I had come to Asheville in the spring. Thomas Wolfe was the reason. In Chapel Hill, where I had spent three years, it was impossible for a hopeful writer not to come under the shadow of the Wolfe legend. It was a vast cloud that mushroomed over the campus in the fall of 1929, when I arrived there from the University of Texas, and it spread so that I can’t remember any mention of the Depression until some months later.
Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, was discussed in all-night bull sessions everywhere from the hallowed old quadrangle to the new, in literature and drama classes, and particularly at the Carolina Playmakers, which I immediately joined. There, after writing a one-act folk play, The Return of Buck Gavin, Wolfe had been advised to switch to the novel. Our password at the time was, “A stone, a leaf, a door,” the key words in Look Homeward. Almost everyone who had known Wolfe spoke of his gargantuan size, of his words pouring out in a torrent, and thus kept alive the legend of the hillbilly genius from the mountains.
Like many hopefuls who joined the Playmakers to write plays, I longed to go to Asheville and see the family and town he had immortalized in the novel, as a kind of literary pilgrimage. I was unable to go until the spring of 1935, shortly after reviewing Of Time and the River for Carolina newspapers. Reading the long book between chores as a United Press reporter in Durham and helping Remy my wife in our bookshop there, I was again under the Wolfe spell. The longing to go to the hills was rekindled with a fervor that insisted it was now or never. So when I was offered the North Carolina Symphony job, though we were doing fairly well in the shop and our Duke University clientele was growing, I accepted it solely because the orchestra was to summer in Asheville.
Of course, I had to stay at the Old Kentucky Home, where much of the first novel takes place, but after a few nights we moved out. Remy found an apartment on nearby Woodfin Street—the street where Wolfe was born—and I scouted for a bookshop location in the downtown commercial area. My search ended when I walked down the street at the side of the George Vanderbilt Hotel and noticed a small store that obviously had been empty for some time.
As I had explained to Fitzgerald, the shop was centrally situated and the rent was cheap. Across the corridor was that beauty salon, which brought a stream of women to the lower arcade. Our earlier shop in Durham, in the Washington Duke Hotel, had been near such a salon, and we had learned that it was an ideal location. It was convenient for idle women—our most faithful lending-library clients—to pick up and return books when they came downtown to get beautified.
Most of our stock consisted of publishers’ remainders, which I got from a New York outlet house. These were often books of literary merit, some by established authors, that hadn’t caught on, so that publishers had to sell them at a sacrifice to avoid paying additional storage costs. Some were illustrated classics such as Candide, some the erotic type like Aphrodite by Pierre Louys, a book that had quite a vogue at the time. I used such titles as a “come-on” and advertised them as big bargains, from fifty-nine to ninety-nine cents, while doubling the price of other remainders.
The latest titles came from the books I reviewed for the newspapers. I received space rates for writing a daily and a weekly book column, but chiefly I did the reviews to get the books. Most of them went into the circulating library; we preferred to rent them at three cents a day rather than sell them outright. Once sold, like a share of stock, there was no more income from a book. But we ordered copies on demand and when a title became a hot item we bought extra copies to circulate.
Our rental library consisted mostly of the usual fare—mystery and detective fiction, adventure and Westerns, and sexy thrillers bearing such titles as Professional Virgin and Call Her Savage. I was kind to such books in my reviews; publishers kept sending them and I stirred up reader interest in them. They were our best source of income and some of them circulated until they were tattered and almost fell apart.
Fitzgerald was curious to know about the operation of the small shop. I told him everything, and it sounded like good raw material for fiction. It also seemed to give him an idea of how a struggling young writer managed to make ends meet in that difficult period. He guessed that my Taps at Reveille was the review copy that Scribners had sent me; I explained that it belonged to my personal collection and wasn’t for sale or rental, but I could order a copy should a customer want it. When he asked whether I had really sold two or three copies, I didn’t lie a second time. He reproached me for not having told him the truth and assured me that he could take it.
The most lucrative crowd that patronized our shop were Remy’s customers. They were the town’s most elegant homosexuals, eager and sensitive lovers of art and literature, often accompanied by well-heeled older men or “queens” with graying hair and a hothouse tan. Remy had an easy and simpatico way with them, served them coffee or tea, and chatted with them as though they all belonged to a sewing circle. Some confided in her, and one once asked her to introduce him to a customer, whom he described as a “handsome young man who, unfortunately, was normal as hell.” It had been the same at the shop in Durham, but here too the gay set joined our rental library and bought both literary and erotic specials.
“Faggots and whores, like your Lottie,” Fitzgerald curtly commented, but this was before he got to know her.
I told him we had other customers, some he might like to meet, bright and socially aware university students spending their vacations in Asheville. He was eventually to meet two of them and join in their discussion, but at the time he wanted to know more about Lottie, even if she was a whore. I can’t say whether it was for personal or professional reasons, nor can I remember how much I said to him, yet his questions stand out in my memory.
Yes, I had first met Lottie in the bookshop. She had strolled in with her poodles and we talked about them, not about books. I don’t think she had come to rent or buy a book, but before leaving she asked me to give her something light that everybody was talking about. Not for reading, she said with a smile, but for talking about it. At least she was honest, I thought, and without inquiring about her taste, I handed her a Faith Baldwin novel. She gave it back to me, saying she would never read a book written by a woman. I chose a title by Peter B. Kyne or Warwick Deeping. When she returned it a week later Lottie didn’t say a word about it; and, after taking out two more books, she admitted that she hadn’t opened them; it was just that she liked carrying a book under her arm.
At first I didn’t know that Lottie was a professional working with her poodles. I had seen her promenading with them along Grove Arcade as I walked to the symphony office. I didn’t have an inkling of how she earned her living until I noticed her chatting—and presumably making dates—with two or three different well-dressed men who casually strolled after her. On one such occasion she and I had been talking near the entrance to the Arcade. She abruptly excused herself when what looked like a middle-aged businessman greeted her; he approached with a friendly nod and tipped his straw with all the respect due a lady.
From that day she took it for granted that I knew and, instead of hiding her profession, she coolly spoke of it as simply a business. But she talked freely with me—not with my wife—and told me amusing tales about some of the classy men she entertained. She preferred the company of men, and though she found Remy pleasant and didn’t mind her knowing what she was, Lottie seemed a bit self-conscious in her company. It was just the opposite with the homosexuals, who enjoyed chatting with my wife: they became self-conscious the moment I walked into the shop and changed the subject of their conversation.
Fitzgerald was surprised I couldn’t tell him where Lottie lived—in a hotel or a private house. I simply didn’t know and made no issue of it when she joined our rental library and gave no address or phone number. She could see that it sounded strange and unbusinesslike, but explained that she was staying with friends and didn’t want to bother them with her calls.
Lottie handed me a five-dollar bill instead of the required dollar deposit. I took only a dollar and told her I had sized her up as an honest and responsible woman. It was this gesture, she once told me, that paved the way for our friendship and her confiding to me about her dates and her relations with Fitzgerald later that summer.
The more he learned about Lottie, the more Fitzgerald thought of writing a story about her. But first he had to know the nature of her secret: it was as necessary to him as a key to a lock. He could think up a motive but insisted that the real one would be superior to whatever he might imagine. Were the police after her? How could I be sure the name she gave me—Lottie Stephens—wasn’t false? It was common knowledge that prostitutes never operated under their given names.
I admitted he was right and that I was curious too, but I accepted her secret as part of her life. Then I showed him her rental library card. In the blank where I was to have written Lottie’s address, I had jotted down at her suggestion “Canine Chateau”—the place where she left Juliet and Romeo when she couldn’t take them on a date.