That scott was not drinking—that Dr. Wilson, dropping in on him unexpectedly, could always assure me that Scott had taken no alcohol—was the overwhelming fact of that idyllic summer and autumn of 1940. Almost as overwhelming to me was my discovery that I was in Scott’s novel.
He had never told me that he was writing about me— that Stahr, the central character of the book, would fall in love with an English girl who was based on me. Her name was Kathleen. She spoke like me. She used my phrases. Telling Scott how I had sold tooth brushes at Gamage’s, I had said, “I have nice teeth for an English girl.” Now Kathleen, in The Last Tycoon, made that observation to Stahr. When Scott read to me, night after^ night, what he had written during the day, I began to realize that the love affair between Kathleen and Stahr— the very heart of the novel—was our love affair.
I had the weirdest sense of unreality as Scott read to me. Was this not our encounter at the Writers Guild dance, as magically recreated by Scott.
... he saw Kathleen sitting in the middle of a long white table alone.
Immediately things changed. As he walked toward her, the people shrank back against the walls till they were only murals; the white tables lengthened and became an altar where the priestess sat alone. Vitality welled up in him, and he could have stood a long time across the table from her, looking and smiling. 241
The incumbents of the table were crawling back—Stahr and Kathleen danced.
When she came close, his several visions of her blurred; she was momentarily unreal. Usually a girl’s skull made her real, but not this time—Stahr continued to be dazzled as they danced out along the floor—to the last edge, where they stepped through a mirror into another dance with new dancers whose faces were familiar but nothing more. In this new region he talked, fast and urgently.
“What’s your name?”
“Kathleen Moore,” he repeated.
“I have no telephone, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“When will you come to the studio?”
“It’s not possible. Truly.”
“Why isn’t it? Are you married?”
“You’re not married?”
“No, nor never have been. But then I may be.”
“Someone there at the table.”
“No.” She laughed. “What curiosity.”
But she was deep in it with him, no matter what the words were. Her eyes invited him to a romantic communion of unbeUevable intensity. As if she realized this, she said, frightened:
“I must go back now. I promised this dance.”
“I don’t want to lose you. Couldn’t we have lunch or dinner?”
“It’s impossible.” But her expression helplessly amended the words to, “It’s just possible. The door is still open by a chink, if you could squeeze past. But quickly —so httle time.”
“I must go back,” she repeated aloud. Then she dropped her arms, stopped dancing, and looked at him, a laughing wanton.
“When I’m with you, I don’t breathe quite right,” she said.
She turned, picked up her long dress, and stepped back through the mirror. Stahr followed until she stopped near her table.
“Thank you for the dance,” she said, “and now really, good night.”
Then she nearly ran.
How he had taken our meeting at the Coconut Grove, and our dance a few nights later at the Clover Club, where Eddie and Jonah sat patiently at the table waiting for us—how he had taken these and worked magic on them!
Listening, I was deeply moved, thinking, is this how he saw me? Is this what I mean to him? I was proud and humble that he should invest me with such beauty, such desirability, such power to make him vital and whole. And I was embarrassed, as if Scott had nakedly revealed a part of himself that even I should not know.
Then I made another discovery. Stahr is a lonely man, still in love with his dead wife, Minna. When he first sees Kathleen she vanishes before he can speak. He sets out in search of her, only to discover the girl he thinks is Kathleen is really someone else. So, I recalled, it had been at Benchley’s party, when Scott returned, hoping to find me—and instead had found Tala Birrell. When, in the novel, Stahr does find Kathleen, she is standing in the doorway of her house:
There she was—face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Mimia’s face—the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs…
Was this how he saw me? If I was Kathleen, Minna was Zelda. How much I must have reminded him of Zelda! Was this how I had appeared that night, when he stood at my door saying good-by, and I had not wanted to let him go and I had asked him in, and he had come in?
Had he—has he—been reliving with me his life with Zelda? Once, I recalled, he had said that I looked like her. I had not thought so. I listened to his reading, caught up in a waking dream, trying to understand the mystery of love, of the yearning that draws two people to become one.
When he finished reading as far as he had written, I said, “Scott, I think that is so beautiful—”
He put the manuscript down and looked at me for a long moment. He smiled and said, softly, “Sheilo—”
Wordlessly, I went into the circle of his arms. I possessed something precious and irreplaceable in this man, and I loved him deeply.
Strange, I thought. The people in Hollywood do not exist save as paragraphs in my column. There is no reality but Scott and me. We see no one; we do not entertain; we do not go out; we live in a world bounded by our apartments and Schwab’s drugstore. Seldom was our routine broken—once when I went to Dallas for the world premiere of The Westerner, and again when Scott spent several weeks adapting Emlyn Williams’ play, The Light of Heart, for Darryl Zanuck.
By October, he was again reading The Last Tycoon to me. I discovered new, and fascinating, parallels between our story and that of Stahr and Kathleen. I had been engaged to a marquess: Kathleen had been engaged to a king. I was being educated by Scott: in the book, Kathleen had been educated by the king. At one point Stahr remarks to her, “You know a lot, don’t you?” She replies, “I never went to a university, if that’s what you mean. But the man I told you about knew everything and he had a passion for educating me. He made out schedules and made me take courses at the Sorbonne and go to museums.”
It became a delightful game for me, waiting each night, to hear more of the story Scott wove from us into the novel he hoped would restore him to his rightful place among his contemporaries.
I did not hear Scott return. “I’m going to Schwab’s for cigarettes,” he had said, twenty minutes before. It was a Thursday afternoon in November, a dull, gray day, and I was curled up on the sofa, Hstening to the massed voices lifted in the stirring chorus of Bach’s cantata Singet dem Herrn. Then I looked up. Scott was there, gray and trembling, letting himself slowly into his easy chair. Alarmed, I asked, “Is anything the matter, Scott?” I hurried to turn down the music. He lit a cigarette carefully before he spoke. “I almost fainted at Schwab’s,” he said. “Everything started to fade.” He had never felt quite like that before. “I think I’d better see Dr. Wilson in the morning.”
“Scott, I wish you would,” I said, thinking, Scott and his hypochondria. I tried never to comment on his aches and pains because he was so quick to resent my concern.
In the morning he drove downtown to Dr. Wilson’s office. He was back an hour later, his face solemn— He said, “I had a cardiac spasm.”
A great pang of fear shot through me. “Is that a heart attack?”
Scott was vague. “No—”
“Did he say you must stay in bed?”
“No,” said Scott. He lied, and I did not know. “But I must take it easy. Stairs are out.”
I was relieved. Dr. Wilson had not put him to bed. I had read about heart attacks. If you had one, you were sent to bed at once and kept there, flat on your back. Yet Scott must take care of himself. His apartment was on the third floor, mine on the first. “All right,” I said. “You move in with me right away.” Frances and I would look for a suitable ground-floor apartment nearby. Until then, he would stay with me.
Scott was a difficult patient. As had been the case in New York, he made me promise I would not talk to the doctor alone. “I don’t want him telling you anything he wouldn’t tell me,” he explained. On Dr. Wilson’s visits, I was not to take him aside. I never questioned Dr. Wilson about the condition of Scott’s heart.
In late November we attended a preview at Metro. As Scott brought his little car to a halt in the parking lot, I suddenly recalled that Metro’s projection room was at the top of a long flight of steps. Scott, I knew, would disdain any show of weakness: I had to do something— and I did it. As I got out of the car I cried sharply, “Oh!” and almost fell. I held my ankle. “I’ve turned it, Scott,” I groaned. I played my role well. He helped me as I limped to the stairs and I went up them slowly, one at a time, Scott holding my arm as I rested on each step. We took about five minutes to reach the top. If Scott knew that I pretended for his sake, he never let me know.
Most of the day he took it easy, remaining in bed, writing steadily, keeping Frances busy typing his material. Then he labored over the typed pages with infinite care, revising, rewriting, polishing. He was in excellent spirits. At night I lay awake, thinking. If only the novel would go on forever! I had never seen him so content before. And then I worried. If it was a success, would he drink, to celebrate? If it was a failure, would he begin to drink again, to forget?
Sometimes, however high in spirits, he became unexpectedly, unpredictably, irritable. Once a week I brought fresh flowers to the apartment, filling the vases mdustri-ously as I had done at MaUbu. One afternoon, as I came in with an armful of flowers from the florist, Scott said, sharply, “Take those flowers away!”
I stared at him. He said, stiU sharply: “I hate cut flowers!’*
“But at the beach—” I began.
“I couldn’t stand them there, either.”
I was perplexed, but I said nothing. I thought, and all that time at the beach he never said anything.
One afternoon, two weeks before Christmas, I returned from a shopping spree ecstatic over three dresses I had bought. “They’re so heavenly!” I described them in detail. “Of course, they’re terribly expensive, but they’re worth every penny—” I prattled on and he snapped, “Oh, stop talking about it! I don’t want to hear about your dresses and what they cost!”
I was taken aback. A moment later he apologized but I had begun to thmk. I had bought the dresses with my own money. Why should he be annoyed? There had been such anguish in his voice—the words seemed to burst forth despite himself. I asked myself, was it money? Was Scott in financial difficulties? Until he became completely well again, he could not accept any screen-writing jobs. Had he enough money to keep going until he finished his novel? I questioned Frances. And Frances, who paid all of Scott’s biUs, admitted reluctantly that he had only enough funds to carry him for three months. He would have been in even greater straits had he not had several weeks’ work on The Light of Heart.
That night I made notes for a letter I would send, when the time came, to Maxwell Perkins, Scott’s editor at Scribner’s. I had nearly $3,000 saved. I would give $2,000 to Scott, but in such a fashion that he would not know it came from me. I would give it on condition that Scribner’s advance $3,000, making $5,000 in aU, the entire sum to come from Scribner’s in the form of an advance to Scott so that he could finish the first draft of his novel.
My notes for the letter to Perkins read:
Scott never to know, even if book brings back millions. He would never forgive me. If book a success, naturally I’ll be happy to get the money back; if not, that is all right, too. Important thing is for him to finish this book. No mention ever to be made of this correspondence—he’d be too humiliated, and might take: to drink again, just to prove something. No drinking since last December—more than 12 months now. Been working steadily on book for five months, in addition to what done last year. It would be criminal for him to be forced to go back to a studio which destroys his confidence and may mean he’ll never finish book. But all money must come from you. Query: Is it best to wait unta Scott asks you for an advance? Or offer it before, in case he doesn’t ask? Some tactful way of giving him $1 000 a month for five months. This is better than a lump sum. Use my $2,000 first, so if anything goes wrong, I inform you and you needn’t send the rest. At worst I lose two, you lose three. At best, a good novel, Scott reclaims his position as writer and person, and we get our money back. My honest conviction this will be best of all his writing.
Scott struggled with The Last Tycoon. He was in the middle of a difficult chapter. The solution he sought would not come. He had been in bed all morning, it was mid-afternoon, he wanted to dictate, and Frances was not there. He was fretful.
I sat on the edge of his bed and stroked his forehead and pushed the hair out of his eyes. “You go to sleep now, and I promise you that when you wake up, Frances will be here and things will seem a lot better.” I sat there talking quietly until he became drowsy and fell asleep. I tiptoed out and closed the door behind me.
I phoned Frances. “Please come over. Scott needs you.”
He slept for about two hours while I worked on my column. “Sheilo—” he called. When I came into his room he was like a new man, yawning and stretching. “I’ve had a wonderful sleep,” he said. Frances had arrived and waited, ready for dictation.
They were closeted about half an hour; then she left. Scott set up his writing board and began to write energetically. Dr. Wilson was due in an hour to take a cardiogram. Would I telephone him, Scott called, and tell him to come tomorrow? His work was moving too well to be interrupted now.
Not until seven o’clock did Scott rise and join me for dinner. He read me the last paragraph of what he had written. “I’ve solved it,” he said with satisfaction. He was elated, almost exhilarated.
I said, “You see, by just not fretting and taking it easy, you work better.”
He kissed me. “Let’s celebrate.” He was in high spirits. “Let’s go out.”
I had tickets to a press preview of This Thing Called Love, a comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. I hadn’t gone to a preview in weeks. A comedy would be just the thing.
Scott dressed. He stood before the mirror fixing his bow tie. He gave it a final tug at both ends and threw a puckish glance at me. I was waiting at the door. “I always wanted to be a dandy,” he said, with a grin. That night, Friday night, December 20, we went to the Pan-tages Theatre and saw This Thing Called Love.
When the film was over and the house lights came on, Scott stood up to let me by him into the aisle. I looked back just in time to see him stagger, as if someone had struck him off balance. He had to lean down and grab the arm rest for support. I thought he had stumbled. I hurried back and took his arm. He said, in a low, strained voice, “I feel awful—everything started to go as it did in Schwab’s.” I held his arm tightly. He said, “I suppose people will think I’m drunk.” I said, “Scott, nobody saw it.” I held him under his arm, supporting as much of his weight as I could without drawing attention, and we moved slowly up the aisle. A chill went through me as I realized that he had not pushed my hand away as he had done each time I had tried to help him in the past. I tried to appear in animated conversation with him as we made our way. I thought, furiously, he hasn’t taken a drink in a year and now they’ll all think he’s drunk again.
We walked slowly to his car. The air revived him and he breathed deeply. “How do I look?” he asked. In the powerful lights of the Pantages, I could see him clearly. I said, “You look very pale. Shouldn’t we call the doctor?”
Scott said no. Dr. Wilson was coming tomorrow, anyway. Let’s not make any fuss.
He drove home slowly and by the time we had arrived, he felt better. He took his sleeping pills, went immediately to bed, and fell asleep.
I went into his room, later, and looked at him. He slept very peacefully, like a tired child.
I did not know that he would die the next day.