March 10: 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 had been in and out of institutions for eighteen years; she had been discharged to her mother’s care in 1940 — Fitzgerald was in Hollywood, and just months away from a fatal heart attack — but 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 a decade trying to grasp what had happened to the people they had once been. His letters to her and to her doctors are full of theories and remonstration; her letters to him are full of pleading that he “Please, please let me out now,” or just “come to me and tell me how I was.” But then the years or the drugs or the situation — “Heartbreak perishes in public institutions,” she says in Save Me the Waltz — take their toll, and she eventually gives up:
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 of all 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.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.