Story of a self made woman

 

AFTER F. Scott FitzgeraId's death from a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44, his girlfriend, the gossip writer Sheilah Graham, removed a photograph of herself from a frame before returning the writer's effects to his wife Zelda. Written on the back of the photograph in Scott Fitzgerald's handwriting, were the words "Portrait of a Prostitute".

In spite of having published seven books on the affair, the most famous and the most coy being Beloved Infidel when she died in 1988 Graham left papers to her writer son Robert Westbrook with instructions to tell the full story.

The outline of Scott Fitzgerald's life is all too familiar his early success in the Jazz Age and the subsequent neglect of his work in the Thirties his resort to Hollywood in order to pay the hospital bills for his insane wife Zelda and his daughter's college fees, and his constant struggle with alcohol and ill health. Westbrook adds little to what is already known about Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, and about his affair with Sheilah Graham. The real story here is the story of Sheilah Graham's early years, and her struggle to make something of herself.

In another century Graham would undoubtedly have been celebrated as a great courtesan. In this one she is harder to classify. She married one Trevor Westbrook for convenience in 1941, when she was already expecting a child by the philosopher A. J. Ayer there are hints here that her son's father was the actor Robert Taylor, not poor Mr Westbrook, who divorced her shortly after her son's birth.

In Hollywood Sheilah Graham passed herself off as an English aristocrat. In fact she was born Lily Shiels in London's East End to Jewish emigrants from Kiev. Her father died when she was young and her mother, unable to support her, put her into a Jewish orphanage where she was cold and always hungry. When she was 14 and about to take a scholarship, her mother, dying of bowel cancer, removed her from the orphanage and brought her home. Her duties included scrubbing stone floors and cleaning out her mother's colostomy wound. Her elder brother beat her up and when she was a pretty 16 year old she left home to live off her wits in London's West End.

She started respectably enough demonstrating in a department store and eventually married a major who dealt in fancy goods. He turned out to be impotent and was cut off by his family for marrying beneath him. He decided their best chance was to put by on the stage and live off her earnings, both as chorus girl and call girl.

She lived a double life, pretending her much older husband was her father, and was taken up by the Mitfords and Randolph Churchill. The Marquess of Donegal pursued her to Hollywood, and she was engaged to him at the time she met Scott Fitzgerald.

While understanding Graham's desire to keep it in the family, it was not a good idea to ask her son to tell her story he inevitably lacks the objectivity and ruthlessness that a stranger would bring to it. Moreover, the cosiness of his prose style is quite unsuited to such a gritty tale. Graham's experiences of domestic violence with Scott Fitzgerald and of rape and perversion with other men are very much played down and glossed over. What a pity to rehash this short lived affair instead of giving her a full biography with no fudging and no lies, intimate or otherwise.