In 1936 writer Thomas Wolfe penned a letter to his older brother Fred, as he still resided in their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. In the letter, Wolfe informs his brother about a visitor staying nearby. “There is a poor, desperate, unhappy man staying at the Grove Park Inn. He is a man of great talent but is throwing it away on drink and worry over his misfortune. . . . His name, I forgot to say, is Scott Fitzgerald.”
Fitzgerald arrived to Asheville in the summer of 1936 to help transfer his wife, Zelda, to nearby Highland Hospital; Zelda was seeking treatment for schizophrenia. Once transferred, Zelda rarely saw Fitzgerald. His intention was to focus in on his writing. Old habits, however, got the better of him.
Throughout much of the 1920’s, Scott and Zelda lived in extravagant excess. Fitzgerald had emerged onto the literary scene with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, which sold 35,000 copies within its first seven months. Whereas in 1919, Fitzgerald earned $879 off of his writing, by the end of 1920, his earnings climbed to $18,850. His penchant for alcohol, travel, and parties, however, quickly broke Fitzgerald. Debt proved a constant state, as none of his subsequent novels, including The Great Gatsby, found much commercial or critical success within his lifetime.
By 1935, disappointment and illness brought Fitzgerald on his initial visit to Asheville. His latest novel, Tender Is the Night, continued a trend of tepid reviews and poor sales. Meanwhile, a spot on his lung had the writer certain that the mountain air would cure him of his ills. The extent of his illness, however, raised doubt among others. In a letter to Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s editor and confidant Max Perkins wrote: “I do not think he [Fitzgerald] is especially sick, but just exhausted from work and alcohol.” Perkins nevertheless loaned Fitzgerald the money needed to stay at the fashionable Grove Park Inn.
Grove Park was advertised at the time as the “finest resort hotel in the world,” and so there’s little wonder why Fitzgerald, with his taste for the finer things in life, would seek such a place to convalesce. Yet in the summer of 1935 it seems Fitzgerald found little time for rest.
In his memoir titled After the Good Gay Times: Asheville-Summer 1935—A Season with F. Scott Fitzgerald, playwright Anthony Buttitta discusses Fitzgerald’s initial stay and subsequent escape from the city. In it Buttitta tells of meeting up with Fitzgerald at the George Vanderbilt Coffee Shop. He describes the writer as “highly agitated; his eyes . . . bloodshot, his hands white, shaky, and perspiring.”
At the time, Fitzgerald was dodging the wrath of a lover’s husband. In need of a hideout, Buttitta writes that he took Fitzgerald to The Old Kentucky Home—the rooming house owned and operated by Thomas Wolfe’s mother, Julia (a home made famous in Wolfe’s own novel, Look Homeward, Angel). The hideout proved bust. According to Buttitta, Mrs. Wolfe took notice of Fitzgerald’s “shaky movements” and refused to house him. She allegedly told Fitzgerald, “I never take drunks—not if I know it.”
Fitzgerald’s luck in Asheville did not improve second time around. While no longer in hiding, his 1936 visit found him in a cast. As things would go, Fitzgerald decided to showcase his diving skills to the Asheville locals at Beaver Lake. One fifteen-foot dive later and Fitzgerald had a broken clavicle and dislocated shoulder. A secretary hired to take dictations from the one-armed writer later recounted Fitzgerald’s process: “His usual pattern was to start out having pots of black coffee served to us at intervals, but as the morning progressed into afternoon and the pain and the stress increased, he would advance to stronger stuff. At the end of the session he would slump over, overcome by exhaustion and drink.”
Fitzgerald turned forty in Asheville on September 24, 1936. Aging had always been a fearful thing for the writer. A decade earlier he wrote Max Perkins: “You remember I used to say I wanted to die at 30—well, I’m now 29 and the prospect is still welcome. My work is the only thing that makes me happy—except to be a little tight—and for those 2 indulgences I pay a big price in mental and physical hangovers.”
The hangovers would only worsen with age. On his fortieth birthday, Fitzgerald agreed to an interview with New York Post writer, Michel Mok, who met him in his room at the Grove Park Inn. Whereas Fitzgerald expected the article to address his comeback, he found instead a headline which read: “The Other Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair.”
Thomas Wolfe’s letter to his brother Fred followed the article’s publication—which also incited a suicide attempt on Fitzgerald’s part: he swallowed a phial of morphine, but evidently threw it up. Shortly thereafter, Fitzgerald left Asheville. Four years later, he died of a heart-attack in Hollywood, California.
Asheville did not treat Zelda Fitzgerald with much kindness either. Eight years after Scott’s death, Zelda, along with seven other patients at Highland Hospital, was killed in a fire, locked inside her upstairs room, as the building burned to the ground.
Of course, traces of the Fitzgeralds can still be found in Asheville today. Plaques hang outside the doors of Rooms 441 and 443 of the Grove Park Inn, informing guests of Fitzgerald’s stay. In addition, the resort has a replica of Fitzgerald’s writing desk on display in the Vanderbilt Wing. Outside the former sight of Highland Hospital there is also a small plaque commemorating Zelda’s death. On the plaque is a quote from a letter Zelda wrote to F. Scott. It reads: “I don’t need anything except hope, which I can’t find by looking backwards or forwards, so I suppose the thing is to shut my eyes.”