That summer I got the impression that Fitzgerald desperately needed friends. He was a stranger in Asheville, though he spoke of Lefty and Nora Flynn of Tryon, a resort about fifty miles away. I was to learn later that most of his old friends were fed up with his truculent moods, his college-boy antics when he lost control, and his awe of the leisurely rich. Hemingway had called him a “rummy” and had lost respect for him as a serious writer. His Princeton chum John Peale Bishop said in a magazine piece that he was a social climber. His editor at Scribners, Maxwell Perkins, and his agent, Harold Ober, faithful friends to whom he owed thousands, didn’t think he could quit drinking or go back to writing. They were all convinced that he was an alcoholic in need of a cure.
Despite the role of liquor in shattering Zelda’s life and wrecking his own, Fitzgerald told me that it was a writer’s curse—“the fatal flaw” in his own makeup—and cited famous names to prove it, noting with mocking satisfaction those it had destroyed. It amused him to say that drinking came naturally to him; he sprang from a people whose love of the bottle was part of their charm. And though he was aware that he used the very real pressures of his life as an excuse for drink, he was stubborn about quitting. He made occasional attempts to ration himself that smacked of self-denial and atonement, switched to wine and beer, and then to Cokes and sweets.
He often spoke of his daughter Scottie, who was away at camp or with friends, and of Zelda, who was being treated for schizophrenia in a Baltimore clinic. He blamed himself for her breakdown and the consequent separation, and longed for the good gay times they had once shared. Deserted by old friends and reaching out for strangers, unknown to the new generation and neglected by his own—as he lamented—Fitzgerald was at times a warm, lovable, self-confident and stimulating companion, occasionally posing as the oracle of his age. At other times he was a schoolboy whose silences, rages, and maudlin outbursts were a plea for help and for reassurance of his personal and literary worth.
Often when I saw him he cried, suddenly, as if he were an overwrought, indulged child. All he needed was to hear some romantic line spoken in a film, or a melody he had danced to or heard in a Broadway musical show. All he had to see was a pair of frilly slippers in a shop window or young lovers holding hands. His eyes would fill, a hand shielding his face, and the tears fell. Though momentarily purged and restored when he wiped his pale blue eyes, he felt ashamed and swore.
“God, I’m a lousy weakling!” His tone at such times was scornful, helpless, and yet defiant. “I’ve tried to be tough and hard-boiled. It’s no use. It’s an act. I’ve been acting all my life. But I always go to pieces. I can’t make it stick. I hate myself—an unbearable son of a bitch. How can you listen!”
Once started, Fitzgerald couldn’t stop. His monologues were full of self-pity. “Life ended when Zelda and I smashed. The cards began falling badly for us early. Everything went to pieces and it’s a long uphill pull now. It’s harder when you’re past thirty. My God, how I miss my youth! Life hasn’t much to offer but youth. What a fund of hope I had then. I raised hell and whooped it up. Got roaring drunk. I cry easily. I’m losing my grip, get the horrors when I’m alone. I dread most the years ahead.
“My God, nobody’s reading me now! For ten years I turned out happy-ending stuff under the whip of the big advertisers. I’ve lost the knack and the gay parade’s passed me by. But I resent those friends who tried to bury me before I was cold. I was a romantic once. I’m a skeptic now. A cynic too. Yes, I’m mature at last—now that I know that’s all I ever was—a failure!”
I was to learn later that every time he emerged from a disastrous binge, a relation with a woman, a family crisis, or a lost struggle to write a story, he sang out this claim that he was mature at last.
“You’re mature and I’m damned sure you’re no failure,” I said one sunny afternoon as we strolled toward Beaucatcher Mountain on the outskirts of town. “You’re one of the four or five top American writers—and you don’t have to hatch a book a year to prove it.”
He stopped suddenly and gave me a sharp look.
“Who are the others?”
“Friends of yours. One’s a friend of mine,” I replied. “Hemingway, Faulkner, and it’s a tossup between Wolfe and Dos Passos.”
“I’m fed up with Wolfe’s great love affair with the universe. His sprawling style, too. You think he’s tops.”
“I went to Chapel Hill. He’s a legend there,” I said. “The way you must be at Princeton.”
“A hell of a reason. You know Faulkner?”
But I was curious to learn why he had come to what the Asheville Chamber of Commerce proudly advertised as “The Land of the Sky.”
“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably wrong.”
It was a reference to his drinking. Later I learned from books about Fitzgerald that the previous winter had been a depressing one for him. The job of seeing Taps at Reveille through publication, after the disappointment of Tender Is the Night the year before, had left him exhausted in body and spirit. He had been depressed by the tepid reception of the novel; debts had piled up, Zelda’s case appeared hopeless, and he was unable to write. Drink had helped to keep him going, but not to pull him out of his wretched state.
On an impulse in February Fitzgerald had hopped into his old car and driven south alone—to take inventory of himself and to find a workable future. Greeted by blossoming dogwood at Hendersonville, a small resort near Asheville, he stopped there. He told me how he had shacked in a dollar room, washed his own socks, and survived on fruit, beer, and dime tins of potted meat—the forerunner of canned dog food. His funds were low, but they did all right at the Skyland Hotel. Living alone was a good restorative, he said, even if it left him time for brooding.
“You know the Skyland?”
“Yes, and Old Gaunt, that unfinished hulk of a skyscraper the promoters left shipwrecked in the middle of nowhere. One of the relics of the Boom-and-Bust.”
“Those windows are like giant loopholes. They haunted me at first with their emptiness. Sickness and poverty are a wretched combination. And poverty is one of the unforgivable things in life.”
Fitzgerald ventured to nearby Tryon to see the Flynns, a charming couple like the Murphys he had known on the Riviera in the twenties. The Flynns adopted him as the Murphys had done in those happy days with Zelda; they invited him to drop in whenever he wished. Nora was a sister of Lady Astor, Lefty a former college athlete and adventurer; she was a Christian Scientist and tried to get Fitzgerald to become one to help control his drinking—as she herself had done. He saw them off and on, and met their social and literary crowd before going back North.
He had come back to Asheville in May for a cure. It wasn’t the kind his friends had prescribed, he told me, though there was such an establishment in Asheville. We both knew about Kenilworth Inn, a castlelike retreat for alcoholics whose wealthy families could afford to keep them there. The cure consisted of a five-day period of drying out, rationing, and abstinence. But the inmates had their weekends when they were free to indulge in another spree. Kenilworth Inn was supervised by a medical staff and proved successful, he said, for the management.
Before I came to Asheville my friend Bill Davis, a Chapel Hill med student, had told me that the mountain town was also known as “America’s Magic Mountain,” after the Thomas Mann novel, for the treatment of pulmonary ailments. Almost a mile high, it is surrounded by the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fitzgerald said he was sent there because of a recurrence of his long-dormant tuberculosis. His beloved Keats had succumbed to it in his twenties. From what I later learned the disease was more romantic and imaginary than real, and Fitzgerald had at times used it as a cover-up for personal disaster, failure, or excessive drinking.
This flare-up had grown out of a severe flu attack following his return to Baltimore. According to Fitzgerald’s biographers, his doctor put him in Johns Hopkins. And when X-rays revealed a possible lung spot or cavity, he was sent to a noted specialist in Asheville, with the warning that he would be dead within a year if he didn’t take care of himself. The specialist was Dr. Paul Ringer, who, as quoted by Fitzgerald, repeated the warning, which he stoically accepted as his “grave sentence.” While being treated Fitzgerald was allowed to stay at Grove Park Inn, the resort hotel, because he had convinced the doctor that news of his illness might leak out if he were in the hospital, and this might endanger his earnings as a writer.
“When you write your New York friends, don’t mention I am here or why. We know some of the same people. It would get around that I’m laid up. I told Max Perkins about it. He’s one person up there I can trust.”
At the time his Dollar Woman was also one of Dr. Ringer’s patients. She recently wrote me not to repeat the story that Fitzgerald had tuberculosis. She said that her doctor referred to it as a “myth.” I quote from her letter: “Scott clung to the illusion that he could convince people that he had it—even Dr. Ringer. But the doctor was disgusted with the hoax and told me so. … After all, it was Scott’s heart that failed. Tuberculosis did not kill him.”
I later learned the cure was simple: rest, no liquor, solid food, and flattering attention from doctors, nurses, secretaries, maids, and waiters—which he seemed to need more and more as his friends dropped away. Fitzgerald was soon pronounced out of danger. Instead of thanking the gods or his strong recuperative powers, Fitzgerald said that he suddenly cracked.
This puzzled me, I remember, but he explained that when the doctors had given him what he took to be a death sentence, he hadn’t shed a tear. Fate had stepped in to take over his affairs. His only concern was for Zelda and Scottie. Once he had looked after them, he was lulled by the feeling that he was free of all responsibilities and had only to wait for the end—his deliverance.
“When I got the good news, it meant the big scene was off. I felt sorry for myself and cried. I had to face the whole damned mess all over again and I didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t pull myself together for another push. All my reserves were gone. It was as simple as the law of gravity. I collapsed.”
His slightly bloodshot eyes, shaky white hands, and the thick sound of his voice—all from too much gin—didn’t add up to a picture of someone having a breakdown, in my limited view then. I was eleven years younger than Fitzgerald.
“When did you get over it?”
As we started back toward town, Fitzgerald assured me that he was no hypochondriac reveling in imaginary ailments for the sake of attention. Yet even then he was certain that his old cirrhosis of the liver was plaguing him. Insomnia had a firm hold on him; he was taking a combination of pills to get a few hours’ sleep. He took benzedrine (years before bennies became fashionable) to wake up in the morning so he could think and try to write. He needed a drink to stir his memory, heighten emotions and thoughts, and give his style brilliance. If he took one drink too many, he couldn’t think or write, and another day was shot.
“Insomnia goes with alcohol, and some of my doctors encouraged me to have a nightcap.”
Health and money were a man’s first considerations, he said as we strolled back. He was quoting Samuel Butler, one of his lifelong admirations. But he was now alarmed by what was happening to him as a writer. Though by temperament a serious writer, he spoke of his facility—he called it “cheap”—as an author of slick magazine stories. They had supported him and Zelda in style, but he had abused the talent and it seemed to have vanished. The Saturday Evening Post now was rejecting his stories. I later learned that some of the stories he wrote at the time were so lifeless and badly written that other editors were sending them back to his agent.
But now he had also run out of material, he said. His personal experiences had served him well for years; he had used them over and over again, and he needed a new source. His need was so desperate that, as I later read, he had bought the rights to others’ personal narratives which showed possibilities. But as a writer whose imagination responded best to his own experiences, he was wasting money and was ashamed of the lackluster stories when they appeared in print.
In his miserable state there was one stimulating thing, he confided as our walk ended and we found ourselves back on Pack Square. (Bill Davis had dubbed it “Sputum Square” because of the tuberculars who came to Asheville for the cure. Some sat on benches under a hotel canopy; across the street one of the town’s first skyscrapers stood on the site where Wolfe’s father had had his tombstone shop.) Fitzgerald spoke of a wealthy young woman from Memphis; she was staying at the Inn, had recognized him, and had apparently fallen in love with him. She followed him, put herself in his way, and then he found her reading The Great Gatsby in the writing room. He admitted being attracted to her.
There was nothing unusual about women’s falling for Fitzgerald, seeking romance, adventure, or, more specifically, the privilege of shining in his glory. He was continually meeting women who were impressed by his fame and his gifted understanding—in his writings—of the feminine psyche and the love relationship. Two or three women had wanted to have a child by him that might inherit his writing talent. The woman from Memphis, according to his Dollar Woman, was one of them.
The women who pursued him were rich, young, and sometimes beautiful, he said; but, except for certain brief encounters, they were disappointing because his romantic imagination was still involved with his one great passion, Zelda. Fitzgerald told me he had recently passed up several “gorgeous” opportunities. There was a young society woman who had bribed a bellhop to let her into his suite in a hotel. She was stark naked in his bed when he walked into his room.
“I poured myself a stiff drink and asked her if she weren’t ashamed of herself. She said, no, she loved me, though she had never set eyes on me before. She had fallen in love with me from my novels and my picture. I sat on the edge of the bed while she put on her clothes and lectured her on the wide gap between the man and the writer, reality and romance, and told her to fall in love with somebody real instead of a ghost. Then I politely showed her to the door.
“She was a pretty thing and bright, too, but I have known my share of baby vamps, sirens, and brazen women. This Memphis beauty is a thoroughbred like one of her horses. Yes, she owns a stable. She has everything—including one husband, one child. My God! Her grandpa owned half of the town where she lives.
“When I found her reading Gatsby, the morning was shot for work. I had taken that drink too many, although I didn’t show it. I lifted the book out of her hand and said, ’Silly wasting time on it—with the original around.’ I’ve seen her twice since and … I’m the one who’s stalling. She’s here with an ailing sister. Nerves and something else.”
Fitzgerald saw a cab in the square, waved to the driver, took my hand, and left me to ponder his dilemma: “Christ, in my wretched state, she’s all I need, don’t you think?”