Friday, July 14, 2017

This Day in Literary History (Fitzgerald Meets Last Love in Hollywood)

July 14, 1937—Bored and restless one night at his home in the Garden of Allah hotel in West Hollywood, F. Scott Fitzgerald accepted an invitation from his friend Robert Benchley to come to a party in honor of a pretty blond British woman and her fiancé. Before it was over, he fled because the woman reminded him of his wife when she was still young and not yet in a mental institution. 

But fate brought him together anyway with Sheilah Graham, a gossip columnist who not only became his last love but inspired the major female character in his uncompleted, posthumous novel, The Last Tycoon.

In a sense, it was natural that the two met in Hollywood, the American dream factory composed of professionals with made-over identities. Graham was as self-invented as Fitzgerald’s James Gatz, a poor boy from the Midwest who re-emerged on the East Coast as rich Jay Gatsby. 

What Fitzgerald didn’t find out, for some time, was that Graham was born in England, all right, but as Lily Shiel, to a Ukrainian Jewish couple. Her father’s death when she was still a baby reduced his widow to penury, and Lily’s grandmother placed her in a Dickensian orphanage in London’s East End, where she remained till age 16.

Two years later, with her mother now also dead, Lily married an older, kindly but improvident man who didn’t make a fuss when she went out with other men. She came to America in 1933, determined to make it as a syndicated columnist. Four years later, after the millionaire John Hay Whitney proposed making her his mistress, she decided she did not want to be regarded as a mistress, and set about divorcing the husband she had left behind in Britain.

But, despite her best intentions, Lily—having taken the name Sheilah Graham in the interim—ended up becoming a mistress after all. Her fiancée had gone back home to England to persuade his mother that Sheilah was appropriate for him. Several days after Benchley’s party, she encountered again his pale but fascinating writer friend.

A writer friend in desperate straits, partly because of his alcoholism, partly because he was funding his teenage daughter’s prep-school education and his wife’s confinement to a sanitarium. Fitzgerald would never again live with Zelda as man and wife, but their ties—of moral obligation on his part, of the memory of past love for both—were too strong for him to divorce her.   

But Fitzgerald and Graham took a liking to each other not long after Benchley’s party, to the point that she broke her engagement. She stayed with Fitzgerald through the remaining three years of his life, with the relationship surviving—barely—his occasional binge drinking, when he would subject her to threatened physical mayhem and actual verbal humiliations—among the most cruel being when he revealed to his nurse the secret of Graham’s Jewish ancestry. (Graham guarded that last secret so jealously that she did not even divulge it in eight volumes of autobiography.)

The question naturally arises what the two saw in each other. The paleness of Fitzgerald’s skin that struck Graham so forcefully on the night at Benchley’s was a sign of his deepening sickness. The physical beauty of his youth was gone, but his intense eyes showed that he could muster all his remaining magnetism when he wanted to. And,  as much as he could turn his considerable charm on women, Graham was drawn to another quality about him that the previous men in her life had never really displayed: He took her thoughts and intellect seriously.

To say that she had an intellect did not mean that Graham was intellectual. Her education, necessarily spotty and haphazard because of her upbringing, left her feeling shallow at points. Fitzgerald sensed that when he saw Graham visibly struggling with a volume of Proust. He created a “college of one,” a regimen designed to expose her to the best, most essential reading.

As for what Fitzgerald saw in Graham: physical attractiveness was only part what might be better termed vitality, a quality he found increasingly lacking in himself. The Last Tycoon began as a fictionalized portrait of the sickly Hollywood studio boss Irving Thalberg, but Fitzgerald infused his protagonist, Monroe Stahr, with his own romanticism, terribly loneliness over the absence of his wife, and the sense that life was ebbing away from him. Like Graham, Tycoon’s Kathleen Moore represents a last chance for a man with ebbing life force.

Moreover, Sheilah might not have had Zelda’s quicksilver quality but she provided something he needed desperately in those last few years of his life: stability. To keep her with him, he managed to stay sober, in his last year or so, for a longer period of time than he’d managed all through adolescence and his adulthood to date.

Most people know about the relationship through the 1959 film adaptation of Graham's account written with Gerold Frank, Beloved Infidel. Her son Robert Westbrook left a more complete and truthful version of the relationship in his biography of his mother, Intimate Lies.  But the best sense of what she meant to Fitzgerald might come from this passage in The Last Tycoon:

"There she was – face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Minna’s face – the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs – and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation.

"With a leap his heart went out of him as it had the night before, only this time it stayed out with a vast beneficence…"

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