College of One
by Sheilah Graham

What I Learned

How valuable was Scott Fitzgerald's education for me in actual fact? Scott's death prevented my graduation from his College of One. But in a sense I have had my diploma through my daughter, Wendy, who graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr. Her honours paper was titled, “F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Tragic Experience of the Creative Hero”. She has her M.A. and is now studying for her Ph.D. My son wrote a book when he was sixteen about his experiences in Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia the previous summer. The New York Times rated his Journey Behind the Iron Curtain with the 100 Best Books For Children in 1963. The reviewer for the Times, comparing Robert's book with five others on the same subject written by adults (including John Gunther's two books culled from his Inside Russia) stated: “Of the books here, the best introduction to Communism by far is teenager Robert Westbrook's…. The point that comes through in young Mr Westbrook's tale—and which escapes much other and more learned literature in this field—is that communists are people too—good people and bad people, pleasant people and boors___”

The torch has been passed. The seed Scott planted with his dying years will bloom forever in the dust of his bosom.

Of course I have not remembered everything I learned in our College of One. If I had to take my examination now, twenty—six years later, I would have to bone up for several months, as any college graduate would have to do. Following Scott's habit of grading his knowledge, I would say that in the areas in which I studied I know as much as any fairly bright college graduate who has forgotten some of what she has learned. Perhaps I know a bit more of poetry and literature. I have the same amount of confidence and assurance in participating in discussions on the subjects I studied so assiduously as the sole student in Scott's college.

A two—year course or even four years cannot educate you, in the complete sense of the word, but it gave me, as I said at the beginning of this book, a key. It widened my horizon. I know where to look. I know how to evaluate. I am curious. I am open for new ideas and facts. The politicians and biased historians cannot fool me any more. To understand the present and future, you must know something of the past. I can relate today to yesterday. I am involved. I make up my own mind. I ask questions.

I have discovered that the more people know, the more they enjoy telling you about it. Not long ago in Paris, for example, I had a fascinating— discussion with Edmund Wilson on where you put the comma. I didn't retain it all, but I found the conversation exhilarating. When I first met Bernard Shaw with C. B. Cochran, I wouldn't have dared talk with him and even in the year after Scott's death I was not too confident in discussing my new knowledge. But I continued with my reading. Recently, for example, I have enjoyed John Keats: The Making of a Poet, by Aileen Ward; William Shakespeare by A. L. Rowse; W. A. Swanberg's Dreiser; and The Letters of Oscar Wilde, which I am sure Scott would have enjoyed as much as the Turnbull book of his own letters. I have read Salinger and Camus and Yeats and Dylan Thomas, whose prose (though not his verse) and addiction to hard liquor were so much like Scott's.

It isn't only what you learn as a student, it's what you do with it in the unshepherded world where there are no familiar tracks, where there is no longer a teacher to pressure or to prod you into reading so many pages a day. With the right groundwork, you can go on by yourself,receiving pleasure from books and ideas for the rest of your life, which was the case with Scott and which has been true for me. And one of these days soon I am going to read Finnegan's Wake and Spengler.

“If you learn to like poetry, it will give you pleasure all your life,” Scott promised me. It has. And the joy of music. Recently I underwent some serious eye operations and had to lie flat on my back for three weeks with both eyes bandaged, with sandbags around my head to prevent the slightest movement. I could reach for my bedside radio and turn the knob fixed at the music station —Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Stravinsky—hour after hour. Time turned back and I was in the living room of my Hollywood apartment listening to the familiar themes of the great composers.

The books. They are still warm and alive for me. Not long ago when I was moving from the West Coast to the East, and the books were ready for the packing cases, I decided to take some of them with me on the plane so I could put them on my shelves as soon as I arrived. I opened Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism. On the flyleaf I read again “For Sheilah, with love (and annotations) from Scott. 1940.” What if I crash? I thought. No, it was too dangerous to take the books with me. I hastily removed from my suitcase Arthur Rimbaud's slim Season in Hell. I couldn't risk losing that, or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises with the inscription from Scott: “For Sheilah, from Boris Karloff. Boo!” or Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Not a first edition, but The Jungle couldn't fly with me either. Keats. What was I thinking of? All the books would have to come by Railway Express as they always had. If anything happened to me in the plane, they would be safe.

As a good student of the College of One, I have been able to help my children. I am not outside the circle when they discuss books and current events with their college friends. They are not embarrassed by me. My daughter Wendy always asked my advice about the long papersshe had to write in high school and college. When she was preparing one paper in high school on the tragedies of Shakespeare, we discussed the project in detail. Afterwards she said, “Mother, you know so much.” It was like getting my B.A. Not long ago Wendy and Robert invited a group of graduate students at Columbia to dinner. I decided to make myself scarce and went to a movie, coming back when I thought dinner would be over. They were still eating when I returned, and they insisted that I join them. They asked me questions about Scott Fitzgerald and I was glad to answer them. We discussed politics, poetry, the war in Vietnam. Afterwards Wendy said with affection and, I must admit, some surprise, “Mom, you contributed.”

I had not read much of Virginia Woolf before Wendy chose the aspect of unity in her writings as a thesis for her master's degree at Columbia. We discussed the project and I became as enamoured of that author as my daughter was.

Like Scott Fitzgerald, my son has always been less interested in the prescribed studies in high school and college. He prefers the dreamlike world of ideas rather than hard facts. I was his editor for Journey Behind the Iron Curtain and he has respect for what I can do in my own area of work. His appreciation of music is far more advanced than mine. The unusual in poetry and painting delights him. The film as a form of art is his special subject. He is twenty years old and searching for new answers in all forms of creation. He is the future. I wish Scott could have known Wendy and Robert, the children of my marriage to Trevor Westbrook. They would have been at ease with each other.

It is now two and a half decades since the death of the founder of the College of One. I believe he would be pleased that I, his pupil, his guinea pig, have put his ideas on education between the covers of a book. I hope I have communicated his enthusiasm for the project. As Scott was a perennial Princetonian, I am a lifelong standardbearer for the Fitzgerald system of learning. I am immensely grateful that a charming, intelligent man with an inherent magic that could “illuminate old shapes” decided to give me the benefit of what he had learned from books, and from life.

The End.

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