Perched in a clearing cut from the woods, toward the top of a slope north of downtown, Asheville’s Grove Park Inn is a grand stone jigsaw with a clay-colored roof that looks like a boast. To write about this city in the 1920s, North Carolina’s mountain capital in America’s enduring era of excess — that was my charge, and so I came here. The Inn was finished in 1913, but it was built for the ’20s — erected in just under a year “with an unstinted expenditure of time, labor, material and money,” in the words of early promotional gloss, “a hotel unlike any other,” with “every convenience and comfort,” from pure down pillows to hand-hammered silver to rugs from France, and a spacious lobby called the “Big Room,” “one of the most wonderful rooms in the world,” the blue vista filling the wide wall of windows like a mural, the yellow light inside from the copper chandeliers reflecting off the ceiling so as to not be too harsh, and the luring, lulling warmth wafting from the two huge hearths. It was a Sunday afternoon. I sat by the fire.
And I people-watched, noting the tight, tan skin of leisure, the men with pressed jeans and North Face vests and sun specs slipped into the V-necks of sweaters, the women with shiny lips and knee-high boots and sharp-spiked heels on slick stone paths. I eavesdropped on patter about the weather and the sounds of service and expectation.
“How’s everybody doing over here?”
And I reread The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald — set in ’22, published in ’25 — the book most associated with the decade, the writer the same. Reading what I was reading, sitting where I was sitting, I underlined in red the words that floated from the page.
“… like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
“… easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.”
“… long greedy swallows.”
“Gatsby,” Fitzgerald had written, “was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”
Fitzgerald knew Asheville — in Gatsby, he made mention of “pictures of the sporting life at Asheville and Hot Springs and Palm Beach” — and he would come to know of it, too, as the hometown of Thomas Wolfe, a literary contemporary, an acquaintance if ultimately not quite a friend, a colleague who shared a publisher in Scribner’s and an editor in the gifted Max Perkins. Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wolfe was born in 1900 down the hill from here, on Woodfin Street, the son of a stonecutter and an indefatigable proprietor of a boardinghouse. They both came of age in a most American moment. They both were epic talents and keen observers of their country and its people. The list of similarities about ended there. Fitzgerald was finer, and almost pretty, which is how he wanted his copy. Wolfe was imposing, broad and six and a half feet tall, often using the tops of refrigerators as makeshift desks, his pencils leaving calluses on his hand. Wolfe spent all his money because to him it mattered too little. Fitzgerald spent all his money because to him it mattered too much. Wolfe’s work was autobiographical based on who he was and where he had come from. Fitzgerald? He was more like his most abiding character. Like Gatsby. His work was autobiographical based on who he wanted to be and where he wanted to go. Fitzgerald prized aspiration. Wolfe sought introspection. Fitzgerald coveted the glitz. Wolfe embraced the work.
“There’s a good play in Asheville,” Wolfe wrote his oldest brother in 1921, “a play of a town which never had the ordinary, healthy, industrial life a town ought to have but instead dressed itself up in fine streets and stuck hotels in its hair in order to vamp the tourist populace. There’s a good play in the boy who lets the town vamp him, who sees the rich tourists and their mode of life and thinks he must live that way …”
Fitzgerald would spend months here, at the Grove Park Inn, but not until later, when the seminal decade to which he had given so vivid a voice felt like distant history, and he himself was a husk, a lesson for those who cared to look.
Now, as I read again his best, most trenchant book, I drank a 10-buck draft beer, and I listened to the ambient soundtrack of jaunty, brassy tunes, and it wasn’t hard to drift back in time — to the ’20s.
The ’20s were jazz and radios and movies and celebrities and stars and cigarettes and real estate and sewing machines and washing machines, and cars, especially cars, sold, sold, sold, fueled by new cash, the unprecedented permissiveness of credit and the canny ballyhoo of admen sensing the boundless possibility of an economy in which the operative word was no longer need but want. The ’20s were women bobbing their hair and showing their skin and breathing secret passwords to get into hidden speakeasies to drink gin cocktails because Prohibition said no but everything else said yes. The ’20s were the swag from the first great war. The ’20s were the beginning of modern America.
True, too, for Asheville.
“Greed, greed, greed,” Wolfe wrote to a friend in ’22.
“I will not hesitate to say,” he wrote to his mother in ’23, “what I think of those people who shout ‘Progress, Progress, Progress’ — when what they mean is more Ford automobiles, more Rotary Clubs …”
“Look around you in Asheville,” he wrote to her in ’24. “Are the most prominent there the finest — by education, personality, culture, and general character? By no means. After all, haven’t you all worshipped the long bankroll too much? Grove is a great man because he sells more pills than anyone else …”
Grove. Edwin Wiley. The man who commissioned the creation of the resort hotel that bears his name. He was a Tennessee pharmacist who moved to St. Louis and heaped a fortune making and hawking over-the-counter drugs, most notably a concoction called Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, six-ounce hits of quinine, sugar, and lemon-scented syrup. He came to Asheville in 1897, seeking to alleviate bronchial difficulties with the restorative air of the picturesque peaks. It was the reasoning for many of the arrivals of the late 19th century and into the early part of the next. The sanitariums served their purpose. But Grove’s signature structure wasn’t built for that. The most ’20s thing about the Grove Park Inn was its specific pitch. It wasn’t for sick people. It was for rich people. “If you are a Big Business Man …” one early come-on began. The Inn, said a local newspaper report, “will bring here many people of wealth …”
And it did. In the ’20s, guests played tennis and golf and got massages, brochures urging them to “laze away in dreamy hours.” Tea was served in the late afternoon. Dinner featured Consomme Neapolitan, Chesapeake Bay oysters, prime rib, or filet mignon. People gathered in the “Big Room” for organ recitals and movie nights. Alcohol was illegal, of course, but the hills made house calls and the bellhops worked for tips. Still, this was not the same party as the one at Gatsby’s in West Egg — at the Grove Park Inn, the scene was elite but effete, much less youthful and not at all rowdy. The first film version of The Great Gatsby, released in ’26, in fact was not shown at the Inn. Management considered it too risqué.
Down in town, though, Asheville in the ’20s was whipped to a froth. Tunnels funneled under Pack Square and beyond. Drinks got to where they needed to get. But they were not the preeminent intoxicant.
“The streets were foaming with a mad exuberant life,” Wolfe would later write, in a short story titled “Boom Town,” “crowded with strange expensive traffic, with a thousand points of glittering machinery, winking and blazing imperially in the hot bright air, filled with new faces. … Their feet swarmed and scampered on the pavements, their bodies darted, dodged, thrust, and twisted as if the leaping energy of some powerful drug was driving them on … the incredible spectacle of an entire population which was drunk — drunk on the same powerful liquors, drunk with an intoxication which never wore off and which never made them weary, dead, or sodden, but which drove them on constantly to new heights of leaping and scampering exuberance. … The conversation was terrific and incessant — a tumult of voices united in variations of a single chorus: speculation and real estate.”
The ’20s spawned skylines. It happened in midtown Manhattan. It happened in downtown Asheville. The city’s population went up, building permits went up, and buildings went up, up, up — in the decade, some 65 in all, city hall and the First Baptist Church, the Art Deco Kress building and the eight-story, wedge-shaped Flatiron Building on Battery Park Avenue, Grove’s new Battery Park Hotel and his Grove Arcade indoor mall. Newspaper accounts described people “with a fountain pen in one hand and a dotted line in the other” and buses with guides with megaphones taking “prospective buyers and tourists to the ‘promised land.’ ”
Wolfe saw more clearly than most the unsustainable pace.
“We are all, to a certain degree, little and weak,” he warned in a letter to his mother in ’26. “We build up our dreams of wealth, congratulating ourselves all the time that we are perfectly business-like, that nothing can go wrong …”
“Perhaps property gave you the bank account,” he wrote to her in ’27, “but I think it’s much more likely to eat one up.”
“When I was a child,” he wrote to her in ’28, “I day-dreamed about having five or ten million dollars and spending it on steam yachts, automobiles, great estates and swank. Now I know that happiness is not to be got at in that way: the only way I know is to find the thing you want to do with all your heart, and to work like hell doing it.”
Wolfe, living in New York when he wasn’t traveling in Europe, visited Asheville in September of ’29. That month, the Dow reached a record high.
The next month, he published his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, the lengthy telling of his upbringing in Asheville that was only nominally fiction. It made him a pariah in the city.
A week later, president Herbert Hoover assured the populace of the stability of the economy.
Days after that, the stock market tanked.
Spring of 1930. Wolfe was in Paris. So was Fitzgerald. Their mutual editor at Scribner’s suggested they get together. Wolfe went to Fitzgerald’s well-appointed apartment, where the two of them had lunch and drank a bounty of cognac and wine before heading to the luxe Ritz Bar, where idolatrous American college kids surrounded Fitzgerald. After they parted, Fitzgerald read Look Homeward, Angel, in 20 straight hours. Wolfe, meanwhile, wondered if Fitzgerald was too much of a drunk to focus on his work. Five years out from Gatsby, Fitzgerald was drinking a lot, even more than he usually had, and his wife, Zelda, had snapped. Her sanity had started to slip. To Wolfe, about his book, Fitzgerald wrote he was “enormously moved.” To himself, in his journal, he summarized the year: “The Crash! Zelda & America.”
The term “crash” connoted something instantaneous about the Depression of the ’30s. It wasn’t like that. The boom took time. The bust did, too.
Wolfe was in England that November when he read in the Daily Mail, he would say later, about how Asheville’s Central Bank and Trust Company, with assets of $52 million the largest bank in western North Carolina, had failed to open its doors, triggering other closures, leading eventually to the inflated $100 million mark shrinking to half of that.
“I am very sorry to hear that Uncle Will has lost everything,” he wrote to his mother in January of ’33. “It is hard to see what Asheville is going to do. It seems that they did enough damage in two or three years to ruin the town for fifty years to come. Our people were flying too high and forgetting how to tell the truth — everything bluff and brag and blow — this is what the whole country was doing and we’re paying through the nose for it right now.”
“They invested their whole lives in a toy balloon,” he wrote to her in April of ’33, “and when the balloon burst there was nothing left …”
“The real damage there of course was done seven or eight years ago,” he wrote to her in December of ’33, “although it took most of them years to realize the extent of their loss.”
Fitzgerald published Tender Is the Night in 1934. Sales were feeble. Wolfe sent him a note telling him how much he liked it. “Thanks a hell of a lot for your letter which came at a rather sunken moment and was the more welcome,” Fitzgerald replied. His wife’s madness persisted. He teetered. To his editor, he wrote, “The Jazz Age is over.” And in his ledger, he admitted, “Hard times begin for me.”
“I wish I had these great masses of manuscripts stored away like Wolfe,” Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, “but this goose is beginning to be pretty thoroughly plucked.” That summer, he said, he had to find something, or somewhere, “that will bring me to life again.”
He ended up at the Grove Park Inn. He stayed in Rooms 441 and 443, on the side of the hotel where he could see the sun coming up, not going down. His face was pallid and unshaven with bloodshot eyes. He ate sporadically. When he wasn’t drinking room-service black coffee to coax passable words from what remained, he drank beer, as many as 37 small bottles a day, the empties adding up to the clutter of books, papers, and ashtrays with piles of the butts of the Sanos he smoked. He cheated on Zelda with a rich woman from Texas. He felt he had to leave the Inn at one point because the woman’s husband was on his way, and he ended up, with a downtown bookseller he befriended, stopping by Wolfe’s mother’s Spruce Street boardinghouse.
“I thought you were insurance salesmen,” she said to them, remembered later by the bookseller in After the Good Gay Times. “More salesmen come knocking than roomers. Times are bad.”
“They sure are —”
“Everybody trying to sell something.”
Wolfe’s mother noticed Fitzgerald’s shaky body.
“I never take drunks — not if I know it,” she said.
Back at the Inn, Fitzgerald had nightmares, which bordered on hallucinations and weren’t hard to interpret. He saw himself getting sucked into a whirlpool, or trapped in a cage, jeering people pelting him with peanut shells and telling him to dance.
“I hate myself,” he moaned to the bookseller.
“I’ve been corrupted,” he continued. “I’m hopelessly committed to living beyond my means.”
A symbol, still, of the ’20s.
The next summer, he was back, in 441 and 443, drinking his black coffee and his beers. He broke his shoulder diving into a pool in an effort to impress another woman who wasn’t his wife. The brittle Zelda was at the nearby Highland Hospital. She came occasionally to the Inn so the couple could have lunch. She ate cucumbers in sour cream. They hardly spoke. In September, a reporter from the New York Post appeared, interviewing Fitzgerald on his 40th birthday. The story called him “the poet-prophet of the post-war neurotics” and described him as restless, jittery, twitching, trembling, and “consumed with fear that his name will never be in lights again.” He was asked about the fate of “the jazz-mad, gin-mad generation” he had channeled into his texts of the ’20s. “Why should I bother myself about them?” Fitzgerald said. “Haven’t I enough worries of my own?” When the story ran in the Post, Fitzgerald swallowed enough morphine to kill him, after which he vomited and felt like a fool.
By 1937, Fitzgerald had left Asheville to move to Hollywood to try to pay off debts by writing for the movies, and Wolfe came home to visit. He talked about it the following year in a speech he gave in Indiana.
“The ruined town!” he cried. “The new and splendid buildings, emptied even of the personnel they were to house …”
He talked, too, about Fitzgerald, and his fellow writer’s belief in a so-called “lost generation” of the previous decade. Wolfe adamantly refused to be included.
“I don’t feel I belong to a lost generation, and I have never felt so,” he said. “Furthermore, I doubt very much the existence of a lost generation, except insofar as every generation, groping, must be lost.”
Wolfe was dead later that year, of tuberculosis of the brain, and Fitzgerald two years after that, of a heart attack.
Asheville paid off its debts from the ’20s, finally, in 1976 — the half a century of penance Wolfe had all but foretold. He was not the oracle of an era, as some had said of Fitzgerald, but he proved prescient about the extent of its aftermath.
I finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Shut the book. Looked up. Sunday night now in the “Big Room” in the Grove Park Inn.
The sign on the cart with the wood by the fire dangled, slightly askew, still just so. “Please notify the bell stand if the fire needs stoking,” it said. An older man dressed in a long red coat tossed another oversized log into the oversized hearth. “Somebody once asked me,” he told the guests, seated in rocking chairs, “ ‘Where do you get your wood?’ I said, ‘Out of the stack, and that’s all you need to know.’ ”
“Feels good,” a woman said.
“Keeping me warm,” a man said.
During the Depression, the Inn’s owners defaulted. Almost always, its success has undulated with the economy. The ideal clientele, though, is what it was — “Big Business Man,” “people of wealth” — and Grove’s hotel with the red roof does well when the rich feel rich and enough of all the rest are wheedled to come cop a taste. The Inn is doing well. Asheville is, too, attracting the artsy and eclectic but also attracting those with money to spend. The guests up here, though, remain the ones who have the best view.
I watched one man drink a Michelob Ultra while looking at videos on his phone’s small screen. I watched another man sip from a Starbucks cup while staring at the flames. I watched women in yoga pants and Uggs with handbags worth more than most mortgage payments slung nonchalantly over their shoulders. White faces like full moons lit by digital glow. Lapdogs.
It made me think of Daisy, object of desire, in what Fitzgerald had written, before here, when he had clean hands and clear eyes.
Something she said. “They’re such beautiful shirts.” Through muffled sobs. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
“So we beat on,” reads The Great Gatsby’s last line, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Outside, down the hill, I could see Asheville’s lights in the dark, Wolfe’s “new and splendid buildings.” Inside, here in this “hotel unlike any other,” in “one of the most wonderful rooms in the world,” cocooned by echoes of organ recitals and thoughts of down pillows and hand-hammered silver, the fire was warm. The light was not harsh.
I watched the Gatsbys and the Daisys walk through.