Zelda Fitzgerald and Highland Hospital

What is about the Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that continues to inspire the imagination of those in Asheville? Is it the stark contradictory love of money and rebellion, beauty and darkness, glamour and destitution that says something about the Asheville of the past and present? There is also obvious similarities between our ability today, as much as in the early 20th century, to overlook how much women contribute to the world by focusing on their male counterparts.

Zelda was very much known as the-wife-of-the-author-of-The-Great-Gatsby. The talent of Zelda has been unjustly ignored. This can easily be seen in the new Grove Park condo that has been named, The Fitzgerald, as if there were only one former Asheville resident with that name. While it is true that it was Scott who stayed repeatedly at the Grove Park Inn, drinking, womanizing, and generally cracking up, but Zelda was here too. Albeit in a different capacity. She had been committed to the Highland Hospital in Montford. This had been part of her treatment, and where she was repeatedly injected with insulin to send her into shock. She lived in the asylum on Zillicoa Street on and off from 1936 until the unfortunate fire in 1948, in which she and eight other women would perish.

Taking a detour from Zelda’s life, let’s talk about the hospital that would become her finally resting place. The Highland Hospital was built in 1904, and was founded by Dr. Robert S. Carroll. The hospital was dedicated to taking care of the mentally ill and those who were believed to have “nervous diseases.” Before it become known as Highland Hospital, it was called “Dr. Carroll’s Sanatorium.” It underwent a name change in 1912. Carroll stayed in control of the hospital until he left in 1939. He donated the hospital to Duke University, where he assumed the role as medical director, and would stay there until 1945. Not much else is known about the hospital, nor can you find anything else about other patients who were treated there. The only other thing you can find is about the fire, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

It’s true, that if you read anything about Zelda, it will always go something like, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It doesn’t seem as though she can stand on her own, but her connection to Asheville was much longer and eventful than her husband’s. Now, I may sound like I am preaching here, but I feel this is all important and plays a part into Zelda’s time in the hospital. Scott was an important American novelist, but there are many lines, scenes, and characters in his fiction that were taken directly from Zelda’s writing and speeches, and she deserves to get more attention. So, before we get to the ghostly aspects of this episode, we are going to give Zelda the attention she deserves.

Zelda was considered to be the first flapper, and she encapsulated the lust and destructiveness for life of a post World War I age. Zelda had this to say about flappers, “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 board because she wasn’t boring.”

There is a small plaque that rests under a birch tree at the hospital on Zillicoa that holds Zelda’s full name, birth and death date, 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.” The quote was taken from one of the letters she sent to her husband. They make no mention of her contributions to the Jazz Age, literature, her suffering and eventual “madness,” or even her horrific death. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most people from Asheville are unaware of the historic importance of the hospital and Zelda’s treatment.

Scott and Zelda met in July 1918 when he volunteered for the army, and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, just outside of Montgomery, Zelda’s hometown. Scott start calling her every day, and would come into Montgomery on free days. He told her about how he planned on becoming famous, and would send her chapters out of a book he was writing. He was so taken with her, that he changed the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise to resemble her. Zelda proved to be more than just his muse. After she showed Scott her personal diary, he took excerpts, verbatim, from it and used it in his novel. At the end of the book, the soliloquy of Amory Blaine in the cemetery was taken from her journal.

Scott even showed Zelda’s diary to Peevie Parrot, who then showed it to George Jean Nathan. Allegedly the two men talked about publishing with the title “The Diary of a Popular Girl.” The letters she wrote were also know for their spontaneous turn of phrase and lyrical style, and she would often use dashes that were similar to Emily Dickinson’s.

Nancy Milford said that Scott and Zelda had their first encounter at a country club dance, which Scott fictionalized in his novel The Great Gatsby, where he describes Jay Gatsby’s first encounter with Daisy Buchanan, although, he did change the location to the train station. Zelda wasn’t just being courted by Scott, and the competition only drove Scott to want her more.

By December 1918, the pair were inseparable.  After being discharged from the military on Valentine’s Day 1919, he moved to New York City. They wrote often, and in March 1920, Scott sent Zelda his mother’s ring, and they became engaged. Many of Zelda’s family and friends were wary of the relationship, as they did not like how much Scott drank. Zelda was also Episcopalian, and Scott was Catholic. The two married on April 3, 1920. Scott has successfully published is first novel just before their marriage, so the two were thrust into celebrity life. They were known is New York as much for their wild actions as for the book. They were forced out of the Biltmore Hotel and Commodore Hotel for drunkenness. Zelda even jumped into the fountain at Union Square.

Her first foray into writing was when the New York Tribune asked her to write a cheeky review of Scott’s latest work. In it, she made joking reference to the use of her diaries, but this material would soon become a source of genuine resentment. After this, she received offers from other magazines. In June 1992 she published the piece “Eulogy on the Flapper.” Zelda continued to write and sell short stories and articles. She helped Scott in writing the play The Vegetable, but when it flopped, the Fitzgerald’s found themselves in debt. Scott furiously wrote short stories to pay the bills, but became burned out and depressed. They left for Paris in April 1924.

The time in Paris was filled with scandal. The two were no longer that happy together, and Zelda overdosed on sleeping pills at one point. That same year, Scott got the proofs for Gatsby, and fretted over what the title should be. It was Zelda who preferred The Great Gatsby. During this time abroad, Zelda, while ill with colitis, started painting.

Scott met Ernest Hemingway in April 1925. They became strong friends, but Zelda and Hemingway disliked each other from the very first meeting. She described him as “bogus,” “that fairy with hair on his chest,” and “phoney as a rubber check.” She felt that this macho persona was just an act. Hemingway, in turn, told Scott that Zelda was crazy.

One of the more serious rifts occurred when Zelda told Scott that their sex life had declined because he was gay, and was likely having an affair with Hemingway. While there was no evidence to suggest that either was homosexual, but Scott decided he had to have sex with a prostitute to prove his heterosexuality. She also threw herself down a flight of marble stairs at a party because Scott was paying more attention to Isadora Duncan that he was to her.

While Scott drew heavily on his wife’s intense personality, much of the conflicts between them stemmed from the isolation and boredom Zelda felt when Scot was writing. She would often interrupt him while he was writing, and the two grew increasingly miserable. Scott was an alcoholic, Zelda’s behavior was become increasingly erratic, and neither was making progress on their creative endeavors.

What likely marked the start of her downfall was her rekindled interest in ballet. She was 27 when she became obsessed with ballet, which she had studied as a child. Scott was dismissive of his wife’s desire to become a professional dancer, and thought it to be a waste of time. She had decided to rekindle her studies too late in life to become a truly exceptional dancer, but she still insisted on grueling daily practices, sometimes up to eight hours a day. This contributed to her subsequent physical and mental exhaustion.

In April 1930, Zelda was admitted to a sanatorium in France where, after months of treatment and observation, Dr. Eugen Bleuler diagnosed her as schizophrenic. She was released in September 1931, and returned to hometown to be with her ailing father. Her father passed away after Scott left for Hollywood, and this marked the start of another health related decline.  By February 1932, she was in another psychiatric clinic. She stayed at Phipps Clinic at John Hopkins, and it was here she would write Save Me the Waltz in only six weeks. Once Scott read the book, he was furious. The book was semi-autobiographical. In letters, Scott berated her and was upset because she had used material that he had planned on using in Tender Is the Night. Scott made Zelda rewrite the parts of her novel that drew on the areas he wanted to use. Even though America was in the throes of the Great Depression, Scribner agreed to publish the book, printing 3,010 copes. It only sold 1,392 copies at the time. On top of that, Scott’s scathing criticism of her, saying she was plagiaristic and a third-rate writer, crushed her spirits. This would be the only novel she ever saw published.

Zelda would spend the rest of her life in and out of various sanatoriums. In 1936, Scott has Zelda sent to Highland Hospital while he returned to Hollywood for $1000 a week job with MGM. Without Zelda’s knowledge, he started a serious affair with the movie columnist Sheilah Graham. When Zelda and Scotts’ daughter Scottie got thrown out of her boarding school in 1938, he blamed Zelda. But herein lies my problem. Zelda’s lack of recognition and her treatment at the time mirrors the inequalities faced by women during the first half of the 20th century. Despite Scott’s infidelities, depression, insecurities, alcoholism, and hypochondria, he was never hospitalized. Zelda had to be the crazy one because she may or may not have had an affair with a man in Paris. For which Scott locked her into their home and forbade her to leave. Women like Zelda were institutionalized, pathologized, and treated with ice-pick lobotomies, narcotics, cold baths, insulin, and electro-shock therapy. I will admit, before she was admitted to Highland, she had admitted to hearing voices, experienced hallucinations, and attempted suicide, so there was something going on for which she needed treatment. However, given the lack of support for her creativity and vivacity, her misery seems justified.

Given the time, Highland Hospital was seen as progressive. Decades before serious research into the connection between depression, diet, serotonin, and exercise, Dr. Robert Carroll prescribed daily hikes and healthy foods to the female patients as part of their treatment. Zelda thrived while away from Scott. Her letters she wrote offered glimpses of Asheville life in the 1940s, and reflected a faith in the healing powers that many believe the mountains hold. In one of her letters, she wrote about an excursion 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.”

Unfortunately, she would never get to have a life outside of the walls of the hospital. At the beginning of March, her doctors has told her she was well enough to leave, but she chose to stay a few more weeks to make sure she was. On March 10, 1948, Zelda was scheduled to undergo an electroshock therapy treatment. She was locked in her room when the fire broke out in the kitchen area. The flames quickly traveled up the dumbwaiter shaft and spread throughout the entire building. The fire escapes were made from wood and completely destroyed. Witnesses said that they could hear the desperate screams of women on the top floor as flames held them hostage. Besides the burned fire escapes, some windows were locked or barred by heavy chains. Corridor doors were locked. There were no alarms or sprinklers. As a result, nine women perished in the fire, including Zelda. Of those nine, five, including Zelda, had been given strong sedatives to induce sleep. She was later positively identified by dental records and a lone slipper believed to belong to her. She buried in Rockville, Maryland next to Scott.

One of the night nurse supervisors, Willie Mae Hall, reportedly walked to the police headquarters after the fire and asked them to lock her up, saying that she may have set the fire. No arson charges were filed, but there are reports that say Hall was committed to Grayson Mental Hospital in Winston-Salem. It was discovered that it was an electric coffee urn in the kitchen that caused the fire. The coroner’s jury concluded that “there was negligence, but not to the extent to be classed as culpable negligence. Doris Jane Anderson, a nurse at the hospital, said that Anderson discovered the kitchen table on fire at 11:35 pm. From there, that is when it entered the plaster and mason board lined dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter was supposed to be lined with metal sheets.

As one who believes in ghosts would imagine, this death was not a very pleasant one. The property of Highland Hospital wasn’t sold until the 1980s. It is now used as a recovery home for teens and young adults. Those who are there have said they have seen the spirit of Zelda walking around the campus. Zelda was well known for taking walks during her stay. One of the former employees there said he saw her and that she looked at him as if she might know him and was trying to think of his name. A lot of the sightings of Zelda take on a symbolic nature as people notice her doll-like face, paintbrush in hand, and red ballerina shoes, which is always the last thing to be seen when the ghost vanishes. Others have also seen the spirit of a young man, believed to be around the age of 20. It is said that he died at the hospital from an unrelated incident long before the fire took place.

Author of The Ghost Will See You Now: Jaunted Hospitals of the South, Randy Russell has diagnosed Zelda with “Southern Belleism,” aka, “The Deadly Sugar.” He explained that girls catch this during the first time they try on their mama’s fancy dresses. He also said that it starts in the toes and moves up to their knees, which, according to some, is how the Charleston came to be.

You can’t very well walk into the facility to get a glimpse of her, as it is a private facility. However, you could walk around the neighborhood. You could just as easily catch a glimpse of her talking one of her usual walks. Even if you don’t get a glimpse of Zelda, I’m sure you will catch a glimpse of one of the many other ghosts that haunt the area.

Highland Hospital will forever be remember as a place of one of the worst tragedies in Asheville history. It is one of the stops of the historic Asheville tour, and couple of ghost tours. While the story of Zelda Fitzgerald is tragic, it could possible serve as a reminder to always live your best life and to not step one somebody else’s dreams in the process. After all, had she gotten to experience the success she so rightly deserved, she may never have had to be in that hospital.

In the words of Zelda herself, “Only weaklings who lack courage and the power to feel they’re right when the whole world says they’re wrong, ever lose.”

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