College of One
by Sheilah Graham

Swimming Upstream

John Wheeler of the North American Newspaper Alliance liked my articles. He signed a letter stating we would share in the proceeds from them. Elated, I sent cables to my friends in England with the news that from now on I would be making a hundred dollars a week—I had asked a newspaperman how much I could earn from syndication. I had to keep impressing people with my cleverness. What else did I have to offer? Only Johnny believed there was something more than a pretty face. But I didn't believe in Johnny.

Until I met Fitzgerald, no one had cared to probe far enough to learn how much I was suffering because of my inadequacies. Johnny was concerned only with my social behaviour; otherwise he considered me perfect. It did not occur to him that what I needed most in the world into which he had plunged me was to return to school. To him it was more important for me to look as though I belonged and to be able to function in the realistic world of earning money.

Before Johnny, I had not cared about being anything but what I was, a girl from the East End who found delight in looking at the West End but who could never be part of it. Now it was all jumbled, and I didn't seem to belong anywhere, certainly not with the new batch of society people in New York—the Astors, the McAdoos, the Bakers, the Donahues, the Cosdens, the Lawrences —to whom I had letters of introduction and who invited me for week—ends to their country homes, where I felt out of place and uncomfortable. I preferred my visits to Judge Smith's family, who lived on the Philadelphia Main Line.I had met Sam Smith in England; he had been at Oxford with my friends the Ian Bowaters. Sam's brother Ludlow Smith was married to Katharine Hepburn, but I didn't meet her then because she was in a play in New York. The Smiths had coloured servants, and this enchanted me. Biscuits were called cookies. I liked that. Sam's mother, a gracious lady, took me to lunch at the home of a friend who collected rare manuscripts, chiefly of Doctor Samuel Johnson. They were in glass cases and on stands and must be handled with the utmost care. While I was in Philadelphia, I visited the Philadelphia Ledger and sold them a story for their Sunday magazine comparing English and American society girls, I who was an impostor with both. I went to the offices of the Saturday Evening Post and received a tentative commission to write a piece on Lord Beaverbook, but nothing came of it except meeting him.

I loved New York. Half the people I met had been millionaires before the 1929 crash and were now broke; the Josh Cosdens had been worth two hundred million dollars. They still had the penthouse overlooking the East River, but when they had entertained the Prince of Wales the servants went on strike in the middle of dinner for their unpaid wages. Lee Orwell had been vice—president of the National City Bank. All he had left was his beautiful New York town house, which he was desperately trying to sell. Gerry Dahl, who had been the head of the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Corporation, a New York subway company, didn't have a dime to his name. 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was the popular song of the day. Men were selling apples on all the street—corners, it seemed. Tim Durant, married to the daughter of Marjorie Post, took me to Wall Street and talked of the stockbrokers who had been wiped out overnight. It was all on such a big scale that I found it oddly exciting. In 1931 the depression was worse than ever, but people were still saying, “It will soon be over.” When I returned in 1933, they were reconciled to it.

I had hoped to find a rescuer in New York, in what I had first imagined was a city of millionaires. But the millionaires were poor and the rescuer had not materialized. I left New York in the evening, which made it more depressing. Two acquaintances with whom I had dined at the Plaza dropped me off at the boat when they discovered I was going alone. From my cabin on the Aquitania I could hear the gay parties and happy shouts. On deck Rosa Ponselle was singing “The Star Spangled Banner'; then came her cry, “To the next President of the United States!” Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was on board with his son Elliott. They were going to Paris to visit his mother. I was full of self—pity and wept uncontrollably.

In London I was more restless and dissatisfied than I had ever been. Waiting impatiently for sales and cheques from John Wheeler, I decided to write a book, the story of my life as fiction. The title, Shadow Leaves, was from a poem by Edith Sitwell. (Scott's first story at Princeton was titled “Shadow Laurels', one of the many coincidences of our lives.) I had met Miss Sitwell briefly on a country week—end and my hostess had given me her new book of poems. In the verses of 'Shadow Leaves', whenever the wind blew the leaves shifted to a different pattern. My life had been like that, changing with every wind. In the part of the book concerning my marriage, the husband was a weakling. Johnny recognized himself, and it made him unhappy.

My friends knew I was writing a book. The chief reason for doing it was to impress them. Always when we met they would say, “How is the book coming along?” As time passed, they wanted to know when it would be published. To retain their admiration, I gave a date of publication even before I submitted Shadow Leaves to the first publisher. It was winter, then spring, then summer, then winter and spring and summer again. I imagined they were beginning to doubt whether I really had written  a book,  especially  as  I always  had time  fortennis, squash, and week—ends in the country. Finally, it was finished.

“The grammar will have to be corrected,” said Johnny. “Otherwise it's brilliant. I just wish I could have been a better husband, and then Buchanan”—my name for him in the book; there was Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby—'would not have been so dreadful.” I assured Johnny that he was not like Buchanan.

A dozen publishers refused the book and now I avoided my friends, who had thought I was a “clever puss”. And then, as always in my life, it seems, I was saved from exposure. Mr Cowan, of the new publishing house of Rich and Cowan, wrote asking to see me. Johnny and I were wild with excitement when his letter came. Obviously he was planning to publish Shadow Leaves.

I trembled, sitting across the desk from the pleasantly plump, balding man who was tapping the table with my manuscript. His first words deflated the balloon. “Your book shows promise, but…”

How I always dread the 'but.” I cannot bear suspense; I always had to read the last page of a book first until Scott cured me. Rushing to the dreaded point, I asked, “Are you going to publish it?”

“No,” he replied, “but I think you have a talent for writing.” What good would it do me? I thought. Some good, it seemed. 'Shadow Leaves' he continued, “is obviously the story of your life.”

I had written of the orphanage, the stage, society. “Oh, no,” I lied.

“Every author's first book is an autobiography,” he told me flatly. “I doubt whether this book would sell six copies.”

“What does sell?' I asked him miserably.

“Mystery stories, murder stories, detective stories,” he replied. “Why don't you write one for us?”

I agreed reluctantly. I had to produce a book Rich and Cowan advanced me twenty—five pounds, and I used themoney to rent an office overlooking Trafalgar Square, where I could write twelve hours a day without interruption. I called the book Gentleman Crook. It was finished in two months, and, oh, the relief when it was accepted by Mr Cowan. I still have the postcard with my photograph used by the publisher to advertise the book. The text, in tiny print:

If the nineteenth—century Haddingtons had not been heavy gamblers and drinkers, David Haddington might have lived a peaceful existence at Stonehurst, the home of his ancestors for the past four hundred years. When, as the result of an aeroplane crash, his mother is killed, and David is thrown on the world, he determines to seek adventure and a fortune by any means, legitimate or otherwise.

His search leads him to the home of an international financier, a crooked millionaire newspaper owner, and the casino at Monte Carlo. How he eventually finds happiness is told in a manner that makes this first novel by a well—known journalist an entertaining and exciting story.

The “Excerpts [also printed on the postcard] from some of the many Press reviews received” were just as deceptively optimistic:

The author has no opinion of high so—called finance, and her book should make a big appeal to those who like revelations of this kind. (Morning Post.)

a thriller that is always entertaining. (L'p'l Evening Express.)

a very adroit piece of journeyman work. (Glasgow Herald.)

It was early 1933. Gentleman Crook would be published in August. The expected elation was absent. Again I wondered why it had been necessary to impress a handful of people who would not have cared whether I wrote a book or not.

It was Johnny who advised me to go to New York again. “This time you will go as the author of a book,' he said proudly. Nothing had come of my signed letter from the North American Newspaper Alliance. My Catholic admirer had died, and Johnny had lost his job. 'JohnWheeler will sell your articles when he knows you are having a book published,” he was sure. Johnny was positive it would be a best—seller. I was not. In actual fact, the twenty—five pounds advance was all I received.

I decided to go to New York before the book was published. I could be more confident as an author with a book about to appear than as one whose novel had failed. I sailed on the Aquitania in June. “I'll send for you when I get settled,' I promised Johnny. But we both knew the marriage was over. He loved me and he told me years afterwards he had prayed for my happiness in America.

I would work hard, I vowed, as the ship slid into the dock, guided by the busy tugboats. I too would find a secure harbour. It was 96 degrees, the sun was blazing, and I sweated in my dark green velvet suit with its glimpse of an orange silk blouse. I barely noticed the heat, with too much else to worry about. There could be no turning back. There was no one and nowhere to turn back to.

Mr Wheeler did not sell my articles, but I landed a reporting job on the New York Mirror, then overlapped it with another job on the New York Journal. I was charged with determination and a flood of energy, writing a column for the women's page, interviewing convicted murderers, the mother of President Roosevelt (she was full of anecdotes about “my son Franklin'), movie stars who came to New York (Carole Lombard, Merle Oberon, Leslie Howard, Claudette Colbert), the chief executioner at Sing Sing. I covered the Hauptmann trial, a murder trial in Massachusetts of three students from MIT, and Mrs Gloria Vanderbilt's fight for the custody of her daughter. I wrote for magazines—Vogue, the Delineator. I earned between three and five hundred dollars a week. I could afford to be generous to Johnny.

There were new friends and acquaintances: Quentin Reynolds, Steve Hannagan, Deems Taylor, Ruth Hale, Heywood Broun, the Gene Tunneys, Clare Boothe, who was not yet Mrs Henry Luce, A. C. Blumenthal, the promoter, and Mario Braggiotti, the pianist, wholived inmy apartment house, the Beaux Arts. Mario and his family, I was told, had been the inspiration for the book and play The Constant Nymph.

I had vowed I would not feel inferior to anyone again. But Americans were not like the British. They delighted in talking about what they knew, whether it was politics, poetry, painting, books, or music. They were always having discussions, and I would sit silent and strained, not knowing quite what to say, where to look. I remember a conversation introduced by Clare Boothe at John Wheeler's apartment: Which of these celebrities would get the most newspaper coverage if all of them died on the same day: the Pope, President Roosevelt, the Prince of Wales, or Charlie Chaplin? John thought the President; Mrs Boothe Charlie Chaplin. Everyone but me had an opinion.

World affairs and education in America were in the open. The Americans did not know more than the British, I was sure, but they discussed more. If only I had not wasted those years with the charming society people in England, but had employed someone to teach me about these things. Who was Einstein? And was it Froude or Freud and what was the difference?

Mario Braggiotti asked me with a small group of his friends to hear him play. When it was my turn for a favourite piece, I was embarrassed until I remembered a song I had learned at the orphanage. I hummed it to Mario and it turned out to be Brahms” “Cradle Song”. An intellectual—sounding composer. I was pleased. I sang it for them rather quaveringly.

Angels whisper good night in silvery light,
To watch over you, the whole night through,
And to bear you above, to the dreamland of love,
And to bear you above, to the dreamland of love.

The lullaby was always my “favourite piece”. I met Mario again recently, but he had forgotten. I can never forget my discomfort and anxiousness as I watched his fingersflying up and down the keyboard, careful to avoid his face, hoping he would not ask for another piece.

When John Wheeler offered me the N.A.N.A. column in Hollywood, I jumped at the chance. Hollywood was notorious even in London for the ignorance of the people who made the films. I would be comfortable there. No one could embarrass me with erudite conversation. Most of the men who ran the film industry had not gone to college, but had sold newspapers, or had been furriers or glove salesmen before becoming movie tycoons. Irving Thalberg, still called the boy genius, had dropped out of high school and taken a business course. He had worked as a secretary for Carl Laemmle, Sr, who brought him to Hollywood. If a boy without much education was regarded as a genius, I knew I could interview him without embarrassment. I would be comfortable with the uneducated people in Hollywood.

But it was in Hollywood, unexpectedly, that my ignorance on most subjects was most noticeable. Mr Wheeler had given me a letter of introduction to Robert Benchley, who was then acting in the numerous shorts he wrote for the Metro—Goldwyn—Mayer Studio. Through Bob, who was sophisticated and looked like a happy walrus, I met Marc Connelly, the playwright of Green Pastures; John O'Hara, who had been acclaimed in 1934 for his first novel, Appointment in Samarra; Dorothy Parker, who always called Bob Mr Benchley; Edwin Justus Mayer, whose play on Cellini, The Firebrand, had resulted in a Hollywood contract to write screenplays for Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper; Sam Behrman; John Huston; millionaire Jock Whitney; John Barrymore; Roland Young; Donald Ogden Stewart; Charlie Butterworth, Bob's close drinking companion. And Scott Fitzgerald.

They had known each other casually in New York during the early days of the Smart Set and Vanity Fair. Bob, who was not particularly fond of Scott, told me of the incident in the South of France when Scott, tipsy, had taken a flying football kick at an old woman vendor's trayand sent the sweetmeats flying. He had paid for the candy, but it was dreadful. Scott told me later that he believed Bob was jealous of his early fame. There had been a cocktail party for Scott in New York. “Everyone was struggling to talk to me. I saw Bob on the fringe of the crowd watching me, and there was real animosity on his face.”

Writers were almost outcasts in Hollywood. They clung together even when they did not like each other. Learning from Miss Parker that Scott was living in one of the bungalows at the Garden of Allah where writers from the East stayed to save themselves the bother of a long lease and housekeeping, Benchley asked him to stop by for the party he was giving to celebrate my engagement to the Marquess of Donegall. In The Last Tycoon, Scott transposed our first encounter to have Kathleen and her friend Edna float on to the back lot of the studio on top of the huge detached head of the god Siva during an earthquake. The hero, Stahr, believed Kathleen was wearing a belt with cut—out stars. It was the other woman who wore the belt, he discovered after finding her. When Bob realized that Scott had left the party, he called asking him to come back. “Who is still there?” Scott asked cautiously. He was not drinking, and he found the merrymakers hard to take when he was sober. There were not many left, but among others Bob described Tala Birell, a blonde actress. The name and description seemed to fit the girl Scott had observed sitting quietly amid the noise and the swirling gaiety. He had noticed her belt with small stars cut in the leather. She was the only person besides himself who was not drinking. He returned but excused himself quickly when he realized his mistake. Miss Birell was wearing the belt, but she was not the girl.

I had been aware of him, wondering about the man under the lamp in shades of palest blue who was so detached from everyone there—a face emerging from the smoke of his cigarette. When I looked again, the chair was empty. I saw him a few evenings later at the Anti—Nazi League dinner at the Cocoanut Grove, chaired byDorothy Parker. Scott was one of her guests at the long table facing mine, at which Marc Connelly was host. Everyone else was dancing. We smiled as we recognized each other. Before going off with Donegall, I had asked Bob who the man was who had vanished so abruptly. When he replied, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I was interested. I had heard of him; he was the man who wrote of the flaming youth of the twenties. I was sorry he had gone. He would have been worth a paragraph for my column. And now here he was, seeming so pleased to see me.

“I like you,” he said.

“I like you,” I replied. I was flirting and should have felt guilty, but did not. That very day Don had flown back to London to tell his mother, the Marchioness of Donegall, of our engagement. “Let's dance,” I suggested.

But the people were coming back through the looking glass, as Scott described this encounter between Kathleen and Stahr in The Last Tycoon, and we had to meet a third time before we danced and fell in love.

I had planned to go to the Hollywood Bowl with Jonah Ruddy, the Hollywood correspondent for the London Daily Mail. He was already at the house when Eddie Mayer called and invited me to dine with him and Scott Fitzgerald. Jonah grumbled at the waste of tickets but came with me. While Scott and I danced at the Clover Club, Eddie and Jonah seemed faraway murals on a wall. “We ought to go back to them,” I said after each dance but we did not. We danced or stood waiting for the music to start again while Scott asked questions about me and my forthcoming marriage to Lord Donegall and he held me close while my “dark gold” hair tickled his chin. “Is it getting in your mouth?” I asked coquettishly. He swung me out, or walked loosely around me, then close again, and I was having a wonderful time. There was no one there with second sight to tell me, “Here is the person for whom you have been searching so desperately, who will give you comfort and love and anguish, and the education for which you have longed.”

Next Chapter 5

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