The author of five previous novels—only two of which had been published—Mary Jane Ward was unprepared for the firestorm that surrounded The Snake Pit when it was released in 1946. The story of a young woman’s institutionalization and ultimate recovery from mental illness received glowing reviews from literary critics along with experts in the psychiatric field, who hailed it as an honest portrait of mental illness and current methods of treatment.
Even before Random House chose Ward’s novel as its Book-of-the-Month Club selection in April 1946, The Snake Pit was optioned for the movies. Olivia de Havilland played the heroine in the ensuing film, which won an Oscar after having received six nominations. The book made over a hundred thousand dollars in its first month and was released in a number of translations.
The ostensibly fictional account of a young Midwestern writer’s breakdown and recovery was later revealed to have been based on its author’s own experience. Born in Fairmount, Indiana in 1905, Mary Jane Ward was married to statistician and writer Edward Quayle. Like the novel’s heroine Virginia Cunningham, Ward accompanied her husband from Evanston, Illinois to New York’s Greenwich Village, where the couple’s ensuing financial troubles precipitated her emotional collapse. The Snake Pit charts the eight months in 1941 that Ward spent in Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, where her therapy included scalding baths and electroshock treatments.
Several years later, Ward’s second cousin, Ross Lockridge, Jr., checked into an Indianapolis mental facility, albeit under an assumed name, on the eve of his own literary and cinematic stardom. The best-selling novel of 1948, Lockridge’s novel Raintree County was ultimately made into a box-office smash starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. The related writers’ success was not unnoticed in the press, which reportedly termed it “a pretty good showing for a family of Hoosier hicks.” Success was evanescent, however. Soon after the publication of Raintree County , Ross Lockridge ended his own life. At the same time, his cousin Mary Jane Ward was becoming a national spokesperson for mental health awareness. Diagnosed with schizophrenia but likely suffering from bipolar illness, Ward wrote a total of eight novels and lived to the age of 75.