Late one morning Fitzgerald called me, and arranged to meet at the George Vanderbilt coffee shop. He was highly agitated; his eyes were bloodshot, his hands white, shaky, and perspiring, and there was mint on his breath. After mentioning Rosemary in a gruff whisper, he complained of hollowness in the pit of his stomach. He said it usually came from worry, fear, and insomnia, but he was sure it was now caused by too much black coffee. I watched him gulp down two cups as if he were bent on punishing himself for having an affair with her.
That morning he was worried that her husband might find out about it. In order to keep him at a safe distance, Rosemary had arranged for him to stay at Highlands, some miles away, a mountain resort. She gave as her excuse Myra’s internal troubles and that she had to take care of her. But instead of spending time with her sister, Rosemary continued seeing Fitzgerald, who both wanted her and was trying to avoid her. Ogden phoned from time to time to speak with her or to invite her to lunch; there were times when Rosemary wasn’t at the hotel and Myra lied to protect her. It was no wonder Fitzgerald saw himself faced with the messy triangle he had anticipated—if he didn’t make a move to prevent it.
Fitzgerald confided that he was overwhelmed by another kind of fear—“anxiety” we would call it today. Anxiety not so much over Rosemary’s husband and the kind of satisfaction that he might want if he learned about the affair, but one stirred up by the bitter memory of once having been in such a situation—that of the cuckolded husband. The memory was related to the most distressing aspect of his life with Zelda. Though he was now in the favored role of the lover, he felt somewhat guilty and in too shaky and confused a state to enjoy it.
He couldn’t stay at the Inn, Fitzgerald said. He had to find a place or leave Asheville while her husband was there. If he went to another hotel, he could easily be traced, unless he registered under an assumed name. This was something he had done before; he wouldn’t try it now for fear of being recognized (though he was to do so later that summer). He asked me to recommend a place in town until he decided whether to go to Tryon or to Lake Lure, a mountain resort about fifteen miles from Asheville, or else to go see Zelda in Baltimore.
My first thought was the O.K.H.—the Old Kentucky Home, Mrs. Julia Wolfe’s rooming house on Spruce Street. I mentioned it to him. His eyes opened wide.
“Take me there,” he said, and we rose to go. “Tom and I had a drinking bout in Switzerland when I was there watching over Zelda. We were never so close after that time. Tom expected unqualified admiration for everything, something I couldn’t give even to Ernest. I have a critical streak I can’t ignore without its going against me.”
We walked down the shady, tree-lined street. Before we reached Forty-eight Spruce, I warned him that the Old Kentucky Home was no place for someone living in his style. It was a rambling old house, rundown and dismal, but no worse than the Skyland in Hendersonville where he had taken a dollar room the previous winter. Whether he was serious about staying there, I can’t say; he paid little attention to my description of the place and walked on with an unsteady gait.
Fitzgerald slowed down as we neared the grayish wooden structure with the weathered gables and deep front porch. I was the first to go up the worn steps. The bell didn’t work; I knocked on the screen door and called, “Mrs. Wolfe.” The slight, bony-faced, perky woman appeared in a shabby print dress, stopped abruptly like a bird, and quietly sized us up before opening the screen. I didn’t expect her to remember me and she didn’t. She gazed with her sharp piercing eyes behind metal-framed glasses, pursed her lips as if undecided, and asked what we wanted in an annoyed and almost commanding voice.
“Mrs. Wolfe, my friend’s looking for a room.”
“I thought you were insurance salesmen—not folks wanting a room.” Her voice and manner suddenly changed; she pushed open the screen and welcomed us inside the cluttered hallway, directing our movements with lively gestures. “More salesmen come knocking than roomers. Times are bad.”
“They sure are—”
“Everybody trying to sell something.” She spoke fast, paying no attention to me, and pursing her lips in a knowing way. “You wouldn’tbelieve the things they’re trying to sell. Only yesterday a boy working his way through college was selling a deodorizer thing for iceboxes. I told him mine didn’t stink. I ran him off. I sure did. Humph. I reckon it wasn’t friendly of me. As a young woman, I was a book peddler from here to Chimney Rock.”
While Mrs. Wolfe spoke she led us into the side porch and then the parlor, volunteering that she could see we had come because of her son Tom. Her mouth was thin-lipped and tight, but it spoke as quick as her sharp eyes and didn’t hold back a thing. She pointed to faded family pictures hanging in old gilt frames on the walls. I had seen them before: Tom as a schoolboy and at college, his twin brothers, his sister Mabel, and his father standing before the tombstone shop.
“When I started taking roomers and boarders I had cards printed to drum up trade. But Tom’s the best advertising I ever had and cost me nothing. Folks come from everywhere to ask about him.” She pursed her lips again and pointed a bony finger at a large, fading picture of the writer as a boy with curls down to his shoulders. “He was my baby. Tom was a bright one. He could talk when he was one and read before he was two. He could read an armful of books between dinner and supper time.” She started up the stairs, her lips moving rapidly and without a pause. “I have one room left. Don’t take boarders any more. Got no time for them. Only roomers.”
I wanted to tell her that my companion was also a writer and a friend of her son. As I began to speak, Fitzgerald nudged me. But it was unnecessary: the birdlike woman chattered on as if she took for granted questions about her son and answered them before we could utter a sound. We exchanged a nod on realizing that she had taken us for a pair of literary tourists.
“Tom’s not been in Asheville since his first book came out. I laughed and cried when I read it. What he wrote up about the family was all right with me—as long as he made a success out of it. Some people started calling me Eliza. I didn’t get mad. It tickled me.” She led us into a room off the upstairs hall. It was gloomy and cluttered, with a large iron bedstead in the center. “But it made plenty folks mad here. Why, they won’t even have it in the public library, where he once read every book they had. One day I told Miss Jones, our librarian, it’s a shame his books are in all the libraries in the world but his own. She shrugged her shoulders and said Asheville was too poor to buy them. Humph! I know they have them, but under lock and key, and they let only their friends read them. Else how would they know he said those things to make them all sore at him?”
As she walked past the window, the light shone through her thinning gray hair. For a brief moment she was silent; I glanced at Fitzgerald, who was watching her with glassy eyes, fascinated, and yet with an absent look. I wonder whether Mrs. Wolfe, in her forceful eccentricity, reminded him of his own mother. Noticing a film of dust on the old bureau, she brushed it off and then wiped her hand on her dress. With a quick gesture she pushed her spectacles high on her small nose, pursed her lips, and rambled on.
“All my children slept in this room at one time or another—except I reckon Mabel. Mr. Wolfe slept in that little room off the porch downstairs before he passed away. Tom was away at the time.” She sighed and put a hand to her flat middle. “Fate’s the queerest thing. Mr. Wolfe was a reading man or I might never have met him. It must have been his reading and reciting to Tom that made him want to be a writer. Mr. Wolfe read from Shakespeare and a treasury of prose and poetry. He memorized a lot of fine poetry and used to recite Gray’s ’Elegy’ to Tom.
“Yes, Tom was born with a liking for reading and writing,” she said, raising her hand and heading for the hall. “I believe I could’ve been a writer myself with a little more education and training. I know a lot about character—after all the folks that passed through this old house. Yes, I was for Tom’s becoming one. Mr. Wolfe wanted him to study law. We asked one of our best lawyers what he thought of Tom’s chances. He said if Tom had a bent for writing, it had a better future for him. Tom’s friend Taylor Bledsoe told him the same thing. Taylor became a lawyer and he’s twiddling his thumbs. Too many lawyers. Strange, though; when Tom was a boy, he wanted to be a general.”
I had never seen Fitzgerald silent for such a long time. Granted his alcoholic depression, and that Mrs. Wolfe gave nobody a chance, I nevertheless had the feeling that he was overwhelmed by this flood of family lore, echoing all American families that once were, and legendary in the voices that spoke through her.
“For a man who had an eye for the girls, Mr. Wolfe was a good family man. He loved his children and his home. But he was a drinking man.” She stopped before a framed picture of Mr. Wolfe hanging in the hallway near the stairs. On hearing her last words Fitzgerald winced and, without her noticing it, fell back against the banister. “It was hard on me. I was a born teetotaler. But it was his vice, not mine. It made a hard woman out of me. When we had words, he called me a cold-hearted woman. I had a sharp tongue, I’ll say that. I told him it was his doing—if I was. A tombstone man he was, and he had turned me into a woman of stone.”
Mrs. Wolfe went on to speak of the War between the States, saying that many Southern families had never gotten on their feet after it. This was still a deep-running lament in 1935. I later learned that Fitzgerald’s father belonged to a well-to-do Baltimore family whose sympathies were with the Confederates; and, like other families after the Civil War, it had become impoverished and ultimately failed in “keeping up appearances.”
“Folks ask me if Tom fell in love with any of our boarders.” She was now heading down the stairs. “I reckon they ask because Tom wrote about a girl in his book. I don’t recall her name offhand. She was older than Tom and engaged back in Virginia. Tom used to take long walks with her. When his sister Mabel made some remark about them, Tom would blush and run out of the house. I told her to stop teasing him. He was about fifteen but tall as a beanpole.
“And everybody wants to know if I had any idea he would be famous,” she said, the words coming to us over her slim shoulder as we slowly followed her down the steps. “I had a strong feeling before he was born that he was going to be different from all the rest. I can remember because he was my last. I treated him special, too—after one of the twins died. And some folks want to know if I’m proud of Tom. Of course I am. How else would I be? They look at me and ask if I’ve changed now that I have a famous son. Humph! I never changed a bit. I go right on running this rooming house. Even if I’m tickled when somebody calls me Eliza, I’ll never forgive Tom for calling this ’a bloody barn’ in his book. Heh, heh, heh.”
The last sounds were a little laugh—the only time she laughed while we were there. We were back at the screen door. I opened it and we stepped out on the porch. She followed and asked if we would take the room. I turned to Fitzgerald, who was leaning against a porch post to steady himself. He wasn’t doing a good job; she noticed his shaky movements and sharply grimaced. Her lips shut tight, she pursed them nervously, and then tilted her head proudly.
“I never take drunks—not if I know it.”
Mrs. Wolfe opened the screen, walked inside, and slammed it behind her.
We stood there a moment and said nothing. Then I took Fitzgerald by the arm and he slowly followed me down the steps. A hangdog look was on his face. About ten paces away he freed himself and staggered off. He stopped, pursed his lips as she had done, andpointed a shaky finger at the old house.
“Poor Tom! Poor bastard! She’s a worse peasant than my mother!”
Molly McQuillan Fitzgerald, as I was to learn from biographies of her son, was a town character of St. Paul as Julia Westall Wolfe was of Asheville. It was said that whatever came into her head popped right out of her mouth. Some called her fey. Some called her a witch-like woman: she carried a black umbrella, rain or shine, wore shoes that didn’t match, and read stacks of library books. She adored Scott, who was born after the death of her twin girls in childbirth, and he was to become the pride of her life. As a boy she dressed him up like Little Lord Fauntleroy and made him recite and show off before company, though she took no pains with her own appearance and let her hair fall about her face like a banshee.
Julia Wolfe’s flood of family lore had no doubt impressed Fitzgerald by the parallels in Wolfe’s parental background and his own. But most striking of all he must have noted that Molly and Julia were both independent and domineering women who had lorded it over their husbands—unbusinesslike men in love with the past. The two women had petted their ambitious sons, who in turn loved their fathers—men doomed to failure who drank more and more, partly to show their contempt for the rising money culture.