March 10, 1948
On this day in 1948, F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, and eight other patients were killed in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Zelda's first breakdown in 1930 resulted in a sixteen-month stay in a Swiss clinic, and she spent six and a half of the next eight years in American institutions. Though discharged to her mother's care in the Spring of 1940 -- Fitzgerald was in Hollywood, and just months away from a fatal heart attack -- she would periodically readmit herself to Highland. It was during one of these stays that she and the others died, unable to flee the rooms into which they had been locked for the evening.
While the popular press had elevated them to the legendary glitter-couple, and then reduced them to a Jazz Age parable, the Fitzgeralds themselves spent their last decade struggling towards a clearer understanding of what had happened to the people they had once been. In one letter to Zelda after her first breakdown in 1930, Fitzgerald's attempts to find cause and blame arrive at this: "You were going crazy and calling it genius -- I was going to ruin and calling it anything that came to hand." One letter from Zelda five years later -- after countless pleas to her husband that he "Please, please let me out now," or that he "come to me and tell me how I was" -- seems to finally accept defeat:
Dearest and always Dearest Scott:
I am sorry too that there should be nothing to greet you but an empty shell.... Had I any feelings they would all be bent in gratitude to you and in sorrow that all of my life there should not even be the smallest relic of the love and beauty that we started with to offer you at the end.... It is a shame that we should have met in harshness and coldness where there was once so much tenderness and so many dreams.... I love you anyway -- even if there isn't any me or any love or even any life.
Fitzgerald kept writing to her until the end, and writing whatever else he could manage in order to support her. Two last letters, both written on the same day a week before his death, are to the taxman and to daughter Scottie. The first asks for more time, the second says that "the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read." Zelda's autobiographical novel, "Save Me The Waltz," tries to get some perspective on what happened; over her last years she struggled with a novel about Jacob and Janno, another two who were beautiful and self-damned. In one fragment Janno talks of her husband's death, though "He had been gone all summer and all winter for about a hundred years":
She remembered the ragged edges of his cuffs, and the neatness of his worn possessions, and the pleasure he always had from his pile of sheer linen handkerchiefs. When she had been away, or sick or something, Jacob never forgot the flowers, or big expensive books full of compensatory ideas about life. He never forgot to make life seem useful and promising, or forgot the grace of good friendship, or the use of making an effort. . . .
Nobody has ever measured, even the poets, how much a heart can hold. . . . When one really can't stand anymore, the limits are transgressed, and one thing has become another; poetry registers itself on the hospital charts, and heart-break has to be taken care of. . . . But heartbreak perishes in public institutions.