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

13. The Rebirth

Before flying to England in July 1941, I spent several days with Edmund Wilson and his wife, Mary McCarthy, at their home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Mr. Wilson had written me the good news that Max Perkins thought so highly of Scott's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, that they were planning to publish it in a volume with The Great Gatsby and he would be putting it all together. He needed my help, he wrote, on some of the notes Scott had made for the rest of the book.

I was somewhat nervous about staying with Scott's “intellectual conscience” and Mary who, with her vast intellectuality, had somewhat intimidated me when Scott and I had visited them in New York eighteen months previously. The journey to their home was tiring, first by train to New York, then a plane to Boston, and a bus to Wellfleet. Bunny and Mary met me, and were both so kind that I relaxed.

Early every morning, Mr. Wilson led me to his study, a round turret, with, up a flight of stairs, a completely windowed room. This is when I first saw the notes and the plan for The Last Tycoon. I felt important explaining everything I knew about the six written chapters and the plan. After a few hours, we'd pick up his little son and drive to the nearby beach. It was strange and dreamlike.

Back in New York, although the United States was not yet at war—that would come six months later—the machinery for war had started. All over the city there were men in uniform: army, navy, marine, and air force. The hotels were full of rich refugees from Europe. There was a frenetic gaiety; the theaters and restaurants were jammed with big spenders. I wondered whether London would be like this, and strangely it almost was. Live it up today because tomorrow, who knows.

I telephoned Johnny, my ex-husband, as soon as I arrived in London. He was in the Army and posted near the capital, and he came to see me the next day. He had been a major in the first world war, and had enlisted as soon as the second started. This time he was a captain, still elegant in his Savile Row uniform. But Johnny in his fifties was too old for active service, and soon after I arrived he was mustered out.

Scott had been amused by Johnny's letters to me—they were always so full of hope, for me and for himself. But in my letters to Johnny, I never mentioned Scott, except to write that “a very nice man was helping me with my reading.” And, as I elaborated, “I wish I had spent all my time in getting an education instead of going to parties. I wish I'd had the sense to want to educate myself when I lived in London near all the big museums. I suppose that when one is young, one has too good a time to think of developing the mind.”

When I saw Johnny, he asked me about “the nice chap.” It was Scott Fitzgerald, I told him. He had heard the name. “Oh yes, the Jazz Age fellow,” he said. I couldn't tell Johnny about my love for Scott. He would have felt pushed into the cold. But I talked to him a great deal about the education and the books Scott had written. And sometimes while I talked I forgot that Scott was dead. Everything he had done for me was alive and satisfying.

At other times my work helped me to live on the surface of my mind. I interviewed George Bernard Shaw on his eighty-fifth birthday, I broadcast my impressions of England at war from the BBC underground in Cavendish Square where it still is, and I saw a great deal of Donegall.

Because of Scott's painstaking education of me, I was in a better position to marry Don. I would make him a wife he would not have to apologize for. I liked him enormously. There was the same gentleness that Scott had when he was not drinking, and some of the same Irish anger when he was. But Scott had taught me more than I could read in books. Since loving Scott, I was not weighing “what can this do for me?”

It was too soon after his death for me to be in love with anyone and I believed I would not marry again unless I was. Four years earlier, I had been in love with the idea of being a Marchioness and having a husband who moved in the best British circles, but I had been too much in awe of the situation—orphanage girl marries Marquess—to let myself yield enough to find out if I could be in love with him. Now I knew that I wasn't.

Don asked me wonderingly why I had wanted to share the dreadful conditions prevailing in England. But, in fact, London was gay. Don was a member of the Home Guard and regaled me with hilarious stories about his unit. Everyone I met had funny stories to tell about the bombings. It would have made Scott laugh, but I deliberately didn't think about him too much in the six weeks of my 1941 summer in England.

The Paul Willerts had me for lunch—Paul had known Scott in America when his father was in Washington as the correspondent for the London Times. And Paul and I had met in Hollywood when he came to help raise money for the Spanish Loyalists. Now he introduced me to a calm, square-faced man with a name like Brada—he had been a spy for the Loyalists, infiltrating into Franco's army. Caught by the Fascists, he had escaped shortly before he was to be shot. What a story Scott could have made of that!

And then Jack Bergen of Grumman Corporation arrived in London in one of his aircraft. Jack had tried to get me a seat on a bomber flying to England, but couldn't. Now he invited me to a cocktail party at his suite in Claridges, where he had several bottles of liquor, nylon stockings, and lipsticks for his English friends.

It was Jack who introduced me to Trevor Westbrook, who had just returned from the Mideast to report to Churchill onthe situation there. Trevor had been Lord Beaverbrook's right-hand man when he was Minister of Air. I liked him at once and when, driving me back to The International Sportsman's Club where I was staying, he said he had never read a book, I liked him even more for his honesty and the fact that he was poles apart from Scott Fitzgerald. He would help to blot Scott from my mind.

I was on the point of getting a visa to the Russian battlefront—Quentin Reynolds was already there—when I received a cable from Mr. Wheeler to return to the United States to cover the first visit to Washington of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor since their marriage.

I dreaded returning to America with all its memories of Scott. I would never return to Hollywood, I decided. That was impossible. If I had to live in America I would be a roving reporter with a New York base, and I arranged this with Mr. Wheeler.

Back in the States I realized, as the weeks lengthened into months, I was not in love with Trevor and that I could not marry a man who did not read books. He had given me an engagement ring before I flew back to Lisbon, the Azores, Bermuda, and New York. And yet, because I felt bereft and lonely, I pretended to myself and others that I was still going to marry him.

I had written some pieces on wartime England for Variety—the best articles I have ever written and for no pay!—and the editor, Abel Green, asked me to lunch at the '21' club. He knew about Scott, and I didn't want to be pitied. So I talked a great deal about Trevor and about my intention to marry him. My vehemence seemed to irritate Abel (who with his wife, Grace, became good friends of mine) and he said, “If you love him so much, why are you waiting to marry him? Why don't you go back to England?” I was appalled at the impression I had created, especially as I had decided that I did not want to live in England again, and that I was not in love with Trevor. And would not marry him.

I went to Washington and wrote some stories about the Duke and Duchess. I went to Montreal to interview some of the pilots who were ferrying planes to England. I went to various other cities on the Eastern seaboard—to Baltimore to interview Glenn Martin, whose company was churning out war materiel in vast quantities. And I thought I was beginning to cope with the loss of Scott. But as the weeks came closer to December 21, 1941, the first anniversary of Scott's death, I unexpectedly became panic-stricken. I was like a crazy woman, pacing from my apartment bedroom to the living room in aimless strides.

I had a black cleaning woman from Jamaica, who watched me sympathetically. “I don't know what to do,” I kept repeating. She put her strong arm around me and said, “Don't worry, honey, something's sure to turn up.” Something did. Pearl Harbor. And soon after, Trevor came to Washington with the top members of the British cabinet, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, to consult with President Roosevelt on how best to utilize combined war power in the fight against Hitler. Trevor was one of the experts on aircraft.

John Wheeler was sending me to Washington to cover the big story. He hoped I would get some scoops from Beaverbrook, who had given me stories before. Meanwhile, Trevor called Mr. Wheeler and tracked me down to a chair at my dentist's. I told him of my assignment. It was fate, he said. We would get married before he returned with the rest of the experts on the new battleship King George V that had brought them. And so we were married across the bridge in Arlington, Virginia, the day of the 21st had passed, and I had survived.

On the plane back to New York, I kept looking at my platinum wedding ring, and wondering what Scott would have thought. I was sure he would have understood my anguish and the need to obliterate the anniversary of his death. But he might have been jealous, and after I became pregnant, I fantasized that Scott had spoken to the powers that be and said, “Don't let her love him, but for God's sake give her a baby.” He knew how much I wanted a child, but because of my association with Scott I had accepted the fact that I would probably never have children.

And now this miracle. I remember Roland Young, theveteran actor, coming to my apartment in the Shoreham Hotel and saying, “It's marvelous that you are pregnant with a child from Scott.” “If I was,” I replied, “that would be a real miracle.” Wendy was born in the fall of 1942. Scott had died in December 1940. I had wanted a boy, to name him Scott (though I knew I was being unfair to Trevor); I compromised by giving Wendy the middle name of Frances—the F at the beginning of Scott's name was Francis.

The year 1941 also saw the birth of The Last Tycoon. When I passed Scribners Book Store on Fifth Avenue, with the big window full of Scott's half-finished novel, I hoped that somehow Scott would know. And how pleased he would have been with the reviews, most of which believed that this might have been his best novel, that he had captured the essence of Hollywood better than anyone else. If the book were a success, he had said, we would leave Hollywood. It was wartime and where would we have gone? And what about Zelda? Even if they were divorced she would always be there. What a weird threesome we would be.

I had vowed I'd never return to Hollywood with its memories of Scott. But with my own child, the remembrance, while I could not talk about it, was more bearable. I now had someone that no one could take from me. The winter would soon be coming and I wanted to leave New York. One place I could go to was England where my husband was, but I didn't want to take the baby into the dampness and the blackouts and the bombs.

So I went back to Hollywood and my daily column for NANA. The nanny, Wendy—six weeks old—and I stayed at the Garden of Allah where Scott had lived when I first met him, but even that did not depress me. I was exhilarated that I was walking on the same oddly shaped stones where Scott and I had gone to his upstairs apartment. Errol Flynn was in the bungalow next to mine, and I remembered how jealous Scott had been of him. Nothing really mattered now except the sweet bundle I held in my arms.

In 1950 Budd Schulberg's book about Scott, The Disenchanted, was published, telling of the Dartmouth Winter Carnival, where Scott had been in disgrace and fired by the producer of the film, Walter Wanger, because of his drinking. This was one time when I hadn't reproached Scott. He should never have gone there with a temperature of 102°. But he needed the $1,500 a week he was being paid.

The Disenchanted came in the wake of growing interest in Scott's writings and his not-so-private life. About a year later, Arthur Mizener published The Far Side of Paradise, the first full-length biography of Scott. He didn't mention me by name because I had not yet revealed my association with his subject.

Edmund Wilson had advised Mizener to contact me for information about Scott's last years. He did not come to Hollywood to question me, as Andrew Turnbull did later, but sent a long list of queries, which I promptly answered, never dreaming that later I would be accused of borrowing from him!

This started a shower of books about Scott: biographies, collections of his letters, studies by Professor John Kuehl (on Scott's reading and the letters of Scott and Max), Professor Dan Piper, and Professor Matthew Bruccoli who has edited the Fitzgerald Newsletter for 10 years and the Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, and with Scottie and Joan Kerr recently co-authored a photographic book on her father, mother, and friends, including some of my mementos. Bruccoli recently published a biography of John O'Hara, and I was glad to give him information. I had known O'Hara well.

All this, however, is getting ahead of the more private rebirth. Back in Hollywood with my baby, I drove home fast from the studios to cuddle Wendy and take innumerable photographs of her—in her canvas bathinette, on the bed, on the floor, sitting up, lying down. I bought all the paraphernalia for taking pictures—lamps, a tripod, an expensive camera—and I used a doll as a stand-in. Having a baby was wonderful and I was zealously maternal. Recently I showed Wendy her baby book, and I thought she would throw up, reading sentences like, “When will you speak to me, my darling.” Today I can almost join her and say Ugh. But as a baby she was a good substitute for Scott Fitzgerald. And life became yet more complete when I gave birth three years later to my son Robert Trevor Westbrook.

The “Robert” was for Bob Benchley, who had insisted onbeing the godfather. He died shortly before my son was born, but I called him Robert anyway. I had liked Mr. Benchley, as Dorothy Parker always called him, very much. He had sometimes made fun of me, but always, I thought, liked me. He was living with a very charming girl who married after his death and lives in Europe.

With two children to take care of—Trevor had insisted on a divorce when I refused to return to England—I decided I would make lots of money to give them everything I had been denied as a child. If you want something badly enough, you get it, and I was a success. I was paid $5,000 a week for the Sheilah Graham Show on Television in 1955. I still have the card that opened the show with the view of Hollywood pierced with searchlights. There were about 160 newspapers taking my column, including the New York Mirror and the Hollywood Citizen News; I had a weekly radio show (no hard gasping this time); and I wrote monthly articles for several magazines, including a bi-monthly piece for TV Times.

I was busy and happy, and ten years after Scott's death, I thought I could talk about him calmly. I was having lunch at Romanoff's with Jean Dalrymple, the brilliant producer for musicals and ballet at New York's City Center, and when she asked me about Scott, I launched confidently into our story. But when it came to speaking about his death, I burst into tears.

I didn't discuss him again until 1957 when an editor of The Woman's Home Companion called at the house in Beverly Hills, 607 North Maple Drive, that I had bought ten years previously. He wanted me to write my life story for his magazine. I said, “What you really want is an account of my time with Scott Fitzgerald.” “No,” he assured me, “we want your story. Of course—[casually]—anything you write about Fitzgerald will add to the interest.”

It took me one week to talk it all into his tape recorder, but when he left the magazine soon after and I asked for a copy of what I had said, there were some problems, and I had to buy the tapes back from him. Holt supplied the cash because now they were going to publish Beloved Infidel. The book made a considerable sum of money and enabled me to send my children to the best schools in the East, and then to leave Hollywood and live in New York City and Connecticut, yet without giving up my job. Jonah Ruddy supplied me with news of filmland and I also made frequent visits there to fill the column I was still giving a Hollywood dateline. Busy as I was in the East, I even filled in for Walter Winchell's column and radio show for several weeks, while he was unable to work because of an infection in his jaw.

I was on top of the world where I would not have wanted to be if Scott were alive. I was not ambitious for myself during those years with him. But, after that, as Julia Foster, the British actress who portrays me in the excellent TV documentary, Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, says, “I made a name and found a place for myself in this country.”

I'm not sure that Scott would like the woman into whom I evolved. An English friend of mine told me in 1934, when he came to New York, “You seem tough on the outside, but you are soft inside.” Now I am soft outside and tough inside. I've had to be. I grew to believe with Scott that I am valuable. Before knowing him, while I seemed confident and sure—I was pretty and this helped—I was in reality unsure, and despised myself for all the trickery I had used, at first to survive and later to be successful in my area. But now I realize I am no worse than anyone and sometimes better. At least I hope so. And now that I feel stronger about myself, I can see Scott, whom I earlier adored so unquestioningly partly out of the sense of my own inferiority, much more objectively. I can view him today by the standards that he set for me.

Next chapter 14 The Last Party

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