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

2. In The Beginning

When Scott Fitzgerald advised me early in 1940 to write my own story and gave me a ledger in which to record everything I could remember, he wrote on the title page, “The Book of Lillith.” At the time I thought this was a play on my real name, Lily. Scott often indulged in such affectionate puns—for example, he changed Dante Gabriel Rossetti's line, “and the lilies lay as if asleep along her bended arm” into “FSF and Lily lay along his bended arm as if asleep.”

I did not think further about Lillith until recently, glancing through a dictionary, I saw that Lillith, the first wife of Adam, flew away from him and became a demon. So, as Scott had conceived my story, it was to be the story of a demon, of a witch.

This discovery aggravated an old doubt. I was thoroughly confident that Scott had loved and respected me. But was there also a part of him that despised me?

Right after his death I had received a tremendous shock when I took the photograph I had given him of myself from its frame. Scrawled across the back was the inscription, “Portrait of a Prostitute.” I was terribly hurt and also reminded of a party at Malibu Beach in the summer of 1938 when Scott, verydrunk, had spoken of me to Nunnally Johnson as his “paramour.”

I knew that “Portrait of a Prostitute” was also a drunken commentary. He must have written it on the photograph after the first of our two bad quarrels in 1939 when he was drinking so heavily. We had struggled for his gun, I had slapped him —the first person in his life ever to do so—and as I walked out, I had delivered a harsh exit line, “Shoot yourself, you son of a bitch. I didn't raise myself from the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you.”

This was hysterical and somewhat theatrical, as first of all I had never been in the gutter—my family was poor but respectable; my father, who died when I was a few months old, was an educated man—and secondly, I didn't really consider my time with Scott a waste. Perhaps he wanted to retaliate with an insult equally cruel and outrageous. But nonetheless, his comment—which I discovered when I was powerless to challenge it—reflected the puritanical streak in him that rebelled against his falling in love with me.

Did he feel guilty, as some writers have suggested, about his dual commitment to me and to Zelda? Or did he mind that I was a girl, as he describes me in the poem “Beloved Infidel,” “with eyes made bright by other men”?

Scott's ambivalence toward me began, I think, after he asked me how many lovers I had had—he was always curious to know about people's lives. At this point I did not know him well, but I was pleased at his interest and happy to answer his question. “Eight,” I told him flippantly. This struck me as a good approximation. There might have been more, there might have been less. This was 1937 and I wasn't a baby. I had been married and had been on the stage and had worked in New York.

But Scott was visibly shocked. His own life, for all its exhibitionistic wildness, had been more sexually conservative. In 1925, while they were in the South of France, Zelda had had one notable affair with a French aviator, and Scott had been unfaithful to her only after 1930, when she lost her sanity and was in an institution. I am sure that his Hollywood fling in 1927 with Lois Moran was not consummated, for she afterwards visited him—and Zelda—at Ellerslie in Delaware. Scott's loves and heroines in the past had all been flirts. But a woman such as myself who casually acknowledged earlier lovers was not within his experience.

Perhaps it is true, as the literary critic Leslie Fiedler has observed, that American authors tend either to idealize women as virgins or damn them as whores. At least this generalization holds somewhat true of Scott. My past obviously disturbed as well as intrigued him, and at times he found it easiest to cope with by villifying it and me. He knew that I was a working woman who, from the age of fourteen, had always earned her own living. In fact, I was the only woman, as he wrote of Kathleen in his notes for The Last Tycoon, “whose life did not depend in some way on him or hope to depend on him.” He knew I stood alone and could stand alone, as indeed I have all my life.

Yet why did he cast me in the image of the prostitute? Working at M-G-M on the script for The Women, he draped Joan Crawford, portraying the kept woman, in a silver fox jacket—the very coat he had bought for my birthday in September 1937. And an even more blatant insult—though I did not recognize it at the time—was his writing out a check to me for $2,000 after our fight in Encino, in early 1939, as though paying me off. Then I looked on it as a present for the time I had spent with him. He had said late in 1938 that because it might be impossible for us to marry, he would give me several thousand dollars a year for every year I had spent with him —to have something for that time in my life.

His solicitude had touched me, though I did not wish to place any further financial burden on this man who already had so many obligations. I took the money, however, after our fight, because at that moment I hated him and was glad that he should be out of pocket. And after we came together again, instead of giving it back to him, I kept it in my savings bank. But I always felt that the $2,000 was his. When he was so hard up in the few months before his death, I planned my letter to Max Perkins, suggesting that I would send Scribners $2,000 if they would add another $3,000 and give the $5,000 to Scott as a further advance on The Last Tycoon. My share in this scheme—proposing it and contributing to it—I insisted, should be kept from Scott because I knew his pride would be offended.

He died before I could send the letter, but my penciled notes for it are still among the papers that I donated to Princeton University. After his death, going through Scott's checks and records, Scottie asked me about the $2,000, but I told her it was a private matter. I think she assumed that I had loaned her father that money and he was repaying it.

It has recently occurred to me that Scott may, himself, have felt enmeshed in a type of prostitution and that his anger at me may have had something to do with his own sense of weakness and frustration. Hadn't he prostituted his talent, writing what he recognized as inferior stories—full of “trashy imaginings”—in order to make the quick money he always needed? And at the end he ran out of time in which to complete the work of integrity—The Last Tycoon. Scottie, writing to me three days after his death, felt that the unfinished novel was “almost the greatest tragedy” of the situation. “It would have meant so much to him and to his career and to his reputation in the future.”

Scottie's letter also thanked me for my involvement with her father. And at a time that I had just been jolted by the discovery of “Portrait of a Prostitute,” she helped to remind me of all the warmth and dignity of my years with Scott:

Dear Sheilah,
I know it seems somehow absurd, but I did want to write and thank you, however inadequately, for “everything.” It must be a comfort to you to know that you were the main factor, and, as far as I know, the only factor, in making Daddy's last years comparatively happy. You have always been so kind to him and to me, and saw him through on so many occasions when someone else would have walked out on him… . He told me often how very devoted he was to you and how very much he respectedyou. Of course it's unnecessary to dwell on this point since you realise it all, but I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am….
Love, Scottie

I do realize how devoted Scott was to me and how he respected me. But, looking at it coldly thirty-five years later, how ought I to deal with his ambivalent treatment of me? Perhaps I should try to regain my earlier trust and believe Scott's own explanation of his behavior. After our second and final fight at Encino in early November 1939, he wrote me two letters, both bidding me a contrite and loving good-bye, but also intent on winning me back. His cruelty, he explained, was but the inconsequent mumbling of a drunken madman. He had said “awful things,” the letter acknowledges, but

… they can to some extent be unsaid. They come from the merest fraction of my mind, as you must know—they represent nothing in my conscious and very little in my sub-conscious. About as important and significant as the quarrels we used to have about England and America.

The rest of the letter expresses his contrition:

I don't think we're getting anywhere. I'm glad you no longer can think of me with either respect or affection. People are either good for each other or bad, and obviously I am horrible for you. I loved you with everything I had, but something was terribly wrong. You don't have to look far for the reason—I was it. Not fit for any human relation. I just loved you—you brought me everything. And it was very fine and chivalrous—and you.

I want to die, Sheilah, and in my own way. I used to have my daughter and my poor lost Zelda. Now for over two years your image is everywhere. Let me remember you up to the end which is very close. You are the finest. You are something all by yourself. Youare too much something for a tubercular neurotic who can only be jealous and mean and perverse. I will have my last time with you, though you won't be here. It's not long now. I wish I could have left you more of myself. You can have the first chapter of the novel [The Last Tycoon] and the plan. I have no money but it might be worth something. Ask [Leland] Hay-ward. I loved you utterly and completely. I meant to send this longhand but I don't think it would be intelligible.

In the second letter (handwritten), a couple of weeks later, there is no further talk of his own dying; the tone is more subdued. But Scott again laments that he violated my trust:

I wrote down a lot of expressions of your face, but one I can't bear to read, of the little girl who trusted me so and whom I loved more than anything in the world—and to whom I gave grief when I wanted to give joy.

And he again insists on the insignificance of his lashing out:

Something should have told you that I was extemporising wildly—that anyone … should ever dare to criticize you to me. It was all fever and liquor and sedatives—what nurses hear in any bad drunk case. I'm glad you're rid of me. I hope you're happy and the last awful impression is fading a little till some day you'll say, “he can't have been that black” …

Well, I have never thought he was very black. I understand better now how much he needed me—he was a man with a great talent and need for quiet intimacy. But when he was distressed with his own life, he hated his intimates as well. Then, too, these letters he wrote me show how well he could idealize a woman—who must necessarily often fall short for him of such perfection. I am happy that in our final year together, with the drinking all behind us, he seemed to reach a more balanced acceptance both of himself and of me.


When I first met Scott on July 14, 1937, neither of us was looking for a relationship of such intensity. He had too many other responsibilities. I was engaged to the Marquess of Done-gall—who died recently—and planning a New Year's Eve wedding to be followed by a honeymoon cruise around the world. Part of the unwritten marriage contract was that I would give Don an heir as soon as possible, and a doctor had told him that the swaying of a ship was conducive to pregnancy. Yet despite Scott's commitments to the past and mine to the future, there must have remained in each of us a receptiveness to new romantic risk and experience.

Scott's arrival in Hollywood followed what was undoubtedly the lowest period in his life. The years 1935 and 1936 had seen him debt-ridden and drinking heavily. In 1935, he had strained some shoulder muscles in North Carolina, attempting a show-off dive. And in 1936, after Michel Mok's interview with him appeared in the New York Post, he had tried to gulp down an overdose of morphine pills—if rather safely in front of his nurse. The Mok piece bore the headline, “Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair.” Scott always insisted to me that this was a cruel distortion. Yet wasn't he in despair—convinced that he had exhausted his vitality and written himself out? He himself announced his condition in the three “Crack-Up” essays. But they are nonetheless extremely well written. “Your best writing,” I comforted him.

That Scott could write so beautifully about “the dark night of the soul” shows the detachment he had toward all his experience that helped in pulling him through the worst, the most hectic upheavals. Just as he was both the flaming youth of the 20s and the cool, analytical observer of his youth, so a part of him stood outside his despondency. And when he had to, he was able to pull himself up by the thin rope he never quite let go. Although I didn't realize it then, he would never be completely intact—there would always be a soft, deteriorated side to his nature that could not be repaired because it had been destroyed. But he was able to carry on. He never forgot, as Zelda observed in an unpublished story, “The use of making an effort.”

So when Harold Ober arranged for him, in 1937, to go to Hollywood on a six-month contract at M-G-M for $1,000 a week, Scott stopped pitying himself, went on the wagon, and grasped this opportunity to clear his debts, provide for Zelda and Scottie—they were his deep-gut responsibility—and perhaps reactivate his career in a spectacular way.

It was typical of him that no matter how defeated he had been feeling, any new opportunity aroused all his enthusiasm and optimism. He was a very enthusiastic man. And setting out on his third and most determined attempt to make good in the well-paying field of script writing, he shows his excitement in a letter to Scottie: “Given a break, I can double this contract within two years.” By careful behavior he was sure he could bring the Hollywood tycoons to respect him as a screenwriter and to allow him to do his own work, free of the interference of bosses and collaborators.

It was an impossible task he had set for himself—to change the entire system where the goal was what he later described as “a practiced kind of mediocrity,” where originality was suspect, and where you needed more stability or dullness than Scott possessed to keep your footing on the factory treadmill. But, in July 1937, he was hoping for the best in terms of both financial and artistic achievement.

Some of his Eastern friends had preceded Scott to what was then the film capital of the world: Donald Ogden Stewart, whom he had known in St. Paul, Minnesota, and advised to become a writer, was now earning $5,000 a week; Ben Hecht and Charlie McArthur doctored scripts at $10,000 a week; the late playwright Eddie Mayer was in the $3,000-$4,000 a week bracket for the movies he wrote for Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper—Eddie had been brought to Hollywood after the success of The Firebrand, his play about Cellini; Ogden Nash, Edward Paramore, Jr., and Nunnally Johnson. The two latter had written one good book each and were now reaping a fine financial harvest. There was also Robert Benchley, whom Scott had patronized in the early 20s when Scott was the golden youth of the Jazz Age and Benchley simply a New York critic and editor; Marc Connelly; Dorothy Parker, who always treated Scott with deference, even when he was drunk; John O'Hara, his devout disciple; and many others. Hollywood was full of prominent literary names in the late 30s and especially after the start of World War II with the influx of the famed European refugees, among them Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, and Andre Malraux.

Scott spent time with these other writers, particularly in his first and most gregarious year in Hollywood. But he was a man who needed more than the companionship of friends. The center of his life always had to be a woman—Ginevra King, Zelda, me. I sometimes try to analyze why I was the one in Hollywood toward whom he felt such instant attraction. Was it the look of Zelda that he describes in The Last Tycoon?

Smiling faintly at him from not four feet away was the face of his dead wife, identical even to the expression … the eyes he knew looked back at him, a curl blew a little on a familiar forehead; the smile lingered, changed a little according to pattern; the lips parted—the same. An awful fear went over him, and he wanted to cry aloud.

I did not know that I had reminded Scott of his wife until he read me this passage from the novel. Part of his charm was the ability to make a woman feel as if she were the most special person in the world—a goddess from an enchanted country. I believed that he looked on me as the most beautiful girl in Hollywood, and, as in the past, he always had to have the most beautiful.

That I was so confident of my allure must have also attracted him. That first time in Robert Benchley's bungalow at the Garden of Allah where I was celebrating my engagement to Donegall, he was sitting quietly in a corner of the room, very pale, wearing a blue suit, a jaunty bow tie, his ash-blond hair shining under the lamp. He was smoking and looking at the more exuberant celebrants through the haze of his cigarette. But what did he see? Not only a woman who bore an eerie resemblance to his wife, but one who was at the center of the party, radiating the sense of her own beauty and importance that is a part of every Fitzgerald heroine's nature.

When later he questioned Eddie Mayer as to who I was and learned of my engagement to a Marquess, this can only have whetted his interest further. He always admired girls whom other men were in love with. It pleased him that men were in love with Zelda, though, of course, he didn't want her to have an affair with any of them. In my case he must have been delighted in the challenge to woo me away from a nobleman. I wonder if it occurred to him that he was reversing the “droit de seigneur,” whereby the rich and aristocratic could claim the beautiful girl, that he had written about in “The Crack-Up.”

Scott's first remark to me when we were dancing at the Clover Club about ten days later, brought together by Eddie Mayer, was, “I hear that you are engaged to marry a Duke.” I laughed and corrected him, “Not a Duke, a Marquess.” “Is a Marquess higher than a Duke?” he asked, smiling, his head on one side, and taking me in. “No, no.” And I proceeded to give him the order of British titles—“As you know, King and Queen come first. Their children are Princes and Princesses, and sometimes Princes become Dukes. After the Dukes come the Marquesses. Then Earls, then Viscounts, Baronets, Honorables—children of the plain Lords—then Knights.” He seemed fascinated by my account.

Our attunement to one another, however, really had little to do with society and its echelons. It was something instantaneous and without calculation. We danced and danced, waiting on the floor for the music to begin again. The rest of the people at the Clover Club seemed to be murals, as Scott describes Stahr and Kathleen dancing in The Last Tycoon. When the orchestra stopped, we returned reluctantly to our table, but with eyes only for each other. Again, this is described in the novel:

Stahr's eyes and Kathleen's met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to doafter. The glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.

This was Saturday. We made a date to dine on Tuesday.

In the next couple of days I thought a good deal about Scott, enjoying the afterglow of our evening. But I did not intend this involvement to be serious. Although my engagement to Donegall struck me as something of a fantasy, it was a fantasy that I was eager to cling to for at least a while.

I did not really believe I would marry Donegall because, although he was kind and gentle, he moved in the most urbane upper crust society, and I felt the pretense of keeping up with him would be too great, the burden too heavy. He knew nothing of my humble past, and that worried me. I thought, I can never marry this man, some of whose titles had been originally conferred by Queen Elizabeth I, for services his family had rendered in Ireland.

Still, I could almost convince myself as I fingered my temporary engagement ring—Don had bought it on Hollywood Boulevard, promising to get me a much better one in London—that I would soon be giving up my job as an unpopular gossip columnist for the regal splendor of life as a Marchioness, with an imprinted coronet on my notepaper and lingerie. I disliked the gossip, sensitive that I was intruding into other people's lives, although my determination to be a success pushed me on to write as sharp a column as I could. The stars barred me from their sets, and I, in turn, tried to look on them as paragraphs, not people. It was not pleasant work.

Later Scott told me it was marvelous that I was still in Hollywood when he arrived there. I had gone to London in June 1937 to obtain my divorce from Major John Gillam, D.S.O., to be free to marry Don. A few weeks before I left California, never to return as I thought, an Eastern advertising man had called on me, offering me a five-minute spot on a variety radio show that would emanate from Chicago. I was to be cut into the program from Hollywood with the latest gossip about the movie stars. He offered me $100 a week for the job. “Oh no,” I told him. “I'm leaving Hollywood for good. My life will be in England from now on.” But when he went to $200, my venal streak could not resist. I have a terror of poverty, and $200 added to the $160 a week I was then receiving for my column was substantial money.

I made a quick trip to London, returning to Hollywood at the end of June. I could always give up the column if Donegall was serious. And in any case, I had to wait six months before my divorce was final—I might as well be working. My titled suitor followed me to Hollywood to settle the engagement and slip the temporary diamond on my finger, then flew away to win his mother's consent to our marriage.

So there I was, in the middle of July, looking to a future in England with Don, yet also preparing for my added career as a radio broadcaster. As I now look back, I see that I was covering all bases—preparing to leave Hollywood and, at the same time, preparing to stay. My intentions were confused. But whatever they were, I did not expect Scott Fitzgerald to interfere with them—however attractive I had found him.

Scott, too, after that evening at the Clover Club, was retreating from our involvement. Thinking matters over, he considered it wiser not to see me again—he had too many responsibilities. He sent me a telegram; we could not dine because his daughter was coming into town.

I was surprised at the intensity of my disappointment—a feeling as though the sky had become suddenly drab. I called him at the Garden of Allah. “Why don't I have dinner with you and your daughter?” I asked. He was embarrassed but after some hesitation consented with a not very enthusiastic, “All right.”

We went to the Trocadero on the Strip, then the most fashionable place for dining and dancing, where he corrected Scottie without ceasing, and I wondered what had made this middle-aged, nagging father so attractive to me.

I was sad when he drove me home, after dropping Scottie off at the Beverly Hills Hotel where she was staying with Helen Hayes, who had brought her to Hollywood. What a pity. I had liked him so much, and I didn't want to lose the fascinating man I had danced with. We reached my home, and I hadalready opened the door and was preparing to say good night politely. But when his face came close to mine, pale under the outside lamp, I couldn't bear to let him go, and I gently pulled him inside. That was the beginning of our involvement.

I have often tried, and failed, to describe the charm of this extraordinary man. Physically, except for his face, there was nothing remarkable about him. He was on the short side —about five feet eight or half an inch less—with the strong shoulders of a bantam boxer and a dwindling torso inherited from the potato-famine McQuillan ancestors of his Irish mother. His hair was thinning on top—he was careful to comb the strands over the bald patch, and I was careful to refrain from noticing it. But it always made me feel rather sad that he minded.

Also in all our time together, I don't remember seeing him naked. But I was just as shy about my own body. However, this modesty did not prevent us from having a good time sexually. We satisfied each other and could lie in each other's arms for a long time afterwards, delighting in our proximity. It was not exhausting, frenzied love-making but gentle and tender, an absolutely happy state.

I would sometimes lean on my elbows, looking and looking into his face, absorbing the love in his eyes. Was the charm there, in the wide-apart green-gray-blue eyes, a color which I have always described as rain-washed? Was it in the expression, varying from admiration, compassion, delight, tenderness to fun? I learned to laugh with Scott, a quiet laughter, as though we possessed communicable secrets that brightened our days and comforted our evenings. Was his charm the ability to make a young woman feel that he was completely absorbed in her, that she was at the center of his world? Perhaps it was all of this, and something else I still cannot describe. But it made me his slave.

Had Scott been drinking at the time I met him, I don't think that I would have been drawn to him. I could never have fallen in love with an alcoholic. It would have clashed with my nondrinking, nonsmoking, tennis-playing life style. And then, too, my entire poor class upbringing would have been against it. Nice girls did not drink or consort with drunks—youhurried past them when you saw them staggering outside the pubs. Nice girls ran away from trouble.

But there was no trouble with Scott in those first few months—it was a gentle, courteous man I saw in the Benchley bungalow and met later with Eddie Mayer at the Clover Club—the man I went to football games with at the Los Angeles Coliseum, who explained the various plays and rules to me while the people around us smiled at his enthusiasm and my naive questions. And if his hand shook when he lit a cigarette, I did not notice it.

It now occurs to me that part of my value to Scott was that I knew nothing about his past. And though I was later enchanted with the line from “The Crack-Up”—“In the dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning”—I really understood only my own strong, healthy reality. That Scott was not fully a part of it never occurred to me, especially in those first months when our time together was always delightful, never dark. It was so easy to fall in love with the boyish, collegiate-looking man who seemed so much less than his forty years in the dim light of the restaurants we frequented. The sad lines on his face when I saw him in the daylight simply made him seem more interesting.

Thus, while neither of us was aware that it was happening, the immediate attraction we had felt toward one another slowly took root. At first we both continued to spend time with other people. Scott visited the homes of such people as King Vidor, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and his writing friends. I was not with him when he met Ernest Hemingway at Lillian Hellman's in mid-July 1937. Ernest had come to Hollywood to raise money for the Loyalist cause in Spain. “We had nothing to say to each other,” Scott told me afterwards. Later I would meet Hemingway at a Sunday breakfast in Benchley's bungalow, where I remember him asking about Scott—who would not come with me.

On my return home, Scott asked eagerly, “How does he look? What did he say?” I was able to tell him that his idol was planning to divorce his second wife Pauline to marry Martha Gelhorn. And Scott said sternly, “Don't put that in your column.” He was fascinated with all the news I could bringhim about Ernest. But he did not want to see him. “Not really friends since 1937,” he wrote on a 1940 scrap of paper about the people he had known in his life.

As for my life apart from Scott in the summer and early fall of 1937, I was still dating Eddie Mayer, Benchley, John O'Hara, and also Arthur Kober, well known to readers of The New Yorker for his Bella stories. He was at M-G-M writing for the Marx brothers. Then, too, there was Donegall, whom I broke with in late September. Scott notes the event, perhaps with a touch of smugness, in a letter to Scottie: “The poor man was about to get on a boat, but it was a sort of foolish marriage in many ways.”

I shed a small tear for my lost title and then forgot His Lordship until after Scott died and Don sent me a cable asking me again to marry him. He was sorry that my “friend” had died, but I should settle up my affairs and come to England —he had the marriage all arranged. Having become a more honest person and better educated, I would then have been a better wife for him. But by this time I knew the difference between liking a man who could keep me in comfort and make me a Marchioness and loving a Scott Fitzgerald, who could do nothing materially for me except give me everything in my life I had never had. A complete adult love.

With Scott it was the things we did together, smiled at and laughed over together that put the concrete into our relationship, and day by day the love grew more solid. There came a moment—and I can remember it exactly—when I realized how important he was to me.

It was just after I had broken with Donegall and shortly before our trip together to Chicago where I was to learn the horror of his drinking for the first time. I was in his bungalow at the Garden of Allah taking a bath. Scott came into the bathroom carrying a little pillow, which he placed carefully under my head without looking at my submerged body. He then slipped out to leave me to my comfort and to my deep appreciation of this small gesture of tenderness and consideration. It bound me to him—forever. No one, I felt, had ever cared for me so much.

Next chapter 3 “Sat We Two, One Another's Best”

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