Sara’s circle of friends in their neighborhood on the tree-shaded streets of Montgomery included Sara Haardt, born 1898; Zelda Sayre, born 1900; and Tallulah Bankhead, born 1902 and, along with her sister, Eugenia, raised in part by her aunt Marie Bankhead in Montgomery after the girls’ mother died. All grew up within walking distance of one another at the turn of the century in the state’s capital. Raised to be belles but resistant to conform, all four girls struggled with the roles they were expected to play. In her autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, another contemporary, Virginia Foster Durr, described the three options for “a well brought- up young Southern white woman”: “She could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern Belle . . . and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. . . . If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy—on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one stunning Southern Belle. Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruises of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot.”4 In that description are echoes of Zelda, Tallulah, Sara H., and Sara M., playing the roles of actress, creative gone crazy, and rebel.
Zelda Sayre, five years older than Sara Mayfield, was like a big sister to the admiring Sara. Growing up in the same Montgomery neighborhood, they often played outdoors with other children. Zelda made up games for them and once saved Sara from a bad roller-skating accident by swooping up and pulling her away from a cobblestoned street at the last minute. (The Oracle [yearbook of Sidney Lanier High School, Montgomery, AL], Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Zelda was physically brave, and Sara, wanting to impress, tried to keep up with her. One day, trying out new roller skates on a hill in their neighborhood, Sara began to lose control as she gained speed, and Zelda, seeing she was in trouble, swooped in, pulled her away from the cobblestones she was about to fly onto, and let Sara hold onto her the next time so that she could get the hang of skating. Zelda also taught Sara how to dive, invented games for the neighborhood children, and slipped their daddies’ mint julep cups away when they were finished so that she could drain off the mint-and- bourbon flavored sugar. One letter Sara received much later, when she was researching Zelda’s life, describes Zelda as a young woman and suggests how easy it was to be shocking in those days. Sara’s correspondent, Harold T. Council, of Cedar Lane Farms in Greenville, Mississippi, writes that he only knew Zelda slightly, but: “I do know of one instance in 1920 when Farnell Blair, whom I ran with, invited her up to Sewanee for some dances. When she arrived at Tuckaway Inn where she was to stay, her pocketbook flew open
and several packages of cigarettes fell out. Of course, everybody was all eyes as back in 1920 very few girls smoked. As I remember her, she was most intelligent and was a very popular girl.”5
- Virginia Foster Durr, Outside the Magic Circle (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
Press, 1985), xi.
- Harold T. Council to Sara Mayfield, Dec. 2, 1969. Mayfield Papers, Box 1221,
“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.”
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.