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Sheilah and Scottie

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham: Her Son’s Story. By Robert Westbrook. HarperCollins. $30.00.
Scottie, The Daughter of. . . : The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith. By Eleanor Lanahan. HarperCollins. $30.00.

These biographical accounts focus on two exceptional women intimately associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald: his “beloved infidel,” Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, and his daughter Frances (“Scottie”), who at the time of her death on June 15, 1986, was a prominent figure in Washington D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama. Unlike other memoirs about famous personages such as Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, and Bette Davis published by disgruntled offspring, those produced by Ms. Graham’s son, Robert Westbrook, and Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Eleanor Lanahan, present balanced portraits of their “mini-celebrity” mothers.

Mr. Westbrook, a professional writer—especially of detective novels—and artist-illustrator Ms. Lanahan drew upon much besides personal recollections and public documents. For example, like his own “left-handed policeman,” Mr. Westbrook investigated a “written record” that included an annotated copy of the 1958 best-seller Beloved Infidel, in which Ms. Graham, co-author and protagonist, had finally addressed her many “omissions,” “inaccuracies,” and “lies.” Eleanor Lanahan did not have to contend with deliberate distortions, but she too pursued an elaborate paper trail of published and unpublished writings, mailed and unmailed letters, as well as an invaluable 74-page “diary for us children.” Such resources are less visible in Intimate Lies than in Scottie, where numerous extensive block quotations appear because Ms. Lanahan invoked her mother’s words “as much as possible”—quotations which make the always compelling text quite lengthy. Of necessity, these memoirs repeat material more or less familiar to knowledgeable readers from previous biographies devoted to Fitzgerald, yet this material is pervasive only during the early chapters of Scottie. Though Intimate Lies also taps Sheilah Graham’s various autobiographies, Mr. Westbrook’s “anatomy of a love affair” seems equally fresh since Fitzgerald’s final three and a half years (1937—1940) have been “generally treated in a last thin chapter at the end of his life, a coda to his tale.”

Both biographers were personally motivated. For Ms. Lanahan, writing Scottie “was a way of keeping her on earth” even if the subject might have objected to “the reopening of sealed chambers.” Besides, mother told daughter, had she considered a book about herself “interesting,” she would have written it. Contrariwise, Sheilah Graham requested son Robert’s help, suggesting “I take on the family tradition of retelling her tale.” He “was not enthusiastic” at first, but, then, after she died in 1988, he realized his mother “was the best story I knew” and “[t]here seemed to [be] a painfulness about her tale that lingered and sought a resolution.”

Lifelong friends, Sheilah and Scottie met during the summer of 1937, when the former was 33 and the latter 16. They immediately liked each other, and so, subsequently, the older woman gave Fitzgerald’s daughter several gifts and even defended her against a sometimes tyrannical father. Many years later Ms. Graham, then 82, “was devastated with grief” by the death of Mrs. Smith at 65.

Scottie and Sheilah were apparent opposites: one experienced “a golden childhood,” whereas the other spent her childhood and adolescence in the East End of London and the Jews Hospital and Orphan Asylum in Norwood; one possessed rich and famous parents who took her to Europe, whereas the other’s father died when she was ten months old, forcing his wife to become a washerwoman; one had no siblings, whereas the other had several; one attended the best schools (Ethel Walker’s, Vassar College), whereas the other passed up a high school/college scholarship to nurse her terminally ill mother; one began work at The New Yorker, whereas the other took menial jobs, serving as maid, toothbrush demonstrator, and chorus girl; one married her Princeton boyfriend, who became a successful tax lawyer, whereas the other married an impotent dreamer 25 years older than she. In sum, American Scottie Fitzgerald was the arche-typal insider despite her Irish-Catholic heritage, but Sheilah Graham, a Cockney Jew born Lily Shiel, remained the archetypal outsider.

Yet, their similarities were striking too. Both survivors, they became journalists and mothers, liberal Democrats and non-feminists. Both divorced more than once and loved married men: Sheilah, Fitzgerald, and Scottie, Clayton Fritchie and Willis Tylden. Although the younger woman never occupied an orphan’s home, she, too, had, in effect, one parent, and spent much of her adolescence with a foster family, the Obers.

These parallels go deeper, touching upon the psychological makeup of the two friends. Ms. Lanahan refers to Scottie as “emotionally bulletproof,” claiming she “maintained, with an already well-formed mechanism of denial, that the tales of her father’s drinking, like her parents’ fighting, were highly embellished.” After the suicide of son, Tim, their shared “”ostrich” quality” staved off despair, which was good, Mrs. Smith admitted, since “I want to see my grandchildren someday. I want to see this country elect a Democrat, and I want to watch the next space shot!”

Sheilah Graham’s “defense mechanism” was more outer-directed. “As she advanced in the world, her shame of the past grew more acute,” writes Mr. Westbrook, who recounts his mother’s fabricated background: “. . .she was the daughter of John Lawrence and Veronic Roslyn Graham. She pretended that she had grown up in Chelsea, a Bohemian part of London, hoping this might explain any lapse of behavior.” Because of Sheilah’s “shame,” the Westbrook children did not learn about their Jewishness until after the appearance of Beloved Infidel. Then, in 1992, daughter Wendy F. Fairey, whose godmother was Scottie, published One of the Family, which treats the subsequent discovery that British philosopher A.J. Ayer actually fathered her. (Robert’s male parent, it should be noted, is unknown.)

A sense of inadequacy accompanied their need for denial. “Motherless” herself, Scottie confessed “children have never been my specialty or main interest.” She felt guilty over frittering away her creative ability: “A few stories, a few newspaper articles, a few songs—is this my legacy?” Echoing Fitzgerald’s criticism of Zelda, the author of two abortive novels confessed to a lack of focus and a lack of seriousness. Scottie “insisted that her life wasn’t worth writing about, that her goals weren’t met,” records Ms. Lanahan, whose painting she had passionately supported.

If, as the daughter of two gifted artists—not “people, but a public park or a national monument”—Mrs. Smith believed she had fallen short of their aesthetic attainments, Lily Shiel, the youngest child of Russian immigrants, felt inferior both personally and professionally because of academic deprivation. Thus, son Robert observes: “She remained extremely sensitive about her lack of education, an issue that was connected in her mind to the orphanage, the East End of London, her onetime Cockney accent, and all those odious and coarse things she had endured while Scott was at Princeton learning how to be so superior.” Ms. Graham consequently dreaded “social gatherings in which her ignorance might be exposed.”

Even so, Scottie and Intimate Lies are, for the most part, “success” stories. The first is a straightforward chronicle, commencing with “A Golden Childhood” and concluding with “1985—1986: Last Legacies.” This long and detailed biography depicts Mrs. Smith as the ultimate “giver” despite self-indulgent parental models. She was a public-spirited individual, particularly in the political world, where her activities on behalf of the Democrats included working for presidential candidates, attending national conventions, serving on committees, contributing articles, throwing parties, and much else. As a founding member and trustee of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Washington, Mrs. Smith composed and directed many of its musical benefits. Meanwhile, she raised a family, wrote fiction as well as non-fiction, and, last but not least, managed her father’s literary estate, which sometimes entailed preparing introductions and granting interviews. Daughter Eleanor accurately claims, “My mother’s ministry. . .extended to aunts, the elderly spouses, ancestors, friends, children, grandchildren, the community, and the nation.”

By contrast, Sheilah Graham’s life reads like “the Young Man from the Provinces” motif Lionel Trilling analyzed in The Liberal Imagination. Though this was “the very backbone” of 19th-century novels, Trilling also detected it throughout The Great Gatsby, where James Gatz, having rejected poor provincial parents, springs from the “Platonic conception of himself” to emerge as resplendent Jay Gatsby. His transition from obscurity to eminence involves the chance intervention of millionaire Dan Cody.

What had been only a myth became a reality for Fitzgerald, when, after lunch at Malibu one late summer day during 1937, his date told him the truth about herself. Like James Gatz, she was self-invented, the “orphan” Lily Shiel evolving into Sheilah Graham. Two gentlemen were instrumental in this transformation: Major John Graham Gillam, who found her selling toothbrushes “on the ground floor of Gamages department store,” and the British Ziegfeld, Charles B. Cochran, who made Ms. Graham “a Cochran Young Lady.” Voted “The Most Beautiful Chorus Girl in London,” she soon became a “scandalous” freelance writer moving among the English upper classes. Six weeks before her confession, Fitzgerald had first seen Sheilah at The Garden of Allah, where Robert Benchley was giving a party to celebrate the engagement of the pretty young gossip columnist to the Marquess of Donegall.

The main action of Intimate Lies runs from their initial encounter on Bastille Day (July 14, 1937) to their final separation on the day Fitzgerald died (December 21, 1940) in Ms. Graham’s apartment. This three and a half year affair seems less like a chronicle than a drama, not simply because it was so passionate, but because of the way Robert Westbrook structures his story. Especially skillful is the management of exposition during the early chapters, where the backgrounds of the dual protagonists are woven around two meetings, first at The Garden of Allah, then eight days later at the Screen Writers Guild dinner dance. Skillful too is the framework of the book, which provides a prologue and an epilogue that movingly treat dead mother and live son, Sheilah Graham and Robert Westbrook, as collaborators. The latter comments: “It was extremely important to my mother that I was a writer, just as it was likewise important that my sister become a dean and college professor. Together we were meant to fulfill her fantasies and broken ambitions left behind by Scott.”

Ms. Graham regarded him as a “split-personality”—Dr. Jekyll when sober; Mr. Hyde when drunk. Intimate Lies necessarily recounts several of his binges: the trip to Chicago in October of 1937 with Sheilah; the stay at Virginia Beach in March of 1938 with Zelda; the Charlie Warren-Nunnally Johnson episode; the Budd Schulberg-Winter Carnival episode; and other disruptive scenes. During these, the usually fastidious Fitzgerald exhibited “the sly leer, the unshaved face, filthy clothes, and occasional four letter word[s].”

The worst behavior toward Sheilah is narrated in chapter 17, “The Silver-Fox,” which transpires about one year before the author’s death. After she had prevented him, intoxicated, from giving clothes to two tramps, Fitzgerald threw a bowl of hot tomato soup against the wall. Further violent incidents ensued: he slapped Sheilah, then exposed her most private secrets to his nurse, chanting “Lily Shiel” and “She’s a Jew”; he kicked the nurse, threatened to kill Sheilah, and searched vainly for the gun the latter had hidden. Later there were ominous telephone calls and special delivery letters. He even sent Ms. Graham’s boss a scurrilous telegram and stole back his birthday present of a silver-fox jacket. The long separation that took place following these vicious acts deeply affected him, so much so “he would never again abuse alcohol.”

Although Fitzgerald was a Puritan and a hypochondriac as well as an alcoholic, the Jekyll side manifested itself often enough to merit the repeated forgiveness of Sheilah, who could not resist his “all-pervasive charm,” the attribute immortalized by Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. A gentle and attentive lover, he called her pet names, sent flowers, wrote funny notes, read poetry aloud. But Fitzgerald was also a “frustrated pedagogue,” as the letters to Scottie demonstrate. Because he needed to play Pygmalion and Sheilah, Galatea, the joint academic venture she made famous in College of One (1966) materialized. Efforts to “educate” Ms. Graham did not stop there, however, since Fitzgerald helped her prepare a nation-wide speaking tour too. Of this, Mr. Westbrook observes, “And so with his own career hanging in a precarious limbo—with everything depending on the progress of his new book—Scott put it all aside for several days to work on Sheilah’s lecture about Hollywood. Then he “built a raised platform,” borrowed “a music stand,” and supervised the rehearsal.

We are told that Scott Fitzgerald was worth $706 when he died, yet his debts had been paid, his wife had been kept in a private sanitarium, and his daughter had been supported at Vassar. Such personal commitments reflect an essential integrity even more eloquently expressed through the “impersonal” medium of art. Fitzgerald, who never adapted to Southern California, “confessed his Hollywood failure to Max Perkins: “I just couldn’t make the grade as a hack—that, like everything else requires a certain practiced excellence.” “Rather, he was by nature the exemplary romantic artist struggling against internal and external forces—alien environment, unresponsive market, indifferent public, alcoholic temperament, deranged wife, frail constitution—to create memorable fiction. Both Budd Schulberg and Sheilah Graham were amazed “to find so many . . .casual remarks accurately quoted” in The Last Tycoon, which he revised tirelessly, as he did the far less important Pat Hobby stories.

Despite Fitzgerald’s ambivalence toward Sheilah, her commitment to him was equally heroic because sustaining it demanded similar forbearance and dedication. He died at the Graham apartment, yet, afterward, she “had no status in his life, no legitimacy; she could not even go to his funeral.” Upon returning to that apartment 50 years later, Sheilah still “had not gotten over the death of Scott Fitzgerald.” And his only child, though never involved in such dramatic events, appears extraordinary too, for the protagonist of Seattie, like those of Intimate Lies, overcame numerous adversities to devote herself to family and nation.

Robert Westbrook and Eleanor Lanahan deserve our gratitude for creating these vivid portraits.


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