I recently saw an Asheville historian point to the Grove Park and say “Fitzgerald did a lot of writing there,” which is not true. By the time Fitzgerald was staying at the Grove Park the best of his writing life was behind him.
To be clear – I love all the writers I mention below and I think they all have a rightful place in the canon of American Literature. But I do think we need to be honest about who they were. The past we’re repeating is overly sanitized, the people are over-glorified, and rewriting history in this manner is dangerous because we’re not telling the truth. So here’s a brief unfiltered look at the three main writers Asheville prides itself on and the time they spent in the city.
Thomas Wolfe (October 3 1900 September 15 1938)
Thomas Wolfe was born in Asheville and lived in the city until he was 15 and left to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He didn’t return again until 1937, shortly before his death at the age of 38, but he did set his most famous novel Look Homeward Angel, in the city, and referenced it in many other works. In 1920 after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill Wolfe went on to study playwriting at Harvard, graduating in 1922 with his Masters. In 1923 Harvard put on his ten scene play, originally titled “Niggertown” (now known as Welcome to Our City) which involved half of the cast performing in blackface.
This play was set in Asheville, as was another short story, “The Child By Tiger,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1937. “The Child By Tiger” is based on the true story of a lynch mob outfitted with guns by the local pawn shop gunning down a black man suspected of murder downtown Asheville in 1906 (https://ashevillehistoricinns.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/killed-by-a-desperado/ )
Wolfe led a very contradictory life in many respects, and this was especially apparent in his anti-semitism. He visited Germany six times in the 1920s an 1930s during the rise of the Nazi Party, publishing a novella titled I Have A Thing To Tell You in 1937, which illustrates the growing paranoia, restriction, Xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Germany. Yet, even though Wolfe seems to be saddened about the treatment of Jews in his story, he doesn’t negate the ideas behind the prejudices – he instead voices the same stereotypes in his writing, and in his personal notebooks, where he states “I do not like the Jews.” Even so, he had long term affair with a married Jewish woman, Aline Bernstein, who was fourteen years older than him and a successful costume designer in New York City. Wolfe’s career was funded in part by Bernstein; she supported him financially allowing him the time to write Look Homeward, Angel, which he dedicated to her. Their correspondence is immortalized in the book My Other Loneliness, a collection of letters between him and Aline. But even in their ‘love letters’ Wolfe is quick to throw out anti-Semitic insults whenever he is upset with her. (See Thomas Wolfe’s Sugar-Mama)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940)
Fitzgerald stayed at the Grove Park Inn over the summers of 1935 and 1936. His greatest works, This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) and The Great Gatsby (1925) had been published 10 years before, his life and writing epitomized in the fast times and excess of the 1920s. He did publish one last book during his short lifetime, Tender is the Night (1935), but his writing, along with his physical and mental health, had deteriorated along with the American economy in the Great Depression of the 1930s. During his time at the Grove Park Inn Fitzgerald was mostly drinking, up to 50 ponies (7 ounces beers) a day – a ‘beer cure’ for trying to quit gin, although a New York City reporter that visited him on the eve of his 40th birthday reported that he snuck gin from his dresser throughout the interview. Fitzgerald caused such a ruckus during his stay at the Grove Park, including shooting a gun off in his room, that the Inn wanted to kick him out, but instead agreed he could stay if he had a full-time nurse.
One piece of writing did come out of Fitzgerald’s time at the Grove Park, The Crack-up, shows not only his personal struggles, but also his blatant racism. First published as a three-part series in Esquire Magazine in February, March and April of 1936, The Crack-Up tells the story of Fitzgerald’s descent at the age of thirty-nine from glamorous success to empty despair. The essays were poorly received when first published, Hemingway dismissing his essay as ‘whining in public,’ but with this personal confessional essay Fitzgerald ushered in a new realm of journalism and masculinity in which he let his weaknesses be seen.
I was living hard, too, but: ‘Up to forty-nine it’ll be all right,’ I said. ‘I can count on that. For a man who’s lived as I have, that’s all you could ask.’—And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized I had prematurely cracked.
In the article Fitzgerald also shows his racial prejudices:
Like most Midwesterners, I have never had any but the vaguest race prejudices—This is urban, unpopular talk. It strays afield from the fact that in these latter days I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers (I avoided writers carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can)—and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class…And just as the laughing stoicism which has enabled the American Negro to endure the intolerable conditions of his existence has cost him his sense of the truth—so in my case there is a price to pay.
Obviously, Fitzgerald’s prejudices are far-reaching, but that doesn’t make them excusable. You can read the article in its entirety on Esquire’s site https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/ , or in the compiled book available here www.biblio.com/the-crack-up, which also includes letters to and from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot and John Dos Passos.
Another interesting book about Fitzgerald in Asheville is After the Good Gay Times: Asheville, Summer of ’35 – A Season with F. Scott Fitzgerald (1974) by Anthony Buttitta. This book is a first hand account from someone who had befriended Fitzgerald during the summer of 1935, and contains an interesting anecdote of his reaction when finding out a prostitute he had ‘befriended’ was not white as he had assumed.
After his last summer at the Inn, the New York Post published an article by Michel Mok entitled, “The Other Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair” It provided another unflattering view of Fitzgerald’s descent from the social and literary peak he had climbed in the 1920s:
A writer like me,” he said, “must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It’s an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothingcan- happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me. Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip.
Struggling financially, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937 after signing a lucrative deal with MGM. While in Hollywood Fitzgerald had an affair with movie columnist Sheila Graham, although he was still married to his wife Zelda, who remained in Asheville at Highland Hospital. In 1940 he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. Zelda was killed in a fire at the Highland Hospital 8 years later. They are buried together in Rockville, Maryland in Scott’s family plot.
O.Henry (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910)
O.Henry, just like Wolfe and Fitzgerald, didn’t make it to his fiftieth birthday; heavy drinking and hard living blowing out the flame of the writer at mid-life. Born William Sydney Porter in Greensboro, NC, Porter relocated to Texas as a young man and worked various jobs, including ranch hand, pharmacist and land surveyor, writing short stories and articles for newspapers and magazines on the side. In 1887 he eloped with 17 year-old Athol Estes, against her parents wishes, and the couple had a son, who died shortly after birth in 1888, and a daughter, Margaret, in 1889.
In 1891 Porter began to work as a teller and bookkeeper at a bank, but in 1894 he was fired for embezzling funds. He avoided indictment, until 1896 when federal authorities arrested him. His father-in-law posted bail, and Porter fled, first going to New Orleans, then to Honduras, but after learning his wife was sick with consumption and couldn’t bring his daughter to meet him he returned home to charges in 1897. Athol died in July of that year, and in 1898 Porter was sentenced to five years in a federal prison in Ohio. He served three of the years before being released, his imprisonment had been kept secret from his daughter, who went to live with relatives and was told her father was away on business. In 1902 Porter moved to New York City to be close to publishers, and the next few years were his most prolific. He eventually wrote over 400 short stories, becoming famous for his surprise endings, illustrated in his most famous story “The Gifts of the Magi”
In 1907, when Porter was 45, he married his childhood sweetheart Sara (Sallie) Lindsay Coleman, who lived in Weaverville, North Carolina. Porter relocated to the mountains of Western North Carolina in the hopes of improving his failing health. The town of Weaverville was too quiet for Porter, who had grown accustomed to living in New York City, so he took an office in downtown Asheville. The couple separated soon after, in 1908, and Porter returned to New York. In 1909 Coleman left him, and on July 4th 1910, at only 48 years old, Porter died of cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, and an enlarged heart. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery Asheville, as is his daughter Margaret, who died of tuberculosis in 1927. In 1916 Coleman published a book, Wind of Destiny, which is a fictional portrayal of her courtship with Porter, under the name Sara Lindsay Coleman. The book’s print run was limited to 125 numbered copies, and in the forward Coleman explains that although fiction, the letters she uses in the book are real letters sent to her from Porter. She died in 1959 at the age of 91 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery as well, under the name Sara Coleman Porter.