With a little help from her admirers, Zelda Fitzgerald rises above her sketchy local legacy
by Melanie McGee Bianchi . portrait by Rimas Zailskas
They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Or, more appropriately, like Bourbon and bitters. “When you talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald, you always think of Zelda,” says Bruce Johnson of Fairview, who will write about the pair in Tales of the Grove Park Inn, due in spring.
“If you wanted to know the name of the wife of another famous male writer of the period, like Hemingway or Faulkner, you’d probably have to look it up on Wikipedia,” says Johnson. “But you can’t separate the legacy of Scott and Zelda.”
It would be an unsavory stretch to peg the Fitzgeralds as the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes of their day, although in terms of beleaguered celebrity coupledom, they surely fit the TomKat bill. They also fit their era, the so-called Roaring ’20s, as smoothly as a flapper’s shimmying arm in a long silk glove.
In fact, they defined the Jazz Age, buoyed by the success of Scott’s short stories and canonic novels, most popularly The Great Gatsby, and by their own fashionable public excesses, played out to the splashiest degree in New York and Paris.
The Depression stalled Scott’s career and saw Zelda slide into mental illness. By 1935, she had already been institutionalized in Europe and in America. Scott spent a debacle-studded two summers vigorously deepening his alcoholism at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn while taking the mountain-air cure for a mild case of tuberculosis. The second year, 1936, he had Zelda transferred to Highland Hospital (originally “Dr. Carroll’s Sanatorium”) in Montford, where she was periodically treated for the next 12 years. Although estranged from the late ’30s on, the couple never divorced, and wrote letters to one another until the end.
In 1948, eight years after Scott’s sudden death in Hollywood from a heart attack, Zelda perished, unimaginably, at Highland. Barred in her room, she was burned alive in a fire set by night supervisor Willie Mae Hall, an apparently uncured former patient. (Zelda had checked herself into the hospital voluntarily, and quite suddenly, ending a long stretch of wellness.)
Tales of the Grove Park Inn, due in February, is Johnson’s fourth book in a series about Asheville’s storied resort, which holds an F. Scott Fitzgerald weekend every September in honor of the late author’s birthday on Sept. 24. For a quarter-century, Johnson has directed another important Inn institution — the national Arts & Crafts Conference. In his spare time, the master woodworker writes how-to books, appears on the DIY cable network and on HGTV, and is a spokesman for Minwax.
Raised a rule-breaking debutante in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald also immersed herself in a variety of artistic media. Late in her life, and especially during her time spent in Asheville, she focused on painting. Earlier, beginning at age 27, she grew obsessed with becoming a professional ballerina, practicing to the brink of physical and mental breakdown.
And she wrote, extensively. Scott openly plagiarized passages from her letters and journals for his novels and prolific stream of short stories. (The amount of work he “borrowed,” both with and without her consent, has been widely disputed. In her well-known work Zelda: A Biography, Nancy Milford reports that Zelda wrote entire short stories that Scott placed in national magazines under his own byline.) Her one published novel, the tepidly reviewed Save Me the Waltz, infuriated her husband, since it contained autobiographical material from their marriage he assumed he would use in his own novel-in-progress, Tender is the Night.
But like another Jazz Age writer, Dorothy Parker, Zelda is better known for her one-liners rather than for entire works. Her most-collected quotes include: “I don’t want to live. I want to love first, and live incidentally,” and, from Save Me the Waltz: “She refused to be bored, chiefly because she wasn’t boring.”
Scott and Zelda’s artistic appropriation of their mutual experiences was always a bitter point of contention.
“They had a love/hate relationship,” says Johnson. “At the height of their glory, they were passionate, and life was great. But when the alcohol wore off, they lashed out at each other like snakes in a pit.” (A 2003 pictorial autobiography compiled from the couple’s scrapbooks, co-edited by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Joan Paterson Kerr, and the couple’s daughter Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, bears the perfect self-explanatory title: The Romantic Egoists.)
Scott’s genius was simultaneously enduring — The Great Gatsby was voted number 2 in a Modern Library survey of the 100 greatest 20th-century novels — and peculiar to his vivid, but short-lived, era. “Unlike his writing contemporaries, Fitzgerald had no real life experience to draw from,” explains Johnson. “You take Hemingway, who drove an ambulance in World War I, who went on big-game safaris, who would go on to [work as a reporter in] the Spanish Civil War. Fitzgerald wrote about one thing, the only thing he knew — being young and rich in the 1920s.”
Most writers are loners, Johnson points out. But the Fitzgeralds, both undeniably narcissistic, thrived on being celebrated, part of an exalted artistic clique, of the moment, au courant — and such flair always comes with a shelf life. If Scott was limited, and Zelda is inextricable from his reputation, then her memory should be little more than a lone, discordant jazz note.
While she is notable, believes Johnson, “as a tragic figure who died a horrific death here in Asheville, it’s because of her association with F. Scott Fitzgerald that she’s [remembered].
“While her story is compelling and heart-wrenching, it will always serve as an accompaniment to the more important literary legacy of her husband.”
Some scholars and aficionados might take issue with that notion — or at least argue that, if there were justice, it wouldn’t be true. “Zelda Fitzgerald wasn’t just F. Scott Fitzgerald’s muse,” says Deb Maddox. The owner of Ghost Hunters of Asheville, she is writing a history of Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood for Arcadia Publishing.
“People have no idea how complex Zelda Fitzgerald’s story really was,” insists Maddox. A woman from an aristocratic Southern family, she was a belle who “followed the Southern script,” in Maddox’s words — i.e., early marriage to a successful man — at the cost of her health, and ultimately, her life.
“She was immensely talented in her own right,” says Maddox — “a world-class ballerina,” for starters. (Despite embarking on a dance career relatively late in life, Zelda was accepted by the school of the San Carlo Opera Ballet Company in Naples, Italy, in 1929. She never officially joined the troupe, though; by 1930, she had entered her first sanatorium in Switzerland.)
“How she moved in the world, the way she thought, how outspoken she was — she was a woman ahead of her time, and if she had been born today, she would have taken the world by storm,” declares Maddox, who says she has “devoured” volumes of information on her pet subject. The ghost hunter, who uses photos and artwork to augment her tour, points to the latter as an example of Zelda’s genius. “Her perspective, the bodies of her subjects, was consistently skewed — you look at her paintings and can see that she was differently wired.
“Today, you consider people like [late Apple innovator] Steve Jobs, who was also differently wired, and our culture rewards them. There’s a place for them. Back then, especially if you were a woman, there wasn’t.”
Except, of course, in mental institutions. The old Highland Hospital complex where Zelda died was on Zillicoa Street, a stop included in the Montford section of Maddox’s spooky tours. Some of the older surviving buildings on the street, that remained part of the hospital as it changed hands, finally closing in the 1990s, are the sites of alleged ghostly activity.
Eight other women died in the Highland Hospital fire, and none of the spirit activity is specifically tied to Zelda, although Maddox says Zelda’s ghost was rumored to haunt the Richmond Hill Inn in West Asheville, where, in the 1940s, she bussed tables for money in between stays at the hospital. (The inn was destroyed by arson in 2009.)
But Maddox seems more compelled by the fascination her clients express in Zelda’s local history. “Some of the younger people on my tour, the ones in their twenties, have never even heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she says. “But when they learn about Zelda, women will shake their heads knowingly, no matter how old they are or whether or not they’ve heard of her. To live in the shadow of a man, to have been denied the opportunity for expression — they just get it.”
Mystery and melancholy of a Montford street
At least one scholar, Dr. Karen E. Tatum-LeVous, associate professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Norfolk State University, traces the quintessential flapper’s squashed potential to a ghastly misdiagnosis, a theory she broached in a 2010 academic article she published in the Journal of Medical Humanities.
LeVous posits that Zelda’s symptoms of agitation and hallucinations were not brought on by schizophrenia, as has been generally accepted, but were the result of the crazy-making “cures” she was given early on for the severe recurring eczema that covered her entire body. The disastrous treatments, including morphine and a suffocating ointment-and-bandage application, only worsened the torturous itching. (Antihistamines weren’t invented until the mid-1940s.)
Once stigmatized, Zelda was trapped for life. Believing herself as mentally ill as everyone — doctors, friends, spouse — assured her she was, she never again enjoyed her early vibrancy or achieved enough stability to provide a home for herself and her daughter. (Caring for young Scottie, the Fitzgeralds’ only child, was largely Scott’s responsibility.)
At Highland Hospital, however, Zelda did regain a measure of the physical and emotional health that sustained her until the time of her own death, allowing her to explore her creative impulses unfettered. Started by the renowned but controversial psychiatrist Dr. Robert Carroll, the facility was considered among the most progressive of its time. Treatments now considered barbaric, including electroshock therapy, were practiced there. But the hospital also emphasized fresh air, exercise (including hiking in the nearby mountains), good nutrition, cultivation of hobbies, and realizing a strong purpose in life.
Private recuperative facility CooperRiis Healing Community is currently located on the site that comprised a portion of the Highland Hospital complex. But the first stop on Zillicoa Street is a theatrical, castle-shaped building called Homewood, an event venue that was once Dr. Carroll’s personal residence. Morning sun casts a meaningful light on Homewood’s gray stone and on nearby Rumbough House (a grand, yellow Queen Anne listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is newly for sale). Odyssey Community School, a private pre-K-through-12 institution, takes up a large corner and sits adjacent to an enormous, forested playground. The quirky street is a short one; after the school, it twists around a blind curve, its outlet unseen.
A plaque commemorating Zelda Fitzgerald’s place of death, etched with a quote of hers that starts with “All I need is hope,” straddles the CooperRiis property and neighboring Genova Diagnostics. Co-founded with her husband by Lisbeth Riis Cooper, CooperRiis treats people with mental and emotional distress. A 94-acre rural healing community in Mill Spring was the first venue. Like its country counterpart, the newer urban campus in Montford stresses healthful living, experiential therapies, and relationship-centered care over knee-jerk pharmacological “cures.”
Lisbeth is well aware of the coincidence tying her facility to the old hospital. “It’s fitting,” she says, “considering that Dr. Carroll’s philosophy, more than anything, was to give people purpose and dignity, and treat them with respect, which is what we do with our residents today.”
Distant peaks and paper dolls
Inside CooperRiis’s urban facility is a retro-styled café where a big “Z” is emblazoned on the wall in marquee lighting. It’s fun to imagine this hip bit of décor as a memorial to Zelda, but it refers to the facility’s nickname, 85Z, after its address on Zillicoa.
Over the years, interest in Zelda’s time in Asheville has spiked and faded. In 2000, a popular retrospective of her artwork was shown at Asheville Art Museum, marking the centennial of her birth. The show included paper dolls, flamboyantly macabre fantasy paintings, and landscapes. Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, spoke at the exhibit; a memorial dance was among the auxiliary events.
But, apart from ghost and history tours, a consistent cultural legacy has been lacking. Dr. Tatum-LeVous finds this “strange” at best, and at worst unjust. When she wasn’t in Alabama staying with her mother, Zelda could most often be found living at Highland Hospital or somewhere near it, including at Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s boarding house downtown, which eventually turned into a major tourist attraction.
“Asheville was way more a home for Zelda, way more a part of her life, than it ever was for [F. Scott] Fitzgerald,” she says. In fact, Tatum-LeVous canceled a visit to Asheville after discovering there was no significant memorial or museum operating in Zelda’s honor: “I couldn’t believe it.”
While Scott stayed here for only two summers, he has the annual “weekend” at the Grove Park Inn named for him — not to mention a nearby upscale condominium. Meanwhile, Asheville was Zelda’s waystation for more than a decade, and there is no consistent event organized just for her. (It’s fun to picture the opportunities for Roaring ’20s costumes and debauchery that an annual Zelda Festival might incite. More soberly, her story synchs up with a certain pervasive Asheville theme — the quirkiness, the mystery, the determined phases of reinvention.)
Still, opposing the couple in this context seems disingenuous. Neither, after all, was here under happy circumstances, and this fact unites them. Scott didn’t revive his writing career while living at the Grove Park Inn, as he had hoped to do. And Zelda, despite stretches of recovery, was fated to die at the site of her “cure.” For this ill-starred pair, success wasn’t lurking anywhere in the enigmatic fog of the Blue Ridge.
Down the mountain, at state theater Flat Rock Playhouse, executive director Vincent Marini and his writing partner Jack Murphy are sounding a more celebratory note for the unfortunate flapper. Next month, the pair will premier their musical Zelda: An American Love Story — a loose, time-bending retelling of the couple’s life.
Starring Lauren Kennedy, Zelda has been in the works for nine years. Marini reveals that the show was originally going to be called Scott and Zelda. “It explores what the pressures of celebrity can do to a love affair. Here’s a woman of incredible potential who was always in the background, compared to her husband.”
Somehow, in the writing of the play, “Zelda kept fighting her way onto the page,” says Marini. “As we researched her, and developed the story, she was so dynamic a presence it became clear that what we really needed to do was focus on her.”
Already, there is a rising buzz around the musical, which Marini hopes will tour outside the area. It may satisfy the history buffs who wonder about the lack of Zelda’s posthumous presence in Western North Carolina.
For her part, Tatum-LeVous indicates quieter proof of Zelda’s local milieu. In a hard-to-find 1996 book, Zelda: An Illustrated Life, co-edited by granddaughter Lanahan, painted depictions of local scenes are juxtaposed with the artist’s more flamboyant works.
“Zelda’s fairy-tale paintings are done in these wild reds and blacks and oranges, but her mountain landscapes are cool colors, greens and whites. They’re very tranquil,” says Tatum-LeVous. “Asheville was where she finally found some peace.”
Response: speakersVERVE Magazine | Asheville's Magazine for Women | News | Fashion | Food | Events - September 2012 - Living Incidentally