of the Liberal Arts.

Last Updated January 30, 2006