He had it all

Alex Harvey

  • Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald by David S. Brown
    Harvard, 424 pp, £21.95, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 50482 0
  • ‘I’d Die for You’ and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Scribner, 384 pp, £9.99, April, ISBN 978 1 4711 6473 6

Scott Fitzgerald spent his declining years in ‘a hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement’. Hollywood, he complained in 1940, was ‘a dump, in the human sense of the word. Everywhere there is … either corruption or indifference.’ He used to wear a dark topcoat and homburg; ‘his outfit and pallor,’ his secretary Frances Kroll recalled, ‘were alien to the style and warmth of Southern California – as if he were not at home here, had just stopped off and was dressed to leave on the next train.’ Under contract as a screenwriter to MGM to pay off his debts and his wife Zelda’s medical bills, Fitzgerald became fixated on a golden-haired British gossip columnist called Sheilah Graham, who had, he said, the look of ‘a young Zelda’. The creator of Jay Gatsby wasn’t slow to see through her persona. Sheilah Graham was actually Lily Shiel, the youngest child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, who had grown up in a Stepney Green slum. Fitzgerald took it on himself to remedy her lack of an education. When she confessed she hadn’t read any of his books, he said they’d go and buy some of them right away. In Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard they asked for anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk said they had none in stock. Fitzgerald asked whether there was any call for them. ‘Oh, once in a while, but not for some time now,’ he replied. They tried another store – with the same result. The grey-haired proprietor of a third bookshop asked which titles they were interested in and, promising to track them down, requested a name and address. ‘I’m Mr Fitzgerald,’ he replied. According to Graham’s son, whose Intimate Lies is an account of her relationship with Fitzgerald, the old man was shocked: ‘He had believed quite simply that F. Scott Fitzgerald must surely have died years ago along with his era.’

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[*] These stories are collected in A Change of Class, the latest volume in CUP’s Collected Fitzgerald (Cambridge, 460 pp., £79.99, June 2016, 978 0 521 40235 4).