Asheville in the summer of 1935. At the time my wife and I had a small bookshop there in the lower arcade of the George Vanderbilt Hotel. It wasn’t a profitable venture, though it was next door to a thriving beauty salon, but I earned some bread by writing newspaper articles and by acting as publicity man for the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Of course I was writing a novel—two novels, as a matter of fact—and I often worked on them after the shop was closed.
That Saturday night I was at the typewriter, as I usually was for a couple of hours after supper. A lone saxophone wail and the shuffle of dancing feet filtered down from the hotel ballroom. There was a tapping on the glass wall behind me. The door was shut, the rapping sounded far away. I absently turned to see who was there.
Near the glass door stood a slight, blondish, collegiate-looking chap, apparently of the Asheville summer social crowd, hatless and casual in his gray flannels and light tweed jacket. He was making frantic signals as he pointed down the white marble steps. I rose and opened the door.
“Where’s the men’s room?”
“Downstairs,” I snapped.
Whenever there was a dance, guests strayed down the arcade and tapped on the shop’s wall, scouting for a bottle, a hotly needed contraceptive, or a vanished date, but rarely to rent or buy a book. If by chance talk got around to books, it was invariably about such best-sellers as Anthony Adverse, the first of those long romantic novels that promised an escape from the Depression.
“It’s locked,” the visitor said, as though expecting me to produce the key.
I went down the stairs to look, I had never done that before, but his voice had a quality that I responded to. He was right, the double door was shut. I checked my wrist watch as I came back up. He was standing by the door of the shop, smoking and wavering a bit, more from absorption in himself, it seemed to me, than from the effect of booze. His face was drawn, pale, and gloomy, the overhead light making it look like a detachable mask.
“They lock it at eleven.”
“My God. What’s the time?”
“Why the curfew?” he grimaced. “I’ve been drinking beer. A lot of it.”
“There’s one up the hall.” I pointed toward the staircase. “Off the ballroom.”
“Bases loaded.” He looked at me. “You have no key?”
“Where do you go—after hours?”
I smiled. “A garden wall.”
He followed me through the half-lit shop. Most of the illumination spilled in from the arcade. I opened the front door between the window displays. He stepped out on the sidewalk.
“To the left.” I walked behind him in the moonlit narrow side-street. “Might be muddy after that cloudburst at supper time.”
He mumbled and advanced, a bit unsteady but light on his feet. We reached the arched gate at the back of the hotel. I unlatched it and led him under a dripping pergola. The scent of wisteria, cape jasmine, mimosa, and overripe magnolias honeyed the Carolina night. We cut across flowering shrubs and bushes, a mass of gladiolus, and honeysuckle climbing up the side of the wall. The garden was drenched in moonlight. My favored spot was hidden from view by a giant hydrangea blooming in the soft light like a bunch of circus balloons. I made an after-you-Alphonse gesture.
“I’m on the wagon,” he murmured when I joined him off to the side. “No hard liquor. Only beer. When I swell up I switch to cokes.”
Curiously, this was the moment I recognized him. The well-shaped head, the high brow, straight nose, full mouth, and slightly jutting chin. Against the glow of a lamp, the silhouette formed a romantic profile—sensitive, handsome, and youthful like that of a juvenile star. I had seen it before.
“You’re Scott Fitzgerald.”
He glanced at me in surprise, then stepped back into the shadow.
“You could tell?”
It wasn’t really a question but a statement, a self-directed irony. Symbol and historian of the Jazz Age, he was now a memory more than he was a living person. His college boys and flappers were already a thing of the past when I had read about them at the university, the stories re-creating an era, like a sentimental song, of tea dances at the Plaza, of proms and wild bootleg drinking parties. The corsages were long faded, the flapper trimmings stored in the attic, and the musicians weren’t playing “Poor Butterfly” in two-step but “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
“Your profile’s as famous as John Barrymore’s,” I said falsely.
“John’s profile,” he said, walking away from the wall, “is a romantic symbol.”
“Yours means more to me.” I stopped after catching a look from him. I had only wanted to say that his novels meant a great deal to me. What I didn’t intend to say was that the legend of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald was vivid to me still. “I know your profile from that photo in Living Authors. I see it like a silhouette. That’s how I recognized you.”
“I look that different now?”
“No, not at all.” I noticed my mistake. “I didn’t see your profile till now.”
“I know the photo. Better than most of those masks and chromos of me in newspaper morgues and my publisher’s files.” He walked up the path briskly, lifting himself from his gloom, and turned back after a silence. “Who are you?”
“Nobody. Tony Buttitta.”
“Sounds Italian. I hated Italians once. Jews too. Most foreigners. Mostly my fault like everything else. Now I only hate myself.”
“I hated Anglo-Saxon Bible Belt Protestants once,” I rejoined. “Irish Catholics too.”
“For good reasons, I bet.”
“I suppose. I got over it and don’t hate myself.”
“Tony.” He eyed me from a distance. “Don’t call yourself nobody—unless that’s all you are. Your bookshop?”
“My wife runs it.” I nodded. “I do freelance writing and things.”
He walked across the softly lit garden.
“Moonlight is vastly overrated,” he mused, waiting for me to latch the gate. “What kind of writing?”
I told him that I wrote book reviews, features, and interviews for newspapers, and was learning publicity from the conductor of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, which was summering there.
“Starting a second novel.”
“And the first?”
“Making the rounds.”
“Writing and publicity make a lousy gin rickey.” He frowned and walked toward the hotel. “I tried stories while giving my best to advertising once. The stuff was forced, thin and trashy—with a dash of smart writing. I sold one out of a hundred, the rest bounced back. I kissed the job good-by and went back to my novel with everything I had. A novel never takes less.”
We stopped before the shop as he lit a cigarette. The book display caught his eye. He asked whether the hotel was a good location; I replied that it was fair and the rent low even for Depression times. Mostly the customers were women reading best-sellers and purple-passion thrillers like Impatient Virgin and Naked on Roller Skates. He looked over the titles; I went inside and flipped the switch, flooding the books with light.
“You have my latest,” he said, entering. The gloomy mask vanished, his cheeks were taking on color. He advanced to the window, reached for the copy of Taps at Reveille, and turned the pages. “First copy I’ve seen in weeks. How is it going?”
“Sold two or three,” I lied.
“Going slow everywhere. Reviews mostly indifferent. I sweated picking the stories and rewriting some—got into a hellish stew. It has one of my top stories.”
“ ’Babylon Revisited,’ ” I said quickly.
“You liked it?” He spoke as though my opinion could mean something to him.
“Very much. I put it with the best of Hemingway and Faulkner.” I went to the shelf behind the desk. “I reviewed it for a couple of Carolina papers.”
“I must’ve seen one,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “I believe Scribners sent it to me. I don’t remember that it was signed.”
“I initial some reviews.”
I took down a scrapbook and showed him the review. He said it was the one. I found the other; he seemed pleased that I had mentioned Hemingway and Faulkner in it. As I put back the file he strolled over to the fiction shelf. Out came a Modern Library copy of The Great Gatsby.
“All you have of mine?”
“All I can get,” I said. “Tender Is the Night seems out of stock, out of print, or something. I’ve ordered it for a couple of psychiatrists here.”
“Bennett Cerf ought to put it in the Modern Library too,” he said, pleased. “Don’t you think it ought to go well?”
“Yes. I’ll drop him a note.”
“You know Bennett?”
“In a business way. I wish I had a copy,” I added. “I’d like to read it again.”
“Took nine years and all my innards.”
“I think it’s your most profound novel.”
“A novelist’s novel,” he said with an ironic grin. “Not glossy and entertaining like Private Worlds.”
“Authors like that are slick, rental library, book-of-the-monthers,” I remarked, ignoring the fact that he had been a pillar of The Saturday Evening Post.
“Hollywood was interested until that one came along. I was banking on a movie sale to get out of a hole.”
“You know Hollywood better than I do.”
“At least you keep me in the best company. Not Lewis, Dell, or Steinbeck. But between Faulkner and Flaubert and close to Hemingway.”
“That shelf’s by authors—alphabetical.”
“Thank you, father.” He patted the copy of The Great Gatsby and put it back. “I don’t see any Farrell.”
“I sold the last Studs yesterday.”
“Don’t put him near me. He’s a phony like Steinbeck.”
“Okay,” I said to humor him.
“Not at the moment.”
“One of our greatest humorists since Mark Twain. And like Joyce he created a language of his own—in a popular American idiom.”
He picked up Taps at Reveille again. “Your pen.”
Fitzgerald held out his hand. It was large for a man his size, white and a bit shaky. I reached for a pen and gave it to him. He sat at the desk, opened the book at the flyleaf, and looked up.
“Your name isn’t easy.”
I spelled it out for him.
He sprawled in a broad, generous, and jerky childlike hand, “For Tony Buttitta / from his friend / Scott Fitzgerald / Ashville 1935.” He left the “e” out of Asheville; I showed it to him. Shaking his head he put a hand on my arm. At that moment we slipped into an intimacy that was to last most of the time I knew him.
“Bunny Wilson calls me the world’s worst speller. But maybe Zelda is.” He paused at the sound of her name. “I wrote Asheville that way in my first novel. It was Monsignor Darcy’s town before Thomas Wolfe changed it to Altamont. I never thought I’d be spending time here.”
A dark thought seemed to cross his mind. He flipped the pages to the back, stopped, and picked up a pencil. Then he scribbled something, shut the book, and set it near the typewriter. I didn’t read what he wrote until later.
A page of mine was in the machine. He read it aloud: “J. Alexander ’Bull’ Durham was built like a bull, he snorted and bellowed like one, and was full of the stuff that bore its name. Big Four Buyers followed him from the Flue-Cured Belt to the prized Golden Leaf Tar Heel Country. The biggest warehouses rumbled with his fall chant: Hey-ding-dee-day. Dee-dee-do. Ding-dee-do. Ding-dee-day!”
“A fast opener,” he said.
I thanked him but my words were drowned out by the orchestra. It burst into a fast number. The trumpet picked up the tune, the drums beat it wildly, and the low ceiling above our heads throbbed with stomping feet.
“My God!” He grabbed my arm. “I forgot my Dollar Woman. Join us!”