Book Review: College of One by Sheilah Graham

I recently finished reading The College of One by Sheilah Graham. In the book, Graham briefly relates her tempestuous early life (childhood in an orphanage, an early failed marriage to a much older man, and a burgeoning career as a chorus girl- both of which she left to pursue film journalism in Hollywood) before moving on to the main subject of the book: the education she received from none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her romantic relationship with Fitzgerald is not the central theme of this book, although whenever she does allude to it, one senses how all-consuming it must have been, from her gradual realization that Fitzgerald would never leave Zelda (at the time committed to an asylum), to her frustrated fury over his alcoholism, to tender gratitude at how he provided a far greater education than the one she feared she had missed out on when her schooling was cut off at fourteen.

Graham begins by outlining the travails of her life in the orphanage, revealing the bleakness of it in sentences rendered powerful because of their refusal to be sentimental: “When we were beaten at the orphanage, there was a lack of interest which made the blows more painful.” She professes to liking David Copperfield at the time, noting that the protagonist’s “childhood was worse than mine”, as well as books like Daddy Longlegs, about a girl rescued from abandonment by a handsome benefactor. However, we sense already that she is someone who will not resign herself to the hope of a savior, but will strive to save herself. She teaches herself French, becomes Head Prefect and captain of the girls’ cricket team, recites patriotic poems and takes part in debates.

Sheilah’s education is stopped at a nascent stage so that she can support her ill mother: “My arithmetic had reached ‘If Farmer John’s 15 chickens lay 30 eggs in 4 days, how many chickens would be required to lay 72 eggs in 6 days?…I understand verbs because Scott Fitzgerald explained they were essential to good writing, but I still sometimes have to be reminded of what a pronoun is, and I have never quite conquered the ‘I’ and ‘me’ puzzle.”

It is in sentences of high contrast like this that you realize the strangeness and magic of her story: a woman whose learning was stunted at rudimentary grammar and school level arithmetic, who made enough of herself to be taught verbs by the greatest American author of the century. It’s a turn of fate that inspires awed laughter.

Sheilah emerges from the orphanage and becomes immersed in the world of working class teenagers in the East End, where her education is immaterial and “having a smart line with boys (is) more important. Dancing. Hokey-Pokies (ice cream sandwiches) afterward…Kissing passionately in doorways. Reading the News of The World.” Misfortune rescues her from ordinariness: “If my mother had not died when I was seventeen, I might have married one of my ardent dance partners and lived ignorant ever afterwards.” Instead, she takes up a job selling toothbrushes that clean the backs of teeth, and sells one to her future first husband, the bland, benign Major John Graham Gillam. The marriage is tranquil, friendly, and doomed. Gillam initiates Sheilah into the world of good table manners, erases her give away accent, and enrolls her in RADA, where she bumps into Charles Laughton: who had “enrolled the same day I had, but while his accent was strictly Yorkshire, no one dared laugh at him. His startling talent was aristocracy enough.”

Isolated and derided at RADA, Sheilah drops out and enters the vaudeville circuit, where she is noticed for the first time by influential men of all kinds, from Randolph Churchill and Tom Mitford to a masochist baronet. Gillam encourages her encounters: the marriage has long since dissolved into one of platonic convenience. Sheilah tries her hand at light society journalism, then visits New York, where she spends weekends at the country homes of the elite. This is perhaps my least favorite part of the book, because it reveals a disconcerting side of Graham’s character: “The Smiths had colored servants, and this enchanted me.” Casual homophobia and prejudice seem to be a Fitzgerald’s mental landscape: Graham notes, “At the beginning of the appendix to Palgrave’s Treasury, Scott stated, ‘Compiled by a Protestant Pansy.’” There is also the awful moment in which Fitzgerald, in a fit of drunkenness, insultingly reveals Graham’s Jewish origins to his nurse. It is disturbing to realize that although Fitzgerald’s writing defined and transcended his era, he himself was very much a product of it. However, Fitzgerald’s socialist leanings and sympathy for the working class has to be acknowledged too, as does his stance against Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco: his second meeting with Graham was at the Anti-Nazi League Dinner hosted by Dorothy Parker at the Cocoanut Grove.

The book drags briefly at this point, as Sheilah blunderingly authors a mediocre novel, makes more inroads into the cream of society, becomes an adroit journalist interviewing everyone from convicted murderers to Carole Lombard, amicably separates from her husband, and moves to America for good (or at least better). This is the most eventful part of the book, but it seems written in a hurry and is best read so. There’s nothing unique about this phase in Graham’s life- if one wants to read about upper class New York society you have everything from Edith Wharton to Gossip Girl. Sheilah retains the reader’s interest however, because of her vulnerability; as she rises, her insecurities about her education deepen: “Who was Einstein? And was it Freud or Froude and what was the difference?”

In a thought process that provokes this reader’s wry chuckles, Sheilah decides to move from New York to Hollywood, assuming that people in the latter will be comfortably dumb: “No one would embarrass me with erudite conversation.”

Of course, that’s where she encounters some pretty brainy people: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and, at a noisy, smoke-filled party (where else do you meet the author of The Great Gatsby?) F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The party has been thrown by Benchley himself to celebrate Sheilah’s engagement to the Marquess of Donegall, a connection that is broken soon after. By their third meeting and first dance, Graham and Fitzgerald are in love.

We are constantly aware of the fact that Fitzgerald and Graham came from different worlds, but succeeded in making one of their own: he was a Princeton alumnus, she was a high school drop out; he was one of the greatest American authors, she was a gossip columnist who grimly considered herself part of the “unholy trio” that included Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper; he was the kind who surrendered, she was the kind who survived. Their story, in a way, is about those who are able to reinvent themselves, and those who are not.

Graham was able to do so constantly. But neither Scott nor Zelda were able to. In one of the most heart-wrenching passages in the book, Graham relates how during one of his drinking binges, Scott got a far from lucid Zelda out of the asylum and flew down to Cuba with her. The most poignant detail in this story is when Graham notes that Zelda, unaware that the roaring twenties were long gone, dressed in clothes of that era all throughout her confused trip.

For someone constantly trying to hide her lack of formal education, for someone perennially on guard, Sheilah’s relationship with Fitzgerald seems to be a space where she can finally breathe, where she gains the strength to be vulnerable. Scott encourages her to read Proust, and so the College of One begins, to be finished at the end of two years, with a graduation ceremony in which she will be dressed in a cap and gown. This never took place, Fitzgerald died before Sheilah’s education was completed.

The book’s pacing slows to a wistful meander at this point, as if the reader is strolling with Fitzgerald and his student at dusk on Sunset Boulevard, hearing them recite Ode to A Nightingale.

Fitzgerald emerges as a desperate man striving to be both good and great. Nothing is more endearing than his habit of making lists: “lists of battles from the beginning of recorded time…lists of his ‘fixations’ from Marie (Hersey) (1911) to S. (Graham) (1937–40)…There was a list of the meetings with Ernest Hemingway. They had petered out between 1931 and 1937…There were lists of the books he had read by the time he was twenty, thirty, forty. Lists of painters and their works at the age of forty. A list of the thirty-six dramatic situations, from ‘Supplication’ to ‘Loss of Loved Ones’, copied from the Georges Polti book…Lists of plots in the Saturday Evening Post.” In all these we see Fitzgerald as a man on a quest, a dreamer, an idealist, the young romantic from This Side of Paradise. In all this we see what Fitzgerald strove for, in the last we see what he was reduced to: “There were lists of the types of stories each studio preferred.”

We are given enchanting glimpses of Fitzgerald’s love for football: Princeton’s President Goheen tells Graham that “before nearly every home game in the thirties, the coach…or the graduate manager of athletics, received a telephone call from Scott in the early morning with a new football tactic that would surely result in a victory for Princeton, which was doing badly. On one occasion, after an urgent call from Scott in the small hours, Crisler told him he would use the play on one condition, that Scott would take full credit for its success and full credit for its failure, ‘if any.’ Perhaps they should hold the system in reserve, Scott had replied.”

A daytime list: “Things to do- pay bills, dentist, write Esquire story. Read Wordsworth in volumes, plot for movie, Call of the Wild for Sheilah. Esquire letter. Income tax, laundry, $36 for Scottie.” A night time list of sleeping pills: “…the combination seconal 1 ½ nembutal 1 ½ or 2 ½ nembutals, or seconal 1 ½ , barbital 5 gr.”

Fitzgerald began making lists of essential reading for Graham: “Vanity Fair, Man and Superman, The Red and The Black, Bleak House (1st half), Seven Men, Bleak House (2nd half)…” There were courses on ancient history, philosophy, architecture, music, a curriculum that was constantly changed, added to, and re-typed by Fitzgerald’s patient secretary. Another list contains types of poetry: “ballad- short narrative, epic- long narrative, dramatic- Shakespeare, lyric- a song, ode- an address,” and onwards. There are lists describing types of verse and meters, with emphasis on the iambic meter, the one used most often and most beautifully by Shakespeare. On one of these pages, there’s the most memorable image in the book: a handwritten note from Scott to Sheilah: “For Sheilah, Oh misery! To take my basil pot away from me. In memory of iambic hours. –Scott, 1940.”

The basil pot is a reference to a Keats poem. “Iambic hours” is all Fitzgerald. This book is not about Sheilah Graham, or about F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the hours they shared in pursuit of poetry, whether it was poetry in history or literature or thought or in the lines of paintings or the notes of music that becomes slowly familiar. This book is written in memory of iambic hours.

Graham remembers how Fitzgerald lost himself sometimes in spite of these lists: “he wrote himself a postcard…asking, ‘Where are you?’ signed Scott.”

When Sheilah Graham met him, Scott’s life was one of unpaid bills and unreturned calls. We all know of the Scott Fitzgerald who drank so much that he endured days of being fed from IV tubes, who died in his prime, never abandoning the lost cause of Zelda, and borrowing money to pay for Scottie’s tuition at Vassar; but we don’t know the Fitzgerald who spent the last years of life trying to relearn what he had once been. In the middle of the cruel words he said to Sheilah in his bouts of drunkenness, in the middle of the words he was paid to write, and failed to write, in the middle of the words of old friends which had long since been replaced by silence, Fitzgerald turned, for comfort, to words, as a writer does. The words of Keats and Shelley -those other two who had died young- the words of Proust and Joyce, the words of Wilde and Hardy, and all the words that had made him want to be a writer once, long ago.

Both Fitzgerald and Graham led breathless lives, but this book is about the stillness they afforded each other, the stillness interrupted by explosive conflicts, but, still, the stillness that lasted until his death. The stillness one feels when one reads about them driving home one day and Fitzgerald beginning to softly recite “Ode to A Grecian Urn”:

“Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

More than anything we see Fitzgerald as that fair youth, that Gatsby, the one who could not leave his song. But this is not a somber book- Fitzgerald’s pursuit of writing collided with his pursuit of happiness. Who can forget the joyful, joking summary of the very same poem he wrote for Graham, changing his beloved Keats’ wistful poetry to grubby Bullets Over Broadway slang: “A Greek cup they dug up. S’as good as new!…Those pictures on it must tell a story about their Gods, maybe, or just ordinary people- something about life in the sticks in a place called Tempe.”

There are many reasons to read this book (aside from stealing Fitzgerald’s curriculum). One of them is that once Fitzgerald arrives on the scene, there is an unforgettable, magical moment on nearly every page. I ended up dog-earing a dozen pages. I dog-eared one page only to read on that very page of Fitzgerald admonishing Sheilah that dog-earing pages was a bad habit. It was a startling enough coincidence to make me pause, but I turned the page soon enough. The temptation to read onwards was too strong to stop too long, even at this little miracle.