How Lily Shiel transformed herself into Sheilah Graham is a story my mother recounted in no less than eight published works of autobiography. She wrote about her three-and-a-half year romance with F. Scott Fitzgerald, which tragically ended when he died in her living room of a heart attack a few days before Christmas 1940. She wrote about her childhood—its poverty and her eight years, aged six to fourteen, in an East End of London orphanage. She wrote about her thirty-five years, stretching from the late '30s into the '70s, as one of “the unholy trio” of Hollywood columnists along with Hedda Hopper and Louella O. Parsons. She did not write about being Jewish.
September 15, 2004, the centennial of my mother's birth, coincided with this year's Rosh Hashanah. To note this is to link her with a heritage that for much of her life she discreetly concealed. She had emerged from her years in the orphanage with contradictory qualities of courage and secrecy, optimism and wariness that would guide her to the end of her life. Few of her colleagues or even her friends knew of her Jewish origins, though I am certain she was proud of her past as well as ashamed of it. I like to think it would have pleased her to be recollected in these pages, to be given a place in the archives of accomplished Jewish women.
As one of my mother's two children born some years after F. Scott Fitzgerald died, I came to know her story in pieces and over time. When I look back to my own childhood, I marvel at how lacking I was in curiosity about her earlier life. She was a single parent (having divorced our almost incidental father early on), working to stay at the top of her profession and to raise me and my younger brother Robert. We lived in an elegant Spanish style house in Beverly Hills, with pets and bicycles and a ping-pong table on the back veranda. I remember the orderly life of the house, the reassuring points of reference in the people who worked there: my mother, whom I would always seek out after school, never afraid to interrupt her on my way out to play in the high wall-enclosed back yard; the housekeeper in the kitchen, making pastry dough or ironing laundry; the secretary typing out my mother's column in the bookcase-lined den, the Filipino gardener working shirtless among the hibiscus. This was my early life and all the past I ever knew. An avocado tree in the backyard. Family friends. A series of cherished dogs. Then Malibu in the summers for children, dogs, and servants. And our mother, our only relative, the prime mover of it all.
I learned of my mother's Dickensian childhood as well as her relationship with Fitzgerald only when I was a teenager and she published the first of her books, Beloved Infidel (1957), which shared its title with a poem Fitzgerald had written for her. The movie version, starring Gregory Peck as Fitzgerald and Deborah Kerr as my mother, appeared two years later. Neither the book nor the movie made any mention of my mother's five older siblings or of the fact of her family being Jewish. She had to tell Robert and me about her family in 1959, because one of her brothers, upset at the family's erasure from her history, revealed the “real Sheilah Graham story” to a London tabloid. I was sixteen. Raised Episcopalian (indeed, one of the few children left in my Beverly Hills public school on Jewish holidays), I was intrigued to find myself, as I put it, “half Jewish,” and went around informing my friends. My mother begged me to show some discretion, though in her later years she gradually became more open, at least among her close friends, about her background.
Once we children knew about the members of her family, she relished talking to us about them. She also renewed contact with her older sisters—“the thin sister” and “the fat sister,” she dubbed them, who lived two miles from one another in Brighton, England. Beginning in 1960, Robert and I were taken to visit them, but since these sisters were not on speaking terms with one another, we would have lunch with one and tea with the other. My mother loved them and loved their Jewish cooking. By then, two of her brothers were dead, and she wouldn't see the one living brother, who had betrayed her to the press.
Strangely, I never knew the names of my mother's parents until 1988, right after she died, though I had seen their pictures. I found her birth certificate among her papers, noting that Lily Shiel had been born on September 15, 1904 in Leeds England, to Louis and Rebecca Shiel. They were recent immigrants from the Ukraine, having escaped the pogroms. My mother cherished the one photograph she had of her father, a dignified-looking tailor, whose death when she was a baby left his family impoverished. He died on a trip to Berlin and is buried there in the Jewish cemetery. My mother visited his grave in the early 1930s and told us about the German children who came around throwing stones and shouting “Juden, Juden.”
The family moved to Stepney Green in the East End of London, where my grandmother, who hardly spoke English, worked cleaning the public lavatories. As was not uncommon among families in such straightened circumstances, she put my mother and her next youngest child, Morris, in an orphanage—the name of which I discovered after my mother's death was the Jews Hospital and Orphan Asylum—in the neighborhood of Norwood. Entering this institution at age six, my mother had her golden hair shaved to the scalp as a precaution against lice. To the end of her life she was haunted by the degradation of this experience. Eight years later when she “graduated,” she had established herself as Norwood's “head girl:” captain of the cricket team and recipient of many prizes, including both the Hebrew prize and a prize for reciting a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The orphanage wanted her to try for a scholarship to become a teacher, but her mother, who was by then dying of stomach cancer, needed her at home.
It is revealing of the times that all six Shiel children adopted unmistakably “English” names: Heiman became Henry, Esther changed to Iris, Sarah became Sally, Meyer—the “bad” brother who had taken my mother on his thieving expeditions when she was small—took the name of Jack, Morris became Maurice, the owner of a successful ladies' clothing shop.
And Lily? After her mother's death when she was sixteen, my mother left home to move into her own little flat in London's West End. She had a job in a department store demonstrating a toothbrush that cleaned only the backs of the teeth. When the toothbrush company folded, she looked up one of the many gentlemen who had left their cards. At eighteen, she married John Graham Gillam, a kindly older man who proved impotent, went bankrupt, and looked the other way when she went out with other men, but under whose Pygmalionesque tutelage she improved her speech and manners, enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and changed her name. She became a chorus girl, one of Cochran's Young Ladies, the English equivalent of the Ziegfield Girls.
My mother started writing professionally during her period on the stage. She came home to find her husband trying to write an article for the newspapers about Easter eggs. When she suggested he might be wasting his time, he challenged her to think of a better topic. She promptly sat down with a pencil and yellow notepad and wrote “The Stage Door Johnnies by a Chorus Girl.” The Daily Express ran it and paid her two guineas.
By the time she left England in 1933 to try her fortune in America, my mother had earned a modest reputation as a freelance journalist. She had also written two unsuccessful novels, a credential that allowed her to bluff her way into jobs as a New York staff reporter, getting scoops and writing eye-catching features such as “Who Cheats Most in Marriage?” a breezy inventory of the men of Western nations. Then, in 1936, she landed the opportunity to go to Hollywood as a nationally syndicated columnist, a position she held for over 35 years.
Because this stretch of her life, the Fitzgerald and Hollywood years, is well documented, I will note only what seems salient for this remembrance. One day in 1938 Fitzgerald found my mother struggling to read the first volume of Proust. He took her in hand and drew up a two-year plan of study, the F. Scott Fitzgerald “College of One.” My mother spent hours each day reading books and discussing them with her teacher. The curriculum had history in it—the aim was to work up to reading Spengler—and art and music, but above all it was the study and appreciation of literature. Keats, Shelley, Swinburne, T.S. Eliot—Fitzgerald and my mother recited the poems together and pretended to be famous characters from novels by Dickens and Thackeray and Tolstoy.
It is the story of the education, along with a few other of her shared memories of little things, that have brought my mother and Fitzgerald together alive for me: Fitzgerald looking at her “with such love,” with his head cocked to one side, the two of them lying at opposite ends of a sofa with their shoes and socks off and massaging one another's toes, the two of them at Malibu scooping into buckets the tiny fish called grunion that come onto the beach at night to spawn.
My mother told Fitzgerald the truth about herself—not just about the poverty and the orphanage, but also her Jewishness. But it's as much a part of the story that Fitzgerald abused her trust as that he had won it. As she put it in her book College of One (1966), during his great drinking binge of 1939, he screamed “all the secrets of [her] humble beginnings” to the nurse taking care of him. That same day, my mother and Fitzgerald grappled over his gun, and she made the pronouncement of which I think she was rather proud, “Take it and shoot yourself, you son of a bitch. I didn't pull myself out of the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you.” What Fitzgerald had screamed to the nurse, my mother eventually told me, though she never brought herself to write it in any of her books, was that she was a Jew.
She forgave him, he stopped drinking, and they had a final deeply calm year, immersed in the education project, before he died. Dying in my mother's living room, twenty-one months before my birth, his death made way for me—for surely there would have been no me if he had lived, and he hovered over our lives as our own personal guardian angel and, strangely, our ghostly progenitor. I read the books he had bought for the College of One and absorbed his politics, which had converted our mother from a conservative to a liberal “in a day.” One thing she did not pass on was his anti-Semitism (or her own). I am happy to say that increasingly over the years, she seemed at peace with her heritage. She was enormously enthusiastic about Israel, which she first visited in the 1970s. In London, she took me to see where she had lived in the still-Jewish neighborhood of Stepney Green, and in New York we went down to the Lower East Side to eat blintzes. In her eighties, my mother was invited to a seder, though I don't think her hosts knew she was Jewish. I saw her when she returned from the event, and she was indignant. “They got the prayers all wrong,” she said. And then, with a swell of pride in her good memory, she recited them correctly.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Sheilah Graham, 1904 - 1988." (Viewed on July 31, 2021) <https://jwa.org/weremember/graham-sheilah>.