Fitzgerald was out of cigarettes. The lobby stand was shut, so we strolled around to a store that was still open. As we started back toward the hotel, he stopped to light a Chesterfield. Across the street near the entrance stood Lottie, with her twin black poodles, talking to a tall Negro doorman in uniform. She was in her usual costume: a smart hat, white kid gloves, and a leather bag slung over her shoulder, while under her arm she carried a book, the latest best-seller, like a badge of refinement.
At once Fitzgerald noticed the attractive woman. She was laughing with a reserve becoming to a lady of the South. Shapely and graceful, with a mass of curly reddish hair, she had the manner of a spirited young society matron visiting in the mountain resort. She enjoyed playing the role. I didn’t know who or what Fitzgerald meant by his Dollar Woman, but I was sure he wasn’t referring to Lottie.
One of Asheville’s most exclusive harlots, her charms were available only to guests of the luxury hotels. Lottie needed no pimp, paid off no police; the poodles were a conversation piece. They picked up her dates among the wealthy visitors while she promenaded them among the sunny acres around Grove Arcade and the Battery Park Hotel, where Mount Pisgah and the Rat loomed above the mist of the Great Smokies.
Her pets, Juliet and Romeo, were rewarded with studded brass collars, orange silk bows, French perfume, bits of filet mignon, and Viennese marzipan. Though Lottie rarely opened a book, her custom of carrying one somehow enhanced that air of chic and respectability which deceived the most observing eye. Fitzgerald, good at sizing up people, was no exception.
“I’ve seen her somewhere,” he said, wondering where she belonged in his extravagant years. “She reminds me of Katharine Hepburn.”
“She’s a damned good actress,” I quickly said, “but no Hepburn.”
“I always get a lift from a pretty woman—if she has style. Who is she?”
I hated to disillusion him.
I remember the scorn in his voice and his gesture—tossing his half-smoked cigarette away in disgust. He had taken her for a theatrical or social figure he might have known in Southern Pines, Old Westbury, or on the Riviera.
“Lottie fooled me too,” I assured him, wanting to soften the insult to his acumen. “The day I met her, she strolled in behind Betty Bronson, the girl who played Peter Pan in the movies. There wasn’t anything less distinctive about Lottie. I like her better than most of the society women.”
The yelp of a poodle rose on the night air above the strains of ballroom music. His thoughts miles away from his Dollar Woman, Fitzgerald stood across the street to observe Lottie further, motivated as a writer now that he wasn’t interested in her personally. She was talking to her pets in a soothing voice while the smiling doorman was down on his haunches stroking both so that neither would start another jealous burst of howling.
Fitzgerald was again shocked when I told him that Lottie had once asked my wife if she would like to join her on a dinner date with “two nice friends” from Long Beach, California. Lottie had taken a fancy to us; she knew business was slow and that Remy loved to dance. We laughed it off, as no offense was intended despite the implication.
“No offense!” He glared at me as though I weren’t worthy of the inscription he had written in Taps at Reveille and was about to go back and rip out the flyleaf.
“Hold your horses,” I said. Interested as he was in debutantes and wealthy people, there were nevertheless things he didn’t know about them. “Lottie never double-dates with other harlots, but with pretty society women who are fed up with tennis, honeymoon bridge, and eighteen-hole golf. She picks them up at the country club, the smartest parties, Grove Park Inn—”
“I live there!” A scandalized tone, yet he turned to look at Lottie with renewed interest.
“That’s where she dines with her society extras. Lottie told me about a couple of them. One said she’d donate the tip she got to her favorite charity, and the other was set to stay for the final act. Lottie sent her away. She says amateur competition is the worst kind.”
“You mean she…” He was still looking at her.
“The men flip a coin to see who’s first. The loser has a couple of brandies till it’s his turn.”
A long dark limousine rolled up and stopped before the hotel. The Negro rushed to open the door, the poodles yelped and hopped in together, and Lottie, graciously casual, followed. As the car sped off in the moonlight, the doorman went inside and we crossed the street.
“A late, all-night date,” I said. “If it’s amusing she may tell me about it.”
“Is that buck her pimp?”
“No,” I said sharply. He still didn’t understand about Lottie. And he had betrayed another lack of understanding that was to show itself later on.
Fitzgerald and I pushed through the hotel lobby buzzing with lanky, pink-cheeked youths in black ties and their dates frothy in mauve and turquoise. At the ballroom door he stopped, looking for his table.
Tall potted plants and velvet-draped windows spaced the walls evenly, crystal chandeliers glittered in patterns above, although the vast room was in semidarkness. Baby spots flooded the bandstand at the far end where the white-jacketed leader stood rushing his men through “Ain’t She Sweet.” The dancers whirled, shivered, and swayed with the frenzy of the twenties when the Charleston was new and Fitzgerald was a sad young man. In one of his bitter moods later, he said: “I’ll be forty next year, if I’m unlucky enough to make it. I should have gone at thirty. When I was at the very top.”
He ignored the youthful abandon of the dancers as though he had never been a part of it, and led me up a crowded row of tables lit by small, shaded lamps. A woman’s voice, firm but soft, called his name in the darkness. He stopped and held out his hand toward a shadowy figure.
“Scott, I thought you got lost,” she said in a concerned tone.
“It’s Tony’s fault.” And to me, he said, “This is my Dollar Woman.” He then forced me into his chair, gesturing to a passing waiter to bring another. “I call her that because she charged me a dollar to hold my hand.”
He waved aside her prim objection. I’m sure he introduced her as Mrs. Laura Guthrie. I couldn’t recall it years later; for a quarter century she remained fixed in my memory as Scott’s Dollar Woman. The waiter brought the chair. Fitzgerald sat between us, his back to the revelry on the dance floor.
“She’s my mistress.” He winked at me, as if to scandalize her. “She belongs to anybody for a dollar. Not her body—her hand. Must be thirty, forty, fifty, don’t you think?”
I remember Laura as pretty, bright, and rather proper, an attractive divorcee who seemed not to mind how old she was or what he said about her. I had the impression that she was his secretary, companion, nurse, anything but a romance. There was no mistaking her. Laura was no social butterfly, no Lottie playing a role; she was a lady, firm in her gentility in a world going fast the other way.
“What’s your drink?”
“I’m on beer.” He stopped a waiter to order three bottles. “My old friends don’t believe me. They say I always boast about being on the wagon. This time it’s true, isn’t it?”
His Dollar Woman was studying me to see what he had picked up this time: a college chum, perhaps someone who might exploit him, or a new bar companion. He must have noticed it, as he now explained who I was, and how we had met in the lower arcade and gone to the garden. I smiled at her and in the dim lighr noticed her penetrating eyes, ladylike complexion, and the dark evening gown she was wearing for the occasion.
“Sometime I want to see that garden by daylight,” he said.
“An old lady’s hobby,” I ventured. “Like any other. Night gives it that special look.”
“Night lends enchantment to everything.”
“It does something for a title too.”
“I owe it to Keats. He saved me at the last minute. But I had thought about it before. Scribners didn’t like it. I forced it on them.” He turned to her. “Tony’s writing a novel. Maybe he’ll tell us about it.”
The waiter showed up with a tray of bottles and filled our glasses. I picked up mine, hoping we would forget the novel, but Fitzgerald mentioned it again. I plunged ahead to please him and to keep the conversation going. I should have told them about Bull Durham, the novel he had seen a page of in the typewriter, instead of No Resurrection.
“A college novel set in Chapel Hill. The hero’s a Negro who imitates the worst in whites to become a big shot—a kind of superman. He sells his body to a med student. A prof’s wife encourages him to try and get it back—to save his soul. She is childless, sees him as her saviour, and brings about his destruction. A black and white Faust— you might say.”
The woman was silently horrified. Fitzgerald frowned on a Negro hero but was intrigued by the variation on the idea of a man destroying himself to regain his soul. He reached for his glass and went on smoking; she wisely changed the subject and I was grateful to her.
Suddenly he said, “Be a good girl and read Tony’s hand. Reading hands is her hobby. She knows her stuff and will tell you. I’ll see that this is on the house.”
“Of course I’ll read your friend’s hand,” she said in her forceful voice. “You know I only charge at Inn parties and conventions.”
“You forced me to cross your palm with silver,” he teased, “like a shrewd carnival gypsy.”
“And you called yourself Mr. Johnson!” she said with a little laugh. “I thought you were with that hair dressers’ convention at first—you were so well groomed.”
“My God!” He grimaced and covered his face, as though she had put him in his place. “She saw through my incognito and got me down pat. Now I want to see her work on you.”
She leaned forward and took my hands. The light was hazy, Fitzgerald struck matches from his packet so she could see the lines. I don’t know what she saw but she decided I was no menace and gave me a pleasant smile. We ceased being three strangers; and, as she spoke, she revealed herself as a compassionate and unforgettable woman. Ten years ago I learned from Professor Matthew J. Bruccoli that Laura Guthrie Hearne was still in Asheville; we started corresponding and sharing our memories of Fitzgerald and she gave me permission to quote from her letters. She passed away in the fall of 1973.
“Look at his thumbs,” Scott said with the excitement of discovery. But she went on examining the hands silently.
“What do you see?” he asked impatiently. He was frankly curious; later he told me that he believed in palmistry, Zelda too, as the hand was an extension of the human mind and personality.
“They’re unusual, Scott,” she finally said, running her index finger over my palms. “You have a varied life. Business and the arts. Money will come easily though you’re having a hard time now. You’re intuitive—like Scott. You also have a rare line. Combined head and heart. I believe it’s the … Napoleon line. It denotes vitality and …”
Fitzgerald said Napoleon was one of his heroes, and wanted to know more about the line and why it was named after him. She ignored him and went on checking the mounds, fingers, thumb spread, and various configurations which are telling in an individual.
I understood what she was doing. I had learned to read hands from a gypsy at whose tent I spieled when I worked in a circus. Even if his Dollar Woman was an amateur, she didn’t strike me as a dabbler who read hands parlor-fashion. The gypsy, too, had commented on the combined head and heart line, but had given it no name.
“You have a flair for words,” she resumed. “You will write a lot. Mostly trash. But you won’t do anything serious until you write about yourself and …”
Fitzgerald was no longer with us. We lost him and the matches when the musicians slid into a medley of Jerome Kern’s songs from Show Boat, Sally, and Roberta. He faced the bandstand and sang in a toneless voice, forgetting us and the dancers in the shadowed ballroom, and then the words of “Lovely to Look At” softly to himself—faraway, and open to all the melancholy of his memories. Laura turned to him solicitously, spoke his name. His face, profile to us and cupped in one hand, bore an expression that seemed close to tears. She didn’t persist; her tact and sensitivity were clearly the basis of their relationship.
“You’ll have trouble with love and the success you want and need,” she said in a half-whisper. “Neither will come easily. But with your talent and vitality you …”
Fitzgerald lit a cigarette and faced us without really seeing us. She finished the reading. I mumbled thanks, bid them good-by, and left the ballroom. I was affected more by his toneless lament than by what she had seen in my hand.
The moon was high. The streets mirrored its silver light. I walked up College Street, turned in on Spruce, and stopped in front of the rooming house still owned by Thomas Wolfe’s mother, the Old Kentucky Home—the Dixieland of Look Homeward, Angel. I had slept in one of its dingy rooms, perhaps in Wolfe’s iron-framed bed, before moving to an apartment house nearby. Whenever I passed the weathered old structure, its gables and rambling porches, I often thought of the troubled Gants and imagined hearing querulous voices.
Wolfe had been my reason for coming to Asheville that summer with the orchestra. He wasn’t in town; I was never to meet him. I had no idea that Fitzgerald was there—even if he had misspelled the name Asheville in his first novel. Standing in the silvered street, I remembered his words: “Moonlight is vastly overrated,” “Night lends enchantment to everything.” It was a troubled world for famous authors along with the rest of us that summer of 1935.
Sunday morning, still under the spell of that night’s encounter, I went to the bookshop. I picked up Taps at Reveille, read the short inscription, and studied his handwriting. I went over in my mind everything that happened and noted it on the flyleaves of Living Authors.