by Jennifer Horne
University of Alabama Press, 2024
Paper: 978-0-8173-6136-5 | Cloth: 978-0-8173-2136-9 | eISBN: 978-0-8173-9418-9
Library of Congress Classification PS3563.A957Z68 2024
Dewey Decimal Classification 818.5409

A carefully rendered portrait of a brilliant but troubled daughter of the Old South who struggled against the conventions of gender, class, family, and ultimately of sanity, yet survived to define a creative life of her own
Sara Mayfield was born into Alabama’s governing elite in 1905 and grew up in a social circle that included Zelda Sayre, Sara Haardt, and Tallulah and Eugenia Bankhead. After winning a Goucher College short story contest judged by H. L. Mencken, Mayfield became friends with Mencken and his circle, then visited with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and hobnobbed with the literati while traveling in Europe after a failed marriage. Returning to Alabama during the Depression, she briefly managed the family landholdings before departing for New York City where she became involved in the theater. Inventing a plastic compound while working on theatrical sets, she applied for a patent and set her sights on a livelihood as an inventor and businesswoman. With the advent of World War II, Mayfield returned to her family home in Tuscaloosa where she expanded her experiments, freelanced as a journalist, and doggedly pursued a bizarre series of military and intelligence schemes, prompting temporary hospitalization. In 1945, she mingled with a host of cultural figures, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and even a young John F. Kennedy, while reporting on the creation of the United Nations from Mexico and California. Back in Tuscaloosa after the war, however, she struggled to find her way with both work and family, becoming increasingly paranoid about perceived conspiracies arrayed against her. Finally, her mother and brother committed her to Bryce Hospital for the Insane, where she remained for the next seventeen years.

Throughout her life, Mayfield kept journals, wrote fiction, and produced thousands of letters while nursing the ambition that had driven her since childhood: to write and publish books. During her confinement, Mayfield assiduously recorded her experiences and her determined efforts—sometimes delusional, always savvy—to overturn her diagnosis and return to the world as a sane, independent adult. At 59, she was released from Bryce and later obtained a decree of “having been restored to sanity,” enabling her to manage her own financial affairs and to live how and where she pleased. She went on to publish noteworthy literary biographies of the Menckens and the Fitzgeralds plus a novel based on the life of Mona Lisa, finally achieving her quest to become the author of books and her own life. In Odyssey of a Wandering Mind, noted writer Jennifer Horne draws on years of research and an intimate understanding of the vast archive Sara Mayfield left behind to sensitively render Mayfield’s struggle to move through the world as the person she was—and her ultimate success in surviving to define the terms of her story.