What’s the greatest love story of all time … that’s set in Asheville or hereabouts? Forget Romeo and Juliet — they ’tweren’t raised ’round here. We’ve got more modern fare — tho’ nearly every tale Mountain Xpress came upon likewise bore the tinge of lovers’ tragedy — from the real-life sagas of writers like O. Henry and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who sojourned in Asheville in the early 20th century, to the Civil War love story spun by Charles Frazier in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Cold Mountain (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997).
Our search for literary love with an Asheville twist begins with O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). In 1909, he rented a room at a now-demolished office building, the Sondley (which sat at the southeast corner of Church Street and Patton Avenue). Of the writing he did there (in what were to be the last three years of his life), Asheville figures only in his humorous fictionalization of his dealings with mountain doctors and their “cures,” in a story called “Let Me Feel Your Pulse.” But little matter: for the author of the famous fable “The Gift of the Magi” (in which a pair of newlyweds outdo each other in bestowing poignantly inappropriate Christmas presents), this was also a time for love. Porter had come to Weaverville intent on marrying his childhood sweetheart, Greensboro native Sara Coleman.
Then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose tale is less pleasant. He arrived in Asheville in 1935, despondent over the plight of his schizophrenic wife, Zelda — who’d been institutionalized in Baltimore. Overlay that heartbreak with the dreary reality of the Great Depression, Fitzgerald’s sodden alcoholic state and his skidding literary career, and you have the famous author staggering through not one but two love affairs during his summer stay in the Land of the Sky (a label conferred by Christian Reid — a.k.a. Frances Tiernan of Salisbury — in an 1878 book). One of Fitzgerald’s liaisons was with a young, wealthy married woman; the other with a fancy prostitute known for strolling about downtown with poodles in tow, according to Tony Buttitta, a former Asheville bookstore owner who was briefly acquainted with Fitzgerald.
Buttitta’s other tidbits about Fitzgerald — as related in his book, The Lost Summer: A Personal Memoir of F. Scott Fitzgerald (St. Martin’s Press, 1987) — include the fact that Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s refused to rent the bleary-eyed writer a room in her boardinghouse; and an account of Fitzgerald’s discovery of Highland Hospital, where he eventually stowed Zelda. Alas, she died in a fire there in 1948 (he had passed away a few years earlier, only 44 years old).
So where does true love reside in this vagabond mix of literary legends and their ever-darkening tales? Let’s turn to native son Thomas Wolfe. In his love/hate relationship with his hometown, Wolfe managed to write about Asheville and the people he knew with a simultaneous sense of nostalgic yearning and cynical disgust. His mother topped the list. And tied into this Oedipal-Freudian twist was his May/December romance with New York stage and costume designer Aline Bernstein — 44 years old to his 25.
They met a la the movie Titanic, on an ocean liner returning from Europe in 1925. “For both, love was almost instantaneous, and became the overriding passion of a lifetime,” says Richard S. Kennedy in the introduction to Suzanne Stutman’s My Other Loneliness: Letters of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein (University of North Carolina Press, 1983). She became his Helen, his Beatrice — idealized and ageless. In his 1939 novel The Web and The Rock, Wolfe translated his passion for Bernstein thusly: “He was never able … to see her as a matronly figure of middle age, a creature with a warm and jolly little face, a wholesome and indomitable energy for every day. … She became the most beautiful woman who ever lived — and not in any symbolic or idealistic sense — but with all the blazing, literal and mad concreteness of his imagination.”
But fancy rarely approaches reality. As he had with his mother, Wolfe relied on Bernstein for financial support, resenting it all the while. He tended, then, to see Bernstein in the same light he viewed his mother: “women, fatal, false, silken, soft breasted cushion-bellied women awake to lust.” Despite Bernstein’s devotion to him (she encouraged his writing efforts, travels and forays into discovering art and culture) Wolfe often lashed out at her in his letters over imagined betrayals.
Yet Wolfe conceded, writing to Bernstein in 1928, “Love to me is still the fantastic and absolute thing that it is in the books. … The way I should like to act is not meanly or badly as I often do, but in the grand heroic manner of people in books. … Now that you have gone away I see you as if you were in a book — if you have any blemishes I don’t remember them. … I love you more than anyone in the world.”
Over time, the two grew further apart, but stayed friends nonetheless in the years preceding Wolfe’s untimely 1938 death. In the early flush of passion, Wolfe had written to her, “My tender and golden love, you were my other loneliness, the only clasp of hand and heart that I had. I was a stranger, alone and lost in the wilderness, and I found you.” Bernstein replied, “If you will listen, to me some day, you will hear the voice of your friend and your angel.”
That’s sweet. But what of Inman and Ada in Cold Mountain? Here, perhaps, is what Wolfe termed “the fantastic and absolute thing” — true love. The two hardly knew each other, having met only a few times before the war, sharing perhaps one kiss. But Confederate soldier Inman, sorely wounded, forsakes the hospital one day and endeavors to walk home across North Carolina, to Cold Mountain: “He thought of getting home and building him a cabin on Cold Mountain so high that not a soul but the nighthawks passing across the clouds in autumn could hear his sad cry. Of living a life so quiet he would not need ears. And if Ada would go with, there might be the hope, so far off in the distance he did not even really see it, that in time his despair might be honed off to a point so fine and thin that it would be nearly the same as vanishing.”
He’s a man who’s killed, seen killing and nearly been killed. But, entwined in his tortured longings for home are a few precious — if awkward — memories. Ada — a young, once-wealthy, Charleston-born transplant whose father has died, leaving her alone and nearly penniless in the wild but half-settled lands around Cold Mountain — shares those memories, recalling a Christmas party where, after a bit of champagne, she stumbled upon a solitary Inman in her father’s kitchen: “She took a few uncertain steps, and when Inman half stood and reached out a hand to steady her, she took it. And then, by some mechanism she was unable to reconstruct later, she found herself in his lap. … Ada remembered thinking that she never wished to leave this place but was not aware that she had said it aloud.”
To learn how it all comes out, you’ll have to read it yourself. The tale has inspired treks to Cold Mountain — a long and (depending which route you take) treacherous hike in Haywood County. Frazier mixes in enough Civil War details to make the piece a kind of human-scale historical document — particularly emphasizing the day-to-day necessities of life in the 19th century. Maybe it’ll be the romance that pulls you through the book. Maybe it’ll be the adventures (Inman has quite a few, as he’s hounded by a vicious group of men in pursuit of army deserters) or the achingly accurate portrayal of what life was like for women of that era. Through the course of the novel, Ada’s enforced independence effects profound changes in her personality. Inman, battered as he is, senses this new strength once the two are finally reunited: “[He] was too cloudy in his thinking to follow anything she said other than … she seemed to have a clear destination in mind and that some note in her voice said, Right this minute I know more than you do, and what I know is everything might well be fine.”