Tuesday History: Fitzgerald’s suicide attempts at the Grove Park Inn

THE FITZGERALDS: This photo shows F. Scott and Zelda in 1920, the year they wed. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Library Reference Citation: F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers (C0187), Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library & Harold Ober Associates Incorporated

We continue with Martha Marie Shank’s recollections of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her letter’s recipient is future Fitzgerald biographer, Arthur Mizener. In 1936, Shank was brought on as Fitzgerald’s business manager while he stayed at the Grove Park Inn. Shank’s letter is written 13 years after the events she’s describing, when she is 63 years old, retired and living in her Jefferson Apartment on Merrimon Avenue. For those interested in the first half of the letter, and for a brief overview of Fitzgerald’s time in Asheville, click here

Thanks, as always, to Pack Memorial Library’s Special Collections, North Carolina Room for its assistance. 

On Oct. 26, 1949 Martha Marie Shank wrote:

One of the first things he talked to me about was the lurid article “Happy Birthday to You, Scott Fitzgerald” that had appeared in a New York paper… on his 40th. He really seemed crushed about it and said, “Martha Marie, it nearly broke my heart.” He insisted that when the reporter came to interview him he was not drunk but was sick and almost delirious with pain from his shoulder. He said the reporter was his guest for lunch or dinner or something, and that he thought they had gotten along well, and he was shocked and hurt beyond measure at the article. What the facts were as to his condition at that time of course I couldn’t say.

Yes, he talked a lot about Zelda, and I saw her a few times. She tried some in that time to write on the subject of choreography, and I had it typed for her in my office. I know nothing of choreography, but what she wrote appeared to me to make no sense. He told me how he met her and fell in love, and how beautiful she was. “She was lovely,” he said. He told me of living in the Riviera, but insisted that they did not lead a gay and giddy life; that he worked seriously, and that Zelda did, too. He said it took him at least two years to write a novel. He told me of her ability both to write and to paint, saying that her paintings had been exhibited, but I don’t know where, and that she had had a novel published by Scribner’s. However, he added, the great love of her life was dancing and she hoped some day to get in the Russian Ballet. He said at one performance in which she took part a scout was present who offered her a part in the Folies Bergere, and that that knocked her cold; that she then realized she would never achieve her ambitions and she cracked up then, never again to be entirely well mentally.

That had occurred either seven or nine years (I have forgotten which) previous to their coming here, and he said he had had her in various sanataria in Europe and this country and had taken care of her much of the time himself, but the time had come when he could no longer do so, and he had brought her here to Highland Hospital, and that was the reason for his coming here. He talked as if he had always loved her, but that did not keep him from having some “great and good friends”… He went to see her occasionally but not often, as the doctors thought that best.

Speaking of doctors – after so long a time without her in attendance, Dorothy [his nurse] thought she should not stay, so he called in a doctor who treated alcoholics, but his treatment never amounted to anything. In my opinion, there were two reasons for this: Scott did not want to stop and the doctor did not know how to make him want to. He came and stayed for long sessions, which bored Scott almost to tears. He said he didn’t know how to get rid of him, adding, “I am just naturally polite.” He just didn’t want to see people while he was here and seemed satisfied with the companionship of Dorothy and me – not that either of us pretended to any intellectual capacity.

Shortly after I went out there [to the Grove Park Inn] he asked me which of his books I would like to have. I asked him which he considered his best. He said he thought Tender is the Night the best and [T]he Great Gatsby the next best. I told him I had the latter, so he got the former for me and on the fly leaf wrote the following: “For Martha Marie Shank. In memory of those happy days on the roof of Grove Park Inn. F. Scott Fitzgerald. With affection and gratitude.” At the close of one particularly hectic and nerve-wracking Sunday, when he had been particularly unmanageable, he gave me another of his books, in which he wrote the following: “For Martha Marie a gay Sun-dee. (For poor old Scott nothing so hot.) For Martha Marie a big whoop-ee. (For poor old Scott a sedative shot.) For Martha Marie (I can hardly write it, but she can hardly see so I shall indite it. F Scott Fitzgerald.”… And some other nonsense.

You may or may not know that while he was here he made two attempts at suicide. One was before I knew him. He had taken something and was found lying on the bathroom floor. This information is from Dorothy. The second one occurred while I was seeing him, though I was not there at the time. He called and asked me to come out and when I got there he asked Dorothy and me to be seated. This was unusual. Then he sat down, looking serious, and said, “Dorothy tell Martha Marie what I did.” Dorothy was angry and said, “All right, I’ll tell her. Scott tried to kill himself.” (She seemed to take it as a personal affront.) She then went on to tell me the details of his getting his pistol and threatening to shoot himself. There was quite a commotion. In some way she got a bellboy, who got the pistol, and Scott, in pajamas and bathrobe, chased him over the hotel. After that, the hotel refused to let him stay there by himself. If Dorothy went out, I had to be there. Dorothy thought he was serious in the attempt. While she was telling me the story he listened with all the interest of never having heard about it before. But he had little if any comment to make.

…I will stop here until I get your reaction to what I have written and find out whether it is the sort of thing you want. I could elaborate on any of the above, and there are numerous subjects not touched upon. What I have said does not at all satisfy me and does not convey the impression I wish I could give. I recognized the tragedy of his condition and would have done anything in my power to help him. Unfortunately, there was little I could do. If you care to hear further, I will send you another volume.

Sincerely yours,

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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4 thoughts on “Tuesday History: Fitzgerald’s suicide attempts at the Grove Park Inn

  1. Carol

    So interesting!! F Scott was quite a character… a sad character.

  2. V

    So you believe writing about Scott and Zelda as if they were alcoholics, incapable of living a life they created, and you so carelessly condescend, will make you a good writer?

  3. Ruth

    This is my great, great Aunt on my mothers side. I have long heard stories of her and seen photos of the Shank sisters.

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