F. Scott Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940, in his girlfriend’s apartment two blocks west of the Garden of Allah, which is where he’d met Sheilah Graham three years earlier. He was 44 years old. His life’s work included a number of short stories as well as four novels, including The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, it’s the book he’s most remembered for today.
He and his wife Zelda had become infamous in the States and in France for their excesses and raucous living. His dying at Sheilah’s was a bit awkward given the tenor of the times, because he was still married to Zelda. She was mentally ill and often had to be institutionalized.
In fact, Zelda’s troubles first presented themselves after she and Scott returned home from his previous stay in the Hollywood, in 1927. The Fitzgeralds’ made a big impression in the Colony with their outrageous behavior, particularly the well-publicized drunken demolition of their rooms at the Ambassador Hotel.
“He is famous even in Hollywood,” wrote Dorothy Spearc in the Saturday Evening Post back then. “His meteoric arrivals and departures are discussed in film circles as avidly as they discuss themselves.” Scott had been hired to work on a script for Constance Talmadge, a big star of the silent era. But United Artists rejected the script, and Scott and Zelda returned east. It was around that time that Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In July 1937, a decade after his first run at Hollywood, Fitzgerald had returned. He was under contract with MGM – and this time he was alone. He checked into the Garden of Allah Hotel and took Villa 1, a single-story unit situated at the front of the property, at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Havenhurst Drive.
Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, Scott’s old friends, invited him to Bob’s villa for cocktails. He dropped by but declined the drink. It was surprising because he was known as a rapacious drinker and, too often, a mean drunk. They learned that Scott had recently realized what all his friends knew. He couldn’t handle alcohol.
He hadn’t been living at the Garden long when he met Sheilah Graham, a gossip columnist with a nationwide column. It was at a party at Robert Benchley’s bungalow – a celebration of her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall. Within just a few weeks her engagement was off, and Scott and Sheilah were an item.
Other than the titles of his books, Sheilah knew very little about Scott, and he knew nothing about her – despite the fact that she had a larger readership than her better known competitors, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Sheilah’s “Hollywood Today” column was carried in 178 papers at its peak. Parsons and Hopper were syndicated in 100 papers and 68 papers, respectively.
Scott spent nine months at the Garden, from July 1937 to October 1938. “But it was a hectic nine months,” Sheilah wrote later, “and it was possibly the worst place for him. It was the wrong atmosphere for a man who was trying to give up liquor and whose future in Hollywood depended on it. There was always the sound of merriment coming from Benchley’s bungalow, and it must have been hard for Scott to refuse the drinks that were pressed on one by an eager host who could not imagine anyone not wanting a drink.”
The two new lovers took each other under wing during those first months. She revealed that despite her polish and apparent sophistication, she’d grown up in poverty in England and felt insecure about her lack of education. He offered to help and gave her a crash course in arts, culture and literature that they called the “College of One.” For her part, Sheilah came to understand the immensity of his struggle with alcohol. In the spring of 1938, she moved him away from the Garden and its many temptations into a remote beach cottage, at 23811 Malibu Road, near the Malibu Inn. But the desolate location proved to be too remote. A few months later, they moved again to a guest house at Belleigh Acres, Edward Everett Horton’s ranch in Encino.
By April 1940 they’d moved back to Hollywood. Fitzgerald took an apartment at 1403 N. Laurel Ave.[map]. Sheliah Graham found a place that was a discreet block away, at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. [map]. They shared a housekeeper and dined together every night.
Scott had fainted one night when they were leaving a movie premiere in Hollywood. He also had mild heart attack standing in line at Schwab’s in November 1940. On Friday, December 13, he went to a party at the home of Nathaniel West, the young author of Day of the Locust. In a tragic coincidence Nathaniel West and his wife Eileen McKenney were killed in a car accident nine days later. In the sort of tragic irony Fitzgerald might have used as a plot point, he died on the day before the Wests’ accident.
Sheila remembered December 21 as clear and sunny despite a forecast of rain. Scott suffered a fatal heart attack in her living room at about three that afternoon. He’d been studying the roster for the Princeton Tigers, the football team at his alma mater.
On the day Scott died, Zelda Fitzgerald was home from the hospital in Alabama. It didn’t last. She was re-institutionalized and eventually ended up in a sanitarium outside Asheville in the North Carolina mountains. She was killed in a fire there in 1948.
When the news first circulated that Scott had died, the particulars had changed. Instead of dying at Sheilah’s, he succumbed at Schwab’s – a story still repeated occasionally today. There’s also an enduring myth that Scott died in Villa #1 at the Garden of Allah.
Sheilah set the record straight in two books about her life with Scott, Beloved Infidel (with Gerold Frank) in 1958, and The Garden of Allah in 1969. The movie version of Beloved Infidel, starring Gregory Peck as Scott and Deborah Kerr as Sheilah, was filming on a movie set in Hollywood in 1959 at around the time that the real Garden of Allah was being demolished.