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

11. The Last Year

I always countthe last year of Scott's life from the time he stopped drinking. Actually, it was a year and three weeks—from the end of November 1939 to December 21, 1940, and it was the most satisfactory period of our three and a half years together.

For almost the first time, Scott was happy with what he was writing in Hollywood—the film script of “Babylon Revisited”—and he was going full steam ahead, albeit in short spurts, with what the reviewers were to say might have been his best novel, The Last Tycoon. Also we were both deriving pleasure from the education plan he had set for me, which, for me, was like an eighteen-hour-a-day university. I believed I would soon be able to hold my own with Scott's friends.

He was no longer making the perilous visits to Zelda that had usually ended in disaster for them both. Scottie was doing well at Vassar and was spending her vacations with the Harold Obers or with friends in Baltimore. And, as often happens with close relatives, distance lent some enchantment to their regard for each other. His letters to her were no longer filled with dire forebodings of the woman she might become. Hewas no longer stopping her allowance for minor misdemeanours, although he sometimes found it hard to find the $30 a month.

Money and his health were his most persistent worries, but neither of us quite realized the extent to which his health had deteriorated. There were more night sweats, and he was much more easily tired. Still, he was optimistic about the future and fully confident that he had one. His book, he was sure, would give him back his position as an important American writer. He was like a gentle invalid, trying to do as much as possible in the race against time. But I don't think he anticipated that his death would be soon, although there was that one line in his notebooks, “Do I look like death?” which made me shiver when I read it later. At the time we were too content with each other to think of dying.

It was a two-minute walk from my apartment to Schwab's drugstore, and we would go there of an evening to buy the morning papers, flip over the magazines, and drink a chocolate malted milk sitting on the high stools at the counter. Scott laughed when I said, “Imagine, here we are, supposedly sophisticated people, and the highlight of our day is a chocolate malt at Schwab's!” If they could see him now, I used to think, remembering his wild pranks of the 20s and early 30s. He was now the mature Dr. Jekyll. The past was a million miles away. Mr. Hyde, it seemed, had vanished forever.

Sometimes in that last year of tranquility, and I hate to admit this even now, I was restless, wishing for a little more excitement in our lives. But I knew that this quiet existence was good for Scott and his work, and it was a good change for me, whose life had been a series of high and very low points. I was somewhere now in the middle, where psychiatrists, I learned much later, try to put their patients. For the first time for both of us, we were leading average lives, working by day, reading or walking in the evening after the same dinner prepared for us every night by our shared housekeeper, a thin T-bone steak (at 35 cents a pound!), a baked potato, peas, and a grapefruit jelly. We'd make small bets on whether she would ever vary the menu. She never did. We'd sometimes get hysterical over this.

We found so many ordinary things amusing, even the gossip in the studios. It was fun being two busy people, completely fulfilled with our work and happy with each other in the evening. My restlessness was only at the beginning of his last year. I remember it occurred early in 1940, as I drove over Laurel Canyon to the house in Encino—Scott was there until May—where everything was blooming in the premature heat. Before my time with Scott, there had always been several men delighted to take me out to dinner or to the theater or to special events, or to flirt with me. And just as it had taken me some time to settle down for long stretches with the reading (but now in our last year there was never enough time for it), it was the same with our new quietude. My restlessness was fitful and short-lived. After a while I became as quiet and tranquil as Scott seemed.

There was not much money for weekends at expensive places and hotels as in the earlier years, but it was more restful to stay, first in Encino, then, after Scott moved, in Hollywood, talking, sometimes making love or reading a great deal at my apartment or on the balcony at his. In the summer of 1940 we did go to the San Francisco Fair. It was a drive of five hundred miles and we were both exhausted, with Scott driving so slowly, increasingly feeling the strain, and refusing to let me take the wheel. We stopped for a Coke and a sandwich at one of the small huts sprinkled along the coastal highway. At Bakersfield we took the train for the rest of the way and that is when we heard on someone's radio that the British army had escaped from Dunkirk. Everyone cheered.

Humphrey Bogart was at the Fair with his then wife, Mayo Methot. I had visited them in their home in the Hollywood hills—a rather primitive, really the only word is shack, with, I seem to see looking back, a tree growing in the living room, with its roots in the ground and its branches pushing through the roof. Bogey was then complaining about the secondary roles—mostly portraying villains—that he was given at Warner Brothers. He had made a fine start in pictures, repeating his stage role as the gangster in The Petrified Forest, and then came the usual trash. Dark and scowling, he wasn't the leading man type. Or so people thought, until George Raft refused to play Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and John Huston substituted Bogart.

Another trip Scott and I took in the summer of 1940 was to Monterey, two-thirds of the way to San Francisco. Again the drive seemed long and when we arrived at the two-bedroom bungalow we had booked, Scott immediately rested on his bed while I changed into my red and white polka dot playsuit. I sat in the sunshine and watched the swimmers, but I was also tired and I doubt whether I swam. I didn't realize how much Scott's condition had worsened. Except for our first months together there had usually been something the matter with him, including the fracture on his shoulder—falling down when drunk—when the Alabama football team came for the Rose Bowl game, the ineffectual fights with stronger men that had always landed him on the floor, and the bouts of TB. How careful he was that I should not use the same china, glasses, or spoons, knives, and forks that he did. “TB is easily caught,” he explained. But this did not seem to apply when we were kissing and making love.

In any case, ever since becoming a working adult I had been strong. I had eaten well, with little drinking and no smoking. If the liquor hadn't weakened Scott's heart, his smoking would have. In those days there was no warning about cigarettes causing cancer and heart attacks. But knowing this today, I also know that Scott could never have given them up. Smoking, as I have already discussed, was one of his most important crutches, especially after he gave up drinking, along with the coffee, the Cokes, the benzedrine, the digitalis. I would not have wanted to examine Scott's inside, with not only all the above but also the strange food that he ate—sometimes just fudge and crab soup, in that order. He was eating a little more in that last year, lots of cookies, candy, and cake to compensate for the sugar in the alcohol. He was developing a small pot which, like the balding area on his head, I was careful to ignore.

Shortly before Scott relinquished the house in Encino, he asked some friends over for lunch and to spend the afternoon. To help him out he still had his beautiful black housekeeper. Her husband, Gaylord, had one time gently pushed Scott to the floor in the former time of fighting-drinking, but they both loved Scott and I think they liked me. She could cook anything, but I especially remember her iced tea with lemon, honey, and mint leaves. It was a poem.

Our guests were Eddie Mayer, the Perelmans and his in-laws, the Nat Wests. “I am leaving this Elysian haunt in two weeks,” Scott had written the Perelmans.

May 13, 1940
Dear Syd and Laura:
This is a love missive so do not be alarmed. I am not giving a tea for either the Princess Razzarascal or Twoticker Forsite. But I am leaving this Elysian haunt in two weeks (the 29th to be exact) and sometime before that nonce I wish you two would dine or lunch. I know Sunday isn't a good day for you because of the dwarfs and Saturday next I'm going to Maurice Evans and Sunday I'm engaged (now you know, girls, isn't it wonderful?)

—but any other day between now and the 28th would be fine. I want to see you and very specifically you, and for the most general and non-specific reasons. The days being at their longest it is no chore to find this place up to 7:30 and perhaps the best idea is dinner. We could either dine a quatre or add the Wests and some other couple—say the Mannerheims or Browders, and afterwards play with my model parachute troops. At any events side arms will not be de rigeur.* Sheilah will be with me just as merry as can be, to greet you on the porch with a julep. I have just re-read “Crime and Punishment” and the chapters on gang labor in “Capitalist Production” and am meek as a liberal bourgeoise lamb.

Call me up on the party line or drop me a note. The only acceptable excuse is that you're going on vacation or have empetigo because I want to see you.
With spontaneous affection, Scott
5521 Amestoy Avenue Encino, California phone: STate 4-0578

* Outer boom or gaff on an old New England square-riggered ship.

Everyone seemed pleased to find a sober Scott—he was so much more interesting discussing politics, literature, when he was not drinking. Scott, who was so shy when addressing large groups or talking to people he did not know, was a brilliant conversationalist with his close friends, and with me especially. Like most intellectuals—although few people then believed that he was one—he spoke simply and you understood what he was saying. Similarly, I had been amazed at the simplicity of Edmund Wilson's writing.

After lunch the Perelmans and Eddie took a walk around the grounds, while Scott brought out his scrapbooks to show Nat and Eileen. She thumbed scornfully through his mementoes, the blonde and brunette curls of young loves tied with pink ribbon, the dance cards with little pink pencils, and the small lace handkerchief he had retrieved at a long ago adolescent party in St. Paul's. She accused him of only loving the rich and I wanted to belt her one on the mouth. How dare she belittle him. I believe she had been a member of the Communist Party, or at least a fellow traveler, and she despised such a show of bourgeois recollections.

My attitude was so hostile toward Eileen—although previously we had been friends—that she took her husband away early from our small party. I was annoyed when she dared to die with Nat in a car crash near Encino within the same twenty-four hours as Scott. They would be going into the unknown together, and if anyone went with Scott, it should have been Zelda, or me—more me I thought at the time, but now I would say Zelda.

There were to be no more parties for Scott. He had neither the strength nor the money to entertain on any scale. The ebbing energy was given to his work—there was the last job at 20th Century-Fox, the Emlyn Williams play, The Light of Heart, plus The Last Tycoon and my education. Each of these projects had about an equal share of his time. I wonder again if I had known he would die near the end of the year, would I have persuaded him to drop the education and concentrate only on his writing? Perhaps, but I don't think so. He could only write a few hours each day, and teaching me was a rest for his brain.

Living in Hollywood was less exhausting for Scott than the long drive over the canyons from town to Encino. He missed the spaciousness of the Encino home but he had lived in smaller places than the apartment on Laurel Avenue on the third floor I found for him. The street was next to mine on Hayworth Avenue. Some of the neighbors were noisy, which harassed him, and the furniture was rather dreary—vomit green as he described the settee—but it was new and clean and there was a small open balcony adjoining the living room. It was our favorite place on weekends for reading and wondering about the young men and their girls who flitted in and out—but not like the whispering moths of Gatsby's parties on Long Island. These voices were loud.

Pretty Joyce Matthews was an apartment away from Scott. Later she would marry Milton Berle, then Billy Rose, and abandon her precarious movie career. Another neighbor was Lucille Ball, who had not yet married Desi Arnaz, and it seemed she was always begging him to visit a little longer. We made bets on whether she would succeed, which was not often. At this time, Miss Ball, whom I had first noticed in the chorus line-up of the Goldwyn Follies, starring Eddie Cantor, was rated as a starlet. Translated, this means extra girl, with maybe a line to speak. It was not until the summer of 1944 that she became famous. That is when I took my husband, Trevor Westbrook,   who  was  seeing  his  two-year-old  daughter Wendy for the first time, to the CBS television station in Hollywood to view the filming of the “I Love Lucy” pilot. As you know, the show became a tremendous hit and transformed Lucille into a superstar.

We never entertained in Scott's apartment or mine, neither of which fitted into Scott's idea of grandeur. But we were occasionally invited for dinner to the homes of his friends—Dorothy Parker, Eddie Mayer, Buff Cobb—and it was a relief to get away from the T-bone steaks, delicious though they were. We usually ate out when we would be attending a film preview, but not in the expensive restaurants we had patronized in the early eighteen months. I wanted to pay for my share but Scott would not hear of it. I never questioned where his money came from, it would have hurt his feelings.

In this last year he seemed to accept me totally. I was his dear face, dear heart, dear Sheilo, or Presh, or Sweetheart. I had nicknamed my first husband Ma Fois, I had called Donegall Don, but there was never a nickname for Scott, although his writer friends would sometimes call him Scottie.

In addition to the Hollywood writers group, we had some unusual friends. One was the spastic man who sold newspapers opposite the Beverly Hills Brown Derby. After dinner there we always crossed the road to buy the morning newspapers from him. Scott was interested in the members of his family and the pair of them chatted, or rather Scott did, about the headlines of the papers which in 1940 were full of the disasters of the war in Europe. After Scott's death I made a point of buying my papers in the evening from this man, and he was so sorry that Mr. Fitzgerald had died. Later when his son took over he told me he had heard a lot about Scott and me from his father. We were friends to the day I left Hollywood.

There was also the waiter at the Derby. Previously, in the drinking times, Scott had been rude to him. But now they were friendly. The then young man is now the Beverly Derby's head captain, and he takes good care of me when I lunch there for the great corned beef hash. He looks at me as though we are two old-timers who have survived.

In that last year, Scott was always writing letters to his friends in the East, mostly sad letters exaggerating his hatred of Hollywood, and one a week to Zelda, always with the Dearest prefix. I was somewhat taken aback when I read the correspondence with her in the collection of letters. The last letter was written on December 19, only two days before he died. But whereas his early letters from Hollywood were hopeful that they would get together again, there was no written suggestion of this during 1940. He knew then that they could never resume their marriage. He had realized that together they would be misfits in the new decade, that Zelda had been broken by the past, but that he had the chance of survival and new fulfillment.

I'm not sure when Edmund Wilson's first novel, I Thought of Daisy, was published, but in those last months Scott talked a great deal about his friend. Earlier he had written to Bunny suggesting he should try writing a novel, but after Daisy, he told me with a small amount of smugness, “He can never be a good novelist. But as a critic, an essayist, and a keen judge of historical events, he's the best. No one comes near him.” Scott particularly admired Wilson's To the Finland Station, the account of Lenin's journey via Finland after the first chaotic stage of the Russian Revolution (the Kerensky government was vulnerable) to take over the country and to steep it in communism, with Marx as his bible.

Scott talked a great deal, too, about Hemingway, whom he still admired but wouldn't see again, he told me, until after the publication of The Last Tycoon, and only, then, if the book was the hoped-for success. He wondered whether Ernest's talent was “thinning out.”

I don't remember too many boxes of flowers in this last year—in any case, I didn't want or need them as a reminder of his love. But he managed to scrape up $85 for the silver jug he gave me for my birthday in 1940. It is still my most treasured possession.

One evening, after a film preview, we were strolling on Hollywood Boulevard to the car park when we saw a small shop that advertised “Make your own records—hear yourself speak.” We went inside and Scott recorded four readings—I remember best Keats' “Ode to a Nightingale” and something from Shakespeare's Othello. When he presented it to me, I wrote on the center, “A new and better Barrymore.” Many years after his death when I played it, I was surprised at the deep professorial tone of his voice, much lower than it was in real life. Perhaps even then he was speaking for posterity—he knew I never lost anything that I liked. But he might have felt self-conscious and intent on not sounding frivolous.

The record was in the material Scott had given me, which I had presented to the Princeton University Library in 1959. Perhaps a student or researcher substituted it with a copy, because the record no longer bears my written statement, “A new and better Barrymore.” Some of the two hundred books Scott gave me were stolen from me which is one reason I gave the rest to the library.

Scott, in that final year, was encouraging me to write more short stories. I remember one, “Ostrich,” about a debutante whose grandmother was very ill. She dreaded receiving a telegram saying that Granny was dead, and then she could not go to the deb party that evening. I borrowed this incident from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, where the Duchesse de Guermantes made sure she did not hear of the death of a relative because she was going to a party.

I wrote a story titled “Janey,” about a father and a rebellious girl, who was Scottie to the life—to her creamy dipped-in-milk complexion, the wide-apart blue eyes, the perfect teeth. My character was seventeen, the daughter of a middle-aged professor who in the early 20s was the literary mouthpiece for flaming youth. Scott was amused when I showed him the plan, but thought I should have changed it a little from the actual people so they would not be so instantly recognizable. I also wrote a story about Barbara Hutton, whom I had seen playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, with not a hair ruffled on her sculptured locks. Also the first “Beloved Infidel,” and “Not in the Script,” about my fight at a studio with Connie Bennett who was then a superstar (See Appendix.)

We were both so busy and yet we had so much time for each other. I relegated much of my gossip-gathering to my British columnist friend, Jonah Ruddy, and some of his work got me into hot water with the studios, but I didn't care. The column was an interim activity until I could take a chance on fiction, which Scott was teaching me to write.

Recently, Warren Beatty, a great admirer of Scott, said to me, “In a way Scott was bad for you as a writer. You knew you could never write as well as he did and this prevented you from developing in your own right.” This is not entirely true. Edmund Wilson, after reading my College of One, told me I was a good writer. I knew, of course, that I could never be as good as Scott, but to have such close contact and guidance from a fine author could help me stretch to the end of my limitations. Scott would be pleased that I have done well with my published seven books. This is the eighth, including the novel Gentleman Crook I wrote in England before settling in the United States.

In that last year with Scott, everything was going so well for us that I refused another lecture tour that would have given me a few thousand dollars. I did leave Scott for two days—it was early November 1940—to attend the premiere in Dallas, Texas, of the Gary Cooper film The Westerner. But I hated going, though I was still thrilled by Gary, who was so handsome and so charming. He had been my second interview in 1936 (Charlie Chaplin was the first). My car had crashed on my way to Paramount, but I had picked up my shattered nerves and rushed on. Now I asked the press agent to be sure to put me in the same plane with Gary, partly to get an interview, but mostly to be close to my hero—there were two planes for the stars and the press.

Mack Millar, the publicity agent who was arranging the junket, said at the airport—in Scott's hearing—“I did as you asked. I have put you in the same plane as Gary.” I looked guiltily at Scott. Would he think I would be unfaithful and start drinking again—airports had been unlucky for us. But his face was bland and if he had heard he must have realized that my feeling for Mr. Cooper was pure fantasy, which it was.

I never told Scott of the one moment in Dallas when I could have translated the dream into reality. I had arrived first and was washing up in the bathroom of the big suite in the hotel where the after-film party was to be held. When I came out, Gary was in the bedroom. His smile at me was a question mark. He held my hands and looked down deeply from the top tower of his eyes into mine. I don't know how long this would have lasted, but remembering Scott, I giggled and pulled away.

Scott was at the airport when we returned and there was not a drop of liquor on him. I thanked God. I introduced him to Gary, who until then had been protective of me—I had been airsick and after Gary had lifted me into my top berth he had wanted to rub my stomach, but this would have been disastrous!

Gary smiled somewhat sheepishly as he and Scott shook hands. They were of the same generation and knew about each other. As Scott drove me to my apartment, I told him about the lunches and dinners that had been given for us. I had ridden horseback in the parade headed by Gary down the main street and wore the brown felt cowboy hat especially made for me by Rex, the best hatmaker in Beverly Hills. I told Scott I felt glamourous and important as I had when I substituted for the star in Mr. Cochran's London Revue One Damn Thing After Another in 1928.

If Scott was jealous of this gaiety in which he had no part, he did not show it. He was too pleased to have me back. “I missed you,” he said, “You must never go away again.” I promised I would not. Neither of us realized then that he would be the one to go away.

Next chapter 12 The Death

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