Sheilah Graham was a gossip columnist in the golden days -- hers and Hollywood's. Talking to her is like watching clips of Hollywood's greatest hits, only the dialogue is better.
Bonzo the chimp almost choking Ronald Reagan with his own tie. Cut. F. Scott Fitzgerald going from the toast of Paris to the crumbs of Hollywood. Cut. Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman voting Graham the sexiest woman in Hollywood. Cut. Fitzgerald immortalizing Graham as Katherine in "The Last Tycoon." Cut. Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden. Cut. Joan Crawford undoing her shoelace before she stepped into the Pickfair mansion so husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would be at her feet -- retying the knot -- in front of Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford. Cut.
* In those days, Graham was the bubble in movieland's champagne, one of the three witch columnists ("Louella Parsons was not as bad as Hedda Hopper") who stirred the gossip caldron. Ronald Reagan? "Alas, poor Ronnie, I knew him well, but I never hit a man when he's up." Bob Hope? "The kindest man." Rosalind Russell? "My favorite actress." Marilyn Monroe? "Very vulnerable; I knew her at the beginning, the middle and the end."
Graham is a self-invented woman who parlayed a Dickensian London orphanage education, a pretty face, a supple body and a nimble mind into life among the noble, the rich and the lecherous. She wanted an education, money and a gentleman who would make her a lady. She was supremely successful in all three quests.
Author of 11 books, three about her life with Fitzgerald, Graham was in Washington this week to speak to the Smithsonian Associates and do what she does best -- talk about herself: "Do you want statistics or do you want gossip?"
*Fifty-three years ago in June 1933, she came to America from her native England, carrying as her credentials a silver cup won as London's most beautiful chorus girl, clippings of outrageous articles she'd written for London newspapers about her life as a high kicker, and a fearless approach to life.
When she arrived, "New York had no air conditioning in residences then, so all the wives were at the beaches. I had a wonderful time."
Today, at an age she won't reveal ("but I'm no baby"), she still has the aura, the authority of a woman once beautiful. Howard Hughes, she says, gave her the gold and emerald brooch she wears, and John Wayne the gold earrings. Her hats are off-the-face, royal-family fashion. She has "a little wig, ash blond, that I wear when I'm applying for a job, but I decided to just be me and comfortable." She wears little nylon anklets instead of stockings because her leg hurts. Her face carries the memory of too many smiles and too many sunny days.
But the cheekbones still show plainly why, as she says, "I never lost a man." She's full of sharp stories, funny lines and total recall. When she dies, she says, it will be at her typewriter.
*Her usual fountain of youthful memories was checked by news of the death Tuesday of Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, daughter of the legendary American writer of the 1920s and '30s. Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott's schizophrenic wife and Scottie's mother, was in a sanitorium when Graham and Fitzgerald met in Hollywood in 1937. (Eight years after Fitzgerald died, Zelda died in a fire. Graham was the mainstay of Fitzgerald's last three years and a surrogate mother to Scottie.
Graham said Fitzgerald actually left her the rights to his last book, "The Last Tycoon," but she kept silent about it so Zelda and Scottie could have the money from its sale. The unfinished novel was a critical and financial success and was made into a movie. Years later, Graham couldn't resist showing Scott's letter of bequest to Scottie Smith.
* "She made a lot of money from 'The Last Tycoon' over the years," said Graham. "I've made money, too, from writing three books about Scott." Later, perhaps not intending to be literal, she said, "Scott Fitzgerald enriched my life."
Hollywood friends accepted Fitzgerald and Graham's liaison, but the author made her remove her things from his house before Scottie visited. After his death on Dec. 21, 1940, in Graham's house, Scottie told Graham she wasn't welcome at her father's funeral. Graham says Fitzgerald, a lapsed Catholic, wouldn't have thought it proper either.
(Fitzgerald himself wasn't welcome at his own funeral -- he originally was refused burial in the family plot in the cemetery at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville because of his books and his life style. But some 35 years later, the church relented and his bones were moved from his first grave in the Rockville Union Cemetery.)
*The daughter and the mistress, nevertheless, were friends. When Graham was attacked for the intimate revelations in "Beloved Infidel," Scottie "was a great support."
*In the late '30s, Graham said, lovers were more discreet than they are now. "Scott and I had separate places for most of those years," said Graham. "I was a gossip columnist, he was married. Back then, those things were important."
Later, Graham said, someone called her Fitzgerald's mistress. Writer and critic Edmund Wilson said indignantly, "You weren't, you were his second wife."
"I never pushed him to divorce her," said Graham. "I knew he wouldn't abandon her. He felt responsible."
Graham, in the face of Fitzgerald's drinking, felt the same way about him.
By her own admission, Graham has a lifetime habit of supporting (financially and otherwise) impoverished gentlemen and turning down millionaires. She tells a wonderful story about opening box after box of diamonds -- a ring, a necklace, a bracelet from a millionaire -- and then looking across the restaurant to see the impecunious gentleman she loved. She stripped off all the diamonds and ran after her lover, Maj. John Gillam. After they were married -- before she was 20 -- he taught her table manners, sent her to speech school and helped keep her from getting dizzy orbiting London's precarious social circles. She had her childhood picture embellished with curls and a new dress to match his upper-class photograph, and went on the stage as a chorus girl to support him.
* Though they were divorced, she supported him until he died in the mid-'60s, with one of her checks on the table. "I've always known I could make my own way and live well. He used me, certainly. But he loved me. And I loved him. You know, love isn't all sex."
*She emigrated to the United States because the major "wanted me to come to America to make both our fortunes." In New York, she reported for two newspapers at one time until she had bylines in both the same day. As a syndicated Hollywood columnist, she was sent a year's supply of champagne by Jack Benny at Christmas. When radios were almost unattainable during World War II, she received 30 as gifts. At a party celebrating her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall, she met Fitzgerald, then a failed movie scriptwriter.
He asked her how many lovers she'd had. "I said eight as a round number. He was shocked." As to whether eight was an exaggeration or an underestimate, she won't say.
*Fitzgerald couldn't start writing and he couldn't stop drinking. "I would know now how to deal with his drunkenness," she said. "I wouldn't put up with it." He made public her most closely held secret -- her childhood in an orphanage. He almost killed her in a struggle for a gun, trying to shoot himself. He gave her first fur to his daughter. And he libeled her to her editors. But, as she recounts in her favorite of her books, "College of One," he gave her the intellectual education she'd always desired and the greatest subject a writer would want.
Two years after Fitzgerald died, she met Trevor Westbrook, an aide to England's wartime air minister, Lord Beaverbrook. She was intrigued because Westbrook said he'd never read a book. "I thought this was a way to exorcise Scott." Westbrook gave her a diamond ring, but the duty was so high, she had Customs send it back. After they married, they saw each other while she was covering Winston Churchill's and Lord Beaverbrook's Washington conferences with President Roosevelt.
"I say I saw him twice and I had two children," Graham says. She stayed in the United States; he wouldn't leave London. When Westbrook sent a detective to spy on her in Hollywood; she wrote and suggested he save his money and send it to the children. He did: 3 pounds (about $15 then) each. The son, Robert Westbrook, is a mystery writer; the daughter, Wendy Fairey, "a very austere woman," is dean of a college. Graham gave them everything she didn't have in her Cockney poverty: education, trips to Venice and a library of books annotated by Scott Fitzgerald.
She doesn't talk about her third husband.
"I could have married two millionaires," she said, "but my children didn't like them. I used to say I'd rather scrub floors than marry for money. But money makes a soft cushion for old bones.
"Not long ago, some friends arranged for me to meet a man I knew a half century ago. I didn't know it, but he says I broke his heart when I went to Hollywood in 1936. He married a wealthy woman but she died a year ago. Recently he gave a big luncheon party for me in a posh club on Long Island -- and the goodbye kiss he gave me was very long.