On the trail of Thomas Wolfe and the Fitzgeralds

WORDSMITHS: In his latest book, historian Bruce E. Johnson explores local landmarks visited by literary icons F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Photo by Thomas Calder

When historian Bruce E. Johnson set out to write his latest book, Tom, Scott & Zelda: Following in Their Footsteps, the local author experienced a Goldilocks-like dilemma. “I realized the world didn’t need another full-length biography of either the Fitzgeralds or Wolfe,” he says. “But at the same time, I wanted to write something more than just a pamphlet.”

The end result is a 168-page hybrid. Part biography, part travel guide, the book highlights key landmarks and locations the three literary icons visited or frequented during their respective stays in Asheville in the 1930s. Amid the three storylines, Johnson also offers digestible tidbits concerning the city’s past as it relates to his subjects.

“People learn about Asheville and culture in different ways, and Bruce Johnson’s book is yet another way,” says Tom Muir, site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. What might surprise casual readers most about the book, he observes, is the fact that these three literary celebrities knew one another socially.

Jack Thomson, executive director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, agrees. “Bruce brings the nationally recognized Tom, Scott and Zelda down to the local level in a story that will interest the ubiquitous Asheville tourist and native alike.”

‘A poor, desperate, unhappy man’

Johnson, a former English teacher turned writer, has been researching Asheville’s history since he arrived here in 1985. His first publication on the topic, Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn, came out in 1991.

Through this initial project, Johnson learned about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in the area, as well as his wife’s periodic stints (and eventual death) at the former Highland Hospital (see “Tuesday History: The Fire at Highland Hospital,” March 21, 2017, Xpress). “What I quickly realized was that a lot of the full-length biographies of Scott sort of gloss over his two years here,” the historian explains. “They’re just written off as the lost years.”

Though it was an unproductive period in Scott’s professional life, the writer’s time in Asheville was anything but uneventful. Battles with alcoholism were a constant throughout his repeat visits. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1936, the author broke his collarbone in a miscalculated dive at the now defunct Beaver Lake swimming pool. A few months later, humiliated by a recent, highly critical New York Post article, Fitzgerald attempted suicide in his room at the Grove Park Inn (see “Asheville Archives: Acrimoniously Yours,” May 29, Xpress).

Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 5, 1936, Wolfe (who knew Fitzgerald through their shared literary connections) wrote to his brother Fred Wolfe, declaring: “There is a poor, desperate, unhappy man staying at the Grove Park Inn. He is a man of great talent but is throwing it away on drink and worry over his misfortune. … His name, I forgot to say, is Scott Fitzgerald.”

‘Shell of a woman’

Letter excerpts and diary entries by the three main subjects and their associates are prominently featured in Johnson’s book. “It’s through these writings that you get real insight into what they were all dealing with at the time,” the author notes.

Many of the letters are snarky in nature, such as when F. Scott Fitzgerald offers Wolfe — an acclaimed novelist who, like Fitzgerald, achieved fame at a young age — advice on writing. Others are more somber, such as a missive Fitzgerald penned to his wife’s psychiatrist, Highland Hospital founder Dr. Robert Carroll.

“Each time that I see [Zelda],” Fitzgerald wrote, “something happens to me that makes me the worst person for her rather than the best, but a part of me will always pity her with a sort of deep ache that is never absent from my mind for more than a few hours: an ache for the beautiful child that I loved and with whom I was happy as I shall never be again.”

Sadly, Johnson believes, it was Carroll’s treatment plan that ultimately ruined Zelda. Before her death in 1948, Johnson writes, “She was just a shell of a woman because of the electroshock and insulin shock treatments. They had basically pillaged her soul.”

Two good paragraphs

As a biographer and historian, Johnson says his job is to provide a complete picture of his subject. In this case, that means including episodes of petty jealousy and boundless ego.

But it also means describing lighter moments.

Of the many anecdotes related in Tom, Scott & Zelda, Johnson’s favorite involves a 1937 trip Wolfe took to Tryon. Accompanied by family members (including his brother Fred), Wolfe traveled 45 miles south to visit Fitzgerald, who was staying at the Oak Hall Hotel.

When the two parties met, the conversation eventually turned to literature. At the time, Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, sat atop the bestseller list.

Fitzgerald despised the book, says Johnson. “He stuck his nose up in the air and said it took him a couple of hours to read it and there might have been two good paragraphs in the whole book,” the historian recounts.

Wolfe, meanwhile, had yet to read it, complaining “It’s too damned long,” according to Johnson. Ironic considering how much of Wolfe’s own voluminous verbiage his editor, Maxwell Perkins, consigned to the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, reports Johnson, it was Fred Wolfe who ended the conversation. Leaning back in his chair, the older Wolfe brother declared: “Well, I don’t know how good it is, but there’s one thing sure. I wish you and Tom could write a book that would make the money that Margaret Mitchell’s making on that one.”

Bruce E. Johnson’s latest book, Tom, Scott & Zelda: Following in Their Footsteps, can be purchased at the Battery Park Book Exchange, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and The Omni Grove Park Inn.



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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