“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The lines from The Great Gatsby are inscribed atop the burials in Rockville, Maryland, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. In their day celebrities of the first order, they spent much of the 1930s in western North Carolina. She outlived him by eight years.
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Daughter of an Alabama State Supreme Court justice, Zelda Sayre married Fitzgerald in 1919. The Great Gatsby appeared in 1925 and it was Fitzgerald himself who dubbed the 1920s the “Jazz Age.” Zelda, whom he called “America’s first flapper,” published a novel, Save the Last Waltz, in 1932. He was an alcoholic and, after 1936, she suffered from schizophrenia. To this day scholars debate the role each had in stifling the other’s creativity.
While staying at the Grove Park Inn in 1936, Zelda Fitzgerald entered Highland Hospital, an exclusive psychiatric clinic in Asheville’s Montford neighborhood. Dr. Robert S. Carroll had moved his practice from downtown to the fifty-acre site in 1909. His treatments emphasized physical activity but included electroshock therapy, insulin treatments, and injection of horse blood into the spinal column. There Zelda, whose symptoms fluctuated, thrived, dedicating time to painting.
After her husband’s death in 1940, she returned to Highland Hospital for three extended stays, averaging six months. She swam, played tennis, went shopping, and regularly visited her mother in Alabama and at her summer home in Saluda. On March 10, 1948, fire swept from the facility’s kitchen through the dumbwaiter to all four floors. Of the twenty resident patients, nine perished. The others were led to safety. Fitzgerald, it is believed, likely died of smoke inhalation but her remains were indentified by charred slippers. Reports conflict as to whether the doors were locked.
In 1939, Carroll gave his facility to the Neuropsychiatric Department of Duke University. Duke closed the unit in the 1980s and the complex is now an office park and shopping plaza.
Nancy Milford, Zelda (1970)
Kendall Taylor, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom: Zelda & Scott Fitzgerald, A Marriage (2001)
Rebecca Shannonhouse, Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness (2003)
Catherine W. Bishir et al., Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999)
New York Times, March 12, 1948