Zelda’s ghost

What is it about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald that continues to inspire the Asheville imagination? Is it that their contradictory love of money and rebellion, glamour and destitution, beauty and darkness, says something peculiar about the Asheville of the past and the present? Similarities also are apparent between our ability today, as much as in the early 20th century, to overlook the contributions of women by focusing on their male counterparts. Part of my own interest in the couple grows in response to the inordinate amount of attention given to Scott.

In Zelda's words: This plaque at Zillicoa commemorates Zelda Fitzgerald, one of eight women who died in a hospital fire in 1948.

As the-wife-of-the-author-of-TheGreatGatsby, Zelda's art, writing, dancing and talent have been unjustly ignored. The new, upscale Grove Park condo succinctly captures the skewed focus in their singular name — The Fitzgerald — as if there were only one former Asheville resident with that name. Granted, it was Scott who stayed repeatedly at the Grove Park Inn (in 1936 for a few months) — drinking, womanizing and generally cracking up — during which time Zelda was committed to the Highland Hospital in Montford and, as part of her treatment, repeatedly injected with insulin to send her into shock. Zelda lived at the asylum on Zillicoa Street on and off from 1936 until the hospital fire in 1948, in which she and eight other women died.

Surely Zelda's connection to Asheville was much longer and eventful than Scott's, and even the promotional blurb on the condo's Web site, that "F. Scott Fitzgerald was the image-maker of the Jazz Age, setting the tone, fashion and style of this American era," intrudes on traditionally "feminine" claims that could as easily be applied to Zelda. I will not attempt to deny that Scott is an important American novelist, but many scenes, characters and lines in his fiction are directly plagiarized from Zelda's speech and writing, and her artistic successes and failures deserve more attention. Zelda, and other "mad" women like her, are Gertrude Stein's true lost generation, and it is time we reclaimed their memories by retelling their stories.

As a representative flapper, Zelda encapsulated the destructiveness and lust for life of the post-World War I age. Commenting on the paradox of existence, Zelda described flappers thusly: "The flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn't need it, and she refused to be bored because she wasn't boring."

At the hospital on Zillicoa, a small plaque rests under a birch tree with Zelda's full name, dates of birth and death, and the quote, "I don't need anything except hope, which I can't find by looking backwards or forwards, so I suppose the thing is to shut my eyes," taken from one of her letters to Scott. There is no mention of her contributions to the Jazz Age and literature, her suffering and eventual "madness," or her horrific death by fire. In fact, most Ashevilleans are unaware of the historic importance of the hospital and Zelda's treatment there. When I asked workers at a nearby bookstore for directions to the hospital where Zelda Fitzgerald died, they had no idea what I was talking about.

Zelda's lack of recognition today mirrors inequalities faced by women in the first half of the 20th century. Despite Scott's hypochondria, alcoholism, insecurities and depression, he was never hospitalized for mental illness. Despite Scott's infidelities, Zelda was the crazy one for desiring an affair (for which she was locked by Scott in their home and forbidden to leave). Women like Zelda were institutionalized, pathologized and treated with electro-shock therapy, insulin, cold baths, narcotics and ice-pick lobotomies. I am not attempting to argue that Zelda was happy or mentally healthy; by the time she was admitted to Highland, she had attempted suicide, experienced hallucinations and heard voices. But, given lack of support for her creativity and vivacity, her misery seems sadly justified.

For its time, Highland Hospital was relatively progressive. Decades before serious research into the relationship between exercise, serotonin, diet and depression, Dr. Robert Carroll prescribed daily hikes and healthy foods to his female patients as part of their treatment. Away from Scott, Zelda thrived. Her letters from Highland offer glimpses of Asheville city life in the 1940s and reflect a faith in the healing powers that many still believe these mountains to hold. She writes of Candler and of a camping excursion that the patients took to Mount Mitchell: "I have grown healthy … inhaling the attenuate finesse of frosted pines against the early sky, have steeped my better organism in the lovely romantic eternities of mountain dusks. …  It's good to feel at the height of one's capacities, physically; and good to feel that one is no longer open to almost any betrayal from the delicate balance between the mind and the emotions that govern one."

Rather than run the risk of inspiring future ghost tours of Montford, I want to suggest that Zelda's ghost reminds us of the lack of attention to female artists. Not only did she die a terrible death as she fought depression, hampered from escaping the flames because of her weakened state from insulin therapy as well as barriers ironically intended to keep the patients secure, but she also risks a second death in the public consciousness as luxury condos like The Fitzgerald continue to propagate the myth of males working in isolation and with supremacy.

Esther Godfrey teaches English at the University of South Carolina Upstate and lives in Asheville with her husband Wayne Robbins and their three kids.
Rather than run the risk of inspiring future ghost tours of Montford, I want to suggest that Zelda's ghost is the continued disparate attention given to male artists.

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3 thoughts on “Zelda’s ghost

  1. AvlResident

    A well-written and informative letter. Ms. Godfrey is too modest in her description of herself. She is the author is a book:
    The January-May Marriage in Nineteenth-Century, published by Palgrave Macmillan, January 2009

  2. Young Blue Eyes

    Some of us appreciate Zelda! Most FANTABULOUS ARTICLE EVER! Kinda Spooky I like that! except when the lights are out that is not funny.

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