'Saving Princess Zelda,' one man's book on the Highland Hospital fire
A simple ceremony with flowers and two pictures took place Thursday on Zillicoa Street to honor nine women who lost their lives in a fire in 1948. Dean DeSoto has been documenting the events that happened at Highland Hospital on March 10, 1948. That day, 16 firefighters and four trucks responded to the massive fire that claimed nine lives, including that of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Asheville Fire Department Chief Scott Burnette said that night changed fire codes locally and nationally.
"Events like this also change how firefighters respond, so adequate resources can be on scene," Burnette said.
A personal connection
DeSoto's mother, Adene Ellen Nims-Yelvington, was among the 22 women who escaped the blaze. To get out, she squeezed between the bars, climbed over a building and down the burning fire escape.
He said she was at Highland Hospital from 1945-48. During that time, she received electric shock therapy along with other treatments. She also developed a friendship with Zelda.
"My mom told me story after story about how Zelda would talk to her and counsel her," DeSoto said.
In his opinion, Zelda was a kind and caring person to the women at Highland.
"My feeling is, she loved these women," DeSoto said.
For the past seven years, DeSoto has traveled to Asheville; Montgomery, Alabama; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Sarasota/Fort Myers, Florida; to gather information, find clues and discover the wisdom of Zelda Fitzgerald and her influence upon his mother after the fire.
"Mom would recount the life at Highland Hospital when she first arrived in late 1945 or early 1946. She recalled many things that Ms. Fitzgerald taught her and the women of the fifth floor. Perhaps one of the strongest lessons was to take your greatest weakness and turn it into your greatest strength. That was pivotal for Mom for the rest of her short life. She struggled with old memories from those events, yet it preserved in her mission to raise her two sons. Hope was her watchword. She passed away in 1977 from extensive brain cancer," DeSoto said.
Preserving the memories
DeSoto is in the process of documenting the event in a book called "Saving Princess Zelda." He is looking for anyone who may have information on that night or who could help him identify some of the women who were treated at Highland.
If you have any information on Zelda Fitzgerald, please contact DeSoto at 210-781-6132. He will be in town through March 14.
DeSoto credits the Asheville Fire Department for being alive today. He would like to honor the department's heroic efforts by helping it establish a fire department museum.
If you have any Asheville Fire Department artifacts, pictures or stories, please contact Blawrence@ashevillenc.gov.