The beginning of her treatments in these mental clinics were as beneficial to Zelda as they could be. While staying in these facilities, she found solace in writing and painting. She finished her second novel, Caesar’s Things and loved painting New York Cityscapes as well as scenes from her favorite story, Alice in Wonderland.
So the question remains: Did Zelda really go insane? History likes to tell us, yes. But it’s possible that she was just a tragic anecdote in the long journey to understanding mental illnesses. During this time treatments such as electroshock therapy, lobotomies, and other inhumane methods of “stabilizing” the brain were popular. So, while many experts agree that Zelda likely suffered from some type of mental illness, these methods utilized during her time at these facilities probably contributed to her mental collapse.
Her final stay in a mental facility was in Highland Hospital in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Places in the mountains, such as Asheville, were renowned for their healing properties- due to fresh, mountain air. One such establishment that boasted its premium location in the therapeutic North Carolina mountains was the Grove Park Inn. It was here that F. Scott spent much of his time- rarely visiting his wife, just across the valley. While Zelda was fighting her internal battles, he was battling his own demons. The novels that made F. Scott Fitzgerald so popular an author now haunted him; he was constantly trying to crack the code to success again, to no avail.
He rented two rooms in the Grove Park Inn, one for writing and the other for sleeping. One expert on F. Scott’s life claims: “”He came to the Grove Park Inn and chose these rooms so that he could overlook the main entrance,” English Professor, Brian Railsback explains. “He could see the cars that were pulling up and he could see if there were any interesting women who might appear to be single and what were they wearing.”
“This was a place where he hoped that he would be restored, find discipline and then maybe find subject matter,” Railsback said. “What a wonderful place to find interesting subject matter … Wealthy people going in and out.” But this tactic for inspiration did not work. F. Scott found the Depression era readers to be far less interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Many called F. Scott and his wife ghosts of the Jazz Age; always yearning for those luxurious years of wildness and glamour.
Inspiration dwindling, F. Scott and Zelda saw each other less and less in those final years. “They both realized that they were very upsetting to each other and it was very difficult for them — when they were both fragile — to be together for any length of time,” Railsback says. So the two once-love-birds sat isolated in the same area; so close, yet so far apart. This pattern of struggle and fragility continued for 12 years- Zelda in and out of Highland Hospital and F. Scott traveling West to find glory in writing.
Zelda Fitzgerald outlived her husband by eight years. F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 in Hollywood, where he’d begun pulling himself together, drinking less and writing The Last Tycoon — an unfinished masterpiece. Leaving his wife behind in Asheville to continue her fight for mental stability.
But it can be said that Highland Hospital was a bit different from other facilities at the time. Traditionally, in those days before psychotropic drugs, patients with chronic mental illness were shackled or put in straitjackets. The treatment philosophy at Highland was different, focusing on exercise and diet rather than restraining their patients. But the final time Zelda checked herself into Highland Hospital would be her last.
On the night of March 10, 1948, a fire tore through the belly of Highland Hospital. Many say that Zelda Fitzgerald and other patients were locked and restrained in their rooms, awaiting electroshock therapy. Another popular theory is that the fire was set by a vengeful nurse, but there is no definitive proof- the fire wiped all evidence. The fire took the lives of nine women in the facility. To this day, staff and visitors recall the Jazz Queen who touched the lives of so many treating her.
The stigma of mental illness during this era clouds the perspective of Zelda’s life much of the time. While there are accounts that tell Zelda’s wild personality traits led to her family’s demise, there are just as many attesting to the short temper and cruelty of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When looking at these accounts of historical figures, it is important to remember that we are shedding these stigmas of mental illness and finding fresh perspectives of important characters who lived their lives with these struggles. Thanks to healthier outlooks on these issues, we are fortunate enough to gain an influential female icon in Zelda Fitzgerald- with all of her beautiful imperfections.