Proprietors of the Grove Park Inn set considerable store by the army of notables who have spent time beneath its tiled dormers and stone porticos. Though many a restaurant and hotel boast a wall of fame, GPI’s entry comprises a staggering who’s-who of the 20th Century.
“Staggering” is sometimes too apt — and probably no more so than for F. Scott Fitzgerald, who in the 1930s roared through these parts on the bedraggled coattails of the Jazz Age, fueled by beer, bourbon, gin and champagne, and leaving behind a wife, plus a trail of empties, debts and rumors of bacchanalian affairs.
In many ways, the image that Fitzgerald cultivated throughout his brief life and more briefly brilliant career is perfectly suited to a high-end hostelry. Glamour out the wazoo, tete-a-tetes with Hollywood auteurs, expatriate flamboyance and steamships plying the Atlantic, witty conversation and cocktail hours that stretched from the forenoon past midnight — exotic, expensive and flirting with danger. In the public mind, Fitzgerald was Gatsby.
What more can a grand hotel require of a guest?
After installing his wife, Zelda, in nearby Highland Hospital in Montford — where she remained until a fire killed her in 1948 — Fitzgerald, who came to Asheville ostensibly to revive his own failing health, spent two gin-soaked summers at the GPI. While living there in 1935 and ’36, he allegedly pursued a tryst with a Texas socialite, drank, tried to write, drank, attempted suicide, drank, and then drank some more.
It is fitting, therefore, that GPI holds an annual event — A Salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald — on the writer’s birthday weekend (he was born Sept. 24, 1896), the better to inflame fans and distill the sour mash of his memory.
Message in a bottle
The weekend’s liveliest presentation is apt to come from Asheville author Kelly Boler, whose forthcoming book Drinking Companion: Alcohol and Writers’ Lives (Union Square Publishing) includes a juicy chapter on the GPI’s prodigal stepson.
Writes Boler: “Francis Scott Fitzgerald died young, but not young enough.”
She elaborated recently on this observation: “If he had died at 29, he would be a golden boy, and everybody would have wondered what he might have been.” In the event, he wound up an arguable failure and an undisputed drunk.
As Boler further noted during our conversation, “In America, there are no second acts.”
The author is a connoisseur of literary stories, and has collected dozens that don’t fit in the book. “Fitzgerald knew Thomas Wolfe pretty well,” she divulges, “having met him at the Ritz in Paris, where Wolfe told him about Asheville. That’s one of the reasons [Fitzgerald] wandered here.
“One day [he] walked into the public library downtown, thoroughly loaded, and dressed them down for not appreciating Thomas Wolfe the way he should be appreciated,” Boler goes on. “The librarian reportedly let him have his say and then escorted him out.”
In the book, Boler describes one of his final escapades, disclosing that Fitzgerald “returned to North Carolina where he checked the delusional Zelda out of the hospital and took her to Cuba, then New York. Drinking round-the-clock and wandering the city picking fights, he was badly beaten twice. At last members of his family arrived and got him to a hospital.” (Fitzgerald finally died of a heart attack, in 1940.)
Boler’s examination of 15 writers who divided their time between swimming in the sunny seas of popular acclaim and drowning in their cups is, at first, engaging. We are treated to a peek past the curtain at lives ravaged by mental instability, sexual infidelity, financial chaos, professional tumult and drunken raving that made most of their number unfit for civil society.
You could dress them up and take them out, but you’d best have a wheelbarrow handy for the trip home.
That these authors — including Pulitzer, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award winners — were able to put pen to paper at all seems inexplicable, but for the fact that writing pulled in money to fund their excesses.
Knowing that drunken sots including Kingsley Amis, Cheever, Dickey, London, Lowell, McCullers, Sexton and Tennessee Williams cranked out highly regarded works of literature raises all sorts of questions about the source of genius and the standards by which writing is judged — questions well beyond the scope of this article, or even Boler’s book.
Ultimately, the biographies become hard to read. The 15 stories only vary in detail, the demons endure, and even the three writers who managed to quit drinking seem more depressed than liberated. In conversation, Boler suggests that many of them were mentally ill, and that their drinking was a matter of self-medication.
And she writes, “All were brilliant, and they all shared an almost frightening helplessness, sometimes learned, sometimes innate. With a very few exceptions, all wrote every day of their adult lives.”
Strong stuff here. Yet neat, and with a twist.
— Additional reporting by Amelia Pelly
Kelly Boler will read from Drinking Companion at the Grove Park Inn (290 Macon Ave.) at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25; free. For more information on activities scheduled for A Salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, happening at the hotel Friday, Sept. 24, through Sunday, Sept. 26, visit www.groveparkinn.com or call (800) 438-5800.