The Mystery of the Princess Locked in the Tower (Nancy Drew meets Zelda Fitzgerald)

“The American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”

I wrote this down in one of my notebooks. I circled it, underlined it, highlighted it. But I didn’t note where I heard or read it. When I Googled the quote, I was led to her an essay by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, “America Made Me a Feminist“.

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Paulina Porizkova

“In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.”

This obviously struck a chord with me. My worlds had collided, or coincidence had taken me on a journey. My fascination with Thomas Wolfe led me down a rabbit hole to the writing of contemporary Southern literary icon Lee Smith to the tragic figure of Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Drew, and unpredictably, Paulina Porizkova.

The degrees of separation are few. Thomas Wolfe was from Asheville, North Carolina, which he famously wrote about in Look Homeward, Angel, much to the anger and dismay of the city’s residents. Zelda Fitzgerald spent many years, and ultimately died in, Highland Hospital, a mental hospital (or “hospital for nervous diseases”) in Asheville. Lee Smith wrote a novel about Highland Hospital, Guests on Earth, and the fire there that killed 9 women, including Zelda.

guests cover

Nine women died in the hospital fire on March 10, 1948. According to the official medical report, Zelda was unable to escape the fire as she had been sedated and placed in a locked room prior to a scheduled electro-shock therapy treatment. The women who died were all trapped on the top floor of the central building

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The fire started in the kitchen wing, but there is still mystery around how it started and who might have started it. Speculation includes a former patient who was later hired to work in the hospital and held grudges against some of the other women, doubling their medications and locking them in before starting the fire in the kitchen. The windows were barred, the fire escape made of wood that quickly burned.

But was Zelda really “crazy”? She is commonly said to have been schizophrenic, but more recent studies suggest she was more likely bipolar, with periods of depression and periods of high energy and creativity. She was herself a writer (some believe F. Scott plagiarized from her writings), an artist, and a dancer; a free spirit in a time and place where that was heavily frowned upon. She was raised to be a Southern Belle, to marry well, to be a pretty and charming hostess, but not to be smart, creative, or independent. After the fire, she was indentified as among the dead from her charred ballet slipper.

slippers

 

Lee Smith, through narrator Evalina Toussaint, wrote of Zelda in Guests on Earth:

She didn’t fit in, that’s all. They didn’t know what to do with her…None of them knew what to do with her. She was too smart, too original…She didn’t fit in.

Smart women who didn’t fit in. Locked up. Princesses in a tower. While Zelda was in Highland Hospital, F. Scott would visit, staying at the luxurious Grove Park Inn, supposedly resting and relaxing and taking the “beer cure” to wean himself off of gin.

Grove Prk Inn ball photo
Grove Park Inn
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Highland Hospital doesn’t sound all that horrible when one looks back at the history of
the treatment of mental illness. Founder Dr. Robert Carroll created a program based on
exercise, diet, and occupational therapy rather than straitjackets and shackles. But there
were also questionable electroconvulsive treatments and insulin coma therapy, with risks of brain damage and death.
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Electroconvulsion therapy.
At Highland, Zelda was able to dance, to paint, to write.
The character Evalina, a talented pianist and a fellow patient, enters the hospital at age 13 in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. She loves to read. One of the nurses brings her Nancy Drew books.
Nancy Drew. I love Nancy Drew.
1930s-vintage-nancy-drew
 I read all of the Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the best compliments a coworker ever gave me was to call me Nancy Drew.

The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Mystery at Lilac Inn all in the same year. Nancy Drew books are still being written and published, the most recent title, Riverboat Roulette, was released in early 2017. Two titles, The Professor and the Puzzle and The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, are planned for late 2017 and early 2018.

Why do we love Nancy Drew? She’s smart, fiesty, curious. Blogger Kerry Winfrey lists the reasons Nancy Drew is such a good role model:

  • She’s not afraid of anything.
  • She’s well-rounded.
  • She has great fashion sense.
  • She’s a feminist.
  • She has staying power.

The books purported author, Carolyn Keene, didn’t and doesn’t exist. The actual writers have come and gone, but Carolyn Keene lives on. Nancy Drew was created by Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children’s books. He hired ghost writers to churn out the books, as well as other series like The Hardy Boys, according to a set and successful formula.

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I don’t think it was a coincidence that Lee Smith brings Nancy Drew books into a story of princesses locked in a tower. Just as Paulina Porizkova wrote recently, women are told we can do anything. Nancy did it all, while dressed to the nines. She had her roadster, her friends, her college-aged boyfriend (who doesn’t show up that much), a father who encouraged her. She was smart and pretty and everything I wanted to be as a girl. But in the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, she was locked away for wanting to be more than a good wife and mother. She had serious artistic aspirations of her own, but lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

“Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.” [Zelda, in a letter to F. Scott.]

 

Many women in institutions at that time were women who didn’t fit in, who didn’t want to stay in their proscribed boxes, who were uninhibited, creative, and deemed hysterical. The word hysterical itself is significant. It comes from the Latin hystericus–of the womb–and was considered to be a female ailment, brought on by dysfunction of the uterus. Gary Nunn writes of the “feminization of madness”. Take the word loony, from lunacy, and the connection to the moon (lunar). Thus, lunacy becomes a monthly periodic insanity brought on by the moon’s cycle. As Nunn describes it:

“These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

In an interview, Lee Smith said,

“A fairly sizable number of women who were at Highland Hospital had really been sent there by their husbands or their families because they were just a little too wild or creative, because they didn’t fit into the norm that society—particularly Deep South society—expected of them.”

Zelda published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932. It was written while she was a patient at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was there after “an episode of hysteria”, and spent 2 hours a day writing as a part of her recovery. The novel was autobiographical and apparently angered F. Scott, who forced extensive revisions before it was sent to the publihser. He then used much of the same autobiographical material in his own book, Tender is the Night, published in 1934.

F. Scott himself was clearly mentally unstable, yet he, the tortured novelist, stayed at the Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was confined to Highland Hospital. Ring Lardner Jr. referred to the couple: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” During their courtship, Zelda routinely evoked jealousy from F. Scott with her flirting and “outrageous” ways. Before their marriage, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of “I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Nancy Drew, if she were real, would probably have been locked in that tower too. But hopefully she’d solve the mystery of the fire and escape before she was tied down for electro-shock treatment.

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The Princess in the Tower, by Otori Reka

I am currently reading  Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda’s story as she herself might have told it.

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I’m not very far into it. Zelda doesn’t seem crazy, though, just bored and stifled by the expectations placed on her in 1918 Montgomery, Alabama.

There is also now a television series on Amazon, Z: The Beginning of Everything, with Christina Ricci as Zelda.

 

The Fitzgeralds’ daughter, Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, died in 1986. When she was born in 1921, Zelda said she hoped her daughter would be a “beautiful little fool”, a line which F. Scott had Daisy utter in The Great Gatsby.

scottie
Scott, Scottie, and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

She was definitely not a fool; multi-talented, Scottie graduated from Vassar in 1942, and over the years worked as a writer and journalist, wrote musical comedies, and was a tireless figure in the Democratic Party as a fundraiser and promoter of Democratic candidates. Completing the circle in a sense, she moved from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama and spent the last years of her life in her mother’s hometown. Two of her daughters control the Fitzgerald Trust. The house Zelda grew up in was set to be demolished in 1986; instead benefactors purchased the home and donated it as the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. The F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald Papers are held at the Princeton University Library.

Meanwhile, Nancy Drew is still a badass girl detective.

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keep calm

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