Back in Encino, Scott tried to follow a careful regimen. It was too much for him. He had no contract; there were no screen-writing jobs; there was no money coming in. The difficult months began. Before the year was over Scott and I were to have our most anguished times together.
I was never sure when he drank, Scott, sober, could be so ebullient that one could not tell. Now, casting about, speaking one moment of getting into his novel, the next of whipping out a short story that might sell for $3,000, as he had done in the past, he grew increasingly nervous. The Hanover episode had shaken him. He wrote endless letters to Scottie at Vassar, to his agent, Harold Ober, to his editors in New York, asking if reprints of his book might not be put out to bring in revenue. I suspected that he was drinking and I became angry with him for concealing it. Gin has the faintest of odors. I would maneuver myself as close to him as possible to see if I could detect it, and when I did, I could not contain myself. “Are you drinking?” I demanded. “I’m sure you’re drinking.”
“That is none of your business,” he replied stiffly.
“I hate you when you drink,” I burst out. “You’re not the person I like then. Why do you drink? When I fell in love with you you weren’t drinking. Why are you doing it now?”
“I’m not drinking,” he retorted, and walked away.
One afternoon when he left for the barber I went through his bureau drawers. I found eleven empty gin bottles. On his return I accused hun. “You said you’re not drinking—how do you explain these bottles!”
I know now that I was doing all the wrong things. I was like a bull in a china shop. I had no idea how to handle him; my reaction was always anger.
His features seemed to crowd to the center of his face. “What’s that to you?” he demanded. He strode to a cupboard, stuck his hand into a far corner and brought out a bottle he had hidden there. As I watched, he un-scfewed the top and, putting the bottle to his mouth, drank heavily from it as he had done in front of Dr. Hoffman.
I began to shout at him as I had never dared before. “Why don’t you stop it? Any idiot can laugh at you! Why are you doing this? You don’t know how silly you are! You’re a good writer, why are you wasting your talent? You’ll die. You’ll drop dead. You’ll have a stroke. You’ll be through in Hollywood, through for good—then what will you do?”
He cast a glance of deep injury at me, turned, and made his way to his room. I thought, / will do something about this. In Chicago, Arnold Gingrich had told me of a remarkable new pill he had used on another Esquire writer whom he had tried to discourage from drinking. I had only to drop it surreptitiously in Scott’s drink: he would become so ill that even the thought of liquor would nauseate him. There was only one drawback. Liquor, treated with the pill turned blue in a few minutes. I would have to work swiftly.
I planned it carefully. Each night after the eleven p.m. news—these were the days of the Spanish Civil War, which Scott followed with great interest—he usually came into the kitchen where he kept a bottle of gin in the cupboard for a nightcap. One week-end I bought six bottles of gin and secreted them in the kitchen. A few minutes after eleven o’clock I emptied one to the level in Scott’s bottle, dropped in a pill and substituted it for his bottle. Then I waited, nervously, in the dining room. Minutes passed—but no Scott. I dashed to the cupboard: the gin had become a rich, laundry blue. I poured it into the sink, swiftly prepared a second, and dashed back to my hiding place. Again, no Scott. In the cupboard the second bottle was slowly turning blue. Almost in panic now lest Scott walk in on me, I rushed through the same procedure with a third bottle. And so, in the next half hour, dashing in and out of the kitchen, I used up all six—and still Scott had not appeared. Now only his bottle remained. There was nothing to do but drop a pill into it. Perhaps he’d show up before it changed color; perhaps he’d take his drink in the dark and notice nothing. I went to bed.
Late that night Scott came into my room, glass in hand. “Funny,” he said puzzled. “This gin is blue.”
Suddenly I was terrified at what I had done. “Don’t drink it, Scott! Maybe it’s poisoned!”
He looked at me and tossed it down with one gulp, then stumbled to bed. All night I remained awake, tiptoeing fearfully into his room every few. minutes to see if he still breathed. Strangely enough the pUls had no effect on him then or later.
He tried to take himself in hand. “I’ve started my novel,” he announced expansively one April afternoon. He had hired a secretary—Frances Kroll, a slender dark-eyed girl just out of college. When she came for her interview she found Scott in his faded, slate-blue bathrobe, the inevitable pencil over his ear. He questioned her gently, quizzically, asking with a smile which belied his words, “How do I know I can trust you?” He explained that he was writing a novel about Hollywood. No one must know about it. “I don’t trust the secretaries in the studios,” he said. “They’re always telling each other what they’re working on. This must be kept absolutely secret. If you take the job I don’t want you talking to other writers’ secretaries.” She promised. He looked at her thoughtfully. “I want to put your name down, Miss Kroil,” he said. “Would you get me my notebook in that top bureau drawer?” She opened the drawer to see the notebook lying next to a half dozen bottles of gin neatly placed side by side. When she looked up, Scott was watching her intently. His eyes asked, “What do you think of that?” Frances, who assumed the liquor had been stocked for a party, obviously thought nothing of it. She had passed her test and Scott hired her.
Each day, now, he dictated for a few hours. This was one stage of his writing process. He preferred to dictate dialogue and write narration in longhand. Though he was still drinking, he seemed to have himself under control. He w^s trying to get along on one beer a day, he explained. I tried to become resigned, but I could not. I managed to get him to agree that if he became too drunk I was to take away his car keys and wallet. I did not want him driving in that condition, nor did I want him distributing fifty-dollar bills to waiters as he had done in the past. There was nothing else I could do about the situation. This was part of the package. If I wanted Scott, I had to take him as he was. Perhaps, as he got deeper into his novel he would find less need to drink.
It was not to be so. As the days passed, his T.B. flared up. With it came the steady fever, accompanied by night sweats and a hacking cough. He put himself m care of a physician. Dr. Lawrence Wilson, and hired a nurse; yet he drank, not beer now, but gin, as much, finally, as a pint a day. Once a week Frances Kroll gathered the empty bottles, placed them in a burlap bag in the back of her car when she drove home, and under cover of darkness tossed them into Coldwater Canyon. Scott did not want the bottles showing up in the rubbish at Belly Acres.
One morning, after a feverish, impossible night, he woke to find himself unable to move his arms. He was entangled in his pajamas, but in his drugged, half-sleeping state he knew only that his arms refused to obey his command. “I can’t move my arms!” he gasped. The nurse took in the situation. “Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald!” she exclaimed in a tragic voice. “Has it come to this?” Scott stared at her, frightened. “What do you mean?” “Has all that alcohol caught up with you? It’s paralyzed you!”
Scott was almost overcome. She must call Dr. Wilson instantly. “Good work,” the physician told her. “Just fine. Say I’ll be there at once.”
While they waited, the nurse slowly disentangled Scott and he began gingerly trying his arms, discovering to his enormous relief that he could use them. When Dr. Wilson arrived, he examined Scott with great care, then sat down and talked with him.
“Scott,” he said, “there is no doubt this was due to the alcohol. You’re lucky you got out of it so easily this time. You can continue drinking and it may never happen again. But, then again—it can. One drink might do it. And this time it could paralyze you for life.”
Scott said belligerently, “I’d just blow my brains out then.”
“Ah, it’s not that easy,” said Dr. Wilson. “Who’s going to hold the gun?” he rose. “The Good Lord tapped you on the shoulder, Scott. Let it be a warning to you.”
Scott seemed to take the experience to heart. Months later he wrote Scottie that he had suffered “a nervous breakdown of such severity that for a time it threatened to paralyze both arms—”
The warning halted him only temporarily. Soon Frances was once more driving home each week with a burlap bag of bottles. I could not stand the situation. Despite my determination to be resigned, despite my promise not to make a scene, I alternately raged and wept. Sometimes for days I would not see him.
At four o’clock one morning Scott telephoned me. He was alone. Frances had not been there all week, he said. He had told her not to come unless he called her. He had been drinking around the clock. Now he had to get out of it. “I’m really going to sober up, Sheilo,” he said. “I mean it. I’ve called the nurse. But I’ve taken so many pills, I might fall asleep before she gets here. Would you come over and let her in?”
I dressed and in the chill darkness drove the twenty miles to Encino. Scott was in bed. I sat on the edge of his bed and talked with him. He was very gentle. He had given all of us a hard time in recent weeks. “Dearest, I’m sorry I woke you up and made you come over.”
I held his hand. “I’m so glad you’re going to stop, Scott. It’s really no good, your going on Hke this—you’re not helping yourself. You’re only making things worse.”
He nodded. “I know.” He was grateful that I was staying with him until the nurse came. He did not want to be alone. We talked until the birds woke and began singing in the magnolia trees outside his window. It was nearly six o’clock. “I’ll go downstairs and make you some breakfast,” I said. “She ought to be here very soon now.”
I passed his dresser. My photograph stood on it. My eyes dropped to the bottom drawer. It was ajar and I saw a pistol, half covered with a handkerchief. Scott had told me about his gun. He had had one in Baltimore when he lived far out of the city. There were many wealthy homes in the Valley: Scott suspected the presence of prowlers and he liked the assurance of a weapon.
As I passed the dresser, almost in a reflex action— He’s been drinking, he shouldn’t have a gun —I stooped and extracted the pistol from the drawer.
“Give me that gun!” It was Scott. I turned just as he flung himself on me. We both crashed to the floor. “Give me that gun!” he shouted. I was momentarily dazed, but I clutched it tightly. “No, no, you can’t have it. You might—”
We struggled wildly. Scott was like a madman. He grabbed at the gun, cursing as he pried my fingers loose. I gasped in pain. My fingers had been caught in the trigger guard and he had pulled them away so violently the flesh tore. Blind rage flooded me. With a tremendous effort I jerked the gun away and hurled it at the opposite wall. “Take it!” I screamed. “Shoot yourself, you son of a bitch! See if I care!” I was hysterical. I pulled back my right hand and slapped him with all my might on the side of his face. It stunned him. I had no idea what I was doing. “I don’t care what happens to you! You’re not worth saving, you’re not worth anything!” I scrambled to my feet. I screamed at him, “I didn’t puU myself out of the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you!” I rushed downstairs and into my car and drove home. I drove recklessly over the Canyon, sobbing to myself. “I’ll never see him again. Never. I don’t care. I can’t take it any more. I just can’t!”
But overnight my anger evaporated. How could I remain at odds with Scott? He didn’t know what he was doing. He was drunk. And I had gone there to comfort him. How could I have said such terrible things to him? By noon I could not help myself: I telephoned him. The nurse answered. “Mr. Fitzgerald left this morning for New York.”
As swiftly as my anger had vanished it returned. He had abandoned me. Gone to Zelda. All right, I thought. See if I care. CecU B. DeMille had invited me to go to Omaha for the premiere of Union Pacific, starring Barbara Stanwyck. I was to share his private car with Miss Stanwyck and others of the cast. I had said no. Now I accepted the invitation.
The trip acted as a great salve to my self-esteem. In Omaha I was feted, interviewed and treated like a celebrity. I thought, I have a career of my own, I’ve neglected it for Scott for too long. Let him go where he wants.
But I could not wait to return to Hollywood. When I arrived there, Scott was still away. It was nearly two weeks before he returned to Encino. Then the maid he hired was evasive. He was busy; he was writing; he could not come to the phone—
“You mean he doesn’t want to talk to me?”
She said, reluctantly, yes.
Now I pursued him. After refusing for two days to phone me back, he relented. His voice was cool and impersonal. “I’m returning your call because I remembered how miserable you are when people don’t call you back,” he said. “I didn’t want to put you through that.”
“Scott,” I said, “I want to see you. Can I come to see you?”
On his balcony overlooking the rose garden with its little white pickets, I apologized to him. “I’m sorry I slapped you,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean all those awful things I said. You know that, don’t you, Scott?”
He was quite sober. He said, “We won’t talk about it any more.” There was a pause. Neither of us spoke. Then, almost slyly, he remarked, “That gun was loaded.”
My face registered such shock that he burst into laughter and the barrier between us was broken. He proceeded to tell me in great detail, and with an impish gleam which led me to wonder how much was true, a long, bizarre story. Furious with me, he had packed, flown to Asheville, and taken Zelda to Cuba—to get away from everything. “I didn’t want to take her out because I knew I was drunk, but I did.” In Havana, Zelda was in a state of religious fervor, endlessly praying or reading the Bible. She refused to leave their hotel. He wandered out one afternoon and by nightfall unaccountably found himself in a little courtyard watching a cockfight. There had been intense betting all around him. Then the fight began. He was horrified. “One cock was slashing the other to bits and those men were egging them on,” he said. ‘T couldn’t bear it.” He vaulted the guardrail into’ the pit and tried to separate the birds. This precipitated a riot. The spectators pounced on him and he escaped with a painful beating. When he finally found his way to the hotel, Zelda was sitting on the bed, in the darkness, praying.
They returned to New York and registered at the Algonquin Hotel, managed by our Malibu landlord, Frank Case. “We raised so much hell there”—Scott’s macabre sense of humor was at work. He fought with a waiter, there were complaints by guests, and he woke up one morning in the alcoholic ward at Bellevue. Somehow he managed to get his clothes and sneak out. Zelda had gone back to the sanitarium. Scott signed himself into Doctors Hospital, sobered up and returned to California.
I simply did not know how much to believe.
During this difficult summer and autumn of 1939 there were considerable periods of time when Scott had himself in hand. Then I was utterly content. In addition to making voluminous notes for his novel, he turned out short stores for Esquire, At the same tune he worked on my education. He sent Frances KroU into the city to scour secondhand bookshops for the editions he preferred of Chaucer, Cervantes, and Melville. The reading lists expanded. Now in the margins of my books, he translated foreign phrases, identified proper names, explained allusions. Thus, in a volume of Balzac, LucuUus was underlined, and in the margin Scott wrote: “gave great feasts in ancient Rome.” In similar fashion:
Panurge—’character in Rabelais. We’ll read his great work, Gargantua and Pantagruel next;” Carlist—”supporter of a monarchic coup in Spain;” De Viris illus-tribus—”about illustrious men;” Bossuet—”A famous preacher of the 18th century.” Beside a paragraph in Matthew Arnold’s “Essay on Wordsworth;” “This is Arnold at his best, absolutely without preachment,” and again, “Pretty daring for this old boy!!”
One day he appeared, holding something behind his back. “When I was httle,” he began impressively, “if I was bad my mother called me a bad Brownie. If I was good, I was a good Brownie. If I was very good”—with a flourish he produced a gaily wrapped package—”she gave me a lolly pop. Here is a lollypop for doing your Darwin so well.” We had spent the night before discussing Origin of Species. I unwrapped the gift to find a volume of Bleak House. “This is the best of Dickens,” Scott said. “I know you’ll enjoy it.” Thereafter, each time I completed a difficult assignment—Plato’s Republic, for example—I received as a lollypop an easy-to-read book: Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, James Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. For every three of Plutarch’s Lives I read and could discuss in detail with him, I received a novel by Dickens. By now I owned many books. With scissors, glue pot, and a roll of heavy brown wrapping paper, Scott made book jackets for me. On the spine of each he lettered in India ink, “ENCINO EDITION,” and under it, the book title. I was very proud of my Encino Edition. There was none rarer anywhere.
Now, in the autumn of 1939, Scott began putting his notes together for his novel, The Last Tycoon. Collier’s was interested in printing it before book publication. If they bought the novel, they were prepared to run eight, ten, or even twelve installments—-depending on its length. At $2,500 an installment this could mean as much as $30,000 to Scott—money he needed desperately, for since his Wanger assignment he had earned nothing save a few hundred dollars from Esquire. Kenneth Littauer, the editor at Collier’s, wanted to see at least 15,000 words before making a decision.
Nursing his T.B., Scott wrote mainly in bed. Frances bought him a writing board and, sitting up in his bathrobe, he worked furiously, the yellow sheets piling up on the floor on either side. Dr. Wilson, making frequent visits to give him vitamin injections and medication, marveled at Scott’s power of concentration. The physician would climb the stairs to his room, pick his way through the paper on the floor, and sit down while Scott continued to write busily, completely impervious to anything around him. After perhaps five minutes he would look up. “Oh, heUo,” he’d say. “Been waiting long?” “No,” Dr. Wilson would reply. “Only a minute or two.” Then Scott would put down his pencil and launch into a long discussion, ranging from Hitler’s blitzkrieg in Poland to the role of medicine in the modem novel.
The pages mounted. Each evening Scott read me what he had written that day. “That’s terribly exciting,” I’d say. “What happens next?” He would refuse to tell me. He did not believe in talking a story out beforehand. “You lose the freshness,” he said.
Unexpectedly, I received word from John Wheeler m New York: that he had booked me for a two-week lecture tour on behalf of the North American Newspaper Alliance. In November, I was to visit major cities in which my column appeared, so my readers could meet Sheilah Graham and hear first hand the truth about Hollywood. Scott approved the idea, as he encouraged any project he thought would help me. I welcomed it, too, not only because I would receive two hundred dollars a lecture, but because Louella Parsons was also going on a tour through the country. I would be keeping pace with the dean of Hollywood columnists. I painstakingly prepared a draft of my lecture and showed it to Scott for his opinion. He read it, frowning. “You don’t believe this, do you?”
Entitled “Now It Can Be Told,” it was a gossipy, be-hind-the-scene recital in which I painted a conventional picture of Hollywood, glamor city of the world, related the CindereUa stories of the stars as invented by press agents, and told a few scandalous tales.
“No I don’t, Scott—but it’s what they expect to hear.”
“If you don’t believe it, don’t say it.” He studied my speech again. “This reaUy isn’t very good. I can’t let you do a lecture like this.” He became the schoolmaster. *’Now, who is the most important man on the Hollywood scene?”
“The writer?” I ventured.
“No. The writer can be destroyed by the actor and the actor can be destroyed by the director. We start with this thesis—that the director is the most important man in Hollywood. Let’s give your audience an honest picture of what goes on. Making films is a serious business and the people who make them are serious people who are prepared to meet their responsibility if moviegoers will only demand it of them.”
He sat down and edited my speech. As usual, before he was finished he had written a completely new lecture. We read it together. “Now, isn’t this better? Isn’t this what you really beheve?”
I agreed. “Good,” said Scott. He gave it to Frances to type. “Don’t memorize it, but study it until you almost know it by heart.”
Overnight my lecture became a joint project. I brought home books dealing with the latest film techniques, memorized the names of Oscar winners of the last decade, and even learned the parts of a movie camera, in case I should be asked. One evening I returned to Encino to find a raised wooden platform with a music stand perched on it, set up in the middle of the living room. Scott had borrowed the stand from Frances’ brother, Herman, an orchestra conductor, and had constructed the platform from packing cases he found in the cellar. “We’re going to rehearse you, Sheilo,” he said. “We’ll find out if you can project, too. We don’t want any ladies in the rear piping up to say that they can’t hear you.”
At Encino the hving room led to the dining room, which led to the kitchen, which opened in turn on to the back porch, creating a straight vista some sixty feet long. Scott placed three chairs on the porch and seated Frances, the maid, and himself. I was to take my place on the platform. “Go ahead,” Scott called out. “Let’s have your lecture. Be sure we can hear you back here.”
I stood on the platform, my script on the music stand, and began. After the first sentence I broke into a nervous giggle. “Stop that!” Scott’s voice was sharp. “You mustn’t even think that way. You are an authority on Hollywood, You have something to say and your audience has come to hear it. Don’t be apologetic. You’re Sheilah Graham. Now, begin again.”
I read my lecture with my eyes glued to the page.
“Look up, Sheila,” came his voice. “There are people seated in front of you. You’re a pretty girl, and they want to see your face: look up now and then.”
I did. I tried a few jokes Scott had salted among the paragraphs. My audience of three laughed politely. When I came to the end, there was loud applause from the back porch.
Scott put up his hand. I nodded to him. “Yes?”
He stood up. “Miss, I’d like to know—is it true that Shirley Temple is really a midget?”
I thought seriously, as Scott had advised me. Never laugh at any question, however foolish. “I have heard those rumors, sir,” I replied. “But they are not true. I can assure you from personal knowledge that Shirley is a bright, normal little girl who happens to be extremely intelligent for her age.”
Scott said, “Thank you, Miss Graham,” and sat down.
I went off on my tour. Scott’s parting gift was his briefcase in which to keep my notes. “For good luck,” he said, kissing me. I did not tell him that, facing thousands of miles of air travel, I had made a will leaving everything I possessed to him.