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Sheilah Graham, Columnist, 'Beloved Infidel' Author, Dies

November 19, 1988|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Sheilah Graham, the last of the self-styled "Unholy Trio" of gossip columnists who sparked fear in the hearts of actors and their studio bosses alike, has died in a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital.

The one-time mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote of their tortured affair in "Beloved Infidel," a best-selling book made into a 1959 film, was either 80 or 76, according to differing biographical sources. But she was 84, according to her daughter, Wendy Fairey.

A spokesman at E. Earl Smith and Son Funeral Home said Miss Graham, who had lived in Palm Beach for several years, died Thursday at Good Samaritan Hospital. The cause of her death was not announced.

With Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, Miss Graham strode like a Valkyrie across Hollywood for more than three decades, writing the same nonstop chatter she also spoke.

Of the three, she was the youngest and, as she was quick to point out, the prettiest.

In her heyday the one-time chorus girl--born to a destitute mother who had placed her in a London orphanage when she was 6--was a regular columnist in about 180 newspapers in the United States and abroad.

Earned $5,000 a Week

Her column, "Hollywood Today," ran locally in the old Hollywood Citizen-News for years and with other papers brought her an average wage of $5,000 a week.

A heady price for the one-time demonstrator of toothbrushes whom Fitzgerald was to immortalize years later as Kathleen, the female protagonist in his final novel, "The Last Tycoon."

Miss Graham, then Lily Sheil, was only 14 when she was spotted by John Graham Gillam, the first of the three men who would become her husbands. He saw her at Gamage's, a London department store, selling toothbrushes. He became the first of the Henry Higginses in her life, the men who brushed away her Cockney accent and molded her manners.

He was 25 years her senior and encouraged her dramatic aspirations. She became a chorine in the 1927 musical "One Dam Thing After Another," taking the stage name Sheilah Graham. Soon she was not only appearing in plays but writing about things theatrical for the London newspapers.

She was successful and switched her allegiance to journalism, although she herself described her writing abilities as "salable mediocrity."

Entre into the world of letters brought with it admittance to various clubs and even a presentation at court. She came to New York in 1933 and spent two years writing for the old Mirror and Evening Journal.

Contract With Newspaper Group

Soon she was offered a contract by the North American Newspaper Alliance and launched a lasting relationship with that syndicate.

The distance in miles (Gillam had remained in England) and years resulted in divorce and Miss Graham became engaged to the Marquess of Donegal. It was at a Hollywood party given by Robert Benchley to celebrate that engagement that she first met Fitzgerald, by then battling the twin torments of alcoholism and a marriage to a mad woman.

They reportedly fell in love almost instantly and she broke her engagement despite knowing that Fitzgerald was committed to his institutionalized Zelda, as long as his wife was alive.

She claimed she "was never a mistress" in the classic sense of that word but "a woman who loved Scott Fitzgerald for better or worse until he died."

That was on Dec. 21, 1940, when the author of "The Great Gatsby" and "Tender Is the Night" died at her feet in a bedroom in her Hollywood apartment.

Miss Graham sought escape and found it the following year when she was sent to England by her syndicate as a war correspondent. There she met Trevor Cresswell Lawrence Westbrook, the manufacturer of Britain's famed Spitfire fighter planes. They married and had two children before divorcing in 1946.

At war's end Miss Graham expanded her Hollywood horizons to include regular stories for such film magazines as Photoplay and to host her own radio program.

Fitzgerald's brilliant and tragic life was fast becoming the subject of biographers and to answer what she felt were incomplete and unsympathetic word portraits she wrote "Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman." In it she discussed both her own early insecurities and struggles and her 3 1/2 years of anguished romantics with the chronicler of America's Jazz Age.

The book was made into a popular film starring Gregory Peck as Fitzgerald and Deborah Kerr as Miss Graham.

Her other memoirs included "The Rest of the Story," "College of One," in which she dwelt on the Pygmalion-Galatea aspects of her life with Fitzgerald and "Confessions of a Hollywood Columnist."

In 1947 she had become an American citizen and in 1953 she was married, for the third time, to Stanley Wojtkiewicz, a boys camp athletic director. They divorced about three years later.

In a 1974 interview with The Times she looked back on her career and said that she regretted some of the criticism she had leveled at movies and their stars over the years.

But her prime regret was for herself.

"I won't be remembered for my writing. I'll be remembered as Scott's mistress."

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