The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thirty-Five Years Later
by Sheilah Graham


If ever there was a Jekyll and Hyde character, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man of two completely different personalities.

One Scott was kind; the other cruel. One was completely mature; the other never grew up. One wanted to be loved and admired; the other wanted to be despised. One tried to make people better than they were; the other tore them down. One was careful to the point of hypochondria; the other reckless of his health and safety. There was Scott the considerate husband and Scott his wife's oppressor; the proud father and the father who embarrassed his daughter. The Scott Fitzgerald I knew best was the mature man, although Jekyll sometimes turned into Hyde. It was, of course, his drinking which brought on the transformation, when even his usually wan and self-contained expression changed into flushed anger.

“Which is the real you?” I once asked him. And he replied, “The sober man.” I believed him, maintaining my faith that the drinker, however terrible, intruded only passingly and without aftereffect on our life together. Then, too, the fact that Scott was completely sober during his last thirteen months led me, after he died, to cherish the image of the tender man I had known and to resent the biographies with titles such as The Disenchanted and Far Side of Paradise that stressed his fall from grace.

My first book about Scott, Beloved Infidel, written and published eighteen years after his death, was to set the record straight—my obligation to the man with whom I had been so much in love—that he was not a defeated alcoholic when he died on December 21, 1940, but a sober and serious man who was diligently at work on The Last Tycoon, which Edmund Wilson believed would have been his best novel.

This I still believe. Yet I also recognize that Beloved Infidel was a romanticized version of my love for Scott, not fully exploring our story's complexity. It gave the facts as I viewed them in 1958, looking through the discreet haze of the times and the gloss of my experienced collaborator, Gerold Frank. When the book was reviewed by Arthur Mizener for a British publication, he hoped that “one day Sheilah Graham will write her own version of Scott Fitzgerald, to give the real man.”

I had thought that College of One—my 1966 account of the two-year education Scott planned for me—would be my last work about him. But it has been impossible for me to be quiet in the flurry of recent publications about the two Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, with all the misconceptions and errors that have not only persisted but bloomed in size—especially the last few “true accounts.” Apparently, there is to be no let up in the avalanche of Fitzgerald memoirs, and, again, I feel obliged to tell the accurate story, this time without the obscuring gauze of the 50s, but as it was, what he himself told me of his whole life and what I remember personally. Perhaps with a more probing analysis of his whole personality and mine, and a fuller account of our relationship, I shall finally dispel some of the irritating errors that have been printed—and spoken —about Scott and about me in connection with him.

The worst error that continues, even though one of the chief ideas of Beloved Infidel was to correct it, is that Scott went drunken into his grave. Aaron Latham, whose recent book Crazy Sundays deals with Scott's life and work in Hollywood, speaks in his preface about the “recurring bouts during Fitzgerald's Hollywood years, 1937 to his death in 1940, when all his days seemed to be turned into Crazy Sundays, when he seemed to be caught up in a drunken party which would not end.” This simply is not true of Scott's last year. And it has always angered me that people continue to make this mistake, as if they wish to see Fitzgerald—even at the expense of truth—as the beautiful, gifted but doomed, artist who squanders life and talent and dies in dissipation.

As persistent as Scott the drunk is the image of Scott the exhausted dying man—such a wrung-out figure as he had made Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. Scott, himself, contributed to this impression with “The Crack-Up” pieces and with the complaints that run through his late letters of diminished vitality. But my feeling is that part of his world-weariness was a pose. And certainly to view him throughout his last three and a half years in Hollywood as a dying man, as some writers who were with him at M-G-M have done, is a distortion. They all describe him as looking so pale. I thought he was pale, but he looked okay—sometimes he seemed rather jaunty. Whatever vitality he lost, enough remained for him at forty to delight me as the most vibrant, enthusiastic man I have ever encountered. Perhaps in retrospect, it is tempting for others to look back on him as wasting away before his death.

Given such a notion of Fitzgerald, there is a tendency to see me as the nurse figure of his declining years—a view that is unfair to both of us. When Latham writes that “to help the man get through the night, there was the woman, Sheilah Graham,” even sex sounds medicinal. And anyway, I didn't help Scott through the night. He never slept through the night, and we could never have shared the same room because of his insomnia and restlessness. I was a very good sleeper until he died, and then I too needed sleeping pills.

Even more absurd is the account that when Scott, in his drinking periods, “began to run a low fever and to sweat his bed wet at night, Sheilah would change his sheets two or three times before morning.” Except during the daytime I never went into his bedroom. Scott would tell me in the morning that the nurse had had to change his sheets or that he had changed them two or three times. And once, very dramatically, he reported that he'd changed them five times in one night, and his pajamas as well. But that was his TB, he said. Well, one doesn't know if the TB was real—not all the time —but he certainly wouldn't call me in to perform the chore of changing his sheets. This would have been the last thing. He was a fastidious man, also proud. He wanted my respect, not my solicitude or pity.

He did have my respect. I cared for him (rather than took care of him) as the man who expanded all my capabilities for loving, for anguish, for honesty, for joy, for unselfishness. And because he touched me so deeply, it has also depressed me to have our time together reduced to “an affair.” The extreme deprecation came from Anita Loos, famous in the 20s for her book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who told Paulette Goddard, “You know Sheilah Graham writes these books, but she hardly knew him!” Was she prompted by some kind of jealousy? Perhaps she felt she could have written a book about Fitzgerald. Or could it be that here was one gentleman who certainly preferred blondes—his wife was blonde, I was blonde, and his daughter was blonde … but Loos was a brunette!

“He died in her arms” is another malicious error that has caused me some anguish. This canard was, I suspect, told by a disgruntled agent to a Hollywood trade paper gossip columnist, because acting on the plea of Scott's daughter and his executor, Judge John Biggs, Jr., I thwarted the possible film purchase of a novel, suggesting rather openly it was about Scott. It was I who made known to the studios Scottie's threat to sue if this cruel, one-sided portrait of her father was bought for a film. The result: no sale, and the item in a trade column was something like “Sheilah Graham, who was so shocked by—— … is a fine one to talk … when Scott Fitzgerald actually died in her arms.”

Since then, “he died in her arms” has been repeated ad nauseam in print. And just recently in a Fifth Avenue bookshop, the salesman, not knowing who I was, when I asked for the paperback of Beloved Infidel, told me the same old story.

“How do you know?” I asked him.

Everybody knows,” he replied.

“What does it mean, ‘he died in her arms’”?

“In bed.”

As Scott's serious biographers have printed—with corroborations from the friends who flooded my sitting room when he died there that sunny afternoon in December 1940—death came to this great American novelist, interrupting his reading the Princeton Alumni Weekly. He started up from the green armchair where he was sitting, clutched the mantelpiece, and fell to the floor with a fatal heart attack. He did not die in my arms, that is, in bed, sex having in fact been out of the picture since his first heart attack three weeks before. Loving him, I was hesitant to resume it even though the doctor told us his condition was improving.

I think I suffer from the false gossip about his death not only because it is inaccurate but because it violates my sense of respectability. When I was a girl in the East End of London, to be respectable, or seem to be, was the be-all of a girl's life. Also, sex was never discussed, or if it was, I didn't understand it. Imagine, at the age of fifteen, I asked my mother how babies are made and she told me never to ask that question again. I soon after learned the facts of life from a co-worker at the Addressograph Factory, then in Shoe Lane off Fleet Street, and at first couldn't believe such an amazing explanation. I learned, too, that if you did allow your feelings to run away with you, you never told anyone.

Thus, when people spoke of Fitzgerald dying in my arms or referred to me as his mistress in books read by thousands, I felt humiliated and exposed. I even started a book author's talk in 1966 for the Long Island paper Newsday with a definition of what a mistress was. I looked it up in the dictionary, and I told the audience that a mistress was someone who had a longish affair with a man, who in return supported her, usually luxuriously. Because of my upbringing, such a position carried a stigma. I envied Du Barry and other great mistresses of kings. But I also knew that I could never carry it off because of my longing to be respectable and respected.

In terms of the dictionary definition, I was never F. Scott Fitzgerald's mistress. Not only did I always keep my own home and pay my own bills, but our relationship—except for one drunken time—never had such an overtone. “You were not his mistress,” Edmund Wilson assured me when I told him of my distress. “You were his second wife.”

I have also been accused of “trading” on my relationship with Fitzgerald. Two books and a couple of random chapters about a great writer by one of the few people left who knew him intimately—I knew the best and the worst of Scott—is that trading? Professor Matthew Bruccoli has written several books about Scott, ditto Professor John Kuehl, and so many others. “Write about what you know,” Scott always told me, when neither of us knew that he was the subject I would know best, or that I would be humiliated because I was his girl, rather than his wife, when all that was required to become the latter was the most gentle push.

In this book I shall do my best to present an objective picture of what Scott Fitzgerald was really like, seeing him partly through his own eyes and also judging him from my present vantage point. I think I can do this clear-sightedly because I am no longer the young woman mesmerized by his love for me and mine for him. My hypnotic devotion has faded somewhat in the last few years when so much has been written about him and Zelda—perceptive as well as error-ridden commentaries—and I have learned to look at and accept the more cruel part of his nature that I earlier rejected. I still like and admire him enormously, but I can see the man more as he was.

Rereading his books and the best of his short stories, I am more and more aware that he was a magnificent writer. But how good was he as a man? And how good was he for me? Did he treat me badly, as Helen Hayes stated to one of his recent biographers?

When I first saw Scott on July 14, 1937, I didn't know that I was to be just a three and a half year experience in his total life of forty-four years and that everything that had happened to him before we met would minimize a great deal of what was happening to him then. It was like jumping over a cliff with my eyes closed. But in terms of experience I have always been a bit reckless.

In many ways my time with Scott was strange. And today, remembering some of his escapades before I met him, and his drunken bouts during our time together, I am appalled at my involvement. How was I able to keep on loving him so unquestioningly? It is plain to me now that my time with him was not always beautiful; it was marked, as Scottie observed to me in a recent letter, by “nightmarish episodes.”

But however I reevaluate my love story, I will always remember Scott as the only person before or since to give me such a compelling relationship. He remade me in many areas so that I am still more honest with myself and don't rationalize my misdeeds. And however badly he may have treated me when he was drunk, the pluses of our years together—his love for me, the education, and the marvelously happy times we had between the binges—were much more than the anguish of the drinking quarrels. As long as I live I will be grateful for my time with him.

Next chapter 2 In The Beginning

Published as The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thirty-Five Years Later by Sheilah Graham (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1976).