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

9. The Last Tycoon

The most important writing project for Scott during the time that I knew him was, of course, The Last Tycoon. He had conceived his novel about the most famous of all the Hollywood producers, Irving Thalberg, and the questionable, yet fascinating, grind of studio wheels before he met me—back in 1931 when Thalberg brought him to Hollywood. But it was not until eight years later that his return and prolonged residence there, combined with his lack of steady work at the studios, finally started him on this project.

Thalberg died in 1936—a year before Scott's new contract with M-G-M. His few impressions of the producer were culled from the earlier visits. They had encountered one another both at work and socially. But as Scott spent much of his 1927 and 1931 time in Hollywood drinking, his views of the place and its people were fragmentary. To give his novel an authentic Thalberg dimension, he put the time back to 1935.

Norma Shearer, the superstar of the 30s, had liked Scott, and he had been invited to a party at the Thalberg-Shearer beach house at Santa Monica. He made a fool of himself, taking over the piano and singing an awful ditty about a dog to a response of deafening silence. Scott used this incident in his short story, “Crazy Sunday,” in which the actress wife isbased in part on Miss Shearer. But in explaining to me the identity of the husband, Miles Caiman (“the only American-born director with both an interesting temperament and an artistic conscience”), Scott never told me it was Thalberg he had written about, but rather King Vidor, the then popular director.

I still find this somewhat mystifying. Perhaps Scott wanted me to have no preconceptions of Thalberg, whom—by 1937, when we had this discussion about “Crazy Sunday”—he was definitely planning to deal with in his next novel, temporarily titled The Last Tycoon. I assume he did not want me to link the exalted Monroe Stahr with the talented but personally weak and neurotic Miles Caiman. As to why he brought in Mr. Vidor, I had told him about my fling with the director, his asking me to marry him, and about his having me okay the plans for his new house, to be built high up in Beverly Hills.

Perhaps, Scott told me, Vidor was the man who is almost cuckolded in “Crazy Sunday” in order to punish him or me for his being in love with me. But conceivably Vidor was at least a partial model for the husband. Scott had told me of a conversation in 1931 at the height of the Depression, in which the money-careful King said that if there was a revolution by the working classes, he would take to the mountains and pretend to be a laborer. “But they'll look at your hands,” Scott told him, “They are not the hands of a working man.” This, said Scott, had worried Mr. Vidor. Scott used this incident in The Last Tycoon. Most likely, Miles Caiman was a compound of several of the Hollywood magnates, Thalberg among them, since Scott rarely used a single real-life prototype in his stories. It was his custom to blend the characteristics of several people, his own included, to make one character.

But Thalberg, however, was the inspiration for Stahr in The Last Tycoon. Hollywood's boy genius struck Scott as exactly right for the hero of the book he wanted to write. Always the enthusiast, Scott told me he wanted his story about the movie world not only to reveal its faults, its falseness—as Nathanael West was doing in The Day of the Locust—but also to extol its virtues and capture its glamour.

Scott was always appreciative of glamour—even when he could see through it—and Hollywood in the era of the early 30s to the late 40s certainly had this quality. Its films influenced the whole world in manners, mores, fashion, and beauty. The big stars of the time included Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Garbo, Gable, Robert Taylor, Margaret Sullavan, Charles Laughton, Bette Davis, Merle Oberon, Leslie Howard, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, all the Barrymores—John, Lionel, and Ethel—also Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Joel McCrea, and Norma Shearer. And not only actors, but shortly before World War II started—September 1939—in Europe, the most famous people in all areas of the arts flocked to Hollywood to work—Artur Rubinstein, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Stravinsky, Andre Malraux, etc.

Hollywood was then an exciting place to be, “lavish and romantic,” as Scott observed in a letter to Max Perkins, with great intrigues, great disasters, and great triumphs—not so different from the Jazz Age which had been Scott's earlier subject. And to incarnate such a place, this legend at its most scintillating and complex, Irving Thalberg—with his personal drive and power, respect for excellence, astute commercialism, and doomed life—seemed the perfect choice.

I remember Scott asking me early in our relationship whether I had ever met Thalberg. I told him that shortly before the producer's death, I had interviewed him in his office at M-G-M. He had given me his complete attention and answered all my questions very seriously. I have now forgotten what these questions were exactly, though one might have been, “Why don't you put your name on the films you produce as others do?” But Thalberg was more than a producer. He was the boy genius with complete authority over every aspect of his films—the writing, casting, directing, editing, producing, just as Stahr has in The Last Tycoon. So powerful a figure didn't need the credit. “When you are in a position to give credit to yourself, you don't need it,” he had said. I told Scott that Thalberg was a gentle, sympathetic man of great charm, but that he looked frail, and it was hard to believe he was carrying so much of the studio responsibility on his shoulders.

Some people—mostly the writers—accused Thalberg of paternalism—the same charge that is levelled against Stahr. Scott explained to me about the feudal lords of medieval England who committed themselves to the welfare of their peasants, and took good, personal care of them, yet kept themselves quite removed from these lower orders. In the same way, Stahr cares for and stands apart from all those beneath him at the studio. He cannot join them on their level as his consciousness elevates him so high above them.

I think that Stahr is Scott's most glorified hero. The writer made this character everything he would have liked to be himself. As the narrator, Cecilia, observes in the first chapter, Stahr is like a bird who flies up very high to see “and when he is up there, he had looked on all the kingdoms with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun.” Then he settles to earth but with the memory of what he has seen. Actually, Thalberg had told Scott (in 1927), as Scott has Stahr confiding to the Communist Brimmer, very often no one really knows the way but someone has to make the decisions, to be the leader—something Scott himself never really was. Though I thought of him then as one, I now realize that except as an author, he was a follower who tried, but failed, to join the game.

Also, unlike Scott, Thalberg had complete control over himself. Though he took chances with new ideas, he used his own self cautiously. When Scott has Stahr in Chapter VI breaking down under the pressures of his job and personal life, this is not in keeping with Thalberg's history and personality. After Norma Shearer read The Last Tycoon she said to me, “But it's not a bit like Irving.” She was annoyed that everyone assumed Stahr to be her husband.

It seems to me that Scott developed Stahr rather as he had Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. He establishes him as a stable, commanding character, then has him disintegrate, getting drunk and challenging Brimmer. But is it plausible that a man like Thalberg/Stahr would get drunk? I personally do not find the change convincing, just as I failed to believe that Dick Diver, who also starts off strong, based on Scott's ideal of Gerald Murphy, falls to pieces. (Diver goes even further than Stahr since he is denied Stahr's grace of dying.) But a Gerald Murphy could never have gone to live in small towns, each smaller than the other. He would rather have died. I think that in both Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon, Scott was also writing about himself, believing he had once been strong before life beat him down and he became a drunkard. But was Scott ever a strong character?

Scott freely acknowledged how much he inevitably drew on himself in creating his protagonists. And if Stahr the producer was meant to be Thalberg, Stahr the lover was always Scott. The love story in The Last Tycoon was an afterthought to his initial concept of a novel about Hollywood. I don't know who would have been the heroine if he had not met me. Undoubtedly he would have found someone, as there had to be a girl in his life. But I like to think that my story, our story, made an invaluable contribution to the book. My background was different from that of any other woman Scott had met. I was his new type of heroine, not an ornament, although I was quite pretty then, not an heiress, but a worker, a woman “dower(ed) … with 'a little misfortune.' ”

“What can I do to make it [the love story] honest and different?” Scott queries in his notes. This sense of its difference made it so important to him that at one time he was calling the book, The Love of the Last Tycoon (with the subtitle, A Western). This was despite the fact that the Stahr-Kathleen romance was only to comprise 16,500 words, a third of the planned 50,000-word book. It was much longer in the actual writing, but the book was also longer. Scott became more and more intrigued with his characters, and as the novel progressed, it doubled in length. Though he planned to cut about 10,000 words from the 60,000 he had written, the finished book would have been 90,000 to 100,000 words long.

Scott was secretive about his work on The Last Tycoon, not wanting people to know what he was up to. He began by very quietly gathering all the material he could about Thalberg whose rivalry at M-G-M with Louis B. Mayer was well known. It was Mayer, I told Scott, who once tearfully implored the studio's top writers to take a cut in salary so that he would not have to reduce the pay of the stenographers. When they agreed, he went ahead and cut the stenographers' pay anyway. Pat Brady, in the novel, is based on Mayer with some characteristics of Eddie Mannix, a beefy Irishman, thrown in. The Hollywood tycoons and their executives were mostly Jewish and sometimes Irish.

The reason Scott was secretive in gathering his information was because he believed that authors are often thieves. “We have all stolen,” he said to me once, “from Shakespeare on down. It's how the story is written that makes the difference.” Actually Scott had “stolen,” according to his critics, from Compton Mackenzie, Willa Cather, and Joseph Conrad. Taking no chances of being stolen from, he was zealous to keep his project unpublicized. A letter to Max Perkins of May 1939 frets that the publisher—Scribners— “seemed under the full conviction that the novel was about Hollywood and I am in terror that this misinformation may have been disseminated to the literary columns.” Scott then denies that his book had to do with Hollywood, though, of course it did. Also, before hiring Frances Kroll he was careful to make sure of her loyalty and discretion. “How do I know I can trust you?” he asked sternly. He informed her that he was writing a book about Hollywood, that it was a great secret, and that she must not divulge the theme to anyone. He then asked her to get his address book from a drawer where there were also several bottles of gin. When Frances did not remark about the liquor, she had passed his test. He couldn't have had a better secretary. Frances was absolutely devoted to Scott and would never have breathed a word of anything he wanted kept secret.

Even to me Scott was fairly reticent about the project—not that he didn't trust me—he didn't want to dissipate the freshness of his ideas. It was his policy never to discuss any of his intentions for the story or the characters. “If you do some of the freshness is lost.” As a result I was surprised when I read some of the notes for the novel's second half. Scott had told me, for example, of a newspaper account of some adults coming across a crashed plane near the mountains and rifling through the pockets of the dead passengers. But he did not tell me that Stahr would die in a plane crash (just as Miles Caiman had) or that children would find the plane and rob the dead passengers.

From the material that Wilson put into his editing of The Last Tycoon in 1941 and “The Crack Up” and other stories in 1945 by the New Directions Publishing Corporation, I realized that Scott would have continued to fictionalize many of our experiences in the rest of The Last Tycoon.

Still, if Scott never divulged what he was going to write, he was always eager to show me what he had written. Almost every night he would read aloud to me that day's work. And this is how I discovered that he was writing about us and that I was Kathleen, the heroine of The Last Tycoon.

There are, of course, differences between Kathleen and me.' Scott makes her Irish, which I was not—I was British—though she shares my years of living in London. More importantly, he makes her more secure in herself than I ever was and gives her a middle-class rather than lower-class childhood. But otherwise we are alike: he endows her with my complexion, my blue hat with flowers, my experiences, my observations. And like me, she is quintessentially an outsider. At the end of the novel Kathleen was to be seen outside the studio gate and, with Stahr dead, she knows that she will never be asked inside. Similarly, I never really felt a part of Hollywood or for that matter of any group with which I may have been associated. As Scott read to me, I very fully recognized myself in Kathleen.

It was particularly gratifying to me when he would incorporate phrases that I could remember as mine. At one point Kathleen ventures her impression of the California rain “… so loud, like horses weeing.” This was my description that Scott had laughed at and recorded in his notebook. “It's exactly right,” he enthused.

He also gave my remark, “I have nice teeth for an English girl,” to Kathleen. And my observation that the Ping-Pong balls on the dark grass at Encino looked like stars, he put in aline of description in the scene of Stahr's fight with Brimmer.

I think, though, that an important contribution to the novel—aside from Scott's use of my past and of our romance—was providing him with a stable, quiet life, conducive to writing. Edmund Wilson observed in his review of Beloved Infidel that I had given Scott “a base from which to work … Undoubtedly we would not have had The Last Tycoon but for Sheilah.”

It's agreeable to look back on myself and realize that I was of help while he worked on this excellent novel. But if for the most part I stayed quietly and virtuously in the background, I also felt free to make a few suggestions when he read me his material. Scott Fitzgerald was never a man to underrate a suggestion if it was good. The heroine's name was initially • Thalia. But he changed it to Kathleen when I told him about a C. B. Cochran chorus girl I had known in England called Thalia. She burned to death when her long blonde hair caught fire. Scott did not like the association. So he changed the heroine's name. In his notes for the book, the girl is sometimes called Thalia.

Also I contributed to the seduction scene at Malibu. In Scott's original version, when Stahr starts to tremble and relaxes his hold on Kathleen, this was the end of the love-making. He had Stahr being very gentle with her, but there was no continuation of sex at this time.

“No, no,” I said emphatically, “that's not how she would react.” A girl like Kathleen who wanted sex and was in love with the man would be provocative and helpful to get satisfaction for them both. She would be sufficiently experienced to know how to arouse him. I knew too well from my first marriage how to deal with sudden impotence, the result of worry and/or nervousness. “The only way to make the man perform is for the girl to be obviously inferior to him,” I told Scott. “She would become coarse so that Stahr would at once feel superior and lose the tenseness. The blood would come down from his head to the proper area.” I found this suggestion in his notebooks and he changed the scene to include my suggestion. Many years later I was pleased when an editor said to me, “It's the best seduction scene I've ever read.” “I wrote it,” I responded, a boast which was not exactly true.

In Scott's use of my past experiences and of our time together, what always impressed me was his ability to heighten the interest and glamour. For example, Scott's first glimpse of me, was transformed into Stahr's first sight of Kathleen and his subsequent search for a girl with a silver belt with stars cut out of it. This was Scott's mistake as well. When Robert Benchley asked him to return to that first party, Scott cautiously asked, “Who is still there?” and particularly if there was a girl wearing a belt with stars cut out of it. Scott went back, expecting to find me. But it was not me and it was not Kathleen. The mix-up is put into the novel just as it happened, as is Scott's impression of my resemblance to his wife. But by shifting the encounter from a smokey, crowded party to the moonlit studio back lot during an earthquake—Scott had been at M-G-M during a California earthquake in 1931—he gives it an added magic.

Similarly, the fictional setting for the seduction scene adds so much. Stahr and Kathleen arrive at the door of her house, just as Scott and I came to mine after our dinner with Scottie. Like us, the characters are ready to part; then suddenly they are drawn together. But rather than have them go right inside the girl's modest home as we did, they drive back to Stahr's half-finished beach house at Malibu with its fake grass. Scott and I never made love in such a setting. But the scene in the book is so vivid that I have half come to believe it really happened.

Scott also made some good changes in our meeting at the Screenwriters' Ball. In actual fact, the Writers Guild had held their banquet at the Biltmore Hotel. This was where I was at Marc Connelly's table for ten and Scott was at the adjoining table in Dorothy Parker's party of ten. At one moment near the end of the evening, I was alone at my table, “the high priestess,” as Scott puts it in the novel, and he was alone facing me at Dorothy's. This was when we first talked to one another, and I asked Scott if he would like to dance. But theparty broke up before we had the chance. Our dancing together was not until a few days later at the Clover Club.

Taking these occurrences, Scott altered the hotel to the Ambassador, because he knew it better—it was where he and Zelda had stayed on their visit to Hollywood in 1927. And he had Stahr and Kathleen dance together there and also at the Screenwriters' party, thus combining into one dramatic scene what for us was two encounters.

Another combination—this one of different people—helped to make up the character of Kathleen's exlover. Scott pooled the characteristics of three men I had known—Johnny, my first husband, Donegall, and himself—to create the exking. The man has Donegall's nobility, Johnny's poverty (it was a true story that one day Johnny and I had just “a shilling between us,” or more precisely it was a sixpence, with which we were going to buy bananas but Johnny dropped it down a crack on top of a bus and we went hungry.), and Scott's drinking problem and zeal to educate me—the real-life education was also geared to my reading Spengler but like Kathleen I never got that far. Kathleen left her man and Scott died before the reading of Spengler.

An impoverished, royal-blooded devotee of Spengler, who drinks, makes a colorful figure. Knowing how to bring such strands together was an important part of Scott's talent. He knew how to make the best fictional use of the people he met or knew of and of the stories he was told. How he dealt, for instance, with my account of a London caterpillar plague in 1932. I had told him about a day when I was horseback riding with Johnny in Rotten Row in the midst of this plague. The furry horrors were all over me, wriggling down my back, crawling on my face. Scott takes the incident and turns it into a simile as Kathleen talks on the phone to Stahr. ” 'Do you know how you make me feel?' she demanded. 'Like a day in London during a caterpillar plague when a hot furry thing dropped into my mouth.' ”

Another story I had told Scott is used to establish the character of Wylie White. Eddie Mayer had confided to me and I then related to Scott, that he had once had an affair with Norma Talmadge, a top star and the wife of Joseph Shenck, the biggest share holder at 20th Century-Fox. As they were lying in bed one afternoon, Norma turned to Eddie and said, “If you ever tell anyone about this, I'll have you thrown out of Hollywood.” And, to Eddie's look of surprise, “My husband's a much more important man than you are.” Scott gives this experience to Wylie, the hack writer, and his telling it to Cecilia (the female character based on a composite of Scottie and Budd Schulberg, the producer's son) underscores his slightly ingratiating familiarity.

There is so much in the novel that I recognized from our experiences, yet marveled at Scott's transformation—a drunk at the airport behaving just like Scott before our flight to Chicago; the soles of the lovers' shoes touching, just as our bare feet did when we sat facing one another on a sofa; the night Stahr and Kathleen join the grunion run at Malibu Beach—we went grunioning too though we didn't meet a Rosicrucian Negro as Scott has it in The Last Tycoon; Stahr's conversation with the writer, George Boxley, about picture-making, conveying the same feeling and many of the same ideas as the lecture on Hollywood that Scott wrote for me; and Kathleen's presentation at court—just like mine, only Scott gives her a stepmother, whereas I was presented by a Birmingham acquaintance of Johnny's.

Nor was Scott above caricaturing my friend, Margaret Brainard. He puts her into the story as Edna, the overly friendly, questionable friend. Margaret may have been a bit sweet in her friendliness, but she was a very admirable person.

Also in Scott's copious notes for the second, unfinished half of the novel, I recognized much that we had talked about and experienced together. There were nine episodes in his plan for the whole book, numbered A to I. He had completed the first draft to the start of F, so for the rest of the story there are just his outline and the notes. One note in the F section says simply, “The Cummerbund.” I had told him of my decision not to marry a man who was wearing a red cummerbund when he met me at the airport. It had embarrassed me. This amused Scott and he wrote it down. I wonder how he would havetransformed it. Maybe Smith, “the American,” the man Kathleen was to have married, would wear a red cummerbund.

In the G section, Scott includes “Last fling with Kathleen, Old stars in heat wave at Encino.” There had been one unbearably hot day when I came to see him at Belly Acres. It was so hot that you could touch the heat in the air. Arriving at Scott's house, I looked down the long vista of his ground floor and saw everyone in the briefest attire—Scott in shorts and no top, Frances in a swim suit typing in the dining room, the maid in the kitchen “wearing only a towel,” as Scott informed me. We were all sweating profusely, and I made a hasty dash to the swimming pool where I stayed until the sun eased down in the sky.

Scott was obviously planning to use this hot day as a background for a party to be given by Stahr for some of the old stars—to whom Thalberg gave employment whenever it was feasible. I wonder if this heat wave scene would have excelled the marvelous one in The Great Gatsby where the characters drive into sizzling New York and their lives unravel.

Finally, in Section I there is the note, “Johnny Swanson at funeral.” Like Gatsby, Stahr was to have died violently, and the novel was to culminate in a funeral. But there the resemblance between the endings stops. Stahr's funeral was to be completely different from Gatsby's—or rather it was to be pathetic in a totally different way. The only mourners at Gatsby's were Nick Carraway and Owl Eyes, but for Mr. Stahr everyone in Hollywood was to be on display, vying for prominence. I had told Scott that at Irving Thalberg's funeral, Harry Carey, an old-time Western star, was invited by mistake for Carey Wilson. He unexpectedly found himself a pallbearer, and because of this everyone thought he must be important, and his career revived. And the note about the “blind” cameraman. This was a rumor only but it had ruined his career.

Scott wanted to finish the first draft of the novel by January 1941. But when he died a month before his deadline, he was behind schedule. Not only had the scope of the project expanded, but he had only been able to work on it in spurts. Whenever he ran out of money, he had to find work on a script until there was enough in the bank for him to get back to his book. How he regretted wasting the fortune he had earned in the 20s. His letter of praise to Ernest Hemingway on the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls ends rather plaintively:

Congratulations to you on your new book's great success. I envy you like hell and there is no irony in this… I envy you the time it will give you to do what you want…

Scott was also impeded in his writing of the novel by his failing health. In the last year he could only work for a few hours at a stretch before having to lie down, exhausted by the effort. As he confided to Edmund Wilson, he had written the novel “with difficulty” but he thought it was good. He believed, in fact, that it was to be his best book and that it would give him back the readers he had lost or thought he had lost.

Scott had hoped that The Last Tycoon would be in the shops in the fall of 1941. It was, all 60,000 words, with the book a little more than half finished. Edmund Wilson did the editing, and this would have made Scott happy. Also Scribners coupled The Last Tycoon with The Great Gatsby, which Scott had been unhappy to see dropped from the Modern Library Series.

Max Perkins had comforted Scott when the first chapter of The Last Tycoon failed to bring the advance of $6,000 against the total $30,000 from Collier's magazine that the hard-up writer had hoped for. “They wanted to see more,” he told me sadly, “they wanted to be sure that I was capable of finishing the novel.” After Scott's death, Mr. Perkins wrote me a letter saying, “The first chapter alone is good enough to stand by itself. It breaks a man's heart to see what this book could have been.” I was discussing this recently with Scottie and she said, “I'm sure that somewhere he knows.”

Next chapter 10 The Educator

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