My mother's affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald: How it made me the person (and the reader) I am today

Their three-year fling — which ended when he died in her living room — has shaped my life in immeasurable ways

Published March 14, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

F. Scott Fitzgerald     (AP)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (AP)

Excerpted from “Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to Brooklyn.”

Whenever I teach "The Great Gatsby," as I have so many times in my forty years in the college classroom, I always wonder if I will tell the students my story. It’s my mother’s story, really. But it’s mine, too, the story of a personal link to the book’s author that tinges every professional comment I make about themes and narrative voice and structure and the other facets of fiction that English professors train their  students to look for. I care about all these, to be sure, but I have an intensely private as well as professional understanding of the novel at hand. Or rather, the private and professional strands are so intertwined that I can’t really say where one ends and the other begins. In class I present them as separate. I tell the personal story when I’ve proven to myself that I don’t have to, when I feel we have satisfactorily “covered” the “material,” as we call it, with professorial dispassion and dispatch. Perhaps the revelation comes in an impulsive moment of warmth for the group of young people before me—I want to be closer to them, to give them something they might find special. Or perhaps there’s been a little sag in classroom energy and I turn to the story to reinvigorate us.

“Here’s a personal connection that may interest you. My mother actually knew F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was in the last years of his life in Hollywood.”

I see mild interest in their faces.

“She was involved with him,” I say. A variant of this, if the group seems more sophisticated, perhaps a class of graduate students, might be: “She was his lover.”

Interest at this point increases, usually mixed with a bit of understandable anxiety that an aging female professor, talking about her mother’s lover, has become unpredictable.

“Yes, they were together for three-and-a-half years. He died in her living room—stood up and dropped dead of a heart attack. A few days before Christmas 1940.”

Now I’ve made it vivid.

“But what interests me the most,” I say, “is that he devised for her an education. The F. Scott Fitzgerald College of One. It was an entire college curriculum—with history and art and music, and even a little economics. But above all poetry and the novel. Dickens. Thackeray. Henry James. We had the books from the College of One in our library when I was a child. Those were the books I read growing up.”

My private relation to F. Scott Fitzgerald is that he bought the books for my mother that I have loved all my life, the books, it’s fair to say, that turned me into a professor of English literature. I loved the volumes in the College of One inside and out—their bindings, their pages, their print, their stories—and I lived in them more fully than I can remember living in the world around me. Thus, my F. Scott Fitzgerald story is less that he was my mother’s lover before I was born, dying dramatically  in her living room, releasing her to go forth and be with other men and become my mother, than that he shaped my life’s reading by having  bought her those books. Long before I even knew of her connection to him, they lined the shelves along opposite walls of our den, there for me to take down and carry upstairs to my bedroom and immerse myself in stories that transported me to other times and places. The palm trees and eucalyptus of dusky Southern California gave way to the imagined bustle of Thackeray’s London or the green landscape of David Copperfield’s Suffolk downs. And as soon as I finished one book, perhaps "Tom Jones" or "Bleak House," I would ask my mother to recommend another, thus building the shadow world that I would live in, have lived in all my life.

So reading and teaching "The Great Gatsby" entails for me, always, not only the themes of the great American novel with its tragic dreamer hero, believing in the wrong dreams, but also the subtext of my mother’s relationship with Fitzgerald, my mother herself looming as a kind of female Gatsby, a woman who emerged from a Jewish orphanage and made herself up as Sheilah Graham, London chorus girl and Hollywood columnist, suppressing her Jewishness and her early poverty, believing anything was possible, and awesome in the energy of her self-creation, to which she proved faithful to the end. And I understand Gatsby as myself, someone who has wed her dreams to people, starting with my mother, whom I wanted to believe in as golden and magic. But I am Nick Carraway as well, awed by Gatsby but able to judge him; the level-headed spectator, who ultimately turns away from a gaudy world to seek something else, a more solid if more ordinary existence. And I link, too, with Fitzgerald  in our shared love for my mother. And with him as a pedagogue devising his syllabi for the F. Scott Fitzgerald College of One, joining with me in our imagined shared love of Victorian novels. Everything is all mixed together.

I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our responses. I have begun by citing my relation to "The Great Gatsby," but the story of reading "David Copperfield" or "Vanity Fair" or "To the Lighthouse" or any of the books discussed in this volume is just as dramatically personal. Young David has an evil stepfather, as did I, and I share in David’s fear and loathing of this figure. The élan of Becky Sharp reminds me of my mother, and I can’t help admiring Thackeray’s witty, resourceful rogue. The yearning of Woolf’s grief-suffused Lily Briscoe for the dead Mrs. Ramsay touches the chord of all the important losses of my life. Of course, reading is more complicated than this finding of biographical parallels. We also read, as one of my students has so well put it, “to escape the relentless monotony of being ourselves” as well as “to return from the experience with a slightly different mind than we had going in.” All that is true, and much else besides, a subtle and magical interaction between the reader and the book that I hope to illuminate.

When I first thought to write a book about reading and literary characters, I had a  concept for a  more strictly academic study that I called “from orphan to immigrant.” Always attuned to patterns and structure, I saw a succession of figures in the English novel: the orphan of the Victorian period, the “new woman” and the artist of late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century modernism, and the immigrant of late twentieth-century postcolonialism that linked for me in a striking genealogy. Each in turn fits uneasily with his or her society, yet at the same time becomes representative of that society, the protagonist who speaks for a given age, expressing its energy, its fears and aspirations. I was struck, for example, by a passage in Hanif Kureshi’s "The Buddha of Suburbia" in which a theatrical producer explains to the protagonist Karim that “the immigrant is the Everyman of the twentieth century.” Karim has been asked to “play” an Indian—i.e. wear a loin cloth and cultivate an Indian accent—for a theater production  of "The Jungle Book" in which he has landed the leading role of Mowgli. Yet Karim, born in London, sees himself as “an Englishman born and bred, almost.” The Indian identity that goes unnamed creates the “almost.” “Perhaps,” he muses, poising himself on the brink of a modern day picaro’s adventures, “it’s the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored.” He declares himself “ready for anything,” a prime condition for fiction.

As a professor of English literature I had developed courses with one or another of the figures I have named as a thematic focus: the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant—these slim but hardy subjects about which the novel at different points in its history has seemed, to borrow a phrase from Henry James, to make “an ado.” But I had always considered them separately—each a discrete literary and cultural phenomenon. In my rethinking, I saw ways that, whatever their differences from one another and their prominence in different periods, they align to serve the same function. Destabilized themselves and destabilizing others around them, moving in their fictional trajectories between margin and center, they are either outsiders seeking to come in or insiders seeking to go out in their quest for a realized personal and social identity.  The reader asks what they will make of themselves, how they will change or be changed by the world. Their narratives dramatize the disruptions and reconfigurations of history, the thrills and dangers inherent in the assertion of individualism, the tensions and accommodations between selfhood and society. As we read, our stake in their fictional lives becomes our own lived experience of belonging and not belonging, their dramas our dramas of becoming ourselves in the world. It’s not that readers ever were—or are—preponderantly orphans or immigrants, new women or artists, though some of us may be. But these figures absorb us. I felt that if I could understand their catalytic and galvanizing role in English fiction of the last two centuries, I would come closer to understanding something important about the complexities of culture, the shaping power of fiction, and the impressionable psyches of readers.

Such was the project that grew in my mind: the culmination of a life spent reading, teaching and thinking about English fiction and the major contribution that I hoped to make to my field. The project had all the more urgency for me because it represented a return to scholarship after years spent writing memoir and stories that drew from a personal realm. Parents more often than not are larger-than-life figures, but when the world conspires in giving them this status, it enmeshes the child in a particular way. I was the child of not just one but two well-known people— of course my mother, the Sheilah Graham of Fitzgerald romance and Hollywood-column fame, but additionally my father, the British philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer. Because of a web of lies and circumstance, these parents had unequal valence in my life. My mother had functioned as a powerful single parent as I was growing up in Beverly Hills, swimming in the pools of the movie stars and reading my Victorian novels. I met Freddie, as Ayer was called, only on my first trip to London when I was eleven. My mother introduced him to me as a family friend, a misrepresentation not corrected until after her death in November 1988. I got to see him once as his acknowledged daughter, and then he died, too, the following June. I was forty-six, bereaved and in possession of a story.

By the early years of this new century, though, at a point when my parents were some fifteen years dead and I, their daughter, had turned sixty, the story for me was a tired one. I had dissected it with friends and been asked to recount it at dinner parties. I had written about it, too, perhaps the most satisfying means of understanding. My 1992 memoir "One of the Family" had brought my separately renowned parents together, been critically well received, secured my promotion at Brooklyn College to the rank of Full Professor, and then failed to be the “sleeper” my publisher hoped for. In commercial terms it never quite awakened. Venturing into a different genre, I next published a collection of linked stories that centered on a group of middle-aged women playing poker. My mother still lurked in these, but I could explore her influence without the distraction of naming her. Writing the stories was exhilarating, but it also persuaded me I was basically a non-fiction writer, someone for whom the desire to capture in narrative what actually happens is the stimulus to imagination. The stories were, and more importantly seemed, too close to my own life. Even when I made things up, they did not really pass as fiction.

But now I was determined to turn away from autobiographical writing.  Above all, I didn’t want to be like my mother who kept rewriting  her own life: three books on Fitzgerald, two on her childhood, one on her sex life (granted, in part embellished), and three on her years as a columnist added up to nine books devoted to the myth of her self-creation. To write as a scholar and critic, to plot my new book in terms of the language and conventions of my profession gave me a welcome sense of impersonality. Art must be impersonal, says T. S. Eliot. I wanted to become impersonal, to vanish from the pages of my text, to be in it only as “the reader” and as the architect of my construct.

So I mapped out my new book... It remains true to my original conception: I focus on my genealogy of fictional prime movers—the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant—still interested in the ways these figures are both marginal and representative and create a historical line. But impersonality, it turned out, was not the best mode for me. As I went along, I found keeping to it hard—it seemed too dry, and perhaps I wasn’t done yet with my own story. The personal seeped back into my project and transformed it to “an odd mixture.”

My idea became to write a memoir of a life of reading. This would still be a study of literature, but it would document something intensely personal as well. It would be nonfiction about fiction, focusing on a key relationship— that between myself as reader and the object of my lifelong affection, novels—and honoring the remarkable literary characters, whom, ironically, I felt I knew and understood as well if not better than I had ever managed to know or understand those inevitably perplexing parents, lovers, children, and friends. Perhaps literary characters, intimately grasped in our reading, become transparent in ways that actual people, even our familiars, never can be. Also I could hope my story would be a means of communicating with other readers. I had been pleased when my books prompted people to speak or write to me about parallels in their own experience, confiding their stories of charismatic mothers or family secrets. Now as I put forward my fifty years experience  of reading, studying, and teaching English literature, surely my account of a reading life would land me in good company—that of people who were not only readers but also readers in the same tradition—people for whom Shakespeare or Dickens were as contemporary as Roberto Bolaño or Jennifer Egan, for whom Becky Sharp was as engaging as Bridget Jones, for whom the fortunes of classical literary characters were as vivid as their own experience, indeed for whom such fortunes constituted part of their experience. In “The Decay of Lying” Oscar Wilde has his protagonist Vivian proclaim, as part of his extolling of Balzac, “One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré. It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh.” I hoped in my memoir of reading to understand the way certain books manage to compel and haunt us in this way.

Excerpted from “Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to Brooklyn” by Wendy W. Fairey. Copyright © 2014 by Wendy W. Fairey. Reprinted by arrangement with Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved.

By Wendy W. Fairey

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