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A Dramatic and Ongoing Story

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
One of the Family. Wendy W. Fairey. Norton. $22. 95.

Wendy Westbrook Fairey’s One of the Family concludes with an assertion by daughter Emily: “She wrote all those books about herself. But this is the story she didn’t tell. She left it for you.” The “she” was famed Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, the mother of Wendy and the grandmother of Emily, who died in 1988 at the age of 84. “Those books” include such autobiographical accounts as Beloved Infidel (with Gerold Frank), The Rest of the Story, College of One, The Garden of Allah, and The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald. The untold tale or “legacy” referred to is One of the Family itself, which Ms. Fairey calls “her story and mine.”

Readers familiar with Ms. Graham’s work through her love affair with Fitzgerald during the last three and one half years of his life are aware how much her career resembled that of his greatest hero. Just as James Gatz became Jay Gatsby, Lily Shael/Shiel became Sheilah Graham, and, if he sprang from the “Platonic conception of himself,” she could declare “Je suis mon ancetre.” Though women obviously do not appear among the provincial young men Lionel Trilling discusses in The Liberal Imagination, Ms. Graham, whom Ms. Fairey rightly considers “a kind of feminist heroine,” also embodies that 19th-century archetypal hero. Exceptional “orphans,” Graham and Gatsby both move from impoverished obscurity to opulent eminence via a process of transformation involving powerful personages—for him, millionaire Dan Cody; for her, first husband Major John Graham Gillam and the British Ziegfeld, C. B. Cochran.

Throughout One of the Family, whose title was borrowed from a story published by Ms. Graham, Ms. Fairey recognizes this mythical pattern while emphasizing the psychological implications. Unlike some recent books associated with children of celebrities—for instance, Mommie Dearest—One of the Family is a complex narrative, part biography, part autobiography. Accordingly, Sheilah Graham emerges in this remarkably objective portrait as an individual full of contradictions: autocratic yet insecure, candid yet dishonest, fastidious yet promiscuous, amiable yet difficult, private yet indiscreet, uneducated yet “studious.” These contradictions reflect early deprivation, for Ms. Graham’s father died when she was an infant, and Ms. Graham spent the ages of six through 14 at a Jewish orphanage in London called Norwood. Ms. Fairey, playing the dual role of sleuth and researcher, uncovers considerable information about both parents’ backgrounds during her “dramatic and ongoing story” that helps explain their otherwise obscure motives.

This task might have been easier had it not been for the autobiographies Ms. Graham wrote after divorcing third husband Stanley “Bow Wow” Wojtkiewicz, which “were confessional, but. . .served the interests of concealment” too, concealment to shelter her offspring from “poverty,” “hardship,” and “Jewishness.”

The first of two pivotal revelations in One of the Family transpired just after the publication of Beloved Infidel (1958), when circumstances forced Ms. Graham to tell 16-year-old daughter Wendy and 13-year-old son Robert that she was Jewish. The second, even more astounding disclosure, occurred decades later, following Ms. Graham’s death, when Ms. Fairey, at the time a 46-year-old Brooklyn College dean, learned her father was the distinguished British philosopher A. J. Ayer (“Freddie”), not self-made British aeronautical executive Trevor Westbrook, whom Ms. Graham had married in 1941 ostensibly “because she could not face the anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death” alone.

Ms. Fairey mentions having four “father figures” in One of the Family. Two are essentially peripheral: the admired “spiritual father” Scott Fitzgerald—dead shortly before her birth—and the detested stepfather Stanley Wojkiewicz—on the scene between 1953 and 1956. Despite the fact that Ms. Fairey’s “putative father,” Trevor Westbrook, and biological father, Freddie Aver, were both Englishmen, they were virtual opposites, one a man of action supervising “aircraft production for the war effort,” the other a man of thought publishing Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) at 25. Neither lived with Ms. Graham, so her children saw them only intermittently, the first as a penurious and bigoted parent, the second as a clever and vain family friend. Ms. Fairey more or less loved the charming Freddie and more or less disliked the boring Trevor. Neither bequeathed her much, Trevor two thousand pounds and Freddie “the choice from his library of twelve books of English literature.” However, it was Sir Alfred’s “dispassionate detachment” that made him merely another “father manque,” joining “the famous dead writer and the respected English engineer as figures who hovered on the edge of my life, shadowy fathers, fathers of air, fathers who evaporated, more symbol than substance.”

Ms. Fairey discovered her natural father on a quest for identity and so reclaimed “myself from my mother’s fictions.” Now she had “two strands of heritage reaffirming a separate self and consequently was not self-created like Lily Shiel. Yet she, too, remained “fatherless”: “the only person who ever really sought to be my father, the only person who ever truly played the role was my mother Sheilah Graham,” no doubt because Sheilah Graham tried to provide a stable environment for her children. Since One of the Family celebrates the continuity of independent females—what brother Robert termed the “direct line”—it ends with a scene between Wendy and Emily, divorced professor and insightful daughter.

Understandably, this book is preoccupied with the image of “orphan.” Two chapters, three and eleven, include the word in their titles, and eleven takes Ms. Fairey to The Jews Hospital and Orphan Asylum at Norwood, where “the experence felt like my own rite of passage.” Haunted by “lifelong fantasies of orphanage,” she also suffered from “fears of abandonment” and considered herself an outsider. Not surprisingly, then, several fictional orphans are cited in One of the Family, notably from Charles Dickens: “I felt like a cross between Oliver Twist and Esther Summerson—robbed of my birthright and regaining it through the gradual unearthing of an old sexual secret”; “I was her product, her retort to society, she something like Magwitch creating his “gentleman” in Great Expectations. Yet unlike the example of Pip’s criminal benefactor, my mother’s foremost creation remained herself”; “. . . the literary character with whom I felt the closest identification was David Copperfield, whose early pre-oedipal paradise of a life with his pretty mother and their devoted servant Peggotty was brought to a cruel end by the intrusion of the wicked Mr. Murdstone.”

Specializing in the Victorian novel has colored Ms. Fairey’s view of personal experience. Her dissertation “topic. . .seemed covert autobiography. I too was seeking a larger existence, as afraid as George Eliot of unrestrained hungers.” Life resembles a Bildungsroman or “tale of development,” and One of the Family a 19th-century fiction that Ms. Fairey can succinctly describe: “Its themes of the plucky orphan making her way in the world, the betrayed orphan who is providentially rescued and transfigured, the concealed sexual secret that becomes a mainspring to the plot, the discovery of the lost parent, the legacy of rightful identity, were the themes of Dickens, Thackeray, and the Brontes. Its drama of deception and perception was supremely the material of Henry James.”

Ms. Fairey’s reading, which “had prepared me for my life,” was inspired by both parents. She avidly perused the books in Sheilah Graham’s “College of One” library, an early Fitzgerald influence Freddie Ayer reinforced by purchasing her Tess of the D’Urbervilles at 11, then, 36 years later, querying her about Jane Austen before he made his niggardly bequest.

This mytho-literary context is appropriate for One of the Family because two of the three principal characters are “largerthan-life.” Though Ms. Graham was a journalist and Sir Alfred a philosopher, these alienated English Jews who found time to write autobiographies and conduct love affairs had much in common “as the most charming of egotists and ebullient of survivors.” The mark they made among other illustrious people—whether Hollywood stars or Oxford intellectuals—would alone justify publication of Ms. Fairey’s book.

However, its real strength involves a process of maturation, as, page by page, she explores her relationship with both famous parents. Eventually, Ms. Fairey can even accept the ambivalent role of daughter, which she had played “so overwhelmingly. . . all my life.” This is apparent during “Envoir,” the final section of One of the Family, where she sums up: “Their talents aside, they believed in themselves in a way that was extraordinary, that you could say was quite monstrous. It was at other people’s expense; it was certainly at my expense. Yet it still heartens me to be their daughter. And I admire them both.” So, too, would they admire her, for Ms. Fairey has written a suspenseful memoir devoid of stereotypes in a style that combines intimacy and objectivity, seriousness and humor.


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