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

7. The Lover

For me, Scott Fitzgeraldwas the ideal lover. He was intelligent, sensitive, and he loved women. When I say this, however, I am thinking of when he was not drinking. One time I added up the total of his alcoholism. It came to about nine months of our three and a half years together. So it is more correct to say that Scott was the ideal lover most of the time, but with some terrible lapses.

At the beginning of my contact with the drinking, before I knew how dreadful it could be, I found it somewhat sexually stimulating. The smell of alcohol excited me—it was not a bland smell but a promise of something wild. It both frightened and enticed me, like my recurring dream of a man with an unseen face, whom I passed in the dark of a narrow street with high wet walls on each side. The man would be coming toward me, wearing a black cape and a black, broad-brimmed Spanish hat. We'd be getting closer and closer, and I would have given anything to turn back, but I couldn't. At the end, I'd meet his cavern-like eyes, the world would explode, and I'd wake up.

Scott's drinking at first reminded me of those dreams, and in its early phases we made energetic love. (With the liquor in full flow, I'd be too apprehensive, and I doubt in any case if he could have functioned.) The stimulation, however, wore off after the first few binges. By then I knew what to expect—the eventual breakdown and collapse, with a nurse around the clock. I dreaded seeing him starting on the beer.

The lover I remember, then, is not the sometimes exciting, sometimes beyond-the-pale drinker, but the sober man of amazing understanding, a man who could make any woman he was interested in feel admirable and beautiful. “Where did that gorgeous face come from?” he would ask, his head on one side, his loving eyes taking in every feature and expressing the wonder that he had been so lucky as to find me.

According to the author of a recent book, Scott boasted to him in 1935 of having had “hundreds of affairs with women.” This sounds to me like Zelda having kissed “thousands of men.” I doubt that it is true, not only because of Scott's shock when I numbered my lovers at eight, or because of what he told me about his past—he had been faithful to Zelda, he said, until her breakdown in 1930—but also because of his whole attitude toward women and toward love. Scott was remarkable for the wholeheartedness and fidelity of his devotion. He made one woman of absolute importance to him, lavishing on her all his charm, energy, and time. His approach to women, moreover, both in life and in his fiction, was on a spiritual rather than sexual plane. This is not the outlook of the casual philanderer.

As for another allegation in the same book—I am deliberately not mentioning the title—I am adamant in my disbelief that Scott could have had a prolonged affair with a prostitute during his 1935 stay at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Were there any truth in this, I'm sure he would have written about her. After all, he never wasted any material.

The only important extramarital affair which Scott described to me occurred during that 1935 summer. The woman was a married belle from Memphis. Scott told me that he had been in love with her. Certainly he needed someone in the lonely times of living in cheap rooms in small hotels, and I'm sure that he dazzled her with all his charm. But he was also wary of theinvolvement, making it clear to her from the beginning that they could never marry while Zelda needed him. When the infatuated woman pressed to make the liaison permanent, Scott wrote her what I consider a fairly cruel letter, enclosing a message he had received from Zelda, to underscore his wife's helplessness and dependence on him. Part of the letter, dated September 1935, reads:

… Your charm and the heightened womanliness that makes you attractive to men depends on what Ernest Hemingway once called … “grace under pressure.” The luxuriance of your emotions under the strict discipline which you habitually impose on them, makes that tensity in you that is the secret of all charm—when you let that balance become disturbed, don't you become just another victim of self-indulgence?—breaking down the solid things around you and, moreover, making yourself terribly vulnerable—imagine having had to call in Doctor Cole in this matter! The indignity! I have plenty [of] cause to be cynical about women's nervous resistance, but frankly I am concerned with my misjudgment in thinking you were one of the strong—and I can't believe I was mistaken.

… You once said that “Zelda is your love!” (only you said “lu-uv”). And I gave her all the youth and freshness that was in me. And it's a sort of investment that is as tangible as my talent, my child, my money.

The harshness of this letter will have served its purpose if on reading it over you see that I have an existence outside you—and in doing so remind you that you have an existence outside of me. I don't belittle your fine intelligence by supposing that anything written here need be said, but I thought maybe the manner of saying it might emphasize those dull old truths by which we live. We can't just let our worlds crash around us like a lot of dropped trays ... If you are not good, if you don't preserve a sense of comparative values … your love is a mess and your courage is a slaughter.

“She finally understood,” said Scott, “what I had told her at the start.” But what woman ever believes what is said at the beginning?

Perhaps because I was a more independent type of person, Scott never felt the need with me to bring up his obligation to Zelda as a restraint to our involvement. He probably did not at first contemplate marrying me. I wonder if he shared Stahr's worry in The Last Tycoon, that Kathleen's background and exterior did not fit into his own idea of grandeur? But I never pressed Scott. And then, almost imperceptibly, we grew so deeply enmeshed with one another that in our last year together he would have liked very much to be free to marry me.

I doubt if Scott retained any reservations about us in our last year, though I remember his shock when I suggested we have a child. I thought he was going to faint. He was terribly disturbed, mostly, I think, at the idea of any further responsibilities. What a pity, though, that we didn't have a child, someone who might have looked like Scott. That I who am so careful to observe propriety could have contemplated such a flaunting of it, shows how unreservedly I loved him. This was the most fulfilling relationship—for mind, heart, and body combined—that I have ever experienced with a man and lover in my life.

So what makes a man a good lover? The ideal is not necessarily a bull in the bedroom, a label, it strikes me, that would fit a certain famous writer. In my opinion this man would be the antithesis of a satisfactory lover. To judge from his contemptuous attitude toward women, the net results of his love-making might satisfy a physical need, but the mind, where sex is born, would be a barren territory. The act by itself is important only for pleasure or if it goes wrong—fails to bring the climax. But it seems that most men can perform this duty one way or another.

I have often had the thought that Scott's nature was more spiritual than my own, which I always considered earthy. (It is interesting that Zelda drew a similar comparison; she claimed that she was more sensual than Scott.) Certainly he was an aesthetic, finely tuned man. But this did not preclude ahealthy sexual appetite. As a lover, in terms of giving physical pleasure, he was very satisfactory.

Zelda had tried to emasculate Scott by telling him that he was too small in the vital area to give a woman satisfaction. I never thought of the size, as there was no doubt about the satisfaction, either during intercourse or afterward when we would lie dose together, suffused with great tenderness for one another. This, I think, is what a woman cherishes and remembers even more than the exciting frenzy of sex itself.

I don't believe we ever saw one another completely naked. Because I have suffered life-long embarrassment concerning the largeness of my breasts, I always kept on my bra. As for Scott, I retain the image of him walking about the bedroom in his boxer shorts and sleeveless undershirt. But if we both had a sense of physical modesty, there was no emotional reserve between us. Our love, I have thought, was like being in a warm bath—totally suffusing and delightful and relaxing.

I know that Scott was very fond of me sexually, as I was of him. But it was what he did, how he behaved when we were not making love that bound me to him “with hoops of steel.” The little pillow placed under my head in the bath is just one illustration of his extraordinary ability to make a woman feel loved and desirable. Knowing my shyness about my body he took care to look only at my head!

I remember the delight in his face when he greeted me, wherever it was—in the street, in his home or mine—as though his life was now fulfilled and he was happy. I can't believe this was a calculated exercise of charm. In any case, it certainly worked. My whole being melted into his.

His telephone calls to me many times a day also gave the impression that he was thinking about me constantly. “What are you doing?” he would gently inquire. “What are you thinking?” “What are you wearing?” He would tell me what he was doing at the studio, whether his work was going well, whether he was having trouble with his collaborator. And during the time I had my radio show, he would leave M-G-M for a nearby garage to hear it, then phone me afterward to say I had been good, although I hadn't been. I broadcasted too much breathing and obvious fright—you could hear me gasping from coast to coast. Perhaps this was part of my appeal to Scott. I was an unfinished product which he could mold, whereas he could do nothing like this with Zelda.

Scott also took great interest in my tour across America in 1939, delivering the lecture on Hollywood that he had written for me. This led to his famous nonduel with Billy Wilkerson of the Hollywood Reporter, whose reporter had filed a nasty untrue review of my lecture in Kansas City. I honestly believe Scott's outrage was not that the lecture he had written had been attacked, but that I was crying when I called to tell him about it. I had been complimentary to Hollywood in a most intelligent way and I had expected to be praised by the Hollywood reviewers. Scott, who had been drinking, called John O'Hara to act as his second in the duel, which didn't, however, progress beyond the planning stage. It was the last time he spoke to Scott. O'Hara writes about this incident in his introduction to The Portable Fitzgerald.

Even more than Scott's knight-errantry on my behalf, I appreciated the telegrams from him while I was on my lecture tour, sent to encourage me and let me know how much he missed me. He was always, in fact, making me feel at the center of his life. When I was in Hollywood and seeing him every day, I would receive flowers with a humorous message attached, at least twice a week.

He later told me, after I filled his Malibu house with cut flowers, that he hated them, but all during my time on North King's Road, off the Sunset Strip, he sent me sometimes a little flowering plant, but most often cut flowers in long boxes or a Victorian posy of simple flowers. There were never orchids, which he disliked, but often roses or lilies of the valley, daffodils, tulips, lovely pink blossoms on branches, and mimosa with its heavy scent. I treasured the little notes, which are now at Princeton. It interested me recently to read the letters of H. G. Wells to Rebecca West, full of his little drawings and their own private baby talk. All this was fresh to me in Scott's notes, and I would look at them constantly and smile and love him.

I once said to him, “We are on a small bridge, you at oneend, me at the other, and there's nothing in between as we come closer and closer together.” Scott agreed with the feeling of this image, and he also rather jealously guarded our exclusiveness. I remember his resentment of John Boles, the singer, who flirted with me. One of Scott's cards to accompany the flowers was signed “From Mister Boles to you.” He disliked Enrol Flynn because I told him of Errol trying to date me, and Randolph Scott for calling on me at four in the morning to return my swim suit which I had left at the Santa Monica beach house he shared with Cary Grant. Also Scott was jealous —as well as intensely amused—when he heard my story about the producer and narrator of travel shorts who had moused around me on board the Aquitania, in June 1933, en route from England to New York, then crashed into my cabin begging for “quick relief,” which I did not give. The idea! Scott wrote this incident down, and I think it would have appeared somewhere in a short story or novel had he lived.

I did not mind Scott's jealousy, though sometimes it could be inconveniencing. He loathed my good woman friend from New York, Margaret Brainard, and did everything he could to kill my friendship with her. When Margaret arrived in Los Angeles to begin a job as manageress for the Saks Fifth Avenue beauty parlor there, Scott insisted on taking me away for the weekend to Santa Barbara. I knew I was letting her down terribly by not being around to greet her. But my whole attitude at the time was to reassure Scott that I was his forever, no matter what. Also, I was afraid he would drink again to punish me.

There was his dread of a former friend of mine who was coming from the East for a two-day visit to California. In order to reassure Scott that he had nothing to worry about, I chose those two days to be in the hospital for a minor operation. It was something that had to be done, but nothing pressing. I remember feeling ill when I came out of the ether, and found a note from Scott saying it had been a trying day for us both. Then he came to sit with me until I dozed off, leaving another note, “Rest well, my darling.” Well, I'd only gone into the damn hospital to reassure him that I would be unable to see the former friend. I don't think I would do that today. But you can do things when you're young which you wouldn't consider when you're older. Yet if he could come back today I'd be more understanding of him and glad because it was such a lovely relationship—drink and all. It was completely round. There were few holes in it.

I remember another part of Scott's note left by my hospital bedside: “Loving you is a luxury like everything else about knowing you, dear face, dear heart, dear, dear Sheilah.” The jealousy looms less petulant and childish when I remember his concentrated love for me.

I always had the feeling that Scott was absorbing me and appreciating everything about me. I have never met anyone who was such a great listener. (And isn't intense listening the secret of charm?) I had made Robert Benchley laugh in my conversations, but Bob laughed all the time. Scott didn't, and this made his laughter when I said something funny all the more valuable to me. It was intimate, almost conspiratorial —sort of a choking sound as though it had difficulty coming out of his throat.

Scott not only charmed me, he also won my confidence. I told him absolutely everything about myself. And what a relief it was after all the lies I had told to get my own way or to protect myself. I had never been quite honest with anyone else. With my family I always had a life they did not know about—the dreaming on top of the bus taking me to the West End, my longing to be someone, my unconscious but relentless pursuit toward that end. With Johnny, my first husband, my Mr. Micawber, his continual business chatter about the fortune he was going to make bored me. I would shut my mind to the talk and never tell him about what I was doing when I went to supper with other men. I didn't want to distress him, and I knew he didn't want to know.

I also pretended that I knew a great deal about books and poetry—I could make a show of knowledge because my orphanage had had a decent English course—or just nod wisely when others discussed subjects I knew nothing about, such as painting and ancient Greece. But with Scott, when he saidsomething I did not understand, I would admit my ignorance, and it gave him great pleasure to instruct me.

Scott knew every thought I had and every dishonesty of my past. I didn't have to pretend with him, nor for that matter did he with me. When he first met me, he may have softened or exaggerated some of what he had done in the 20s. But I had the sense that he spoke openly and honestly, without guilt or apology, although some of his stories shocked me as, perhaps, mine did him. We did not criticize or nag one another. We made no demands on each other to be different—except for his drinking. And I cannot remember any quarrels, except when he or I became exasperated during the drinking bouts.

Otherwise, our most intense disputes were our friendly “quarrels over England and America,” which Scott refers to in one of his letters to me. He tended to downgrade the British, insisting that Americans were better, but I was then too fresh from England to take his criticism without contradiction. Of course he was mainly teasing me, but I staunchly defended my native land without either of us becoming bitter. And after Dunkirk, he had to agree with me that the British would not be beaten, that they would win the last battle, though of course with American help.

Accepting one another so wholeheartedly and joyfully, we seemed to need only each other to have the sense of absolute well-being. I can still hear the promising toot toot of Scott's car as he drove around the bend of the steep hill to the back of my rented house on North Kings Road. Sometimes he would spend the night, and a nosy neighbor opposite would remark to my maid Christine on his visits—she thought the situation was shocking and was on the point of calling in the chief of public morals. Fairly unperturbed by her prurience, Scott and I would stand on the balcony off my bedroom, which overlooked all of Hollywood, taking in the view and breathing in the then unpolluted air. We were so comfortable with one another. For the first time in my adult life, I could be completely natural and know that what I was, pleased this man I loved. Looking down on Hollywood and Los Angeles, Scott said to a friend, Corey Ford, was like contemplating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

I would have liked to live more openly with Scott, but there were Zelda and Scottie to consider and also my reputation in Hollywood. A gossip columnist must only write about other people on these matters. She must not live them. Her life must be completely bland—without scandal. Louella Parsons had been in love with a married man, but that was before she came to Hollywood. And Hedda Hopper, the stern judge of Hollywood morals and politics, wouldn't dream of being involved in anything that could be whispered about. When Beloved Infidel was published, the people I had seen every day in the studios were amazed. Hair designer Sydney Guillerof said to me, “To think you are a femme fatale!” It simply did not go with my sensible, sober, sometimes bitchy, but always correct, image.

“The ideal for us,” Scott said, “is to find two houses side by side, with,” he grinned, “a secret passage connecting them.” In our last year together we did the next best thing, living in the next street to each other and sharing the same cook-housekeeper.

But throughout our time, whether we were in his home or mine, we settled into our wonderfully warm intimacy. We could laugh over so many small things—our shadow boxing, our dancing to records on the phonograph, the ping pong games where Scott would cross his eyes and do a fast pirouette before hitting the ball, the searching for The New Yorker which he insisted I had hidden.

We also both loved to read, though at first when we started doing this together, I found it somewhat difficult to sit still. Soon, though, the habit took hold, and our greatest interest in the last eighteen months was the education Scott prepared for me, which I will discuss in a later chapter. It was another way of him showing his love for me—a project to share together and evidence that he cared enough about me to want to make me more comfortable with his intellectual friends.

We were on the same wave length—today, we would say we had the same vibes. We could take up conversations that had started hours before as though there were no interruption. I shared his enthusiasm when he was given a new assignment, and he was always ready to listen to anything I had to say about my work. There was normally no time for gossip, though whenever anything outrageous happened at the studio, Scott would tell me about it with great relish. Or if I were upset by a star or producer or publicity man, I would tell him, usually in tears, and he became my advisor and champion, ready to take on my battles. He spent literally hours thinking up a suitable revenge against Connie Bennett who had snubbed me on the studio set, and whom Scott had known from long-ago Princeton proms. After dismissing an idea about Mickey Mouse, he produced an item which he considered suitably malicious and which I printed in my column: “Poor Connie—faded flapper of 1919, and now symbolically cast as a ghost in her last production!” (She was playing the ghost wife in a Topper picture.)

Scott and I also attended all the new films, and he was delighted to accompany me because he was learning about writing for the screen. On such occasions, however, he was extremely diffident about being noticed. He would almost hide behind me, and in the photographs taken by the studio publicity people to make me feel I was important, you would see behind me a half of Scott's hat—me, a purveyor of Hollywood gossip, and Scott, the great writer. It was ridiculous. But when he wasn't drinking, Scott, in public, tended to be very subdued. It was, for instance, a shy, almost dim man who went with me to a dinner Gladys Swarthout and her husband Frank Chapman gave for John McCormack, the Irish singer. While the other guests swirled around, Scott remained awkwardly standing alone, not talking to anyone. But he was annoyed when I patted the chair next to mine, indicating that he should come over and sit with me. This was early on in our relationship, and it taught me that I should never patronize him.

Scott was comfortable with our select friends, such as Dorothy Parker, Eddie Mayer, Nunnally Johnson, Marc Connelly, Ogden Nash, and Donald Ogden Stewart. Charades were a favorite pastime with this group. I recall how proud I was when I acted out Picasso's Blue Period, and it was guessed by Dorothy Parker. But most of all we enjoyed doing things with just one another. In addition to the films, we went to all the plays that came to town. I was so excited by Maurice Evans' performance as Hamlet that for once it was as hard for me to sleep as it always was for Scott. We went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and to art exhibitions, especially during the education period. There were the Saturday football games in the Los Angeles Coliseum and in summer our Saturday lunches at the elegant Vendome Restaurant in Hollywood, at the Brown Derby in Hollywood or in Beverly Hills, and our dancing in the evenings, particularly in the first year, at the Trocadero. Scott danced the collegiate style of the time—heads close together, rears at a thirty-three-degree angle.

Looking back, I marvel at what a full, active life we had. We also went away together for weekends, especially in the first two years before Scott was so hard up—to Santa Barbara, La Jolla, Del Monte, Monterey, over the south U.S. border into Mexico, and to the San Francisco Fair. I loved those long drives with Scott, even though he drove at twenty to twenty-five miles an hour. He would never willingly let me take the wheel, and if of necessity I was driving my own car he would be in an obvious state of acute anxiety, stiffened up and half standing in his seat with an agonized expression on his face. Why did this make me love him more and inherit his phobia after he died? I remember our singing as, with Scott at the wheel, we slowly zipped along. He taught me all the songs he had liked in the 20s. There was one especially, “Lulu,” that always made us laugh. I forget most of it now except for the refrain “… but don't bring Lulu,” which we sang with such gusto.

My attractive secretary, Pat Duff, told me she would never marry until she found a love as complete as ours. After I decided for the second time to leave Hollywood (this was after Scott's death), I gave her an introduction to the Warner Brothers. As I told them, I was doing them a favor. She was speedily promoted but gave it all up when she found the right man and married him.

Our love was complete—at least this was my sense of it. I loved Scott with every fiber of my being. And he loved me with all that was left of his capacity to love. Since reading the biographies of him and his published letters, I have realized and accepted that his loss of health, the gaiety of his youth, and his disbelief now that life was something he could easily conquer, must have somewhat constricted the joy of his time with me. But he still retained some of what Nick Carraway describes in The Great Gatsby—“some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”

When Scott died, it seemed that he took everything we had together with him, and this made me angry. But with the passing of time, just the pleasure of the love remains and not the desolation of the loss. I have a few things around me that are my physical reminder of him—a silver jug, a heavy encyclopedia—it was my present for Christmas, 1939. I gave all my Fitzgerald books and papers to Princeton.

The antique silver jug was for my birthday in 1940. From much packing and traveling it has two small dents in one side. But when I fill it with flowers—the flowers that Scott used to send me—it seems to me, to use the word Scott chose to describe Cecelia's emotion toward Stahr in The Last Tycoon, that Scott blooms again.

Next chapter 8 The Writer

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