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.
Jennifer Horne is writer, editor, teacher, former Poet Laureate of Alabama, and author of three collections of poetry, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower: Stories, and editor of several volumes of poetry, essays, and stories.
“This mesmerizing account by poet Horne (Tell the World You’re a Wildflower) skillfully pieces together the disjointed life of biographer Sara Mayfield (1905–1979). . . Well-researched and compassionately written, this beguiling tale of madness and literature shines.” —Publishers Weekly
"Montgomery, Alabama, in the early Twentieth Century was an enigma where powerful white men defended the final redoubt of male privilege and the South's romantic past while a generation of women chiseled away the foundation on which male hegemony rested. Sara Mayfield, Tallulah Bankhead, Sara Haardt (Mencken), and Zelda Sayre ((Fitzgerald) lived near each other growing up in Montgomery, graduated to notable careers in theater or as writers who defied conservative social conventions and charted their own lives. Odyssey of a Wandering Mind is an excellent starting place in pursuit of what it meant to strong-minded Alabama women a century ago to be a woman. And the dangers to which that independence exposed them." —Wayne Flynt, author of Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives
"With Odyssey of a Wandering Mind, Jennifer Horne brings out of obscurity an Alabama talent often regarded as a supporting player to her more famous friends, Sara Haardt Mencken and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. Sara Mayfield was so much more than a biographer of the Southern belles of her generation who chafed against being known merely as “the wife of” their literary-lion husbands. By turns a novelist, playwright, journalist, and an inventor, Mayfield was first and foremost a survivor who led a remarkable life throughout a near century of culture upheaval. Horne does a phenomenal job of humanizing a figure who for decades battled her demons to find her greatest success in her mid-sixties, long after Haardt and Sayre has passed prematurely." —Kirk Curnutt, co-editor with Sara A. Kosiba of The Romance of Regionalism in the Work of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: The South Side of Paradise
"Jennifer Horne has written a masterful portrait of the multi-talented, troubled Sara Mayfield, a Southern aristocrat who never quite fit her milieu and yet thrived in the 1930s and ‘40s as a playwright, journalist, inventor, and traveler. After surviving seventeen years of involuntary commitment to Bryce Hospital, Mayfield wrote and published two biographies and a novel to national acclaim, restoring her intellectual and financial independence as a mature woman. Horne’s writing provides a lighted house of insight not only into Mayfield’s battle with the constraints of female agency in mid-20th century America, but also with the hidden patterns, the reversals, resentments, and epiphanies that so often determine a writer’s direction. Odyssey of a Wandering Mind is a penetrating narrative written with a storyteller’s eye." —Patricia Foster is author of Written in the Sky: Lessons of a Southern Daughter “Sara Mayfield leaves the reader unsure what is fact and what is fiction, and our experience ultimately mirrors hers in provocative ways. She peeks at us alluringly through Horne's lucid prose—as an author, an inventor, and maybe even as a government agent.” —Kathryn McKee, author of Reading Reconstruction: Sherwood Bonner and the Literature of the Post–Civil War South
“In her excellent new biography, Odyssey of a Wandering Mind: The Strange Tale of Sara Mayfield, Author, Jennifer Horne. . . has documented the astonishing story of a life ‘fully felt and deeply experienced’ with such grace and agility. Horne explores ‘where the gaps are, the quiet, shadowed places.’” —Alabama Writers’ Forum