Scott Fitzgeraldwas a born teacher He was happiest discussing a book he had just read or expounding on the politics of Hollywood and the world, theorizing about the battles of history—if this had not happened, this would have, and now it was all happening again in Europe. He was the first person I ever heard scorn the impregnable Maginot Line. “The Germans will bypass it with their tanks,” he was sure.
World War II was inevitable, he told me two years before it started. England, America and France were burying their logic in a quicksand they called “Peace in our time”. In 1938 he advised Scottie to take a trip with a group of students to Europe. “It will be your last chance to see the France we know.”
During 1938 and 1939 we listened on the big old—fashioned radio in his living room at Malibu to Hitler's rantings and the terrifying roar of “Heil Hitler', “Heil Hitler', against the Wagnerian thunder of waves crashing on the Malibu beach. Scott was amazed when I told him that Tom Mitford, who had met Hitler in Munich during 1932, thought he was a great man with a magnetic voice. “My God, they're so blind,” he cried. Why couldn't they see that Hitler was the Pied Piper who would drown the democracies? The Spanish Civil War was a rehearsal for the coming holocaust. They were all practising for the bigger stage. He disliked Mussolini and informed me that the Italians were cowards; “They are brave when they are twenty to one.” A gang of policemen had beaten Scott in Rome and then flung him into jail. He reinforced his argument by giving me Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to read.
The absorbing topic in Hollywood when Scott came in 1937 was the fighting in Spain. Almost as important were the manoeuverings of the left and right wings of the Screen Writers” Guild to gain control of the highly paid authors. I read the newspapers and knew what they were talking about but could not understand why they were so concerned. I had never bothered about these vague matters. I looked up the words “radical” and 'reactionary” to see what they meant—but radical or reactionary, the result seemed to be the same, no matter who was in power. The world for me was a place where some people were confident, rich and/or of “good family', and this entitled them to all the privileges; even Scott preferred his father, from an old Baltimore family, to his mother, whose father as a boy had migrated with his parents to America from Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s. The larger percentage of the people were poor, worked hard to live, while the bosses took all the profits.
Like so many of the ignorant poor of England, I was a staunch conservative, a devout follower of tradition. Ours not to question why, ours but to work and die. Authority was always right; this had been pummelled into me at the orphanage. God Save Our Gracious King, God Save All Our Gracious Kings. Those terrible Russian anarchists. There were some in England, and as an adolescent I had prayed that I would never get in the way of their bombs. The comic papers I read in the East End of London had shown men with sprouty whiskers whose names usually ended in “vitch” or “ski,” blowing up factories and not caring that children might be working in them. Older members of my family had worked in factories when they were twelve, from six in the morning until late at night. And yet, unions were something to avoid. A relative as a young man had led an abortive strike for more pay. He had been fired. “What a fool!” they said.
And now to hear such educated writers as Donald Ogden Stewart (Yale), Eddie Mayer (Columbia), Frances Hackett, and Mary McCall (both Vassar), all of whomearned thousands of dollars a week, concerning themselves so passionately with the plight of the rank and file simply did not make sense to me. They're fakes, I thought. Eddie told me how stingy Charlie Chaplin was; he was born poor, but now, rich and liberal, he made “comrade” speeches. Ask him for money, and he would close up like an anemone at the beach when you poked it in the middle with a stick.
“I cannot understand how a rich man can be a liberal,” I said one day during a pause in a conversation at the home of Salka Viertel, Garbo's friend and writer. We were there to listen to a man recently returned from the International Brigade in Spain. He was in Hollywood to raise money from the rich “pinkos', as Scott called them. From the general look of surprise, I realized I had made a faux pas. Scott had written of the rich and beautiful. But he was more vehement than any of them in his concern for the poor and his hatred of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Most of the writers I met were anti—fascist, and if they did not have the stomach or were too old to fight in Spain, as David Lardner had done, or to write about it as Hemingway was doing for John Wheeler's syndicate, they gave their money to buy guns for the Loyalists and signed published petitions to help the children of Spain who were being slaughtered indiscriminately on both sides. In such an atmosphere, it was becoming difficult to retain the comfortable philosophy of “This has nothing to do with me.”
It is hard to pinpoint the actual beginning of the College of One. The barren soil is only slightly disturbed with the planting of a seed. But before you know it, there is something pushing through. Things germinate for a long time before you see them. The Second World War, for instance. It had started, Scott explained to me, in 1934, when Japan annexed Manchuria from China, which had disturbed Russia—'And even before that, at the peace tables of Versailles.” I had never thought of it like that. Didn't the conqueror always annihilate the loser? We had won. We came out victorious, as Englishmenalways do—shame and ruin wait for them. In my history books at school the winners had burned the homes of the vanquished, they had robbed them of their women and taken the children as slaves. That was how it was. It was important to be on the winning side. It kept you safe. The wicked Kaiser with his ridiculous moustachios and his goose—stepping soldiers who raped the terrified women holding babies in their arms on the war posters—they deserved to be impoverished. “But that is how you breed another war,” Scott explained. The Romans had built roads and walls in England after the conquest. They had given the savage natives rules to live by. Because of this they had ruled for many centuries. Napoleon was important not for his victories but for his clemency and the laws he gave the vanquished. But Napoleon was an ogre in English history books; he deserved to die in disgrace on St Helena. Scott would smile and shake his head. It was confusing to me. How could I be sure who was right?”
I remained silent during the discussions. If I were asked a direct question it was evaded with a firm “I never discuss politics or religion.” If only they would confine the conversation to what had happened at the studios. That was an area in which I was comfortable. I could laugh when Marc Connelly told of Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell—they worked as a team—beating on their office window, which overlooked the cemetery at the MGM Studio, and shouting, “What's it like in the outside world?” I enjoyed hearing about the hilarious exploits of Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur, who were always up to something, always disappearing without telling their producers, while the faithful accounting department mailed their cheques regularly. They all seemed to despise the people who paid them so well. It didn't seem fair, and I was scornful of them sometimes. If I were paid all that money, I would try to like the people who paid me—although Louis B. Mayer was dreadful, if the stories were all true; Louis B. Merde, one of the writers called him. They also detested Irving Thalberg. He was opposedto their union, and for the first time I heard the word paternalism. It was used disparagingly, although I thought it had a nice sound.
Sometimes, hearing them bounce from topic to topic, I did not realize, until I saw the deep marks, that I had been pressing my nails hard into the palms of my clenched fists in my lap. The tension was exhausting. It was all right when Scott and I were alone, but at the beginning, before our withdrawal from the people we knew, before we started the College of One, we dined frequently with his friends—Dorothy, Alan, Frances and Albert Hackett, the Ira Gershwins, the Herman Mankiewiczes, Helen Hayes, Charlie MacArthur, the Ted Paramores, the Ogden Nashes, and the Nathanael Wests. Scott had written Nat a glowing letter of praise after the publication of Miss Lonelyhearts, and we saw a great deal of him with his wife, Eileen, in Hollywood. (The Wests were killed in a car accident the day after Scott died, and I remember a feeling akin to jealousy that they had gone with him.) I wanted so much to be a part of the group, to get excited in the arguments, to know what they were talking about. Scott was aware of my distress and, when it was possible, brought me into the conversation by telling of something that had happened at the studio. We laughed when he told us of informing Joan Crawford that he was working on Infidelity, her next movie. “Write hard,” she had replied fervently. Scott cautioned me not to use any of these stories in my column, which further deflated me. Even he could not talk freely to me. It made me more of an outsider in their magic land of expressed ideas and opinions. I never dared voice a contrary opinion. “Yes, of course,” I would mumble.
A chance remark by Eddie Mayer about Swann and Odette, in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, sent me speeding to Martindale's Book Shop in Beverly Hills: “He was insanely in love with her. He ruined himself for her and when it was all over he said, "And she was not even my type."” I had told Eddie that I could not understandwhy Scott was in love with me, because from what I had heard of his interest in rich, confident girls, I was not his type. Proust could be important. It might be valuable to discover Odette's secret; perhaps it could be applied to Scott. I was dismayed that Proust's Remembrance comprised seven lengthy volumes. I would try to plough through them. Perhaps then I would know as much as the others did, and Scott would have reason to be proud of me.
When Scott saw me with Proust, he was immediately interested. Until then—it was about nine months from the time we had met—I doubt whether he cared about the books I read. He was content that I was his girl. He was married, with no hope of a divorce, an author whose books were not in demand. He often drank to excess. There were not too many women who could be happy with these circumstances. Scott knew I was popular with the Benchley set; I did not give them up completely in those early months. Sometimes I dined with Eddie, John O'Hara, or Bob, or visited the Ronald Colmans with Oscar Levant. Scott suffered when I was unavailable, but at first he accepted the situation. He was not sure how far he wanted our relationship to go. He knew I had recently divorced Johnny in order to marry Lord Donegall. He was pleased that I was no longer engaged to Don—'Although I don't have the right to monopolize you. You know I can never abandon my poor lost Zelda.” His health was not good. He suffered from exhausting insomnia and took several strong sleeping pills at night, then Benzedrine in the morning to wake up properly and work.
“A girl like you can have any man she wants,” he would say. He was not entirely reassured when I protested, “But I only want to be with you.” It was his nature to be jealous and he worried when I told him—it was October 1937 —that I was dining with Arthur Kober. Arthur was unmarried and doing well with his “Bella” stories in The New Yorker and as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Scott was so distressed that I promised to be home by eleven—thirty —'And you can telephone me,” he said. I was a few minutes late; Arthur told an interminable story while I waited for him to open the door of the car, and that delayed me fifteen minutes. It was enough to set Scott off on his first drinking spree since our meeting, although I did not realize then that the hoarseness of his speech was caused by gin and not the cold he said it was. It became simpler to stop seeing other people except with Scott.
In the beginning, I had hoped we could marry. I used to brood about it, punishing him with my silences. In his notes of Kathleen in The Last Tycoon, Scott wrote,
He was afraid of her when she thought, knowing that in the part of her most removed from him, there was taking place a tireless ratiocination, the synthesis of which was always a calm sense of the injustice and unsatisfactions of life … protests that were purely abstract and in which he figured only as an element as driven and succourless as herself. This made him more afraid than if she had said, “It was your fault,” which she frequently did.
But when we started the education, our relationship developed a whole new dimension. The fact that he could never marry me was less important. I was too interested and busy to be depressed, and when he was drunk I was glad we could not marry. The two things I feared most were drunkenness and insanity. With Scott, I had both. I dreamed often of Zelda. She was usually staring at me or raking my face with sharp fingernails. I did not confide those dreams to Scott.
We had our separate homes, but with the education and with few people to distract us, we settled into a comfortable domesticity. I spent week—ends at his beach house and later at his home in Encino. Until he rented an apartment on Laurel Avenue in Hollywood on the street next to mine—Hayworth Avenue—he used my spare bedroom when he stayed in town.
“You must not read more than ten pages of Proust a day,” Scott warned me. “It is too difficult and you will find it hard to finish if you take on too much.” He immediatelymade a plan for me: ten pages a day until I had completed one—third: then I could go to thirty pages a day, and forty for the last third of Swann's Way. He kept the other volumes until I needed them, so that the magnitude of the reading would not scare me.
That was really the beginning of our College of One —plodding through Proust. The formal curriculum materialized six months later in Encino. By that time I was in better health intellectually. The Proust volumes had stretched my capacity to read, to sit still, and I became involved with the characters. The little boy who waited for his mother to kiss him good night. His unhappiness when she had visitors and could not. What a tyrant the boy was, and how his parents indulged him. This was Proust himself as a child, Scott told me, delighted by my interest. I wanted to know what kind of man he was and his method of writing. His family had been rich. He was in society, Jewish, and the Dreyfus case had embarrassed him. The Baron de Charlus was the Marquis de Montesquiou, a well—known society pederast. Proust himself was homosexual and Albertine was really a boy, Albert. The girls at the seaside, the sun that awakened him from his after—lunch nap—our worlds had been so different, but there had been a seaside expedition from the orphanage, and I loved the sun on the water. And in the morning in the dormitory I had drowsily watched the duplication of the iron bars of the windows moving in wavy shadows on the wall. “He worked in a dark room with all the windows closed and held the sheets of paper in the air while he wrote,' Scott told me. I wouldn't like to be a genius if I had to work that way, I was sure. When I came to Madame Verdurin, I asked Scott, “Is she laughing or crying when she puts her hand over her face and rocks back and forth?” We tried it, sometimes laughing, sometimes pretending to cry. Later we would act out many of the characters in the books for College of One.
I ate the madeleine and drank the tisane with Proust, and my childhood at the orphanage was revived: theperfume of the sweet peas on the tables of the kindergarten, the lumpy potatoes with the eyes still in them, my ash—blonde hair falling like flax at my feet as it was cropped close to my skull.
“You must write your story,” said Scott, and that was when he brought me the big black ledger and divided my life into pages, from the age of three months until my arrival in Hollywood. It was to be in seven parts: “Each of seven parts to have theme and dramatic idea, plot, cast of characters, occupational. Put it all down,' he advised.
He had always committed his thoughts and experiences to paper. Plans and lists were the spine of his life. As a boy, in his Thought Books, he had made lists of girls, which ones had liked him the most, who had kissed him, who had wanted to dance with him. Like Samuel Butler, whom he admired, he had a compulsion to write things down. He catalogued everything. He was the most orderly man in a state of disorder I ever knew. There were lists for every occasion: lists of battles from the beginning of recorded time to
After Brest—Litovsk (Feb. 1915):
1918—1921 Counter—Revolution. The Red Army
1919 Allies occupy Archangel & Vladivostok
PERIOD OF CIVIL WAR
1920 Big Famine
1922 N.E.P. (New Economic Policy)
1924 Lenin Dies. Stalin all ready to seize power
1926 Trotsky—Stalin Break Open
1927 Trotsky Exiled
1928 FIRST FIVE YEAR PLAN
1929 great famine. Kulaks blamed and liquidated (inflow of American engineers after depression here)
1932 Litvinov Policy Abroad. Stakhanov speed—up
1934 SECOND FIVE YEAR PLAN
1935 Joins League—alliance offer
1936 Moscow trials—old Bolshevik Purge
1937 Military Purge (anti—fascist)
1938 SECOND BIG PURGE MUNICH OFFER
1939 LITVINOV POLICY JUNKED GERMAN PACT
I thought Scott might have been as great a general as Wellington, with his plans and strategies. As a younger man on the French Riviera, he had collected toy soldiers of every nationality. Children and adults were enthralled with his manoeuverings of the warriors and the stories he invented while his men marched to victory.
There were lists of his 'fixations', from Marie (Hersey) (1911) to S. (Graham) (1937—1940). His total of feminine fixations from the age of fourteen: sixteen persons. “Before that basket—ball? Nancy, Kitty, Violet? Can I count Cici, Mary R., Tommy or Charlie?” There was a list of the meetings with Ernest Hemingway. They had petered out between 1931 and 1937. “Four times in eleven years (1929—1940) not really friends since “26.”
There were lists of the books he had read by the time he was twenty, thirty, forty. Lists of painters and their works at the age of forty. A list of the thirty—six dramatic situations, from “Supplication” to “Loss of Loved Ones', copied from the Georges Polti book, first published in 1916. Lists of plots in the Saturday Evening Post. Lists of the prices paid—imitating Butler, who had earned much less than Scott, a total of £6 10. 10 from Erewhon, and lost £960 17. 6 from his thirteen other works. There were lists of the types of stories each studio preferred. Scott asked me to do some research for him on this, and I was delighted to be of use to him. His list of “Story Needs', dated 1 March 1939, stated the requirements of the various studios.
Columbia: Story for Edward G. Robinson.
Dramatic vehicle for Edith Fellows.
Headline and propaganda and exploitation stories; i.e. parents on trial, first offender, child bride, etc.
Paramount: Jack Benny vehicle on the order of “Get—Rich—Quick Wallingford”
Story for Martha Raye—Bob Hope
Story for Lamour—Harlow type
Story for Gracie Allen
Metro: Story for Hedy Lamarr
Weingarten looking for “Raffles” type of smart comedy melodrama.
Principal: Story for Bobbie Breen, with a family touch.
RKO: Good warm human—interest story.
Bert Gilroy wants inexpensive stories.
Leo McCarey wants unusual stories for daring picture.
Leigh Jason wants stories with a message.
Astaire picture legitimate story.
Selznick; Story for Ronald Colman. No costume but straight romantic or comedy roles.
Story for Lombard—no nutty comedies
Story for Colbert—no nutty comedies
20th—Fox: Wants to put Ritz Brothers in vehicle with famous music.
Stories for Temple
Jones family story
Melodramas for Wurtzel
Universal: A jungle story.
Kenneth Goldsmith wants action stories.
Modern Cavalry story.
Modern sea story with character on order of “Sea Wolf”.
Peace—time spy story.
3 stories for Jackie Cooper and another boy—with heart interest.
1 human interest story on type of “Over the Hill”.
1 modern adventure drama.
Newspaper story and current event features.
Warners: Modern story for Muni, preferably with a timely angle.
Modern story for Bette Davis.
Story for six—year—old Janet Chapman.
Story for Miriam Hopkins.
Story for Cagney.
Chas Rogers: Wants stories for 13—year—old girl who can sing popular and operatic songs.
Lou Brock: Horror story or horror melodramas
Scott listed football plays that were sure to improve the game. He wrote them on anything close at hand, on scraps of paper, in the backs of the books he brought me. When I was at Princeton presenting my Fitzgerald memorabilia (after the publication of Beloved Infidel), we stood in a small group while President Goheen related how before nearly every home game in the thirties the coach, Fritz Crisler, or Asa Bushnell, the graduate manager of athletics, received a telephone call from Scott in the early morning with a new football tactic that would surely result in a victory for Princeton, which was doing badly. On one occasion, after an urgent call from Scott in the small hours, Crisler told him he would use the play on one condition, that Scott would take full credit for its success and full credit for its failure, “if any”. Perhaps they should hold the system in reserve, Scott had replied.
There were lists of what he was going to do tomorrow, what he had done today. On an undated Tuesday in 1940 he listed: “Things to do—pay bills, dentist, write Esquirestory. Read Wordsworth in volumes, plot for movie, 'Call of the Wild for Sheilah. Esquire letter. Income tax, laundry, $36 to Scottie.” Another list: “A Sept Schedule At the End of my 44th Year 1940. Sept 1st—22nd. Sure job. Sept 22nd—Oct 20th. Possible job (to save $2000). Three days planning novel. Write on it to Dec. 1st possibly finishing first draft. Alternate Feather Fan if job is not extended. Or play or Philippe. Not another story—no stories, radio out and plays.” At the bottom of this page, a list of his sleeping pills: the combination of seconal 1 1/2, nembutal 1 1/2or 2 1/2nembutals; or seconal 1 1/2, barbitol 5 gr.
Perhaps the lists reassured him that he was alive, that he could still function. He seemed doubtful sometimes. He wrote himself a postcard to the Garden of Allah, asking 'Where are you?” signed Scott. Perhaps this is why he needed an audience, even if it were just his secretary, his maid, or me. He needed the reassurance that he existed and that he still had the old magic.
The plan and the lists for my education were a life—saver for Scott. His contract with Metro had expired. The other studios were not rushing to sign him. There are few secrets in Hollywood, and his drinking bouts were known. College of One distracted him from his failure as a screenwriter. It occupied his mind. He had to be busy even if it meant writing gibberish, which he sometimes did just before passing out completely. It was a lucky chance for us both that I was his girl in those last years of his life, that I was as eager for him to educate me as he was to be my teacher.
And it almost did not happen. “The Story of an Inebriated Gentleman,” I wrote in the big ledger. And underneath: “Living with him was like sitting on top of a volcano—picturesque but uncomfortable.” It was often more than that. The eruption was sometimes dangerous.
I was asleep in my Hollywood apartment when the insistent ringing of my telephone brought me sharply awake. Scott had been drinking heavily, and I had decided I would not see him for a while. It made me toounhappy—the sly look on his face, the etherlike smell of alcohol, the subterfuges about the liquor (his favourite hiding place was inside the back of the toilet in his bathroom), the filthy handkerchiefs, the unpressed clothes, the quick anger, the lies, the awful language, although when he was sober he winced if you said “Damn”. I always went back when he stopped drinking, after the agonized drying—out period, during which he was looked after by a series of registered nurses, who fed him intravenously because he could not keep food down. He could eat anything while he was drinking—fudge with crab soup was not unusual—but as soon as he stopped, up it all came. On this morning when the telephone awakened me, I glanced at my bedside clock. It was almost five. “I called the doctor,” said Scott in his soft appealing voice. “He's getting me the nurse. He gave me a shot and I'm sleepy. Will you come over and wait for her?” Of course I would come.
It was getting light as I drove over Laurel Canyon into the valley. I parked my car in the courtyard of his house on the Edward Everett Horton estate in Encino. It would be another lovely day, as the birds were remarking in a shrieking chorus. The front door was open. Upstairs in his bed, Scott smiled at me impishly like a precocious boy who has pulled off a trick. He had been writing: his wooden board with the blocks on each side to make a writing desk was across his knees; his hair twirled to a point as he twisted it when he was thinking; a pencil in his hand and one behind his ear; yellow typing paper on the bed and on the floor and the air sour with the smell of alcohol. He yawned prodigiously, and I said, “Why don't you go to sleep? I'll wait downstairs for the nurse.”
“Okay, baby.” I took the desk and the papers and straightened the pillow and the blanket and the sheet. “You won't leave?” He yawned again, settling down in the bed.
“I'll be downstairs,” I promised. The top drawer of the mahogany chest near the door was open.. A soiled handkerchief did not quite cover his gun. On an impulse I took the gun and slipped it quickly inside my coat. In his present state, it might be dangerous.
He was like a tiger leaping. We rolled on the floor while he clawed wildly at my hands. He had always seemed physically weak, but now he was strong. My only thought at first: he must not get the gun. Then I became angry, almost mad with anger. My fingers were numb and bleeding. I could not hold the gun much longer. Let the bastard kill himself, who cared? But I wouldn't stay to see it. I jerked him from me, flung the gun away, and struck his sweating grimly smiling face with all the strength of my open palm and told the son of a bitch to shoot himself and what a good riddance that would be, and then ran down the stairs into my car, swearing and crying.
“Go on, kill yourself,” I shouted. It would be a release for us all. He was no good to anyone like this—not to himself, to Scottie, or to me. Zelda needed him, but she had had him for a long time and they had destroyed each other.
But when the morning became afternoon and the anger had gone, I thought of him with the gun and I was afraid. I did not believe he would kill himself, but it could go off accidentally. At six o'clock I telephoned. “He left for the East this morning,” his maid informed me. She was surprised. “Didn't he tell you? He said he's never coming back. I'm to stay on the job until I hear from him.” I hung up slowly. Of course, he was going to Zelda. I should not have struck him, I should not have called him dreadful names. He was a proud man and I had humiliated him beyond endurance. But he had not yet sent the maid away. It could mean that he was coming back.
He was away two weeks and returned at the end of April. He had appeared, like a madman, at the sanatorium in Asheville, North Carolina, had ordered Zelda to pack, and had flown with her to Cuba, where she carried a Bible and prayed continuously, attracting further attention with her old—fashioned clothes—the shortlong—waisted dresses of the twenties, when they were the gayest, most envied couple, when everything was “… bingo bango… and people would clap when we arose, at her sweet face and my new clothes.” He was beaten up at a cockfight, trying to rescue the bird, while he cradled it in his arms, shouting, “You sons of bitches.” It was all very confused, but somehow they landed at the Algonquin Hotel in New York and Scott was drinking and Zelda was still praying and Scott was in a fight with a waiter and tried to throw him down the stairs, and Mr Case, the owner, not knowing what else to do, sent Zelda back to the sanatorium and Scott first to Bellevue, then to Doctors Hospital, where he picked himself up one night and returned to California.
His voice was cold, but if I wanted to see him so badly, he said, I could come, but not yet. He was going into the drying—out period. And then I came and he was blessedly sober. The time was right for a new project. There would be few jobs for him at the film studios until his death, but there would be two projects that would absorb him, that would restore his confidence as a writer: a new novel, about Hollywood—he asked me what I thought of calling it Stahr; and the education of Sheilah Graham, born Lily Shiel. It was later than we knew, but there was still time.
With Proust as the beginning, the plan for College of One was committed to paper on a long night in mid—May of 1939. We had been to a film preview. As we often did, we were singing as we drove back to Encino. Scott was teaching me the words of a popular song of the late twenties, “Don't Bring Lulu', written by a brash young man called Billy Rose. We found the words excruciatingly funny and laughed, singing at the top of our voices. Then we were quiet. Scott seemed pensive. In a low voice he started reciting:
“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, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
He glanced sideways at me to see if I was paying attention. Sometimes I would go off into myself, wondering about us or thinking of my column or a problem with a film star. I was listening. I had never heard this kind of poetry before. “Who wrote it?” I had asked. Scott smiled. He was quoting from his beloved Keats. I knew the name, but only vaguely. There had been short poems by Browning at the orphanage: “Oh, to be in England, now that April's there', and the verse that ends “God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world', which I hadn't believed; one verse of Wordsworth that began “I wandered lonely as a cloud'; and all the heroic poetry. But what Scott had just recited was the best there was. “What is it from?” I asked him. It was the “Ode on a Grecian Urn', he replied happily.
In a famous letter to his daughter dated 3 August 1940, Scott wrote: “Poetry is not something easy to get started on by yourself. You need at the beginning some enthusiast who knows his way around. John Peale Bishop performed that office for me at Princeton. … The Grecian Urn is unbearably beautiful with every note as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.” Bishop had lit the flame for Scott at Princeton, and now he was to pass the torch to me. He would show me the way. He carefully parked the ancient Ford in the courtyard at Encino, and we hurried into the house, to the bookshelves in the living room and his volume of Keats. Sitting close beside me, he read me the whole poem, savouring each word. Delighted by my interest, he then recited Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress':
“Had we but world enough, and time …
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 …”
Then Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind”. The door was open. At last I was to be invited inside. The next morning he gave me the first page of College of One. He had stayed awake far into the night, planning what the courses would be.
Published as College Of One by Sheilah Graham (New York: Viking, 1967).