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

10. The Educator

Why did Scott Fitzgeralddecide to educate me? What did it mean to him, this man who was broken in health, neglected by his once enormous audience, and dreadfully short of cash? Had he been sorry for me or possibly ashamed of me, realizing how tense I was with his intellectual friends and how maladroit I felt in my desperate, rare attempts to join in their conversation? Was his motive that I should be socially acceptable among these well-educated people who made up our circle? Or that I should be a fit companion for himself, at least be as well read as the women he had known intimately in the past? Why did he care about me to the extent of spending so many hours and months during the last years of his short life to try to give me the same degree of education as the average university student?

Such questions arise only in retrospect. During the eighteen months that we were actually immersed in our College of One curriculum, I never stopped to ask myself, “Why is he doing this? What can he gain from it?” The project was such a joyful one for us both that it was its own justification. I also believe that Scott's love for me provides the best explanation of his zeal.   Nevertheless,   I  have  sometimes   considered   othermotives. And perhaps by my looking in a level-headed, unromantic way at our educational undertaking, I can answer some of the questions that cropped up in the reviews of College of One.

One review by Morley Callaghan in The New York Times Book Review ended with such a misleading suggestion that I countered it with my own letter to the paper. Mr. Callaghan wound up his piece with “a question about Fitzgerald, an old nagging one”:

… In those last years he was working on The Last Tycoon, the legend is that with all the drinking and the hack work, he couldn't find time to get on with the novel. Yet he planned and worked on these studies for Sheilah Graham. Even aside from the studies, as she says, he catalogued everything, simply everything. And as we know, he kept composing all those fine letters. All this means that he was spending long, serious reflective hours at his desk. Then why couldn't he get to the novel?

To appose my education in this way to the writing of the novel with the suggestion that Scott used our project and his other preoccupations, such as the letters to Scottie to evade his serious fiction, is totally erroneous. This simply wasn't the case, and my response to the Times read as follows:

Mr. Callaghan asks why did he [Scott] find time to write those beautiful letters to his daughter and give so much time to my “education,” instead of finishing his book, The Last Tycoon. A man cannot live by work alone. The project for my education gave Scott great pleasure and it was an experiment for a book he planned to write on the subject. Also it was a rest from his own writing. He was greatly devoted to his daughter and the letters to her with the advice for her reading were as important to him as the novel he was writing. And while he suspected that he would never be an old man, he did not expect to die before finishing his book which he expected would be some time  in  the  following  summer.   I  was  to  havegraduated in May from our college of one. So he thought there was time. When he died, I was angry with him for not having finished his book. If only we knew what was going to happen tomorrow, we would all behave differently, perhaps.
Yours sincerely, Sheilah Graham

If Scott could have foreseen his imminent death, I wonder if he would have chosen to spend more time on the novel and less on the education and the letters. In even approaching, let alone answering such a question, one must understand how much the notion of education meant to him. His creation of the College of One, his pedagogical letters to Scottie, his suggestions even to Zelda in the hospital that she broaden her literary horizons, all underscore the importance that he placed on knowing and profiting from good reading. In one letter to Zelda, he urges her to read some books: “You know, those things that look like blocks but come apart on one side—I mean loads of books and not just early Hebrew metaphysics.” This description might have amused Scott, if not Zelda in her phase of humorless religious zeal. But Scott saw Zelda's lack of interest in reading as one cause of her inability to deal with experience. In a letter to Scottie, he explains:

Your mother's utterly endless mulling and brooding over insolubles paved the way to her ruin. She had no education—not from lack of opportunity because she could have learned with me—but from some inner stubbornness. She was a great original in her way, with perhaps a more intense flame at its highest than I ever had but she tried and is still trying to solve all ethical and moral problems on her own, without benefit of the thousands dead.

Scott may not have finished his formal schooling at Princeton, but he considered himself an educated man with great respect and enthusiasm for what could be learned from “the thousands dead.” They not only taught him much of his literary craft but also helped him to form his moralistic outlook, his larger vision of life. If Zelda muddled through all moral and ethical problems on her own, Scott was determined to do the opposite. “A moralist at heart,” as he called himself, wanting “to preach at people in some acceptable form,” he was eager to blend his own originality with the wisdom of past generations. Then, too, because he was a moralist, a man who liked to preach to others, he happily—but seriously as well—undertook to extend the benefits of education to me, his willing pupil.

It is this seriousness of purpose on Scott's part that I think many of the critics overlooked in their estimations of our College of One. I recall one reviewer who saw the education as a kind of dream world, saying of Scott and me that “each was eager to assure the other that the joint dream world in which they existed for two years was, which it wasn't, a real one.” But I insist that however Scott may have been a romantic, who glamourized beautiful women and loved Keats' “Ode to a Nightingale” more than any other poem, he was also a realist, keen to understand life in exact, uncompromising terms. And his interest in my education was as much, if not more, a reflection of his realism as of his romanticism.

Ultimately, I think, Scott wanted me, through my reading, to understand and perhaps share some of his basic tenets about existence: that, as Spengler asserted, the Western world was dead (Scott had read Spengler the same summer he was writing Gatsby and, as he confessed to Max Perkins, he never quite recovered from it); and that, as he so often told me, there was no such thing as happiness. I was always insisting that happiness was possible, but Scott was adamant it was not. Books, he felt, corroborated his point of view. His most emphatic and eloquent statement on this subject occurs in one of the letters to Scottie, where he defines for her his notion of “the wise and tragic sense of life.” As he explains:

By this I mean the thing that lies behind all greatcareers from Shakespeare's to Abraham Lincoln's and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat and the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of the struggle.

To impress this philosophy upon me and to prepare me for the reading of Spengler were, then, the ultimate aims of the education. But to say this was the whole reason for it is lugubrious. One of Scott's central ideas about education was that it should be fun—a vibrant, compelling pleasure rather than a dry, academic exercise.

Also there were more pragmatic reasons for educating me than to prepare my mind for Spengler. One that we used to joke about was Scott's notion that I should become a gracious old lady—the kind that young people love to listen to, and then I would never be lonely. Hopefully, too, I would attain this graciousness long before my dotage. We both expected that by the time of my graduation from College of One in May 1941, I would have the confidence to carry on those intellectual conversations with people from which I had previously shrunk. It was the old Pygmalion story with an intellectual twist—the creation of a socially and, in this case, intellectually acceptable woman.

I wonder if yet another literary analogy ever occurred to Scott. For it has recently occurred to me how much I resembled a character from his own fiction. It is, in fact, not too farfetched to say that I was a female Jay Gatsby come to life.

Like Gatsby I had rejected my drab inheritance and invented myself anew. “He sprang from a Platonic conception of himself. I suppose he had the name (Gatz was his real name) ready for some time.” I too had changed my name from Lily Shiel to the more aristocratic Sheilah Graham. Then, like Gatsby, I had moved away from my humble past, concealed it, and created myself into an image that society would accept and admire. But also, like Gatsby, I felt inferior in the presence of my supposed betters, though we both had become successful in our chosen (but not quite dignified) fields—bootlegging and gossipmongering!

The analogies extend still further. Gatsby and I had both tried to obliterate our pasts with a flood of fantasies. He had his photograph taken with some students at Oxford. I had my photograph from my presentation at Buckingham Palace in May 1931 to King George and Queen Mary, and that was as true as Gatsby's picture. After World War I he had spent a brief time at Oxford. To introduce me at court, Johnny, my first husband, had dug up his old society acquaintance from Birmingham, who had been rich and was now poor and was glad of the dress we bought her and the expensive supper at Quaglino's afterwards.

With College of One Scott was thus helping to mold his own Gatsby figure, although I was never as flamboyant or vulgar as his yet likeable protagonist. But I was sometimes socially awkward. And by educating me, Scott was giving me confidence so that my social image would be impressive. What Gatsby did with wealth and lavish parties, I could do with study in our College of One.

Thinking about it, Scott's relationship with me epitomizes his whole ambivalance about society. He admired the rich and condemned the rich. In his line, “The rich are different from you and me,” there is envy, admiration, and disapproval. And now here he was in love with a woman who had conned society with even more success than Gatsby had. He admired us for our imagination, energy, and triumph, and there was also a part of him that disapproved of us.

I wonder, too, if Scott ever felt the irony of his and my respective positions in Hollywood. There I was, one of the most powerful syndicated columnists—I could help to make or break a star or director. Scott, on the other hand, was paid bigger salaries than I was, but he was pushed around in the studios, frequently fired, and told in so many words that as far as Hollywood was concerned, he was a flop.

In the education, however, our positions were reversed. Scott was the one who was completely in control. I never questioned his choice of books for me. He was the absolute authority. This was one area of his life in Hollywood where he had no doubts and no competition. Did it ever occur to him that by virtue of his power over the columnist, he regained a kind of indirect authority over the industry that had failed to appreciate him?

If such a thought ever did cross Scott's mind, he never asserted his superiority over me unkindly—except in one instance inadvertently. Scott was discussing a scene from one of Shakespeare's plays, and I confessed to not being familiar with it. “But everyone knows that,” he said. I was deeply hurt. “You mustn't make fun of me,” I replied, close to tears. “You see, I'm so vulnerable.” He apologized and never did again, even with my most stupid questions. He realized that the questions were part of the education.

After I published College of One, I received dozens of letters from people who believed they could attain culture by following Scott's lists and methods. And the Countess of Dudley, former film actress Maureen Swanson, told me when I was querying her about something else, “I bought all the books on your reading lists I could find.” She had gone into a career of dancing at the age of nine, so I doubt if she had had too much regular schooling. I did not ask her if the books Scott had chosen for me had made her more educated. Of course, reading them would be helpful, but I hated to tell her that she was missing the most important factor in College of One—the guidance of Scott. There would be no one to inspire her and carry her over the difficult parts, to discuss with her what she had read as Scott did with me every evening. He was as essential to College of One as the two hundred books that made up the curriculum, books he had found the money to buy for me even when he couldn't afford the exotic food he liked or a new shirt. It was Scott's enthusiasm that kindled mine, and my desire to please him that drew me into the unaccustomed heavy titles until I grew to love the reading for itself. The education, throughout its eighteen months, was inseparable from my involvement with Scott and I still do not see it as something that could come to life without him.

Nonetheless, I presented it in College of One as a plausible two-year liberal arts course, and this is how many of the reviewers of the book chose to judge it. As such, it is not perfect. Scanning through the twenty-five pages of my courses with my objectivity of today, I can understand why some of the critics—female especially—who had been to Vassar, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, Oxford, or Cambridge, were somewhat skeptical of the books chosen for me and questioned that they added up to a proper liberal arts education.

Certainly there were glaring gaps in the College of One curriculum. There was no math, science, or languages, as Scott, himself, knew very little in these areas. And if the fiction and poetry courses were impressively full, those in history, economics, religion, philosophy, art, and music were fairly skimpy. But one must keep in mind that the two-year course was never meant to be more than an introduction, a key to the door of higher learning. There would be more advanced courses after my first F.S.F. diploma. Meanwhile, Scott was happy to spend most of our time on the books which had been his favorites at Princeton and in the years after when he was educating himself. (He had two thousand books in storage, and he had read them all.) He was careful to choose books that he knew I would enjoy, especially at first, in order to make the education lively and fun.

Scott knew that I loved Dickens. So the first novels in my fiction course were Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities, followed by Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Pendennis, and The Virginians. All these were books I couldn't put down—they were as compelling and easy to read for me as the penny weekly Peg's Paper magazine from my childhood—stories in which the millhand always married the owner's son after the wicked foreman had tried and failed to seduce her. I think it is fair to say that the works of Dickens and Thackeray combine artistic excellence with the same popular appeal.

The notion that good literature could be fun was not entirely new to me. I had told Scott of my taking a course in English at Kings College, London, to be given the saucy Moll Flanders asmy first book. Moll was a sexy character and used her men to the limit. If this was good literature, I had thought, how delightful! Scott further encouraged me in what I now see as my rather naive response—identifying with Moll Flanders or Becky Sharp, suffering for David Copperfield, play-acting scenes from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and many of the other books. It was harder, I told Scott, for me to write an opinion on a book, to dissect it analytically as my daughter can do with her Ph.D. training. I enjoyed my reading. That was enough for me and also enough—at least for the time being—to satisfy Scott's expectations of me.

Perhaps my M.A. course would have included the study of character development or narrative technique, but Scott was very concerned not to load too much onto me at the beginning. He trod oh so carefully on the delicate carpet of my mind. There should be nothing too difficult or I might give up. But who would drop out after reading Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass? I had read the first when I was a child in the orphanage, but without understanding the satire and meaning, which Scott now explained to me.

He would not allow me to read the later books of Henry James or Tolstoy because he believed they would bore me. It was enough that I found the earlier works by James so engaging—Roderick Hudson, The Europeans, Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller. But his other novels were too belabored and slow, Scott said, and the later works of Tolstoy were too mystical. Scott could be sure, on the other hand, of my enthusiasm for War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I could identify with Natasha's energy, longings, and confusions and feel for poor Anna who, in the society of her day, knew the consequences of leaving her husband and son and running off with Count Vronsky. War and Peace was one of Scott's great favorites as well. He always reread it before setting to work on one of his own books.

Another novel excluded from my curriculum was Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Scott debated whether he should give it to me, but I took one hasty glance through the strange reading and said a firm “No.” I was interested, however, in the last chapter of Ulysses where the woman keeps saying “Yes, yes, I will. Yes yes.” I would repeat this when we were feeling amorous. A Portrait of the Artist was easy for me to read as were Joyce's short stories in Dubliners. “The Dead” in particular I liked as once again I could find a point of personal identification with it. At the beginning of the story, Joyce describes the rain falling on everything in the country. I had been in Ireland and knew this feeling of the rain that he captures so beautifully.

Scott's choice of books for me was also guided by his own literary enthusiasms. Before he wrote This Side of Paradise, for example, he had read Compton McKenzie's Youth's Encounter and Sinister Street. He admitted to me that these novels had influenced him, though not to the extent some critics asserted. Still, he continued to regard them with affection, and they were on my list. I know that they are no longer required reading in college English courses, and I doubt that many other Americans have read them in the past forty years.

Another writer who impressed Scott was Dreiser, and three of his works were on my lists—Sister Carrie, The Financier, and The Titan. My favorite was Sister Carrie. Her story reminded me of my own struggle to rise from humble beginnings.

Scott also admired Frank Norris and his brother Charles, whom he said had influenced his attitude against big business. Scott despised businessmen as a group and once quoted someone else's remark, “I wouldn't care to meet any of them in the hereafter.” My reading included Salt, The Octopus, and McTeague.

An even more important mentor was Joseph Conrad. I read two of the short stories, “Youth” and “Heart of Darkness” plus a number of the novels. I was enthralled by The Nigger of the Narcissus, with its atmosphere of foreboding evil. Scott talked to me about Conrad's aim to make the reader “see,” an aim that he, himself, had in his own fiction. Scott also told me that he had learned greatly from Conrad about how to tell a story, using a narrator within the tale to piece things together —like Marlow, or Nick Carraway.

Scott had once met Conrad—or at least been within earshot of him. When Conrad was staying on Long Island in 1923 or '24, Scott and Ring Lardner danced outside his bedroomwindow until they were removed by the servants. It seemed that when Scott admired another author, he always had to do something about it. So in one drunken escapade or another, he had brought Dreiser an unwanted bottle of champagne, offered to jump out the window in deference to James Joyce, and offended the sensibility of Edith Wharton (whose Custom of the Country was on my lists). But all these pranks occurred years before the time of College of One. When he knew me, Scott's more sober concern with these authors (and with Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson) was that I should be familiar with the work of the generation that had preceded and influenced his own.

He also had me read his contemporaries. I enjoyed Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel though I agreed with Scott that it was overlong and undisciplined. As for Hemingway, I was never much impressed with his books, though perhaps I was swayed by my resentment at his treatment of Scott. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” with its reference to “poor old Scott,” was conspicuously absent from the curriculum. In fact, I read only two books by Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms, which Scott thought was excellent, and The Sun Also Rises, which he didn't care for too much. Lady Brett Ashley struck him as a very harsh character, and he thought the whole tone of the novel too cynical. I also enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I have been talking only about novelists. But as much as the fiction courses, I enjoyed our study of poetry. Once again Scott's stress was on appreciation rather than analysis. He picked out immortal sentences for me to remember: “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass/And silent was the flock in woolly fold” from Keats' “St. Agnes' Eve”; and from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Fair youth beneath the trees/Thou canst not leave thy song/Nor ever can those trees be bare,” and “Little town forever wilt thou silent be and not a soul to tell why thou art silent can 'ere return”; Shakespeare's “Hid in death's dateless night”; Blake's “Tyger tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” and from T. S. Eliot, “A current under sea/Picked his bones in whispers.” And so many more eternal images. If you repeat them over and over to yourself, the truth and meaning of the line suddenly bursts open like the sun racing up from a dark horizon.

Scott also used the poetry course to translate Rimbaud's poem, “Voyelles.” In France he had refused to learn French like so many American men whose wives trotted happily off to their lessons. But still, translating freely, he could write the following lovely poem:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue vowels
Some day I'll tell you where your genesis lies,
A black velvet swarm of flies
Buzzing above the stench of voided bowels,
A gulf of shadow; E where the iceberg rushes
White mists, tents, kings, shady strips,
I purple, spilt blood, laughter of sweet lips
In anger—or the penitence of lushes,
U cycle of time, rhythm of seas,
Peace of the paws of animals and wrinkles
On scholars' brows, strident tinkles
On the supreme trumpet note, peace
Of the spheres, of the angels.
O equals X-ray of her eyes; it equals sex.

Our other courses—the study of religion, history, economics, art, and music—were somewhat skimpier, though Scott, himself, was keenly interested in history and economics. A number of books on these subjects were on my curriculum—Lafargue's Property, H. G. Wells' Outline of History, Plutarch's Lives, Hitler's Mein Kampf, Karl Marx's The Working Day, and Morton's People's History of England, which changed me from a conservative to a liberal in one week. How sorry I was that Scott was not alive to hear Wat Tyler, the British opera, when it was performed in London. Wat, the working man fighting the nobles, was no longer the villain I had believed he was; he was a betrayed hero as Scott had insisted.

What a difference one good book can make, and when you read two hundred, you cannot remain the same ignorantperson. Before my history and economics courses I had been amazed that some of the highly paid Hollywood writers cared about the poor and fought for better salaries for the lesser paid in the industry. The books and Scott's discussions tore the blinkers from my mind. And in fact I became so interested in politics, asking questions all the time about communism and capitalism that in the Red-baiting days of McCarthyism, I was actually accused of being a sympathizer of the party. I never went that far, perhaps because of my natural leaning to caution. And while Scott had flirted quite seriously with communism, its insistence on a certain conformity did not appeal to him. As he explained to me, “I could never join the party. I'm not a joiner. A writer must be free.”

Scott's interest in history and politics stretched from our proposed study of “the political development of the Graeco-Roman world” (which he outlined for me but we never got to it) to a lively involvement with current events. Scott wasn't well when Andre Malraux came to Hollywood to raise money for the Spanish Civil War, but he dragged himself out of a sick bed to attend the meeting in Robert Benchley's bungalow at the Garden of Allah. Likewise, he voted in the Screenwriters' Guild referendum for who should represent them although he was trembling and only just over a drying out period. I was so imbued with his political instruction that he knew I meant business when I threatened, “You'll go to vote if I have to carry you there.”

The Screenwriters' referendum was in 1938. Then in 1939 and 1940 a great many of our hours together were spent assessing the war in Europe and also the new contest for the presidency between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie. Naturally we were for Roosevelt, and how delighted we were when Wilkie lost his voice. “If he can't control his larynx,” Scott chortled, “how can he control the country?” The night of the election was almost unbearable in its excitement for us as we listened to the radio with the lists of the states on our laps, ticking off the numbers for each party.

I consider Scott's education of me a success. Though I never became a bona fide intellectual, I am at ease in discussions with people who are, confident that my opinions and knowledge are valid. And also, because I have such confidence, I'm no longer afraid to say, “I don't understand, please explain.”

The dictionary definition of education is “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge and of developing the powers of reasoning and judgment.” My general knowledge is sound both because of my time in College of One—in addition to most of the poetry, which I can still recite from memory, a residue of what I learned has stayed with me—and because of my continued interest in reading good books and keeping up with current events. As for my powers of reasoning and judgment, I feel that I can distinguish good literature from trash and worthwhile people from those who are not. I also know how to judge a painting or a piece of music and to relate today's history and economic upsets and continuing wars with the past. The result is that I am not so frightened by what is happening. I know that we have survived the dangers of past history and that we will probably survive the disasters and inflation of today.

If I still feel unschooled in any way, it is that I lack self-discipline, and I wonder if this might have been corrected with further education. Scottie and my daughter, both of whom had the advantage of attending a top Eastern college, are more disciplined than I am. I find myself thinking, if my courses had not been interrupted, I might have learned that too. Yet Scott, who had great mental discipline and considerable knowledge, had only little success in controlling his personal appetites.

Well, I am not claiming that College of One was or ought to have been a panacea. But I look back on it as one of my life's highlights. I loved to please Scott, and he was pleased, knowing that his education for me was successful, that I was soaking up knowledge at such a rate that sometimes he was pressed to keep up with my reading, that I was the best student in our College of One, and that one day I would be as educated as his intellectual friends. Had Scott lived, perhaps the last hope would have been realized. One of my deepest regrets at his death was a selfish one—that I would be deprived of further education under his marvelous aegis.

Next chapter 11 The Last Year

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