Paramour. Such a hard, such a cruel word. It haunted me. Each time my anger surged, I tried to calm myself. Yes, I thought, that is Scott, too. Scott the Puritan who lashes himself—and me. Who takes out his frustration on Nunnally and pleads with Cameron to knock him out and plays his pranks, just this side of cruelty, on those he loves.
Had I been more perceptive, I might have had a better understanding of Scott’s struggle in Hollywood, of the dark night in his own soul. But in this first year or so, he hid much from me. He would not be pitied and I had too much respect for him to pry. And it was not easy to pity him: he dazzled me. I was overwhelmed by the excitement he engendered in me, by his infectious enthusiasm, by the deUght he took in opening new horizons for me, by the intense interest he concentrated upon me.
I gave him every thought I had. I turned to him for every judgment, every standard of conduct. I wanted him to teach me, to open to me the intellectual treasures of the world he knew and enjoyed with such zest. What he enjoyed, what he deUghted in, I wanted to enjoy and delight in.
And so, quite without knowing it, I found myself enrolled in the F. Scott Fitzgerald College of One.
It began with a poem.
We were driving back to Malibu from a preview in Hollywood when Scott began to recite:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal—yet, tlo not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bhss. Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair—
I put my hand on his. “I like that, Scott. Say the last line again.” He repeated it. “Who wrote that?” I asked, dreamily. “Keats,” he said. “It’s from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ “
I said, softly, *T think that is the most beautiful line I have ever heard. ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair…’ “
“Would you like to hear it all?” he asked. “I have the book at the house.” When we reached Malibu, we both eagerly searched through his books until we found his volume of Keats. He read the entire poem aloud to me.
He saw how moved I was. “Let me read something else, Sheilo,” he said. “Listen to this. The title is, ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ “ And while the surf rolled endlessly outside our window, Scott read in a voice which, when he wished, had the dramatic timbre of an actor’s:
Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime. We would sit down and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. . . ,
He read on:
Now therefore, while the youthful hue Sits on thy skin like morning dew. And while thy willing soul transpires At every pore with instant fires. Now let us sport us while we may. And now, like amorous birds of prey. Rather at once our time devour, Than languish in his low-chapt power. Let us roll our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball. And tear our pleasures with rough strife Through the iron gates of life: Thus, we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run.
We were both silent when he had finished. Then Scott said, “Andrew Marvell wrote that more than two hundred and fifty years ago.”
I was filled with an overwhelming sense of wonder. That people so long ago should have been as interested in love as I was interested in love! “Sheilo,” said Scott. “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
I said, “Scott, you know I never went past the eighth grade. But I don’t think you really know the tremendous gaps in my knowledge. I was so embarrassed when you and Cameron and Buff were talking about the Thirty Years’ War. I’m English, and you were discussing English history, and I couldn’t join in. That’s why I brought Proust out here—I wanted to prove to myself that I could still become educated.” And I said to him, “Will you tell me what to read? Will you give me a course in poetry?”
His face lit up. “Sheilo, of course!” He was enthusiastic. Neither of us were aware, then, that I was resuming the education that had stopped the day I left the orphanage. For Scott treated his teaching of me—which was finally to grow into a project beyond anything either of us anticipated—as a challenge as exciting as screen writing. He made out careful lists of books and gave me daily reading schedules. I would arrive at the beach house to discover half a dozen books on my desk. He had gone through them and made scores of notes to help me. On the margin of one page he wrote, “Skip this—boring.” On another: “Read this carefully, then read the marked pages in Plutarch’s Lives. The two taken together—Mat-t±iew Arnold and Plutarch—will give you a good picture of the times.” On the margin of Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes,” I found, “When we come to read the Fifth Tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron —one hundred magnificent short stories written nearly six centuries ago—you’ll see where Keats got his idea for these lines.” Again, it was as it had been with Proust: what had been only names mentioned in the conversation of Randolph ChurchUl and A. P. Herbert, Eddie Mayer and Dorothy Parker and Bob Benchley, suddenly took on the reality of living human beings—men and women who in their time had toiled over manuscripts and hunted an elusive word.
A new routine began for us. I set aside three hours each day to do the reading he assigned me. Each evening we discussed what I had read. Scott quizzed me: I answered his questions. Scott was a teacher. To be asked to explain was like a tonic to him, and I was athirst for everything he could tell me. “We’ll begin from scratch,” he said. “We must first create a fagade for you so that you can handle yourself in company—at least you’ll know the general subject if it comes up. Then we will go into detail.”
He had always been interested in education, he told me. He felt most people stopped learning when they left college because they had not been taught properly, “The object of education is to provide you with a key to knowledge,” he explained. But most people on leaving college, threw the key away. “Only those who are eager for it should have a college education. The schools are neglecting their most important responsibility: to make education interesting, to make you love and enjoy it, to apply it to your own life after you leave school.” Someday, he said, he’d like to write a book on the subject.
My reading, as outlined by Scott, was anything but haphazard. He devoted hours to the job of working out schedules for me. When I read Shelley’s poems, I read them with Andre Maurois Ariel —the biography of the poet—on the table. I had an assignment sheet on which Scott had written: “How to learn from a Frenchman about an exiled Englishman (by an American).” It specified the poems I was to read after reading selected chapters in the biography, so that I would know the genesis of each poem.
The same procedure was followed with Byron. Now I had Byron’s collected works. The Oxford Book of English Verse, and other cross-references which Scott had read and marked for me. I had to read Keats in the 1910 Oxford Edition: The Poetical Works of John Keats, and here Scott separated the good from the bad. In the margin of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” he wrote, “This is the bad form as edited by Leigh Hunt.” Then: “See below,”—and here he had the poem edited to his satisfaction.
I remember looking up from my work one day to say, “I’m student one in your college—the F. Scott Fitzgerald College of One.” Scott’s fancy was caught by my words. “You do well and I’ll give you a diploma,” he said. I thought, I finally shall get one, after all.
I studied the Elizabethan poets—not only Marvell but Herrick, Donne, Jonson, men who so long ago had written so feelingly about love—and I took great joy in surprising Scott. I was the girl who could memorize verses faster than anyone in the orphanage. When Scott dropped in I’d say, “Sit down, Scott—” and I’d reel off an entire poem that he had assigned me to read only two days before. He sat there listening, quite pleased; his problems at the studio, his concern over Scottie, the upsetting letters from Zelda, all forgotten. “1 like the truth of poetry,” I told him. “I think it’s the finest way of speaking the truth.” He liked that.
Our reading stimulated me. I wanted to turn everything into words. Walking with him in the late afternoon, we stopped to watch the sun sink slowly into the Pacific. It was a moment of utter peacefulness, the sea calm, and I was moved. “Oh Scott, that sunset is so beautiful! Just like molten gold—”
He said, sharply, “Please be quiet. You don’t have to say that.”
I was hurt. Was my observation too commonplace? But I had no original observations of my own. I had to copy those in use. I told him so. “If I’m full of cliches, Scott, you mustn’t be angry with me. I need them— they’re my little stepping stones in conversation. I feel safe with them.” And I said, “I come to you, I open myself completely to you—you shouldn’t lash me with a whip like that.”
He apologized. He was very contrite. “I’m sorry, Sheilo, I was short with you and it wasn’t fair of me. I won’t do it again.” Never again did he make me feel ashamed of my inadequacy. He encouraged me, rather, to speak up if I did not know. Before, if one used a word I did not understand, or made an allusion that was obscure to me, I remained silent, instead of asking simply, “What does that mean?” I thought it disgraceful to show my ignorance. Scott made me feel it was disgraceful not to speak up when I didn’t know.
He taught me respect for books. Wlien he found me folding down a comer of a page, to keep my place in a book, he scolded me. “I’ll make bookmarks for you,” he said, and he did. I was scolded again when he discovered that I sometimes skipped to the end of a book to learn how the story came out. “The author spent a great deal of time writing this book as he wanted it read,” he said. “You must have respect for him. Read it the way he wrote it to be read.”
We moved to current events. He brought me Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Das Kapital by Marx, and carefully went over them with me, chapter by chapter, explaining, clarifying, interpreting, “Scott, I feel as though you’re pushing back the cuticle that’s grown over my mind all these years,” I said. “It’s painful but if you don’t do it now, it will never go back.”
He prepared a full curriculum. I would study Literature Through the Ages, Politics, Modem and Ancient History, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Music. In each course I would not only read the books assigned to me, with the required cross-references, but also novels and poems Scott chose for me dealing with the subject.
I began to have opinions. When I could not accept Scott’s interpretations, I challenged him. We actually debated with each other. He knew I was honest with him—and for the first time I was with a man I did not need to impress, nor agree with for ulterior motives of my own. Scott had put it simply: “Never say what you don’t believe just to please someone.” This was an intellectual freedom I had never known before. I gloried in it. I thought, where have I been all these years? This is as exhilarating, as exciting, as dancing or making love or being admired. I felt the golden haze again. Was this what I have been really thirsting for so long—to know? To use my mind?
And Scott understood. Until now I had felt I had to be beautiful: people would accept me for no other reason. The fear that I would be discarded when I grew old and lost my beauty hung over me like a frightening shadow. Now Scott held out new hope. He made me feel he was grooming me to become more interesting with the years, to become an attractive, charming, interesting lady with whom everyone would want to be. “Always remember, Sheilah. Once you know the pattern of history you will stop being apprehensive. You won’t be an unattached unit in the world. You will be at home. You will have a place in life.”
It was so warming and reassuring!
Published as Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1958).