There was nothing in Sheilah Graham’s early life which suggested that by her early 30s she would be able to make or break the careers of Hollywood’s biggest stars. In fact everything about her childhood suggested she would end up poor and destitute.
Born Lily Shiel, in 1904, her father had arrived in Leeds from the Ukraine, setting up his own tailoring business. It should have provided the family with a moderate income, but when Louis Shiel died from tuberculosis, Lily’s life unravelled.
Her mother, also from the Ukraine, was unable to speak much English and, with no income, the Shiels headed for London where Lily was eventually put in an orphanage.
“Few people who grew up against that kind of backdrop in the early 20th century ever escaped poverty, but Sheilah was a pretty incredible woman,” says American author Stewart O’Nan, whose latest novel West of Sunset is a fictionalised account of the last three years of the life of F Scott Fitzgerald when he lived with Graham.
“Her first job as a teenager was in a department store, but she had her sights set on much bigger things and became a music hall dancer. It gave her a taste of the entertainment business and before she left for America she had also begun writing a column for the Daily Express.”
It was that column – The Stage Door Johnnie, by a Chorus Girl – which saw her land a job writing for the New York Mirror and the New York American Journal. Graham – she had changed he name to disguise her Jewish roots – had a taste for the salacious, a perfect attribute for a gossip columnist and she had soon graduated to Hollywood where the film studios were in their heyday.
“This girl from Leeds who had struck out on her own, became one of the film industry’s most influential voices, but it was her relationship with Fitzgerald that I really wanted to explore, because while Hollywood was enjoying its day in the sun, his own literary success was behind him.
“There has been a tendency to paint him during this period as a difficult and out of control drunk, but his life was not that black and white.”
At the time Fitzgerald was trying to make it as a screenwriter and it was on the lots of MGM where he fell in love with Graham. She represented a second chance, but he was wracked with guilt about his wife Zelda, who was in a Californian mental institution, and the relationship was doomed to fail. “Fitzgerald had periods where he was stable, but whenever he came back from seeing Zelda his mood darkened,” says O’Nan. “He couldn’t help feeling responsible and while Graham was deeply in love with him, she came to realise that she couldn’t help him.
“What’s really quite sad is that Fitzgerald was this huge talent and he’d had enormous success in the 1920s with the publication of The Great Gatsby, but just over a decade later he was financially ruined.
“He was mixing with the great and good of Hollywood, but it must have been incredibly difficult for him to be thrust into this world where everyone else seemed to be enjoying success.
“And yet he kept working and a lot of what he produced in the last three years of his life is, I think, the best of all his work.”
Fitzgerald died in 1940, aged just 44 and with his latest novel The Last Tycoon unfinished.
“It was tragic that he died so young because in terms of his writing he had so much more to give,” says O’Nan.
“Had things been different, he and Graham might have made a pretty formidable partnership, but in the end Fitzgerald couldn’t escape his demons.”
n West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan is published by Allen and Unwin, priced £12.99. The book is out now.