Wish you weren’t here …

Reams of pretty writing have been printed about Asheville. Guidebooks and brochures have laid down miles of words in praise of the mountains. Pages of newspapers and magazines have brimmed with the story of a town that is a mecca for people seeking good health and good vibes, an appealing mix of the arty and the down-home.

Imagine that each of these paragraphs is a building block. Soon you have enough blocks to construct a whole other Asheville — a dream city backlit in a soft glow, blue and misty and twinkling with the promise of transformation. Here, the city beckons, here is where you trade your bad health for good, your poverty for prosperity, your badly aligned chakras for a rainbow aura. Here is where everything changes.

This paper Asheville, of course, exists mostly for tourists. It’s similar to the town inhabited by real residents, but different. Stay here awhile and you sense the drift between the two, a divide as slim yet profound as the one between dreaming and waking up: Browse eclectic downtown shops and galleries becomes a dodging waltz down the Lexington pavement. And those enchanting panoramic views? Well, they’re what you contemplate while stuck in traffic on Patton Avenue.

It’s writers who spin the tale of paper Asheville: ad-agency copywriters, travel writers, journalists, publicists. And their words help draw thousands of people to this area each year.

But what happens when another species of writer takes pen in hand to characterize our fair city? The kind (like Asheville’s own Thomas Wolfe) that can’t resist a peek behind the curtain but who, unlike Wolfe, were tourists instead of natives? What sort of guidebooks would these writers compose? And would anybody even buy a guide by the author of Crazy Cock?

Henry James and Edith Wharton at Biltmore Estate

Forget Napoleon’s chess set. Forget the kind of slumber party you could throw with 34 bedrooms at your disposal.

Forget even the gardens.

For the hopelessly bookish, what’s likely to inspire the fiercest covetousness at Biltmore Estate is a visit to the library, where George Vanderbilt’s 24,000 volumes rise in serene magnificence to the high ceiling.

I remember being bowled over on my first visit: I, who had never seen a copy of Balzac that wasn’t a battle-worn Penguin Classic, was suddenly faced with entire shelves of imposing, leather-bound volumes of his works. And it’s only because books are very heavy and difficult to run with that I’m not now serving time for grand larceny. (“Book her.” “But sir, she’s already been booked!”)

So when I learned that Henry James, on paying Vanderbilt a visit, was disappointed that his room was so far from the library, I wasn’t surprised; merely sympathetic. With so many beds available, it is difficult to suggest to your host that you’d be just as comfortable on a foldout sofa closer to the books, thank you.

More surprising to a contemporary observer is how very much else James found to be disappointed about during his stay. This was February 1905, and winter weather had kept the other invited guests from joining the party. Contrast the rapturous tones in which the estate is now described with this letter that James penned to his close friend (and fellow literary titan) Edith Wharton:

“We are 2,500 feet in the air; the cold, the climate, is well nigh all the ‘company’ in the strange, colossal heart-breaking house; & the desolation & discomfort of the whole thing — whole scene — are, in spite of the mitigating millions everywhere expressed, indescribable. … It’s, in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke — but at one’s own expense, after all, if one has to live in solitude in these league-long marble halls.”

One hundred years has done much to erase the surprise of finding a French chateau presiding over a bend of river in Western North Carolina. Yet during the lifetimes of James, Wharton and Vanderbilt (all born to prominent families in New York and New England), there wasn’t yet a jet set — just a society set. In their world, one lived in New York and vacationed in Newport. Before Vanderbilt’s arrival, Asheville was a place to find a rest cure, not a mansion.

In fact, when a cousin of Wharton’s built her Manhattan mansion as far away as 57th Street when everyone else had theirs along 23rd Street, it was a “bold move which surprised and scandalized society.” Just imagine what his peers must have made of Vanderbilt’s peculiar choice of building sites. From this perspective, his audacity lies not in what he endeavored but where.

For her part, Wharton found Biltmore Estate more to her liking than James had. She visited later that year, not long after completing her masterpiece The House of Mirth.

In a letter from the estate, Wharton describes a Christmas party for 350 people. She writes of the beauty of walking in the park and spying “great sheets of fruited ivy pouring over terrace walls, yellow stars still shining on the bare branches … & masses of juniper, heath, honeysuckle, rhododendron & laurel making an evergreen covert so different from our denuded New England lanes.”

It’s a description to put most modern travel writers to shame.

Henry and June do Lake Junaluska

Picture this: An aspiring writer is down on his luck in New York. “Hey,” says a friend. “Asheville is booming. Real-estate developments are springing up everywhere. I can get you a job as a P.R. man.” But the job never materializes, and the cash runs out. The writer and his wife have to scrounge for a place to live while fabricating elaborate money-making schemes.

It was 1926, but it could just as easily have been 2003. The writer on the make was Henry Miller, and the woman with him was his second wife, June. Tropic of Cancer, Sexus and, yes, Crazy Cock were yet to be written, and Anais Nin still to be conquested.

According to biographer Jay Martin, Asheville didn’t take a shine to the strange literary couple, and June, at least, returned the sentiment. They found a cottage in Hazelwood (some 30 miles outside Asheville), but after only three months, they’d lost all hope of making any kind of life here. Henry was broke, June was bored. The two skipped town early one morning, leaving behind an unpaid bill for a month’s rent.

No gin for Fitzgerald

These days, the Grove Park Inn marks F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday each September with a full weekend celebration. But the management hasn’t always looked upon their famous guest so favorably.

Fitzgerald arrived in Asheville in 1935, to rest and recuperate from a touch of tuberculosis. He and the city were a perfect match: Both appeared washed up. The Jazz Age had sounded its last note, drowned out by the Depression’s mournful toll. “Realistic” proletarian novels of the Steinbeck stamp had replaced Fitzgerald’s gilded tales on the bestseller list, and his literary legacy was uncertain. Wife Zelda, Fitzgerald’s sometime muse, was being treated for schizophrenia in a Baltimore clinic.

Meanwhile, the real-estate bubble that had lured Henry Miller to the mountains was officially burst, and the fashionable crowd that had once flocked to Asheville had hastily decamped.

Writer Tony Buttitta, who struck up a friendship with Fitzgerald during this period, recounts the experience in After the Good Gay Times. (In yet another testament to changing fashions, the book’s been reissued as The Lost Summer: A Personal Memoir of F. Scott Fitzgerald.) Either way, it makes a fascinating read, and it’s well worth tracking down for its portraits of Fitzgerald, Asheville and the 1930s literary scene.

As Buttitta reveals, Fitzgerald wrote very little here. Instead he drank a lot, talked wistfully of the past, and conducted two affairs. One was with a local shady lady who trolled for gentleman friends in front of the Grove Arcade — accompanied by her twin poodles, Juliet and Romeo — with a copy of the latest best seller tucked under her arm.

Fitzgerald stayed at several places during his time in Asheville, but the Grove Park was his primary residence. On one of Buttitta’s visits to Fitzgerald’s rooms, the writer was furious over a rule change instituted by the hotel’s manager: The bellhops were forbidden to bring anything stronger than beer to Fitzgerald’s rooms — in other words, no gin.

“When Fitzgerald told him he used alcohol for medicinal purposes, that manager replied that he would furnish it if Fitzgerald’s doctor called to say he should have it.”

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One thought on “Wish you weren’t here …

  1. Ted M. Glasgow

    Carrie,
    We are trying to definitively say who WAS at Biltmore when Henry James was there February 3, 1905…From letters, I thought Richard Morris Hunt’s daughter was there, along with an Englishman, in addition to George and Edith Vanderbilt…Do you have any information concerning? Thanks,

    Ted

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