College of One
by Sheilah Graham

The Meeting of Professor and Pupil

From The Last Tycoon, Kathleen to Stahr:

”… the man I told you about knew everything and he had a passion for educating me. He made out schedules… He wanted me to read Spengler—everything was for that. All the history and philosophy and harmony, was all so I could read Spengler, and then I left him before we got to Spengler It was just in place of babies. … But it's so endless—the more you know the more there is just beyond, and it keeps on coming…”

“But you were in love with him.”

“Oh, yes—with all my heart.”

“The man” in The Last Tycoon was an ex—king. Kathleen was based a great deal on me. Stahr was a combination of Irving Thalberg, the producer who had been the boy wonder of Hollywood, and Scott Fitzgerald, the former boy wonder of American literature—but he was mostly Scott, and it was Scott who had “a passion for educating me”.

Soon after we started my education, Scott told me he would write a book “one day” about how to make learning interesting, to make the student eager to continue after high—school graduation or the college degree, to prove that even for the least brilliant scholar education need not be a boring headache, something to go through for the precious diploma. It could be stimulating and lasting—for the rest of one's life. With the enthusiastic involvement he brought to every project, he planned our College of One, a two—year course in which I was to be, the sole pupil. It worked so well that he tried to enrol his daughter, Scottie, three thousand miles away. Almost every letter he wrote her at this time was packed with advice for her reading, with tricky questions for her to answer on pain of losing her allowance. “A mere skim of the poems all at once will not possibly answer the questions asked,” he noted in pencil at the beginning of a typed list of twenty—eight poems. And, planning another scholastic trap: “Obscure lines, obscure characters. Different bks. On what poem of Keats (obscure). Something only I and she know. Family history. What character reminds her of etc. What question in beginning of book is like answer at end.” Scott and his daughter were not on good terms then, and she was understandably outraged. She was at Vassar, she reminded him tartly, and was already getting an education.

But mine had stopped at the age of fourteen. In the field of learning I was a raw beginner. I presented a fascinating challenge for my gifted amateur when he decided to instruct me. Scott Fitzgerald had a lifelong habit of taking people over, trying to improve what they were, hoping to imbue them with his enthusiasms. He could never resist a new project or problem. It was a way of life for him. The extent of his involvement depended on how much he liked you; as Scottie discovered, to her irritation, he really was attending Vassar with her. Even with new acquaintances he would go out of his way to help them. He especially enjoyed discovering and even creating new writers. After reading Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, he had written enthusiastically about him to his publisher, Maxwell Perkins, at Scribner's. He had helped Ernest Hemingway at the beginning of his career in Paris during the twenties, as he encouraged Budd Schulberg in the late thirties. Donald Ogden Stewart told me recently in London that he first met Scott in St Paul, Minnesota. “He showed me a shoe box filled with loose pages—his novel The Romantic Egotist, which later became This Side of Paradise. I was working for an insurance company, but wanted to be a writer. He gave meletters of introduction to Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, who were with Vanity Fair, and I became a writer.” He helped Zelda with her writing as he helped me with mine.

Scott was a flame, warming, illuminating, burning, until the fire was extinguished by his death at the age of forty—four. He never had any lasting doubt about his own position as a writer and a teacher, in spite of some of the letters he wrote when he was depressed. He knew he would live in literature. He was as careful with his letters and the ideas he expressed in them as he was with a story. He felt that whatever he wrote would be read again in the future. The day before he died, the Hollywood Reporter quoted Erich Pommer's definition of a Hollywood intellectual as “a fugitive from the F. Scott Fitzgerald era.” “You see, you are an era,” I teased him. He nodded thoughtfully. It was anguish for him to be out of print. “There is very little of what has been written in the past twenty years that does not bear my stamp,” he wrote Mr Perkins in 1940, when begging for a reprint of The Great Gatsby.

Scott Fitzgerald was forty years old when I first saw him in Robert Benchley's apartment at the Garden of Allah, Bastille Day, 14 July 1937. I didn't know it then, but he had come to Hollywood in a final attempt to conquer the film industry and at the same time pay his debts, which amounted to approximately $40,000. I had just become engaged to the Marquess of Donegall and was planning to give up my column in Hollywood for the life of a peeress in London. The last thing either Scott or I wanted was to fall in love. But we did, and, looking back, I know it was the best thing that could possibly have happened for us both. We were to help each other for the rest of our respective lives.

During our three and a half years together Scott seemed, from my vantage point, to be extremely well educated. His reading of history, politics, poetry, and the novel was enormous and never—ending. He possessed about fourhundred books in his Hollywood library, another two thousand in storage, and he knew them intimately. He had an open mind for every subject, spoken or written, although this was still a secret to some of his critics and admirers. In the New Republic, 17 February 1941, soon after Scott's death, Glenway Westcott wrote: “Aside from his literary genius … I think Fitzgerald must have been the worst educated man in the world.” Wesctott believed that Princeton, where Scott had learned to appreciate good authors, had not managed to give him confidence about his own merit as a writer. “He never knew his own strength. … When he was a freshman, did the seniors teach him a manly technique of drinking … ? If they had it might never have excited him as a vague, fatal moral issue.” In 1951, Malcolm Cowley, editing The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, stated, “He was not a student for all the books he read, not a theoretician, not a thinker.” In 1925, five years after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Edmund Wilson wrote, “He has been given imagination, without intellectual control of it.” However, soon after Scott's death, Wilson as editor of the unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, stated in the Foreword: “Monroe Stahr is really created from within at the same time that he is criticized by an intelligence that has now become sure of itself.” Scott would have been pleased that Wilson, his “literary conscience', was accepting him on his own high level.

Scott's own evaluation of his scholastic standing was written shortly before we met, “How I Would Grade My Knowledge at 40.” He had been almost as harsh on himself as his critics.

Literature and attendant arts


History and Biography






Military Tactics & Strategy








Marxian Economics


Everything else way below educated average, including all science, natural history, music, politics, business, handicrafts, etc. etc. save for some specialized sport knowledge—boxing, football, women, etc.


Today there is less scepticism of Scott's wide range of intellectual interests. With each new book about or by him, especially The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is the realization that he knew a great deal about many things. He had learned to theorize, to think, although he was always less interested in the dissection of his reading than in the enjoyment he received. In the last years of his life he had learned to make mature decisions privately and quietly. He no longer felt impelled to boast about what he knew.

It is true he was ignorant in his youth. It was hard for him to get into Princeton and harder for him to stay there. He had to repeat part of his junior year—contrary to printed reports, he did not actually flunk—and went into the Army in his senior year before he could graduate. Scott's excuse for his academic incompetence was that he suffered from periodic tuberculosis. It seems to me that he was interested in too many extracurricular projects—getting into a good club, writing for The Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit. “I want to pull strings,” says Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, “even for somebody else—or be Princetonian Chairman or Triangle President. I want to be admired.” Scott wanted to be admired, to be a leader—except in the classroom, where he was too impatient with the slow process of learning. The plodding and minute dissection were not for him. He wanted the successful end without the grinding application.

“There was a need for more contact between professor and pupil,” Scott believed—another explanation of hisacademic failure. I was luckier. I had an enthusiastic teacher who was never too busy or too tired—and God knows he was a tired, busy man—to explain, discuss, and render fascinating everything he had taught himself from books.

Our project gave Scott enormous satisfaction. He was doing something valuable. He was saving at least one sheep from the abyss of ignorance. Later he would put it all in a book and save the others. He was a stern professor. I worked hard. When the going was rough, he would comfort me: “Never mind, most college graduates are just as ignorant.” He jeered at me once. I can't remember the provocation, only his irritated remark, 'Everyone knows that.” But when I sighed, “I'm so vulnerable,” he apologized, and it never happened again. He devoted hours a day for nearly two years—time he could not afford—to our experiment in education.

Scanning the lists of titles, I am sure that if Scott were planning the courses today, some of the books would be eliminated, others certainly added. In the late thirties Communism and “the Revolution” were the burning topics. Near the beginning of The Last Tycoon the stewardess tells Cecilia of a young actress who had appeared to be contemplating a jump from the plane—'she was not afraid of poverty, but only of revolution,” “I know what Mother and I are going to do,' she confided to the stewardess. “We're coming out to the Yellowstone and we're just going to live simply until it all blows over.” Cecilia tells the stewardess of the lawyer and the director who have their plans all ready for the revolution. “The lawyer had a boat hidden in the Sacramento River and he was going to row upstream for a few months and then come back, because they always needed lawyers after a revolution to straighten out the legal side.” The director “had an old suit, shirt and shoes in waiting and he was going to Disappear into the Crowd.” “But they'll look at your hands. They'll know you haven't done any manual work for years … and they'll ask for your union card.'Scott told me this conversation had actually taken place with a director we both knew. It would have been interesting to have his impressions on the segregation problems, which may one day be as old—fashioned as yesterday's “revolution”. Scott knew the South well through Zelda. It is hard to imagine that he would not have written a novel on the racial turmoil of the last decade.

So much has happened since Scott's death. I remember saying with a sigh, “And Scott doesn't know,” when Hitler in 1941 marched against Russia instead of invading England as we had expected in 1940. Television had been invented before Scott died, but the war had postponed its use in this country. The long—playing record appeared after Scott's death, and this would have changed my course in music. The best writers, critics, and historians of the forties, fifties, and sixties would undoubtedly have appeared on my curriculum.

Scott imagined a Diamond as Big as the Ritz. What would he have done with the atom bomb and the gigantic flights into outer space; the alarming expansion of population, the murder of the Jews in Europe? Korea, Vietnam? I would give ten of my remaining years to hear Scott expound on these matters. However, I believe that for the most part he set down in his lists for me that which will endure. The best that any education can do is to add understanding of the past and present, to gird one for the future, to sharpen the intelligence, to enable one to evaluate whatever comes along, to listen, to learn, to question, to be interested in what is going on, to be involved, to believe “this concerns me', above all to keep the mind alive. This is what I believe Scott Fitzgerald did for me in his College of One.

Next Chapter 3

Published as College Of One by Sheilah Graham (New York: Viking, 1967).