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

12. The Death

As I rememberit now, December 20, 1940, was a trying day. Scott was restless and irritable. I was also nervous because I had an appointment at M-G-M to see Spencer Tracy. Sometimes he'd be in a jovial mood so that I could get a good interview. But more often he was morose and made me squirm with his hostile stare as though daring me to ask silly questions.

After the first heart attack late in November 1940 at Schwab's drugstore on Sunset Boulevard, the doctor had forbidden Scott to climb stairs. His own apartment on Laurel Avenue in the street next to mine had been recently built. Ceilings were higher then, and there were more stairs to climb. I had a spare bedroom on the ground floor in my apartment on Hayworth Avenue, so, of course, I asked him to use it until his secretary or I could find a similar apartment for him in the same neighborhood.

I found something that I thought would suit him, but there were four steps to the front door and he wouldn't take it. I remember I was somewhat exasperated. As I have mentioned, when Scott was sober he was a hypochondriac, and I was never sure whether he was shamming or really ill. Scott had forbidden me to question his doctor in his absence, but the doctor had told me in Scott's presence that the attack had damaged his heart. “How much?” I asked. “Twenty-five percent,” he replied. And this had alarmed me. Why he did not hospitalize him for the usual six weeks flat in bed, I'll never understand. He was a good doctor, so maybe he did ask this of Scott who, I think, would have gone mad during a long hospital stay. But he was resting in my spare bedroom many hours during the day.

During the night of December 20, he slept badly. I had awakened to hear him walking around from the bedroom to the living room and kitchen. He was unhappy when I saw him in the morning. “It's the chapter,” he explained, his voice revealing his anxiety. “I can't make it hang together.”

It was Chapter VI of The Last Tycoon, where Monroe Stahr was to meet Mr. Brimmer, a member of the Communist party. The encounter resulted in Stahr's drinking heavily, the first time in the book that Scott mentioned a drinking problem for the frail producer. By the sixth chapter, Stahr was already becoming Scott Fitzgerald, who would have started drinking as he would have been nervous at meeting Brimmer. In his youth, Stahr had been a scrapper which Scott was not. That came later, after he began drinking. So the now Scott-Stahr challenged him to a fist fight. Brimmer knocked him out. Looking at the prone producer, the Communist marveled that this crumpled heap was where all the capitalist power lay.

After Scott had his breakfast, which consisted usually of orange juice and coffee (he would have a bigger lunch), he returned to bed with a dozen Cokes to wrestle with Chapter VI, on the writing board he had brought from his apartment. It was no use. “Where's Frances?” he demanded peevishly. “She's not coming till noon,” I reminded him. “She told you she had an appointment with her dentist.”

I had to leave for the studio. “Look” I said, “why don't you try to sleep and when you wake up I'm. sure Frances will be here.” He acquiesced, and I took away the board and the pencils and paper and closed the Venetian blinds. He was still grumbling about Frances not being there when he needed her,but he lay back on the bed with a deep sigh and closed his eyes.

When I returned—Spencer Tracy's mood had been good—Scott was working with Frances. And after she left several hours later, he came beaming into the living room with its Barker's basement second-hand furniture that we had bought together, and announced, “I've been able to fix it.” He was exhilarated as he always was after writing to his satisfaction. “Baby, this book will be good. It might even make enough money for us both to leave Hollywood.” I smiled like Ruth mid the alien corn, who said to her mother-in-law, where thou goest, so go I. That was me all right.

He dressed and we went to celebrate the completion of the chapter over dinner at Lyman's, a restaurant-delicatessen on Hollywood Boulevard near a theater—I think it was the Pantages—where we were to attend the preview of This Thing Called Love. It was a comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas. I can't remember what we ate, but some of the names on the menu—knishes, knadlich, latkas—it was a Jewish restaurant—amused him. He laughed trying to pronounce the strange words.

During the showing of the film he was very quiet, but I was not worried because he usually studied the plot to help him master the technique of “the strange medium of the flicks” as he called it. But when the lights went up and we started to leave, he almost fell. He's lost his balance, I thought, looking around and hoping no one had seen. They would think he was drinking again.

I held Scott's left elbow and steered him slowly to the door. He was breathing somewhat heavily and drew deep draughts of air when we were outside. He seemed all right as he drove me slowly home. “I had the same dizziness as that time in Schwab's,” he told me. I was worried. “Shall I get the doctor tonight?” “No, he's coming tomorrow. Don't worry, Sheilo, I feel much better.” He took more than his usual number of sleeping pills. When he was finally asleep, I tiptoed into his room every now and then to make sure he was all right. One time he awakened and kissed me and said sleepily, “Go to bed, I'm all right.”

He seemed much better in the morning, and I was sure that the new cardiogram would prove that his heart had almost repaired itself. We were both in good spirits, though he was still sleepy from all the pills and didn't dress until about noon.

Scott talked a great deal about Scottie and about Zelda, who was with her mother in Montgomery. He was pleased with them both. Scottie was doing well scholastically and socially at Vassar. The doctors were hopeful that Zelda had reached a plateau where she could function fairly well for the rest of her life, though they had warned that when the stress mounted, she might have to go back to Highlands for brief periods. Scott was very short of cash. But something always turned up at the last minute, and I knew that he would probably soon be receiving another $5,000 from Max Perkins at Scribners, which included the $2,000 I was planning to send to Scribners that day.

I went to Greenblatt's, the delicatessen on the corner of Sunset and Hayworth, for some sandwiches and a Hershey bar that I would eat later. It was a lovely day, and the sun was pouring into the living room through the open Venetian blinds. I settled into the sofa with a biography of Beethoven—I was in the middle of the music course. To reinforce the book, I asked Scott if it was all right for me to play the Eroica on the record player he had bought me at the start of the course along with all the thick cases of records—there were no long-playing discs then.

Scott smiled and sank into the dark green armchair with the latest Princeton Alumni Weekly, focusing on an article about football. Every now and then he would look up with a faraway expression, perhaps dreaming of the glory he had wanted for himself on the football field.

Earlier he had dictated the letter I was writing to Scottie to go with the clothes I was sending her—I remember a long black velvet evening gown with short puff sleeves and a heart-shaped neckline which I had bought a few months earlier for the Dallas premiere of Gary Cooper's film, The Westerner.

Scott stood up and said, “I want something sweet, I'm goingto Schwab's for some ice cream.” “But the doctor is coming soon,” I reminded him. “I'm sure he'll have good news about your heart. Will a Hershey bar do?” I went to the drawer in my bedroom where I had put it for later munching and gave it to Scott. He savored it slowly while, as I found out later, writing down the nicknames of football heroes of his class opposite their names in the magazine. We both looked up at the same time and smiled at each other while he licked his fingers, and then we settled back to the reading.

A few minutes later, while the Eroica shrilled its prophecy, I half saw Scott jump to his feet and clutch the mantelpiece as though to steady himself. He would often stand up suddenly when he had an idea for some writing. Or was it the dizziness again? Before I could reach him, he fell to the floor, spread-eagled on his back. His eyes were closed and he was breathing heavily. I was sure he had fainted.

What do you do when someone faints? I had only fainted twice in my life—once after an operation, and another time when I was punishing my mother by refusing to eat. I had seen girls who had fainted on stage or in the dressing room. Someone had usually sat them up and put their head between their legs. But I wasn't sure I could do this for Scott. Brandy. I had a small bottle in the kitchen. But he hadn't had a drink for so long, would the taste start him off again? If only he would move and open his eyes. Brandy. Nothing mattered except to wake him up. His teeth were clenched and when I poured the liquor into his mouth it spilled all over his chin and neck. I was embarrassed. I felt I was taking advantage of him. But what should I do? And why didn't he regain consciousness? I must get help.

Harry Culver, for whom Culver City had been named, was the owner of the apartments and lived there. I ran to his apartment. He was in and came back with me. Scott was still motionless. Mr. Culver felt his pulse and listened to his heart. He stood up slowly. “He's dead,” he said quietly. No no, he couldn't be. He'd been alive and smiled at me a few minutes before. Oxygen. The fire department. “Someone has fainted and can't wake up,” I told the man who answered. “We'll be right there.”

They seemed to arrive almost before I put the phone down. They put a mask over his face and tried to revive him while I watched as though in a dream. Could death come so swiftly, alive one second, dead the next? And if he were dead, would there be a scandal? I was flooded with all my early feelings of guilt. Thank God it was afternoon and not the middle of the night. But would my reputation be ruined? I was writing a syndicated column for important papers all over the world. These thoughts flashed through my mind while I dialed doctor after doctor, but it was a Saturday afternoon and those I called were out.

Then Scott's doctor arrived, and the firemen, looking glum and shaking their heads, stood aside. It was true. Scott was dead. Suddenly the room was full of familiar faces—among them Frances, Pat Duff, my secretary, Buff Cobb and her husband. I didn't know who had sent for them. Perhaps I had.

Why does death always attract a crowd? It had happened when my mother had died when I was alone with her in our two-room flat in the East End of London. I didn't cry then and I didn't now. But I shook uncontrollably and went into the kitchen to be alone. When I returned to my living room I found they had taken Scott away. A strange sound came from my mouth. Then Buff and her husband, Cameron Rogers, drove me to the house in Santa Monica where they lived with her father, Irvin Cobb, the humorist.

Strange, even now, to call Scott “the body.” In an odd way I also felt important—so many people were concerned about me. I remember thinking that Scott would be pleased that his friends were caring for me. And the education, what would become of that fine enterprise? It was so near the end; could I finish it alone? Mostly, I was numb. Of course, I was in shock. Nature shields us from madness at such times so that the impact of what has happened does not strike at once.

The half-hour drive with the windows wide open brought me back to a sort of reality. When I arrived at the house, I telephoned Harold Ober, who had been Scott's agent for so long and asked him to break the news to Scottie. I knew I couldn't do that. I was talking fairly normally, or so I thought, to Buff and her family when the telephone rang. It was Scottie,full of sympathy, and my voice didn't break even when she asked me how it had happened and I told her. I realize now it was a shock for her, but her voice was calm as she said, “Of course I will leave Vassar and get a job.” “Oh no,” I replied, “You must graduate from Vassar, that was your father's dearest wish.” “We'll talk about that another time,” she replied.

And then in her eighteen-year-old voice: “Sheilah, you know you can't come to the funeral.” “I know,” I replied, and said, “Good-bye.” That is when I wept, loud weeping that wouldn't stop. I weep now—more quietly—remembering the sudden realization that Scott no longer belonged to me, he belonged to his family, and he might have wanted it that way. I hadn't intended to go to the funeral—I've only been to one funeral in my life and that was by mistake. I prefer to remember those I love as I have seen them alive, not being lowered into the ground or in an incinerator.

And as it turned out, the doctors thought the funeral would be too great a strain for Zelda, who took Scott's death more calmly than anyone had dared to hope for. Her reaction came several months later when she had to return to the sanitarium.

Buff turned over her bedroom to me and gave me two sleeping pills. I slept fitfully, although I had never taken pills before. It was a few days before Christmas, and Mr. Cobb insisted that I stay with them until it was over. I loved them for their kindness, and if Scott's other friends were going to be as kind to me, I thought, perhaps I'll be able to cope with the loss of Scott. I might even become a member of the intelligentsia, and Scott would like that. But I had the feeling of standing over a huge chasm with nothing to hold me up; and if I didn't strain to stay up, I would fall in.

There was a feeling of airiness in my head; nothing was very real except the demands of my daily column. Robert Benchley offered to write some for me, but I knew I had to do it myself, that I would lose my reason unless I immersed myself in work to blot out the image of Scott on his back, lifeless, in my living room. I still don't understand why, but the columns I wrote then were full of humor.

I remember attending a Paramount Studio preview in Van Nuys for a film starring Madeleine Carroll and Sterling Hayden—later they would marry. At the end someone died—it might have been Sterling—and he lay seemingly lifeless on the ground. I started to cry and rushed out of the theater down the boulevard as far as Encino. They'll be looking for me, I thought—I had driven there with Bob Gilham, head of Paramount publicity—so I walked back and managed sufficient composure to get silently into the car. Bob was a friend and he understood.

A few days after Scott died, Dorothy Parker and her husband visited me after going to the Hollywood funeral parlor where his body had been taken. There she had spoken the famous line from The Great Gatsby—“the poor son of a bitch.” I was in bed, clutching a hot-water bottle to my stomach and drinking a small glassful of gin—the best cure for cramps. It was also Scott's favorite tipple. I recited “Beloved Infidel,” Scott's poem to me, over and over, and Dottie said it was beautiful and especially liked the lines that included “And when I join the ghosts who lay beside your flashing fire.” “Flashing fire,” she repeated, and for a second I felt very desirable. And then I said, “I must find someone like Scott.” Later she told Gerold Frank, “That had class.” Nonetheless she slaughtered Beloved Infidel in her review for Esquire.

Just before New Year's Eve and after I had broken down at a party at Dorothy's, I suddenly decided to go to New York. I hadn't minded living in the place where Scott had died. “Why should I?” I asked the friends who wondered that I could. “This is where Scott is.” But it was unthinkable to see in the New Year with crowds of Hollywood people as a substitute for Scott, even though we had not been together the previous December 31. The year before he had been with Zelda, but that was different. He was then alive.

I learned on the train that Scott's body was also on it, being shipped to Baltimore where he would be buried, so in a way he was still with me. Sydney Perelman was also on the train, accompanying the bodies of Nat West and West's wife, Eileen, who had died in a car crash, several hours after Scott had died.And it all seemed rather gruesome. There were other people I knew on the train, and I ate my meals with them and looked forward to spending some time in New York, which I had liked so much when I first came to America.

Also I could hold on to Scott for a little longer, by seeing some of the friends he had loved. My first call was on Frances and Albert Hackett. I went straight to their apartment without calling them first. I made the excuse for the visit that I was bringing them the small verse Scott had written after he had been called from their party to work with the producer, Hunt Stromberg, on a script. They already had the verse but accepted mine as though it was the first time they had seen it.

Sing a song for Shielah's (wrong spelling as usual) supper,
Belly void of rye,
Gone before the cocktail, back for the pie.
Stromberg sent for Poppa, though Poppa hadn't et,
To do what Jesus couldn't—
Save Marie Antoinette …

It was New Year's Eve, and they were going to a party and invited me to come with them. I went but should not have. I could not be part of the gaiety. I smiled when people talked to me, but I could not bear it and asked Frances if she would mind if I took a taxi back to my hotel. I was full of loneliness and self-pity, and angry with Scott. Why had he done this to me? Why had he taken every part of me into the grave with him? It wasn't fair. I had never given myself so completely to anyone before. Life stretched drearily before me.

My dear friend Margaret Brainard was in the hospital after a minor heart attack. Her doctor had insisted on six weeks flat on her back. I visited her every day that I was in the city. Her other constant visitor was a former actor friend, Richard Gordon, who married her when she was recovered.

When the New Year excitement was over, I phoned the Murphys. My voice was quite steady when I told them I was in New York. Gerald at once invited me to lunch with them. It had been a great loss for them, too. They had always loved Scott and Zelda, and they liked me because they believed I had helped Scott and he had told them good things about me.

We lunched at the French restaurant in Rockefeller Center. They asked me what my plans were, and I told them I wanted to go home, and home for me was England. “I have friends there,” I said, and they nodded sympathetically. I was doing fine until Jock Whitney stopped at the table and said how sorry he was. I clenched my teeth or I might have broken down.

I had many meetings with Scottie, whom I liked now for herself, not only because she was Scott's daughter for whom I had acted as a buffer against her father's irritation. I told her of the cable I had received from Lord Donegall after Scott's death, saying how sorry he was and would I settle all my business in America because he would not allow me to return. “You must marry him,” Scottie advised delightedly, “and I will visit you in your castle.” She was so like her father: his enthusiasm, his smile, his broad forehead, the same eyes. I couldn't have enough of looking at her. I had already made a will leaving her everything I possessed. It wasn't much. The $11,000 in my savings account included Scott's $2,000.

I saw my North American Newspaper Alliance boss, John Wheeler, and he tried to discourage me about England. The war against England was getting hotter with so much of Europe in the hands of Hitler. He said he admired me for wanting to be in a country at war but that I might get killed in an air raid or a German invasion. He told me I was being foolish.

To be killed did not seem such a disaster, but I had too much energy to really want to die. Perhaps I could do some good for England if I wrote sympathetic stories about the fine people of my native land and how they were coping. Perhaps I could do my small bit to bring America to join Britain in the war. But it wasn't until May, several months after I had returned to Hollywood, that I finally received permission to go.

I had cabled Lord Beaverbrook, who I knew admired initiative, to help me obtain an exit visa from England. This was Mr. Wheeler's stipulation, as I was still a British subject,and he feared, he said, that once in England I wouldn't be able to leave. The visa magically appeared.

Then I wanted to fly to England in a bomber. American war planes were flying at a great rate across the Atlantic to replenish the R.A.F., which had lost so much during the Battle of Britain the previous September. Scott was then alive and for the first time since the war had started in the fall of 1939, he believed that the British might win. Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain had convinced him. Before that he had said, “They don't have a chance,” and I had hotly argued with him. “For one thing you don't know the British, and for another you don't like them.” “Present company excepted” said Scott, smiling.

I wished he had known that Hitler, instead of invading England as expected, had turned his armies and the Luftwaffe against Russia, his supposed ally. How Scott had been shocked when Stalin had signed the infamous treaty with Hitler which paved the way for the invasion of Poland. Now he would never know that it had been a cynical marriage of convenience for both. But I knew I must stop thinking about what Scott would have thought about this or that. To survive, I must push him far back in my mind and not talk about him. Only Donegall and our friends in Hollywood knew about my years as Scott's girl. There would be so much to do, I wouldn't have time for the sterility of self-pity.

I returned to Hollywood to sell the furniture in my apartment. Mr. Culver allowed me to break my lease, and in June, I was on the Super-Chief train for New York, to fly a few days later by Pan American clipper to England via Bermuda, the Azores, and Lisbon. There I changed to a British plane for the air base in Poole, Dorsetshire. I didn't know it then, but I was flying to a new life in which Scott would still play an important role.

Next chapter 13 The Rebirth

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