In late august there came a cablegram from London:
BEST NEWS ON EARTH DARLING STOP MOTHER IS OUR SIDE STOP THIS MAKES THINGS SO MUCH EASIER STOP WIRE ME SWEETHEART MY LOVE
I sat at my desk before a window that looked out on the green mountainside. I could not write my column: that The Good Earth was setting new attendance records, that John Barrymore had unaccountably vanished from the set of Romeo and Juliet, that Louella Parsons printed items before I had them—my mind refused to deal with these. I wanted to see Scott. I wanted to see the quick, warm smile that lingered in his eyes long after his mouth reverted to its secret melancholy. I wanted to see the look on his face when he saw me, the look that said, What a precious treasure you are and how lucky I am to have found you! I wanted to be with him, to talk to him, to hear his voice. In the most compelling way he had become my entire world—as though I had been caught up in a huge, overwhelming event that had no past, no future, but simply was.
Almost absentmindedly I reread Donegall’s cable. Poor Don! He had won her over—and I did not really care. For a moment the words struck me as almost ludicrous. Mother is on our side. Instead of wiring I wrote a pleasant letter to him that I was delighted his mother approved of me, I was very busy, I would write again soon. If an earldom was slipping through my fingers, I felt curiously untouched by it. There was Uttle room for Donegall in my world—now.
In those first weeks Scott and I talked incessantly. We saw each other almost every evening. He wrote at the Metro studio during the day and I used those hours to gather items so that I would be free for him at night. He had bought a second-hand Ford coupe and each day about six o’clock I’d hear his rattlesome little car come chattering up my hill, and then the cheerful “Toot! Toot!” of his horn as he rounded a bend in the road just before my house. With his battered collegiate hat and raincoat, his pullover sweaters and jaunty bow ties, he reminded me more and more of all I had read about American college boys of the twenties. Enroute to dinner sometimes we stopped off at the Garden of Allah for a highball with Eddie, or John O’Hara, or Albert and Frances Hackett, writers who belonged in his world. Scott invariably took Coca-Cola and I a little sherry. Then we would go on to a little restaurant.
We talked. What sorcery had brought me from London and him from St. Paul, Minnesota, and thrown us together here in Hollywood? He had wanted to see me again after his first glimpse of me at Benchley’s party. Later that night Bob called Scott to say he was sorry Scott had left so early and wouldn’t he like to come down now for a midnight snack? Scott, never at his best with strangers, had asked anxiously, “Who’s still there?” Bob had said, “Frank Morgan, Mrs. Morgan and Tala Birrell. Everyone else has left.”
Thinking I was the European actress Tala Birrell, Scott had gone back to Benchley’s, only to discover his mistake. Then, at the Writers Guild dance—he hadn’t wanted to go there, but Dorothy Parker prevailed upon him—he had seen me again: we had exchanged two sentences and I had vanished. And when he had concluded that I was too elusive ever to be captured, Eddie Mayer, like a smiling Aladdin brandishing a telephone instead of a lamp, had produced me… Listening to Scott, I had had no idea how much all this had meant to him—that some day he would make use of it in his own book.
Scott wanted to know everything about me. He probed like a reporter after a story. Instinctively I knew he would scorn the shoddy. I was prepared to suffer any ordeal rather than reveal the truth about myself. I thought, he has chosen me. I want him to be proud of the woman he has chosen. He must never feel that his girl is in reality a grubby little waif who has gotten to him by a series of deceptions. I wanted him to have the best because he deserved the best. So I related my well-rehearsed story. My mother died when I was seventeen; my rich aunt presented me at court; I found society boring, so I had tried the stage, which led to an article on stage-door Johnnies and that to New York and Hollywood.
I squirmed when Scott gazed at my “family” photographs: my brother David who died before I was born, my sister Alicia, my grandfather (this was Sir Richard resplendent in huntmg kit with top hat and pink coat astride a magnificent horse from his stables in Ireland). I felt trapped. To the one man I longed to unburden myself completely, who treated me with such respect, I had to tell and even authenticate my spurious story. When he pressed me tox) hard, I managed to shift the conversation to him.
I was learning to know his boyishness and yet his dignity, which allowed one to go so far, and no further. We had been invited to a party given by Gladys Swarthout and her husband, Frank Chapman. I knew everyone now, Scott knew no one. At one point I saw him wandering about nervously, looking lost. I was on a settee chatting with friends; I gestured to him and patted the seat beside me. “Scott, come and sit here ne;tt to me.” His face tightened and he turned away. Later he said, “Don’t ever do that.” I protested, a little hurt. “But Scott, you looked so uncomfortable—” He said, “I can perfectly well take care of myself.” Those were his sharpest words to me until now. I said to myself, you cannot take liberties with this man. You cannot patronize—or pity him.
I felt this even more strongly when we attended a movie premiere. “Let’s not go in the front, Sheilo,” he said. Although it was important for me to interview the stars who thronged the lobby, I slipped into a side entrance with him and we took unobtrusive seats in the back. Was he protecting his fallen estate? Until the house lights dimmed he fidgeted nervously, his head down, his eyes on his program. He wanted not to be seen—as though he feared people would recognize him and be sorry for him as a writer whose works weren’t being read.
I tried to bolster him in my own way. “Scott,” I said one evening, “I feel badly. Here you are, a famous writer, and I’ve not read a thing you’ve written. 1 want to read every one of your books.”
“Do you really?” he asked, pleased. I discovered that when he spoke of his work he never disparaged it: he spoke of it with great seriousness. It was not a subject for self-deprecation or witticisms. “All right, Sheilo. I’ll get you my books. Let’s get them tonight.” After dinner, we strolled into Hollywood’s biggest book store. Scott asked, “Have you books by F. Scott Fitzgerald?”
The clerk, a young man, said, “Sorry—none in stock.” He turned inquiringly to another customer.
“Do you have any calls for them?” Scott pursued.
“Oh—once in a while,” said the clerk. “But not for some time, now.”
I did not look at Scott as we walked out but I said hurriedly, “Let’s try another place.” It was the same story there. At the third bookstore, a small shop, the owner, a gray-haired man, was on a ladder placmg a book on a high shelf. He came down slowly. At Scott’s question he shook his head but said, “I believe I can get hold of a title or two. Which ones are you interested in?”
“I’d appreciate that,” Scott said, carefully. He gave him the names of three: This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is The Night. The gray-haired man said, “I’ll do my best to find these for you.”
Scott said, almost diffidendy, “I’m Mr. Fitzgerald.”
The other’s eyes widened. He put out his hand and shook Scott’s warmly. “I’m happy to meet you, Mr. Fitzgerald,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed your books very much.” He was quite impressed. He took Scott’s address. “I’ll really get these for you, and if there aren’t any about, I’ll order them from the publishers.”
Scott thanked him and we left the store. I wondered, how must he feel to have been so famous once and almost unknown now—the courteous, self-effacing man who escorted Sheilah Graham to dinners and premieres, but always shpped in the side entrance with her, and always, when introduced to her friends, had to face the same reaction: a widening of the eyes, a smile of surprise as though they were astonished to find that F. Scott Fitzgerald was still alive.
There was so much I did not know about Scott. Salaries in Hollywood are no secret: I learned that he was being paid a thousand dollars a week for the period of his six months’ contract. Compared to the hundred and sixty a week John Wheeler was now paying me, this was a fortune. I thought only eccentricity led Scott to ride about in his little second-hand car, and to wear nondescript clothes. Only later was I to learn that he was in debt more than forty thousand dollars, that the cost of Zelda’s sanitarium and keeping Scottie in boarding school were tremendous burdens; that more than a year before he had suffered a terrifying breakdown, a period of utter panic in which he thought he would never write again, that drinking had been his demon and his despair; that he had come to Hollywood in a desperate attempt to reestablish himself, hoping to earn enough money to pay his debts and perhaps be enabled to return to serious writing again.
I knew none of this because Scott told me none of it. I knew him only as a charmmg courtier who sent me flowers several times a week, always with an amusing little note, who thought up new surprises for me, with whom no hour was mundane. The day after our first dinner, a lovely bouquet had arrived with a card, “Welcome To The New Arrival.” It showed a stork carrying a baby. Scott, with a pen, had embellished the drawing until the baby had become a delightful caricature of himself, complete to battered hat. To one side he had sketched a little suitcase on which he had printed his name. Sometimes the notes accompanying the flowers were signed, “F. Scott Fitzdillinger,” if we had been discussing gangsters the night before, or “From Dmitri to Gruschenko” if—at his suggestion—I had begun to read The Brothers Karamazov. He loved to clown—when we played Ping-pong, a favorite game, he’d cross his eyes ferociously and gaze off to the left while smacking the ball to the right. When he lunched daily at the Metro commissary, he was able to maintain the pretense for nearly a week that he had a twin brother, Irish Fitzgerald, who also ate there. Each time our waiter sought to resume a conversation of the day before, Scott would say, perplexed. “You must have been talking to my twin brother, Irish.” The waiter would protest: “But didn’t you tell me yesterday the reason the planets moved around the sun—?” “No, no,” Scott would interrupt, straight-faced. “That was my brother, Irish.” The next day Scott became Irish Fitzgerald: “Are you sure you’re not confusing me with my twin brother Scott?” The waiter would reel away completely bewildered, leaving Scott as delighted as a little boy with the success of his game.
I knew him as a man who, for all his gaiety, his antic humor, his private sorrows—which only later I came to share—could envelop me in infinite tenderness, who seemed to know, almost as with a sixth sense, that behind my banalities and frivolities I was engaged in a desperate struggle the nature of which I was not even sure; and that he would never judge, never censure, but understand and, understanding, cherish and protect me.
There was no way for me to know about his earlier life, the deep emotional relationship he had had with another woman before he met me. I knew only the Scott I knew and he began to exist for me only on the day I met him. All that had happened before was unreal and had never happened.
Yet he continued to probe into my own life. It was not a one-time interrogation: it came at intervals, now in my home, now at his apartment, or as we drove or dined. What of the men I had known before him? How many times had I been in love?
I said, yes, I had been in love before. There was my former husband, Johnny. Scott was enchanted by Major John Gillam, D.S.O., and his endless troubles with the John Graham Company, the reluctant sister from whom he borrowed, his confidence until the very day of his bankruptcy that a fortune would fall into his hands tomorrow. Yes, I had been very much in love with Johnny. “And any others?” Scott asked, half-teasing. The way he asked the question seemed to make it a challenge and I responded to it. I wanted to shock him. “Oh, I’ve had romances,” I said. “You know, I’m an English girl and we’re quite straightforward about such things. If we love a man, we love him.”
“Yes?” said Scott, still half-teasing. “I know all about love among the British upper classes. And as one of Cochran’s Young Ladies I imagine you must have been quite popular. More than one romance?”
We were driving at this moment to lunch at Malibu Beach, perhaps twenty miles from Hollywood. I was at the wheel and so I did not see his face as I replied, rather flippantly, “Why, of course. Eight, if I remember.” I thought eight an interesting number. “There was a titled gentleman, there was a captain of industry, there was—” I chattered on and then, hearing nothing from Scott, I stole a glance at him. He sat looking straight ahead, a set smile on his face, and it came to me that he was not enjoying this. He was shocked. I said, a litde unhappily, “Scott, I’m sorry we got on this. You’re angry.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. And then, almost with asperity, “Tell me, who were they?”
I tried to dismiss the subject. “Oh, this was ages before I met you, Scott, and you know how I exaggerate and anyway it doesn’t have anything to do with you—”
Now he looked at me. “When a man falls in love it is a completely new experience,” he said. “But for a woman it is an additional experience to those she has already had.” I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant. Did this mean that he could not compare me to Zelda but that I would compare him with others?
He was quite silent, then, as I drove I tried to undo the damage. I had been provoking him, I said, I wanted to see how he would react, I was being silly and coquettish, I was teasing him—
Gradually he came back to his original mood. He smiled at me. “It’s all right, Sheilo,” he said, and changed the subject. For a Uttle while we discussed an offer I had received to appear on a half-hour weekly radio show emanating from Chicago which would cut to Hollywood for a five-minute summary of movie news by me. It was a marvellous opportunity. I had been offered a hundred dollars a week; Scott, who was beginning to involve himself in all my activities, advised me to ask for two hundred dollars. I had done so, and the Chicago advertising agency in charge of the account was to make a decision soon.
It was on the way back from Malibu that Scott said, “Tell me about yourself before the stage, Sheilo. What kind of a girl were you when you were growing up?”
“Oh, Scott, I’ve told you—” I began. But it was difficult to evade him. When Scott was after facts, he was relentless. What I had said about the other men apparently had set him off. Where had my people come from? Was Graham a Scotch name? German? Had my father been in business, the professions? What was his full name? “John Lawrence Graham,” I said. I was wretched. “And your mother’s?” “Veronica Roslyn Graham,” I said, feeling even worse. He kept on probing. What sort of woman was my mother? Where was my sister Alicia now? What part of London had I grown up in? What was I like as a child? What school had I gone to—
No sooner had I answered one question than the next one came. I kept up with him as best I could, but suddenly the burden of it all became too much and I burst into tears. I had to bring the car to a halt on the side of the road and I wept. Scott was utterly dismayed. He put his arm around me and exclaimed in alarm, “What is it, what is it? What have I said to hurt you?” He held me close. “I’m sorry, Sheilo, I had no idea—is there something you don’t want to tell me? You needn’t—”
And I blurted it out. I was sobbing almost hysterically. “If you must know, I never went to a real school—I was brought up in an orphanage. I left school when I was fourteen. I come from the slums of London, from the poorest, shabbiest people—I’ve lied and pretended. I’m phony. Oh, Scott, you’ll hate me—my name’s not real, even the pictures you saw aren’t real. I’ni not what you think at all—”
The tears came uncontrollably. I thought, he’ll never want to see me again. I’m drab, drab, all the glamor is vanishing, I’m turning into clay before his eyes. But he held me close to him and rocked me in his arms like a child, back and forth, saying, “There, there, don’t talk any more. I’m sorry. I’m always so curious about everything. Don’t cry.” He took out his handkerchief and dried my tears and made me blow my nose. “It isn’t that bad, really it isn’t,” he said, tenderly. “Please believe me.” And we sat there, parked at the side of the road for a long time, his arm around me, while I told him, trying to catch my breath, unburdening myself of all the guilt, telling the story I had never told anyone. His reaction was not shock xDr distaste, but one of tremendous pity for my childhood. I told him everything: the orphanage and our clipped heads, my experience as a skivy, at Gamage’s, my yearning to better myself, my top-of-the-bus dreams. I told him about my marriage and our desperate finances, the masquerade Johnny and I maintained, my frantic shuttUng back and forth between showgirl and housewife, my turmoil over Cochran, Sir Richard, and the men pursuing me, my endless search for I knew not what—love, security, identity. ... “I wish I could have known you then,” he said, again and again. “I would have taken care of you, you could have come to me.” He spoke with such tenderness that I broke down again. “Yes,” I sobbed, “where were you then? Why weren’t you there? I had no guideposts, I had no one to tell me right and wrong—”
We talked together for a long time. The burden that had been unbearably heavy was lifted at last from my shoulders. There are no words to express the relief I felt now that I need no longer lie to him.
After a little while, he took the wheel and I snuggled next to him and we drove slowly back to Hollywood.
Lost in a dream, I sat on my terrace, looking down on the garlanded Ughts of distant Hollywood. Mr. James Wharton, of the Chicago advertising agency, had written me. Two hundred dollars a week was satisfactory: they were signing a six-month contract, my broadcasts to begin the first Monday in October. But it was not this I thought about now. In my hand I held a poem Scott had written and sent to me. It was a poem for me and about me. I had never read anything so beautiful. I read it again and again, now to myself, now aloud, lingering on the words. He had misspelled my name but he misspelled many words and would continue to do so to the end of his days, and it did not matter. The poem read:
That sudden smile across a room, Was certainly not learned from me
That first faint quiver of a bloom The eyes initial extacy,
Whoever taught you how to page Your loves so sweetly—now as then
I thank him for my heritage
The eyes made bright by other men.
No slumbrous pearl is valued less
For years spent in a rajah’s crown And I should rather rise and bless
Your earliest love than cry him down Whoever wound your heart up knew
His job. How can I hate him when He did his share to fashion you?
A heart made warm by other men.
Some kisses nature doesn’t plan
She works in such a sketchy way The child, the father to the man
Must be instructed how to play What traffic your lips had with mine
Don’t lie in any virgin’s ken I found the oldest, richest wine
On lips made soft by other men.
The lies you tell are epic things
No amateur would every try, Soft little parables with wings,
I know not even God would cry. Let every lover be the last
And whisper, “This is now —not then” The sweet denial of the past
The tale you told to other men.
I’m even glad someone and you
Found it was joyous to rehearse, Made it an art to fade into
The passion of the universe. The world all crowded in an hour,
Textbooks in minutes—that has been Your fate, your wealth, your curious dower,
The things you learned from other men.
The little time you opened up
A window, let me look inside. Gave me the plate, the spoon, the cup,
The very coat of love that died Or seemed to die—for as your hand
Held mine it was alive again
And we were in a lovely land
The world you had from other men.
But when I join the other ghosts
Who lay beside your flashing fire I must believe I’ll drink their toasts
To one who was a sweet desire. And sweet fulfillment—all they found
Was worth remembering. And then I’ll hear us as the wine goes around
A greeting from us other men.
That night I wrote Lord Donegall that I could not marry him. For a moment I had tears in my eyes for my lost dream of being a marchioness. But how could I marry Donegall, being so much in love with Scott?
Published as Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1958).