While Scott was alive, I made little effort to understand his drinking. All I knew was that it transformed him from a man of quiet charm into a belligerent bully. In the early phase of a binge he was still charming—a sparkling wit and organizer of other people's amusement. And then suddenly, with the one drink too many, he was horrible—rude, boastful, wanting to fight everybody. I loved him without reservation when he was sober. When he was drunk, I had mixed feelings, sometimes wanting desperately to get away from him. But as to why he drank, I gave this little consideration. I just accepted that he did.
In the years since Scott's death, I have thought seriously about his drinking, wondering and trying to analyze when the kind Dr. Jekyll became the monstrous Mr. Hyde. It all started, I think, because of his desire to be popular and daring, to keep up with the times—the permissiveness of the new motorcar society, then Prohibition and the recklessness of the “lost generation” after the world war. Also he had to cope with the excitement and pressure of his young success. Scott wanted to be the best, but he was always unsure whether he was entitled to sit with the people he admired. He drank whenhe was successful because the world seemed too dazzling to be seized without some support. To keep his energy flowing and maintain his position as the madcap of the intelligentsia, he had to keep on drinking. Then, when he was considered a failure, the support—liquor—was even more necessary for this man who bloomed with acceptance and applause. His sense of diminished vitality now haunted him. He needed the liquor to give him the illusion of his old brilliance or to help him forget that he had lost it.
Sober, Scott could accept the reality of his maturity. But however I respected him for precisely this maturity—the sure-ness of his knowledge, the absence of any need to put on a show—to him it was a painful reality, a falling off from the glitter of his youth. And perhaps the discipline he exerted on himself when he was sober, to write and function at a good level, was building up tension that could only be relieved in the alcoholic release, where he would yield himself to the other, utterly undisciplined extreme of his personality. Drunk, he would explode the inner sores that had been festering.
It was shattering for me because the sober periods were long and productive, especially in the first eighteen months that I knew him. To hear this man who normally frowned if you said “damn it” use foul language and wear filthy clothes, reflecting the turbulence he felt inside him, horrified me. A man who was as mature as Scott had become was ridiculous when he drank. Watching him chase a bellboy around a hotel room or tear out a stairway railing, or listening to his account of the drunken escapades of his past, I felt I was seeing and hearing about someone who bore no relation to the man I loved.
Recounting to me the pranks of his legendary drinking days, Scott never explained or excused his behavior. He simply stated it as an historical fact. At the age of fifteen he had graduated from sweet sherry to hard liquor. He felt he was ahead of his group. Then, at Princeton, he gained a reputation as a heavy drinker. He passed out when he was elected to Cottage Club, and was later on suspended from the club for making a drunken fool of himself. “I only knew about the suspension,” Scott told me, “when they threw me out the window.”
Why, I wonder, should he have taken a sort of pride in such an incident? Was he already building up his legend, creating a personality which would make him the equal of the Anglo-Saxon Easterners he idealized? Scott spoke to me at length of his admiration for the football heroes, the top polo players such as Tommy Hitchcock, and intellectuals like John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson, who knew, it seemed to Scott, precisely who they were. He never felt quite up to these people. But drinking, he could make a spectacular stir, and forget his own insecurity.
Later on in Paris, it was the same with Hemingway or James Joyce—to prove his respect for Joyce, Scott threatened to throw himself out a window. After he had left—by the door —Joyce remarked, “That young man must be mad.” Mrs. Edith Wharton, who was not only a famous writer but also the scion of a New York society family, provides an excellent example of Scott's unsureness. “When I was invited to visit her at her home outside Paris,” said Scott, “I blurted out that an American couple I knew had spent three days in a Paris brothel, believing it to be a hotel.” When he stopped from embarrassment, Mrs. Wharton demanded majestically, “But Mr. Fitzgerald, your story lacks data.” No wonder she wrote “Horrible” after his name in her diary. Of course, he had been drinking, as he seems to have been doing all the time he was in France.
Zelda also was often drunk in the 20s. The Fitzgeralds were intoxicated—with gin and with their image—when Dorothy Parker espied them riding outside a New York taxi—Zelda on the hood and Scott on the top. They were in the same condition when they started to undress at the Follies and were hustled out. Drinking in New York City, drinking in Westport, drinking in Great Neck, Long Island, drinking in Paris, they played their scenes of restlessness and bravado. And when they behaved badly, Zelda wrote the apologies the next day. Scott rarely remembered what had happened. Unlike Scott, Zelda drank mostly because it was the smart thing to do and she wanted to maintain her reputation for gaiety and irrepressible conduct. She had no problem stopping, with the first of her sanitariums or when she abandoned her flapper image to immerse herself in the ballet.
With Scott the drinking was more insidious—a reflection of a certain deficiency he felt in himself. He makes a revealing comment to Max Perkins in a letter of 1924:
… I feel I have an enormous power in me now, more than I've ever had in a way, but it works so fitfully and with so many bogeys because I've talked so much and not lived enough within myself to develop the necessary self reliance…
And six years later, writing to Zelda about their collapsed lives, he looks back on their frenetic activity, evaluating it as his attempt “to make up from without for being undernourished from within.” Certainly his drinking, which, as he says, could give him back his self-esteem “for half an hour in the Ritz Bar,” was part of this rather sad quest. I always considered Scott such a confident, secure person. What a different impression emerges from these letters.
Even more frightening than his confession to a sense of emptiness, and for me even more difficult to understand, was the allure for him of self-destruction. During his time with the advertising agency, before the publication of This Side of Paradise, he writes a shattering sentence in a 1919 letter to Edmund Wilson: “I tried to drink myself to death.” I think this was partly, but not entirely, bravado.
Another letter of 1925 to Max Perkins reads:
… You remember I used to say I wanted to die at thirty—well, I'm now twenty-nine and the prospect is still welcome. My work is the only thing that makes me happy—except to be a little tight—and for these two indulgences I pay a big price in mental and physical hangovers… .
His drinking and his work—both, he says, make him happy and both deplete him. I believe that some of the drinking was a conscious effort to create incidents for his fiction. Scott envied Joseph Conrad, with all his experience of the sea to draw on, who was forty years old when he began his career as a novelist in the English language. Scott, on the other hand, was a famous author before he had done much living. To fill his books, he had to create his life, to make it as fascinating as possible. The drinking heightened his experience—as Rimbaud did with drugs—and yielded material for fiction. It was then almost impossible for Scott to stop, even when he realized his health was being damaged. He found himself at forty looking back rather wistfully on used-up life and reflecting “that all prize fighters, actors, writers, who live by their personal performance ought to have managers in their best years.”
Scott felt he had used himself up not only by living recklessly but also by the effort necessary to achieve “the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world.” He told me of the searching deep within himself to come up with something new, something that had not been said before. He drank, he said, to escape from the strain of this extraordinary effort and perhaps to give himself the courage to make it once again. When I heard that Kirsten Flagstad always drank a half bottle of gin before a performance because she would be giving herself so intensely, I thought of Scott. What a terrible price to pay for feeding the imagination of others.
Finally Scott reached a point where he drank because he felt there was nothing left to do but to court his own self-destruction. “The worst drinking time,” he confessed to me, “was when I realized that Zelda could never be cured and that I was no longer in fashion as a writer. The eight years of working on Tender Is the Night had sapped all my energy. I was bankrupt emotionally, physically, and financially.”
He shuddered, explaining what had almost finished him off in September 24, 1936, his fortieth birthday. Michel Mok, the reporter from the New York Post, asked for an interview at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, where Scott was staying to be near Zelda's sanitarium. Mok had told him a sob story about how his job depended on fulfilling the assignment. Scott's shoulder and arm were in a plaster cast—he had injured himself (in mid-air, he told me) diving into a pool. The “Crack-Up” articles had recently appeared in Esquire, and Mok's editor thought an interview with “a cracked plate” would be titillating for his readers. The great god of youth was forty. Perhaps he was now ready to jump out of the window and end it all.
Scott, who could always press the button of charm, thought the interview had gone well. He was dismayed to the point of an at least pro forma suicide attempt when he read the newspaper article. Mok wrote of his trembling hands, the restless pacing to and fro, the frequent trips to a drawer in the chest to get the bottle, and the pleading with the nurse to let him pour “just one more” into the measuring glass by his bedside.
Discussing his generation with the reporter, Scott said, “Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors ... Oh my God, successful authors.” The overdose of pills made him ill, and when the nurse cleared away the vomit, he knew he had fallen as low as it was possible to go. Shortly after this he caught hold of his thin thread of caution, and pulled himself together and in July 1937 came to Hollywood—with the determination to stay on the wagon that carried us through the early months of our acquaintance.
The first time I was aware that Scott was drinking was at the Los Angeles Airport in October 1937. It was in the period when we were still occasionally dating other people. A few days earlier I had dined with Arthur Kober, whose “Bella” stories in The New Yorker I enjoyed. Although Scott and I did not yet consider ourselves bound to each other, his jealousy was showing, and he told me he would phone at eleven that night to make sure I was safely at home. Throughout the date I kept looking at my watch, and I made sure that I arrived back at my house at the designated time. But Arthur started a long conversation after opening the door of his car for me. I could hearthe phone ringing inside the house but didn't want to be rude to my escort, who had given me a good dinner and was obviously disappointed that I did not ask him in.
When I was able to call Scott, he punished me by saying that my tardiness had caused him to start drinking. (This was the same bout he also blamed on Ginevra King.) To me, however, he sounded quite sober. And never having seen him in his cups, I thought that he was joking. Scott, as far as I was concerned, was a totally abstemious person—I had even found myself wishing sometimes that he would take a social drink now and then like other people. As for the bender he had been on for a week, I was unaware of it until I heard him ask for a double gin at the airport lounge while we were waiting to board the plane for Chicago.
As I've previously mentioned in Beloved Infidel, Scott had decided to accompany me to Chicago to help me with my radio sponsors who loathed my British accent—very pronounced at that time. They didn't mind Cary Gra-ah-ant, but George Ra-ah-ft was too much. My five-minute cut-in from Hollywood was nationally broadcasted after seventy-five engineers on the route had each pulled a switch, one after the other. By the time I said, “This is Sheilah Graham from Hollywood,” my voice was a breathy shriek and more British than ever. Perhaps if I came to Chicago and did my five minutes without the long pause, the sponsors would like me better. Perhaps, they grudgingly assented, but reiterated that they wanted my gossip, not my voice. Scott was determined they should have both. He appointed himself my knight errant.
I was startled but not upset when I realized that he was drinking gin, not water, as I had thought. But when I gently pushed the glass away, he grabbed my arm ferociously. I was stunned. He was normally a person of great gentleness. Now his face was angry, almost vicious.
Scott downed his double gin and ordered another. He was somewhat unsteady climbing the stairs onto the plane and totally unbalanced by the time we found our seats. I became increasingly anxious. It would be a difficult argument with my sponsors. I had been grateful when Scott offered to help me, but how could he in his present condition? My North American Newspaper Alliance Syndicate boss, John Wheeler, had always said, “He travels fastest who travels alone.” And now I wanted to be alone.
Scott had a bottle of gin with him, and he swallowed the contents in large gulps on the way to Albuquerque where the plane was to stop for a refueling. In those days you came down four or five times for what Scott would describe in The Last Tycoon as “the sharp rip from coast to coast”—a journey of nineteen to twenty-one hours. From Los Angeles to Chicago was also an overnight trip, and the planes were equipped with two-deck berths for sleeping.
Scott had been talking to the other passengers, telling them who he was and what a great writer he was and what a great lay I was. I felt I simply had to get rid of him. “Okay, baby, okay,” he slurred when I asked him to get off the plane. “You'll always be a lone wolf like me. I'll go. Good-bye.”
I was lying in my lower berth, thinking about his “lone wolf” words and feeling sorry for myself because I thought they were true. I was sad, too, because I knew it was over with Scott and I was beginning to love him so much. Why had I made him leave? The plane was taxi-ing for the take off. My throat constricted, and I was crying softly when the curtains of my berth parted. There was Scott, flushed and grinning devilishly with a bottle of gin sticking out of his coat pocket. This is what he had got off to buy—he had had no intention of parting from me. I was delighted to have him back, drunk or not. I took him in my arms. He lay beside me and slept until I awakened him as the plane descended at the Chicago airport.
It was my first experience of drunkenness at close range, and I thought, well, it isn't too bad. But that was only the beginning. At the Ambassador East Hotel we had two bedrooms, opening into each other. Scott came into my room with his bottle of gin. There was no enjoying his liquor, just pouring it down his throat. When a small busboy brought him another bottle and waited for a tip, Scott ferociously chased him around the room and to the door where he escaped.
It was a nightmare I can never forget. When my sponsorarrived, Scott demanded, “Well, does she or does she not go on the show tonight?” The man hesitated and then said, “Well … ,” whereupon Scott punched him in the mouth. He agreed through bloodied lips that I could go on, and I hurried him through the door. When I closed it behind him, I promptly had hysterics, lying on the floor and kicking my legs as I have seen my tiny grandchildren do, and screaming at Scott, “You have ruined me! I hate you, I never want to see you again!” Scott left, but appeared at the rehearsal hall, conducting me with an imaginary baton, now mincingly soft, now blaringly crescendo.
In the film version of Beloved Infidel, Deborah Kerr pleaded “Scott, Scott.” I cried, “For God's sake, someone get him out.” Then there was the agony of trying to sober him up with the help of Arnold Gingrich, the editor of Esquire magazine (who advised me to keep him in a taxi until the next plane, which was five hours later). I had to get him back to Hollywood where he was due at M-G-M in the morning to work on the script of Three Comrades. He finally made it to Hollywood, but he wasn't able to work for several days. He sent a message to the director, Joe Mankiewicz, that he was sick. There was some consternation at the studio, where they were well aware of his drinking legend.
Scott realized this could be the end for him in Hollywood, and there was nowhere else to go. “I'm getting a nurse and I'll sober up,” he told me. “You are not to phone me or visit me until I am all right again.” He was worried that after his awful behavior in Chicago—oh, those four-letter words, every one you can think of—that his position with me was precarious. It was.
After getting him back to the Garden of Allah, I decided not to see him again. When I flew to Chicago the following weekend to do another show, I informed him, “I'm going alone.” And in truth he was too weak to put up an argument. He saved that for when I called him from Chicago after my performance to say I was going to New York for a few days (where a man I had been in love with was eagerly awaiting my arrival). I had earlier told Scott about him. “I suppose you will see him,” said Scott. “I suppose so,” I said cruelly. I had had it with him. I was not going to be tied to a drunk for whom I had given up being a respected Marchioness. He had called me a “cunt” to the film critic of the Chicago Daily News. Well, he wasn't going to have this one anymore to boast about.
Then in a quiet, serious voice, Scott said, “If you go to New York, I will not be here when you come back.” I realized that he was capable of fulfilling such a threat though he needed the M-G-M salary for Zelda and Scottie. And if he was prepared to go to such lengths to have me return, he really loved me and I must go back to him. It was like someone saying, “I'll kill myself if you leave me.” I did not go to New York.
As for the radio show, it was cancelled. After that second try in Chicago the sponsors were more emphatic than ever that they loathed my British accent. So after a total of five shows —three previously in Hollywood—they asked to pay off my six-month contract, hoping I would take a settlement to be free to do radio for someone else. I had no intention of doing that. I made them pay for every week of those six months. Radio had terrified me—on the air I somehow couldn't breathe. I was relieved the show was over, and it was lovely getting the $200 a week without working for it. This has been a rare event in my life.
Scott's drinking continued intermittently, usually beginning innocuously with a bottle of beer. He'd say apologetically, “I'm only having beer, that's all. No liquor, I promise.” But this would build up to dozens of beers a day and no food at all and then inevitably to the hard liquor. Finally, when Scott felt he had punished himself, the world, and me enough, he would call for a doctor and a nurse and start the painful drying out process. One of the nurses revealed to me, “He can't hold any solid food down and this can last for several days. He is fed glucose intravenously until he can. He becomes terribly dehydrated and weak and depressed.”
As soon as Scott was more or less normal, he would telephone me and we'd resume seeing each other. At his request I never saw him in the drying out periods. The claim of the Crazy Sundays author that I was Scott's nurse when he collapsedfrom the withdrawal from alcohol is completely erroneous. I have nursed my children when they were ill but never Scott Fitzgerald when his sickness was the result of drinking. As I have already asserted, our relationship was not that of nurse and patient. It was based on mutual respect. And fearful of losing mine, Scott kept me away until his agony was over. Once he described the DTs to me in full skin-crawling detail—how in 1935 he saw beetles and pink mice scurrying all over him and elephants dancing on the ceiling. But he recounted this in the same vein in which he joked he would like to walk on a heap of newborn babies and hear them squish. Scott sometimes had a macabre sense of humor.
All his caution to show me his strongest side and to spare me his degradation vanished, however, when he was actually drinking. Then his ambivalence toward me erupted with a vengeance. And his actions were calculated to shock and insult me.
The beach house at Malibu in the summer and early fall of 1938. If I had known what was going on in the locked room between Scott and Nunnally Johnson, I think I would have left him then. Scott would soon be leaving the beach for the warmer climate of Encino, and he had decided to give an afternoon party. The usual group was there—Eddie Mayer, Herman Mankiewicz, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Bill Warren, whom Scott had known in Baltimore and sent on his way to Hollywood—Bill was to produce the very successful “Gunsmoke” television series—Nat West and his wife, Joe Swerling, the writer who had the house next door, John O'Hara, and Nunnally.
Scott organized a ping pong tournament for the adults, another game of seeing who could get to the bar first, which he won, and card tricks for the group of children who had been looking wistfully from over the fence until he invited them over—I remember the Swerling boys and, I think, Loretta Young's small daughter among them. Some of the guests were in swim suits, though Scott wore his usual sweater over gray flannel pants. There was no chill, however, to his ebullience. He was having a merry time at the bar, as always very active in the early stages of drunkenness. Restless as though he must go somewhere, he reminded me in his movements of the way Groucho Marx sort of shrank and walked fast with his head forward. Seeing that he was getting more and more inebriated, I went into the house and took away his car keys. We had agreed that when he was “tight” I was to keep his money and his car keys. He usually scattered the money, and it was dangerous for him to drive.
With the sun going down, Nunnally, who was between marriages at the time, told Scott he had to leave. He was taking a girl to dinner in town. “Oh no, you don't,” said Scott, leading him into his bedroom and locking the door. The rest of the story I heard later from Nunnally. Somewhat alarmed, he asked why he shouldn't leave. “Because,” Scott shouted, “you'll never come back here. Never.” “Of course I will, Scott,” Nunnally tried to reassure him. “Oh no, you won't,” roared Scott. “Because I'm living here with my paramour. That's why you won't.”
It was a quaint expression even then—a married man's illicit lady. I suppose I was, but that was not how I regarded myself. When Scott was drunk he had called me worse names than a paramour, but I never believed that this was how he really felt about me, so completely did I separate the drunk from the sober man.
When the guests from the party had departed, Scott found the car keys in the drawer of my dressing table and drove at breakneck speed to the local liquor store. He could have been killed or been arrested, but, as Robert Benchley once said to me, “God takes care of drunks and little children.” I had my own car but there was no use going after him. When he returned, he took a long swig from the bottle of gin and then, fully clothed in pants, shoes, sweater, and all, for the first time since we had been at the beach, plunged into the ocean—this man who never swam or played tennis or went into the sun because it was bad for his TB.
He was a funny sight, floundering in the waves, and it made me laugh. I admired him his abandon, I who was always so careful about the correctness of my public behavior. I wasworried as well. If Scott had gone out too far, I could not have saved him because, while I love swimming, I'm not good at it. The weather in my native England is not conducive to swimming at the beach, and my orphanage did not have a swimming pool. Sometimes when I dreamed about the orphanage it had a pool, tennis courts, and all the luxuries that go with expensive private schools.
The drinking was somewhat better at the beginning of the year and a half Scott spent in Encino. He loved the big house with each room downstairs leading into the next, so that from the living room with all the doors open in between you could see into the dining room, the big kitchen, and the pantry that led to the large courtyard.
But after a few months the whole process started up again; beers by the dozen, then gin or whisky—anything that contained alcohol. It always took me a while to catch on when he switched from the beer. Reversing the usual pattern, Scott seemed to drink more as he got older. In Encino he remained considerate and charming until one day I found eleven empty gin bottles in a drawer and stupidly confronted him with them. In defiance he became more sozzled. After a hellish week he collapsed and called in the doctor and the nurse, while I returned to my apartment in Hollywood until he sobered up and sent for me.
One night he called me at five in the morning. It seemed the nurse had gone out for a while. Would I, he asked, come to Encino and sit with him until she returned? I drove over Laurel Canyon, pleased that he must be over the drying out, and raced upstairs to his room where he was in bed, looking flushed and impish, but seemingly sober. He was not, and had the grace to say, “You'd better go home. The nurse will soon be here.”
Leaving the room, I saw the gun in an open drawer, grabbed it quickly, and was on my way when Scott tackled me with a thirty-yard leap, or so it seemed. Realizing the gun was slipping through my fingers, I flung it away and slapped his face as hard as I could. (He returned the slap in spades on his final binge.) The next day when I had cooled down, I telephoned his house only to learn from the beautiful black housekeeper that he had left to visit his wife, and would not be back for at least two weeks. At first I pretended I didn't care, but as the days followed, I longed to have him back. But after that slap, would he have me?
I was frantic, and called again and again. I wanted to apologize. How could I have humiliated him so much? When he returned, the housekeeper told him of my calls, and after some delay he did get in touch with me, though his voice sounded very cold. “Yes,” he said distantly, I could come over for dinner.
He was sober, having spent two weeks in a New York hospital after taking Zelda to Cuba and behaving by far as the more insane of the two. As soon as he was hospitalized, Zelda returned to her sanitarium.
When Scott began to thaw, he soon melted altogether. He told me of the cockfight, of being beaten up when he tried to rescue the cock, and of going to New York with Zelda where he had threatened to throw a waiter down the elevator shaft at the Algonquin Hotel.
A few months of heavenly sobriety. It was now mid-1939. He and I began the two-year education course he had mapped out for me. Then, late in the same year, the last and terrifying time of The Great Binge. I had found him giving two hoboes he had picked up on Ventura Boulevard all of his good clothes, and his money. I ordered them to leave or I would call the police. After they had gone, with Scott protesting, “They're my frenshs—you go,” I set about preparing him some tomato soup. Frustrated, he picked up the plate and flung it and its contents against the wall. I thought, it is dripping like blood. Scott then slapped me hard on my right cheek. I stepped back when I saw he was winding up to hit me on the left. “I'm going to kill you,” he shouted, following me into the kitchen where I would escape to my car in the courtyard.
I walked slowly, realizing that in his present state he could be dangerous. He ran ahead of me and stood with his back to the kitchen door. “You're not leaving here alive,” he hissed dramatically. I sat on top of a low group of cupboards andswung my legs, nonchalantly I thought at the time. As my daughter once told me, I am usually cool in times of real crisis.
Scott left the door and came to the telephone which was next to where I sat. He called Frances Kroll, his secretary, and said he needed to know where his gun was as he thought he heard some prowlers. Frances and I had hidden the gun when he started drinking. It was in a top cupboard, an arm-stretch from where we were. Luckily for us both, she said she didn't know. Scott returned to the door. I then called the police and without giving any names informed them I was being held against my will at the address, 5521 Amestoy Avenue. They would be right over. And then Scott let me go. Sad, frustrated man, wanting to destroy everything and everyone who loved him so he could die in his own way. But the resilience of his nature always vied with his self-pity and self-destructiveness. A week later I received a typewritten letter from Scott's secretary.
Dear Miss Graham,
Mr. Fitzgerald is himself again, after six days in bed, and everything he did seems perfectly abominable to him. He wants to know if there is any material way in which he can partially atone for the damage. He will, of course, replace anything, and more particularly he wants to know if it will be any help if he leaves Hollywood for good …
(I doubted whether he would leave Hollywood. But the ploy had been successful once, so, he reasoned, why not try it again?)
… He has no idea where you are [of course he knew where I was] nor has he any intention of trying to see you. He merely wants to remove as much of the unhappiness as is possible from what he did to you.
Sincerely, Frances Kroll
I knew that Scott had dictated the letter, and when Frances called, I told her not to bother me. But after vowing I would not see him ever again, I of course went back to him.
Normally when Scott sobered up, we did not discuss his drunk behavior. But after the excesses of this terrible time, he talked to me about his misguided reliance on liquor, particularly to help him write. Several of the Pat Hobby stories, which he agreed with me were hack work, had been dashed off under the influence. But liquor, he realized, no longer helped him to write anything good. He assured me he would never drink again. I didn't quite believe him but I loved him. He was sober up to the day he died, a year and a month later, during which time he worked on The Last Tycoon, my education, and a couple of jobs in the studios. But why didn't “whatever gods may be” allow him another few months to finish the book?
Perhaps it was simply not in the cards for Scott to be an old man. Perhaps he was right that a person can use himself up—physically, if not emotionally. The excesses of his twenties and thirties were too much for his forties, and that's what killed him. Few young people who go in for riotous living survive beyond middle age—“are in the grave,” as Scott had written his daughter.
When I think now of the abuse that Scott inflicted on himself, it's a miracle that he lived as long as he did. Aside from his drinking there was, drunk or sober, the incessant smoking and also the reliance, when not drinking, on coffee and dozens and dozens of bottles a day of Coca-Cola. He would line up the Cokes all around the walls of his office at M-G-M and announce, “I'll drink these up, and when they're gone I'll go back to beer.” Dr. Richard Hoffman, who had examined him in New York, told my Beloved Infidel collaborator, Gerold Frank, that Scott drank—both the liquor and the Cokes—because he had the reverse of diabetes, an insufficiency of sugar in the blood. Is this true for all who drink unwisely?
Scott's heart had always been strong, but with such abuse—the liquor, the Cokes, the cigarettes, the sleeping pills at night, the pep pills to get him started in the morning—andso much digitalis—it's not strange that the heart, the only organ “that can repair itself,” weakened. He took as many as six Nembutals a night—after his death, two would knock me out for days. When I first saw him take this quantity, I called his doctor because I was worried. But the doctor said, “Oh no, it won't upset him. He could take ten.” This doctor also prescribed the great amount of digitalis for him. I always thought it was excessive.
It has seemed a sad irony to me that Scott should die after staying sober for more than a year. But perhaps with so much past strain on his system, his heart could not handle the withdrawal of the liquor that had acted as a stimulant for a quarter of a century.
Had Scott lived to finish and see the publication of The Last Tycoon, I wonder if he would have gone back to drinking. I did not think so, provided the novel was a success. But, now, I don't really know. If it had been a failure, then I think he would have committed suicide. But if it was a success—coming after “The Crack-Up,” when he felt he was absolutely finished both in personal relationships and in working, to be accepted by the world again as a great author might, I hoped, put him on the right track for the rest of his life.
Recently, I voiced this opinion to a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist, and he disagreed with me. “I think,” he told me, “that life would never offer perfect rewards for a person like Fitzgerald. What he wanted was the recapture of his marvelous youth, and that was gone forever.” My friend also judged that without the help of psychoanalysis to understand his condition, Scott inevitably would have felt new stress, whether from success or failure, which he would have been unable to cope with.
I can imagine Scott's response to this prognosis. He believed in psychiatry for Zelda, but not for himself, or for that matter, for me, to whom he said, “Your impulses are all near the surface. Therefore, you would never need analysis.” I was pleased then; now, I believe he was wrong. Of all people I know, I have needed it most—or why do I still carry the scars of my childhood? As for Scott, he felt that he knew far more than the psychiatrists about human behavior, a point he set out to illustrate when I got him together with Dr. Hoffman in New York.
I had met Scott at the Weylin Hotel in New York, after his disastrous trip with Budd Schulberg to Dartmouth in March 1939, to work on Walter Wanger's Winter Carnival. He was drunk and ill, and not quite knowing what to do, I contacted the psychiatrist to come to the hotel and talk with him. I left them together in my room, and when I came back, it was Scott who was psychoanalyzing and obviously charming the doctor.
Scott resisted my idea for him to get outside help for his problems. After one bad drinking period, I suggested that he join Alcoholics Anonymous. “I was never a joiner,” he replied contemptuously. “AA can only help weak people because their ego is strengthened by the group. The group offers them the strength they lack on their own.” Scott would never acknowledge that in the area of his drinking he was a weak man. He had been treated like a god and loved by a goddess—Zelda. It was unthinkable to him that he would sit around with a bunch of boozers and ask for help. If he wanted to stop drinking, he felt he could. But until the last year, he wasn't convinced of the need to stop. When Zelda's doctors suggested to him that it would help his wife if he gave up liquor entirely, he had protested that his drinking was his own business with no bearing on her condition.
Understanding someone else's compulsion is a difficult task. I see now that it was simple enough for me to come up with AA or psychiatry as a solution to Scott's drinking. But I don't have any notion, really, of what it's like to be an alcoholic. One whisky sour makes me a little giddy, and as I know that another will make me ill, I never order it.
The closest I can come to understanding his craving for liquor is in my own mania to overeat. My life in the orphanage with its dearth of good meals and affection created insecurities in me that I quench, not with alcohol, but with food. A hunger for food has always been with me, and I alternate between the comfort of stuffing myself and the stringent effort of dietingbecause I am depressed at being fat—and since the 1950s I have been more often fat than thin.
I can therefore understand something about giving in to a compulsion which one knows is self-destructive. Aside from not helping my health, my overeating destroys my self-confidence, making me withdrawn and insecure. At those times I prefer to stay at home, wearing an old dressing gown, as Scott did when drinking. But falling off the food wagon has never been like Scott's liquor, a matter of life and death, and it has never reached the insane proportions of his histrionic intake.
When Scott was on the drink, he seemed just as mad as Zelda. You could never anticipate what he was going to do. And while this could be exciting, it became unnerving when he erupted, as he so often did, into violence or cruelty. There was the time in the summer of 1939 when he started breaking up the stairway at Belly Acres. Edward Everett Horton, who was very proud of having a once-famous author as a tenant, decided to please some guests by bringing them over for an introduction. As they entered the house, they saw Scott, sitting on the stairs, maniacally tearing out the wooden railings and hurling them down. Horton and his friends beat a hasty retreat.
When I think about this incident, I wonder if there is much difference between drunken and mad behavior. Perhaps one feels that the drunk is indulging himself whereas the insane person has no choice. And therefore one holds the drunk more blameworthy. It seems to me that Scott's drunkenness gave him the excuse to unleash his hostility on the world, to say and do terrible things to people that were part of his response to them but that he wouldn't dream of expressing when he was sober. It was Robert Benchley who, early in my time with Scott, told me about his behavior in the South of France, sending the tray of sweetmeats of an old woman vendor sky-high with a football kick. “That was awful,” I told Scott when I asked him if this were true. “Yes, but I paid her,” he replied. Somehow this made it worse.
Recently at the party Scottie gave for the opening of Paramount's remake of The Great Gatsby, one of the Fitzgerald second cousins told me of meeting Scott at a railway station in Asheville, North Carolina, and he'd really had a few, to put it mildly. A big man came swinging through a door onto the platform. Scott staggered up to him and said, “Sir, you have a big belly.” The man clutched his stomach and shrank away.
Perhaps a better analogy than insanity to Scott's drinking would be the rage of a spoiled child. Life frustrated him, and when the sweets were taken away, he kicked and screamed and tried to hurt everyone. I think his friends understood this about him, though I didn't at the time. Dorothy Parker and Marc Connelly, for example, accepted the drinking and treated him as a fine writer and a beautiful person with the charm of an endearing baby that you want to love and cuddle and give things to and satisfy, but can't.
I was less tolerant of the drinking because the demands it made on me were greater than those on his friends. Scott, I think, craved infinite succor from the world, especially from the women he loved. But I was not an inexhaustible goddess. No one is. And when I failed to satisfy him, he turned on me and even wanted to kill me in his terrible frustration. When he was drinking he tried to see how far he could punish me. But there were limits to what I could take. And that I think, in the end, was my great value for him. Even though he went away to Zelda when I cried, “Enough,” he always came back to me because I was teaching him, without realizing it, to accept responsibilities and limits. Looking at our time together in terms of what I might have done for him, I think this was my chief contribution to his life.
Published as The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thirty-Five Years Later by Sheilah Graham (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1976).