“The Last of the Belles” combines autobiographical elements of Fitzgerald’s courtship of Zelda Sayre and his theme of the lost dreams of youthful promise. Beautiful, blond, and vivacious, Ailie Calhoun captivates all the young officers who meet her in the small Georgia town of Tarleton, where they are in training for World War I. Many pursue her, including the narrator, Andy, and one young man may even have killed himself in a plane crash because of her. Ailie is perversely attracted to—and at the same time repelled by—Earl Schoen, an uncouth Yankee who is alien to everything she has known. In the end, she rejects all her beaux but is herself rejected by time and the modern world, which leaves her as the last of the traditional southern belles, a memory of what was once youthful and applauded.
The tone of the story is wistful and elegiac. All the events are in the past, which heightens the sense of lost opportunity and gives added emphasis to the connections between Fitzgerald’s own life and the fictional work. At the end of the story Andy returns to Tarleton and, with Ailie, revisits the now desolate site of the abandoned Army camp. Andy wanders there, “in the knee-deep underbrush, looking for my youth in a clapboard or a strip of roofing or a rusty tomato can,” another of Fitzgerald’s heroes wondering what became of his youthful dreams and promise.