College of One
by Sheilah Graham


He was on his final binge. It had lasted longer than all the others combined—on and off all through the summer of 1939—and it was completely out of control by the beginning of November. The rejection by Collier's magazine of the first part of The Last Tycoon had shattered him. He had counted on the money. He was glad to have had Scottie with him during the summer, but his nerves were worn to a hairline strand and there had been great tension. After she left—he had needed to borrow money from Gerald Murphy to pay for her Vassar tuition—he seemed determined to drink himself to death.

I had come to Encino late in the afternoon to find Scott giving his money and clothes to two disreputable—looking men he had picked up somewhere on the road. When I ejected them, he struck me and shouted, “I'm going to kill you.” He searched ineffectually for his gun, which Frances and I had hidden on a top shelf in the cupboard in the kitchen. The nurse Dr Nelson had sent a few days previously heard the shouting and ran hastily downstairs from his bedroom, where she had been tidying up following his rampage through his clothes to give most of them to his new “friends”. When she tried to pacify him—'Mr Fitzgerald, please be calm”—he screamed all the secrets of my humble beginning I had told him, believing they would be safe with him. And because he was immediately ashamed of having betrayed me, he turned on the nurse and kicked her violently on the shinbone. She was terrified, believing she now had a madman to contend with, and, giving me a despairing look, fled. I knew Scott too well by this time to be really afraid. He was being “thebad brownie” he told me his mother used to call him when he misbehaved as a boy. But I knew I must be careful. In his frustration he could become dangerous, and while he guarded the kitchen door to prevent my escape, I called the police without giving my name and told them to come at once, and then he let me go. I almost felt sorry for him. He was so helpless and childish, but I was so ragingly angry all I wanted was to leave as quickly as possible, and this time I would never ever see him again. Soon after I left, he told me later, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, but he had become so accustomed to them it had merely resulted in a long and necessary sleep.

I did not see him again until early January 1940, but I continued my College of One. It had become a way of life for me. It was harder doing it alone, but I had long conversations on the books with Eddie Mayer, Irwin Shaw, Benchley, Buff Cobb, and all the clever people I was seeing again.

When I returned to Scott, it seemed that we had both come of age. We would have almost a year of quiet happiness. There were no more fights, no more swearing, no more drunkenness, although Miss Kroll is sure that, when I went to Dallas in September for the premiere of Gary Cooper's film The Westerner, Scott took her brother, Morton, with her to Victor's restaurant in Hollywood, where he downed a whole bottle of wine. She is sure it was 1940, “because afterwards we went back to his apartment in Hollywood, where he drank some Scotch and I was terribly upset because he had been on the” wagon so long.” Nineteen—forty was the only time except in the beginning, at the Garden of Allah, that Scott had an apartment in Hollywood. He had left Encino in May 1940; we had decided the heat of another summer in the valley was impossible. “I was worried that it was the start of another drinking period,” Frances told me. According to Frances, there were some other times in 1940 when Scott drank hard liquor. I am not convinced she has her datesright. Dr Nelson assured me that to his certain knowledge Scott did not drink in the twelve months before he died. Frances, who adored him, believes that he did. At Encino she had been made to put the empty bottles in a burlap bag and drop them over Coldwater Canyon on her drive home. “When he lived in Hollywood, there was no reason for me to drive over the Canyon, so the bottles were put in an ordinary bag and placed with the garbage in front of the apartment house. He was quite alarmed one evening when you accidentally kicked the bag as you were walking to his car. He was also amused and told me he would have liked to share the joke with you.”

So it could be true that he was drinking in 1940. If he was, he had won a greater victory than I knew. Previously, once he started to drink, he could not stop. It had been like that all his life. A few drinks today, twice as much tomorrow, and on and on until the collapse. Then the drying out period; sober for a few weeks or a few months; then he started again. But except for the night I was away in September, I saw him many hours of every day, and he seemed completely sober. I often wondered whether he would drink again when The Last Tycoon was finished, and I sometimes hoped he would go on writing it forever. But if Frances is right, it wouldn't have mattered. It is all right to drink if you can stop when you have had enough. Perhaps he was in control of his drinking then because he had no valid reason to get drunk.

Like Cooper, the “tall mule skinner', Scott had sailed into a harbour of sorts in this last year of his life. He had come to terms with himself for almost the first time. It was a calm year, a year of stability. He was not trying to impress anyone; he could relate to the normal. Being admired was not as important to him as finishing his novel. He was no longer fighting what he could not change. He still wrote loving letters to Zelda; they continued until the week before his death. But he had lost the unbearable guilt that had caused him to drink so fiercely whenever he visited her. He knew he had not caused herinsanity, as her family had accused him of doing. He knew she would never get much better, but it was possible, the doctors told him, that she could in time live quietly with her mother in Alabama. He would always take care of her and always love and pity her, but it was over and the knowledge brought him peace.

Scottie was doing better at Vassar. She was off probation. He wrote in March 1940: “I was incredibly happy that the cloud had lifted!” He was proud that she had written a play for the college and two short stories for The New Yorker, although he did not want her using her name of Frances Scott Fitzgerald. It was too similar to his own, and he was not ready for a “hungry generation” to tread him down. It was understood that she would not come to Hollywood again until the book was finished. He now realized that he was unable to cope with the problems of being a father except at long distance. His misgivings that Scottie would become a delinquent daughter were disappearing; her letters were proof of her growing maturity. He was ecstatic when she became an enthusiastic Democrat in her sophomore year. “She has made the vital leap to responsibility,” he exulted.

I had rarely interfered between them except in my role as buffer, but now I told Scott, “You owe it to your talent to stop worrying over Zelda and Scottie. If you want to be among the great writers, you must have more important output. Keats and Shelley died young, but they had written so many wonderful things. You have wasted so much of your life. You have written stories that have embarrassed you. You must give all the time you have left to your writing.” He put some of this in a letter to Scottie: “I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back, but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I've found my line—from now on, this comes first. This is my immediate duty. Without this I am nothing.” He would, of course, always be concerned about his wife and his daughter, but he did relinquish a great deal of the anxiety.

As for me, he knew I had accepted the fact that in allprobability we would never be able to marry. He was a conventional man at heart, and he would have preferred to make me his wife. Stahr had not planned to marry Kathleen at the beginning of The Last Tycoon, but he was getting more and more in love with her and this had changed the focus of the novel. Shortly before his death Scott wrote to Max Perkins, asking him to return the chapters he had already sent him, as some of the material was no longer valid and he planned considerable changes. I was no longer “punishing him with my silences”. We loved each other, and that was enough for me. If I lived forever, I could never pay my debt to him for the love and education he was giving me. We had enormous respect for each other. What we had together could not be measured by a wedding ring. I was aware of my good fortune. How many women ever have a Scott Fitzgerald? He could never be promiscuous. He idealized women. It was necessary for him to have the woman, and especially in the last year of his life, I was the woman. If we could not marry, it was a comfort to him that he was doing something extraordinarily valuable for me in our College of One. I've heard teachers say, “If I can reach only one of my pupils, I will be satisfied.” Scott reached the whole class.

He was annoyed with me once or twice in that last year. He had come to my apartment and discovered I was reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. “But this will make you hate reading,” he stormed, grabbing it from my hands. I had to confess that How to Read a Book was hard to read. He was sarcastic when I told him that Lew Ayres, the actor, had told me on the set of Doctor Kildare that he was ploughing through “The 100 Great Books” as lately photographed on three shelves by Life magazine. “He won't learn a thing from them,” my jealous professor assured me. Without telling me, Scott checked his list against theirs: “5 in the first row, 6 in the second, 10 in the third—a total of 21 books.” I found this list later at Princeton labelled: “Progress in 100 Books”.

He was happier in that last year because of the months working on “Babylon Revisited” and The Last Tycoon. He had given up the idea of wanting to conquer Hollywood. When he had arrived in the summer of 1937, he had been full of dreams that this time he would beat them, he would force them to make films his way. “Movies can be literate as well as commercial,” he was sure. He had a daring idea. “Why can't the writer also be the director? One man in control from the inception of the film to the finish.” This is quite usual now, but Scott was laughed at when he suggested it in 1937. The system of relays of writers on each film had disillusioned him long before the last year. It was all beyond his control, and what was the use of writing the best he could when the chances were almost certain that someone would rewrite everything he did? With each job, his enthusiasm had diminished.

In the spring of 1940 he wrote to the Gerald Murphys: “My great dreams about this place are shattered.' And in September: “… I find after a long time out here that one develops new attitudes. It is such a slack soft place that withdrawal is practically a condition of safety … everywhere there is, after a moment, either corruption or indifference.” However, at the end of this letter he felt “a certain rebirth of kinetic impulses—however misdirected.” “Isn't Hollywood a dump?” he wrote a friend in the summer of 1940, “in the human sense of the word? A hideous town pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of human spirit as a new low of debasement.” When The Last Tycoon was finished, we would leave Hollywood and never return except for a great deal of money for his stories or scripts. Now, of course, his work is earning the 'great deal of money” he once longed for, and at least the irony of these posthumous rewards is softened by the fact that he left a living heir.

Scott was so sure we would leave Hollywood “and travel” by the time I had graduated from the College of One that early in December he started to worry about a jobfor Frances Kroll. “What would you do,” he asked her, “if we should go away?” Frances was twenty—one and not a bit worried about the future. She has long since married and has two teenage children.

Scott was having minor heart trouble early in 1940, and we did not know about it until December, when it was too late to save him. In a letter dated 7 February, to Dr Nelson, he mentioned that he was being more active “than at any time since I took to bed last March. I suppose that my absolutely dry regime has something to do with it, but not everything. Oddly enough, the little aches around the elbow and shoulder return from time to time whenever I have had a great orgy of cokes and coffee.” The aches and pains in his arms had increased when we drove to Del Monte, three hundred miles north, between Los Angeles and San Francisco, for the two weeks of my vacation in June, and we still did not know it was his heart. He was irritable, complained of feeling ill, and remained in his room during the day while I read and read. He would feel a little better in the evening and we could discuss my reading quietly.

I did not know it, but he was poorer then than he had ever been in his life. After his death, there was $706 cash in hand, Frances Kroll wrote Judge Briggs; $613.25 would go for burial expenses: “casket and services $410; shipping $30; city tax $1.50; transportation (to Baltimore) $117.78.” His worldly goods consisted of

1 trunkful of clothes

4 crates of books

1 carton of scrapbooks and photographs

1  small trunk with some personal effects—the Christmas presents sent him, personal jewellery (watch, cuff links), several scrapbooks and photographs

2  wooden work tables, lamp, radio

Is this how a man ends?—a few crates “dumped to nothing by the great janitress of destinies” (from the brief verse found in his desk after his death).

The cash balance had sometimes been less when he was alive. In July 1940 he wrote Zelda to hold off cashing a cheque because his credit in the bank was only $11. It might have been at this time that he listed the possible monetary value of his first, sometimes autographed, editions. He expected to realize $25 from nine autographed Mencken books (some firsts); $5 from Tarkington's Seventeen (autographed); $5 from Dos Passos” Three Soldiers (with autographed card); two books by Charles Norris (autographed), $15; $2 from Jurgen (autographed); $3 from Emperor Jones (first). “400 books,” he wrote, “range 10cto $1.50, average 40c. Probable value of library at forced sale $300.”

He seemed better when we were back in Hollywood. The books he loved were still in his apartment, his secretary was available, it was easier for him to work. He thought he could finish the first draft of the book by the end of the year.

During those last months I did my week—end reading on the balcony of his top—floor apartment or in his living room, sitting on what he called his “vomit—green” sofa, while he worked on the desk across his knees in the bedroom. The quietness was sometimes disrupted by the huge woman in the opposite apartment who earned her living screaming and laughing for actresses on radio. She seemed to be always rehearsing—except in the early morning, when she exercised her dog on the roof immediately above Scott, causing him to write an anguished letter to the landlady: “… I know dog racing is against the law in California, so thought you'd like to know that beneath the arena where these races occur, an old and harassed literary man is gradually going mad.”

But mostly he was content. He was delighted when Frances Kroll informed him that her younger brother, Morton, and his friends were reading Fitzgerald in college. He had thought he had been forgotten long since by the new generation. He was always very sensitive and easily deflated. When he telephoned Norma Shearer totell her that Stahr in The Last Tycoon was based in part on her late husband, Irving Thalberg, she did not return his call. She had been a good friend on his previous visits to Hollywood. “She doesn't want anything to do with me,” Scott said resignedly, after writing her a letter that she did not answer.

His unswerving regard for Hemingway as a writer had diminished after reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. “It's not up to his standard,” he assured me. “He wrote it for the movies.” Nonetheless, it had become a habit to prostrate himself before Hemingway, who had inscribed the copy: “To Scott with affection and esteem.” He wrote Hemingway a glowing letter, calling it a fine novel and frankly envying him the financial success that would give him the freedom to write as he pleased. In that last year he complained that “Hemingway has become a pompous bore.” Zelda was sure that Hemingway was a homosexual. It had been hate at first sight between them. She was suspicious of a man with such an obsession about physical bravery. She was sure he had been in love with Scott. Scott's time was more limited than Hemingway's, but Scott had the better end. There was no drinking, no insanity, no suicide. And great hope. Hemingway believed he was finished as a writer. Scott was working on a book He might have been surprised that critical posterity has placed him on a pedestal as high as his idol's. But he might not have been. He knew that his last book, about Hollywood, would be better than Hemingway's story of the Spanish Civil War.

Next Chapter 11

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