Writer's Retreats

Writer's Retreats : Author F. Scott Fitzgerald's frequent visits to the mountains yielded a turning point amid dark days
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In early 1935, the debts that author F. Scott Fitzgerald amassed during the boom years of the 1920s finally came due. His wife, Zelda, was suffering from mental illness, and her long-term institutionalization was costly. His early writing successes with This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, and The Great Gatsby were fading with time. To make ends meet, he had begun leaning heavily on personal loans from his editor and agent. Professionally, the response to his 1934 novel Tender Is the Night had been disappointing. Even the magazine stories he claimed to dash off solely for money weren’t coming—or selling—as easily as they used to. And his heavy drinking, which he believed fueled his work, wasn’t helping matters.

Fitzgerald needed to find new directions—professionally and personally. Even more, he needed to reclaim a feeling he’d lately lost: hope. As it turned out, his journey through the darkness would begin in Western North Carolina, bringing him back to the mountains many times over a period of two and a half years to attempt fresh starts.

The first visit came in February 1935, and was short-lived. The author abruptly left his home in Baltimore with his daughter, Frances Scott, nicknamed Scottie, in tow. The two traveled to Tryon, where he left her in the care of Nora and Lefty Flynn, local socialites and acquaintances of the Fitzgeralds’, and he checked in to the Oak Hall Hotel.

His reasons for choosing Tryon for his getaway are murky. It’s possible he feared a flare-up of tuberculosis, which had plagued him since college, and came seeking the famed curative properties of the mountain air. It’s more likely he was attempting to put space between himself and the increasing chaos of his life in Baltimore.

For the moment, though, even a distance of some 500 miles couldn’t provide escape. His room at Oak Hall, as remembered by Nora Flynn, seems a fitting metaphor for his state of mind; she recalled “neckties hanging from the light fixture, and dirty pajamas all over.” He eked out a story while there, but his agent couldn’t sell it. By early March, he and Scottie were back in Baltimore.

Just weeks later, a doctor confirmed Fitzgerald’s tuberculosis was active. With Zelda in a Baltimore hospital and Scottie at summer camp, he traveled to Asheville to seek the care of a respiratory specialist. Persuading his doctor that inpatient treatment would damage his professional reputation, he took up residence at the fashionable Grove Park Inn.

Though Fitzgerald’s alleged goals were to recuperate and work during his six-month stay, he was more interested in self-destruction. Shortly after his arrival in Asheville, he befriended Laura Guthrie Hearne, an aspiring writer who was working as a palm reader at the inn. Fitzgerald hired her as a secretary, and she recorded her impressions of him in a diary. “He is so alarmed over his health and yet he lives the most unnatural life of any man I know,” she wrote. “If he ever eats a decent meal it has not been since I have known him. And he lives on beer—as high as thirty-seven bottles in one day.... He smokes all the time, too, some special kind of cigarettes without nicotine. He thinks they do not hurt him.”

His vices didn’t end there. Arguably the most destructive element of this period was a melodramatic affair with Beatrice Dance, a wealthy, married Southerner who was summering at the Grove Park Inn.

By Fitzgerald’s account, his relationship with Dance began as that of celebrity and groupie. But what started as a meaningless flirtation quickly grew complicated and drained his focus on writing. To escape Dance and end the affair, he holed up in hotels downtown or as far afield as Chimney Rock, often under false names. These breakups were inevitably followed by frantic messages from the lovelorn Dance and reconciliations. They’d part ways for good only when Dance’s stay at the inn came to an end. He could have thrown himself into his work after her departure, but  Fitzgerald replaced one distraction with another: He resumed his old habit of using gin to stimulate his writing, eventually landing in the hospital to undergo detoxification.

Fitzgerald’s long summer in Asheville came to a close, and rather than recovering his health, he’d exhausted it further. While he’d done some writing, the results weren’t up to his former standard, and his per-story asking price, which in his heyday had topped out at $4,000, had shrunk to as little as $250. Several months at the upscale Grove Park hadn’t improved his finances either. He recognized that his life had reached a low ebb; venting his frustration to Hearne, he resolved, “I’ve got to be different.... Tomorrow the new life begins.” His desire to move forward didn’t yield change immediately, but he would shortly turn a corner.

In what was now becoming a pattern, Fitzgerald returned to Baltimore in the autumn of 1935, eager to be near Scottie and Zelda and to restore some normalcy to his life. Yet, little had changed at home, and by  November he set out for the mountains yet again. This time, he found his way to the Skyland, a dreary hotel in downtown Hendersonville. He knew no one in town and intended to keep it that way; his only goals were to economize and write.

“In Hendersonville: I am living very cheaply.... Monday and Tuesday I had two tins of potted meat, three oranges and a box of Uneedas and two cans of beer,” he recorded in a journal. “But it was funny coming into the hotel and the very deferential clerk not knowing that I was not only thousands, nay tens of thousands in debt, but had less than forty cents cash in the world and probably a deficit at my bank.”

Despite the strains of poverty, he at last managed to undertake some earnest soul-searching. The most important upshot of the trip was his essay titled “The Crack-Up,” which appeared in Esquire in early 1936. The essay (and two companion pieces that followed) comprised a long-overdue examination of his attitude toward life. Having found from early adulthood that joy and success came easily, that life, as he put it, “was something you dominated if you were any good,” he now saw that he’d come to take happiness for granted. His grief, therefore, was due not so much to his problems, but to his realization that he was not immune to unhappiness.

No doubt “The Crack-Up” essays provided Fitzgerald with a much-needed catharsis. But once he returned to Baltimore for the winter, he discovered that his openness and honesty brought unpleasant consequences. Some magazine editors saw the essays as a sign that he was a loose cannon or a washed-up hack. Even many of his peers regarded the pieces’ confessional tone as shameful.

Compounding matters, Zelda’s condition was steadily worsening; she had suicidal urges, became dangerously thin, and began to exhibit an intense religious mania. In the spring of 1936, Fitzgerald transferred her to Asheville’s Highland Hospital, which was then making waves in psychiatric circles for experimental treatments built around exercise and diet. Shortly afterward, he returned to the Grove Park Inn to be near her.

It would prove another difficult summer. Zelda was allowed short absences from the hospital, and though she and Fitzgerald were sometimes seen dining on the inn’s terrace, their visits often passed in near silence. On one occasion, Fitzgerald drank too much, and he and Zelda fought. She disappeared from the hotel, and was found loitering at the train station.

It seemed he couldn’t skirt hard luck. At the end of July, Fitzgerald broke his shoulder while diving and was placed in an upper body cast. After a fall, he developed arthritis in his injured shoulder. Practically confined to his bed, he could no longer visit with Zelda and began drinking heavily again.

The summer’s physical pains would pale in comparison with its emotional blows. Some time in these weeks, he made a half-hearted suicide threat, firing a revolver at the ceiling in his room. The Inn’s management responded by insisting upon mandatory nurse supervision. In August, Ernest Hemingway, who Fitzgerald considered a close friend, published a story in Esquire titled “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that mocked his decline, hurting him deeply.

Then, on his 40th birthday, a New York Post reporter interviewed him at the inn and subsequently published a cruel piece portraying him as a pathetic alcoholic at the end of his career. Upon reading the article, Fitzgerald took an overdose of morphine, but vomited the pills.

These months were undeniably dark. Yet they might also be regarded as a necessary grieving period. Since he’d first ventured to Western North Carolina almost two years earlier, Fitzgerald had come to accept that he was no longer his former self. He also saw that to move forward, he must, as he put it in “The Crack-Up,” “slay the empty shell” of his past. It was only by
going through the painful process of letting go of his old expectations for life that he could become “a new person” with “new things to care about.”

In January 1937, Fitzgerald began his final long-term stay in the mountains, returning to Oak Hall Hotel for a very different experience. There, with a specialist’s help, he made an earnest effort to control his alcoholism. As his health revived, he found satisfaction in the company of the Flynns, and in simple pleasures like ice cream at Missildine’s, the town pharmacy.

Overall, his outlook had mellowed; discussing his debt and Zelda’s illness in a letter to his agent, he remarked, “I am surprisingly not depressed by all these bad breaks.” The change he felt was the acceptance that life was no longer the grand proposition of his younger days.

Seven months later, Fitzgerald’s residency in WNC came to an end. He’d signed a contract with MGM studios and was setting out for Hollywood, where he’d spend the few remaining years of his life. To pass time on the westbound train, he wrote a letter to Scottie. “I feel a certain excitement,” it began. A simple sentiment, but one for which he had traveled a great distance.

 

A Tour of Fitzgerald's Stops in WNC

Asheville

Fitzgerald tended to gravitate to the area surrounding the Grove Arcade. The Battery Park Hotel (1 Battle Square) and the George Vanderbilt Hotel  (75 Haywood St.) have since been converted into seniors’ residences, but in 1935, both served as temporary hideouts for the author, who checked in under fake names to escape a messy summer affair. The ground floor of the Vanderbilt also housed the now-defunct Intimate Bookshop, one of his favorite haunts. According to a letter Fitzgerald wrote to fellow author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the “best bootlegger” in Asheville also operated in this neighborhood, in a shop opposite the Vanderbilt. 

No tour of Fitzgerald’s Asheville would be complete without a stop at the Grove Park Inn (290 Macon Ave.), where he spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 in rooms 441 and 443, which allegedly allowed the best vantage for observing arriving female guests. The rooms’ original décor has been preserved, and the inn opens them for viewing each year on Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24.

Hendersonville

In late 1935, Fitzgerald spent several lonely weeks at the Skyland Hotel (538 N. Main St.), where he wrote “The Crack-Up.” The building has been converted into apartments, but visitors can sneak a peek at the lobby, which has retained the art deco details of the author’s day.

Tryon

Sadly, no traces remain of the Oak Hall Hotel (77 Chestnut St.), which served as Fitzgerald’s primary residence during his stays in town. Now Tryon Federal Bank, the storefront at 15 S. Trade Street once housed Missildine’s, a pharmacy with an ice cream fountain so adored by Fitzgerald that he penned a poem about it in 1937.

Local lore has it that Fitzgerald also stayed in the Swayback Cabin at the Pine Crest Inn (85 Pine Crest Lane), though the exact dates and circumstances of this sojourn have been lost to the ages. According to current owner Carl Caudle, inn founder Carter Brown was known to show great discretion in protecting the privacy of visiting artists and celebrities.