Selfie's and Historical Markers
What’s in a celebrity selfie? What are we trying to say when we stop an unwashed, somewhat slightly dazed musician - hungover at the airport perhaps, trying only to get home to a dark and quietened room – what are we trying to gain when we demand that they allow us a selfie with them?
I don’t know, honestly.
But then, I belong to a generation that used to be happy to have the famous scribble an illegible signature across a piece of paper, and that would count for something too. I mean really – what’s in an autograph, also?
Recently I went to North Carolina on assignment. I took an extra day for myself to visit Asheville which, from my limited time there, lives up to its reputation for reinvented secondary city cool. Beyond the scenic splendors and the brewery district though, I’ve long wanted to visit Asheville for its historic literary legacy - notably its relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Before I even made it to Asheville, I made a short detour from the airport to Hendersonville, a small nondescript town in which Fitzgerald holed-up - and attempted to sober-up - in 1936. It was there, at a spiritual, physical and financial low, that he wrote a series of famous essays about his breakdown.
The Crack-Up essays were published in Esquire, and Hemingway (amongst others) castigated Fitzgerald over them for crying in public.
Time, it must be said, has been kinder to the essays than it has to Hemingway’s macho posturing and bullying.
Fitzgerald was taking a break in Hendersonville from a stay at the far more luxurious and glamorous Grove Park Inn, where he spent an entire summer, and much of two years. He failed to work very much there, but managed to dislocate his shoulder and drink himself almost to the point of ruin.
At the peak of his career, Fitzgerald commanded a fee of $4000 per short story from The Saturday Evening Post – a figure that seems extraordinary now, let alone in 1932. How many writers (or photographers!) these days can afford to live in such style?
Fitzgerald based himself in Asheville because of the air quality in the mountains, after his tuberculosis had flared up. But also, because his wife, Zelda, had been committed to an insane asylum there, and he wanted to be close to her.
When I first moved to the States I read almost everything there was by and about Fitzgerald. I lived close to where he collapsed and died in a Hollywood apartment in 1940, and yes, I have an analogue photograph of that apartment building somewhere too.
Zelda died in a fire at the asylum in 1948. I couldn't help but go take a look at the site, even though there's nothing of it there now - only a marker directly down the hill.
What can I say? I come by the habit honestly. My Dad would venture on similar historic trips to landmarks and battlefields across Britain.
Meanwhile, if you think the picture of Zelda's historic marker is maudlin, I once visited Rockville, MD, where Scott, Zelda and their daughter Scotty are buried, and where their grave marker bears perhaps the most famous last words of any novel written in English:
'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'
The Great Gatsby.
I haven't looked at it in a long time, but there's actually a picture of me at the graveside looking very mournful, very Morrissey-esque. I shot the image myself, using a camera self-timer having balanced the camera on a rock.
It was a long time ago now, but what was I thinking? Was I simply anticipating the era of the selfie?! I can't really explain it... but whatever it was, the impulse obviously has yet to fully extinguish itself.
F Scott Fitzgerald apartment, Paris. 2022