Desert Isle Keeper
Another Side of Paradise: A Novel
In the wake of the resurgence of interest in all things Fitzgerald, Sally Koslow’s Another Side of Paradise digs into a topic that biographical fiction writers have rarely explored; Scott’s three-and-a-half year long extramarital romance with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, one that molded Graham’s later life and saw Scott through his last, afflicted years. In this, Sally Koslow is clever, and she brings forth an alternately soapy, heartbreaking and pointedly observed story.
The novel is careful to do credit to Sheilah’s bright, sharp-minded toughness and her opposing romantic streak. When Fitz met Sheilah in 1937, he was long past the glory days of his Roaring Twenties youth, through which he partied outrageously, uttered many a bon mot and tore it up on both coasts and several continents with his wife, Zelda. The thirties brought crashes both financial and personal – Zelda was in and out of mental institutions as she tried to grapple with her (possibly misdiagnosed) schizophrenia; Fitzgerald, losing popular favor after a couple of theatrical disasters and unable to devote attention to longer novels, was publishing short stories for the slicks to keep his daughter Scottie in boarding school and Zelda carefully cared for. He’s recently signed a contract with Metro and has become a screenplay doctor; his work on retooling various scripts will never earn him screen credit.
He has also just published Tender is The Night after years of struggle with both Zelda and the constant distraction of his own alcoholism; the public’s cool reception toward the novel has plunged him into even deeper despair-ridden fumbling. Sheilah is exactly what he needs at the moment and vice versa; she’s a Trilby to mold for him and she is a champion to assist him.
Graham has her own problems. Hiding her childhood in a British slum, a long period in a home for orphans with her six siblings after her uneducated and poverty-stricken single mother abused and abandoned her, Sheilah’s golden locks were sheared from her head, her baldness marked her as an abandoned child, and her Jewish background (she was born Lily Shiel) would be heavily lied about. In Hollywood she restyles herself as British upper-crust, having clawed her way up from toothbrush saleswoman to article writer to gossip columnist, she sees herself as an important cog in the Hollywood system and, alongside newcomer Hedda Hopper and old hat Louella Parsons, can make or break a career with one unkind word. Her battles with the blunt, insinuative Hedda and the craven Louella for exclusives, scoops and legitimacy reach a fever pitch during the period spanned by the novel. She is engaged to a minor peer and hopes to make a happy marriage when the novel opens. Then she meets Scott at a party, and falls head-over-heels for him. Soon the peer is history, and Sheilah and Scott are sharing long nights and sunny days at the infamous Garden of Allah.
While Fitzgerald helps Graham improve her education by assigning her to a rigorous reading program, she helps nurse him through the ups and downs of life as he’s shuffled through the Hollywood system. Scott wants only to return to novel work, but it’s a struggle just to keep going from day-to-day. He has a tendency to disappear into sullen moods and drunken benders, to capitulate toward Zelda; Sheilah soon finds herself conflicted about her commitment to the man. Scott has one last shot at literary redemption – The Last Tycoon, a novel inspired by the then-recent death of studio wonderkid Irving Thalberg, and in which Fitzgerald bases his heroine on Sheilah. Gaining sobriety and developing into a warm domestic partner, Scott doesn’t know he’s in a race with his own poor health to complete his last magnum opus.
Any author treading through this time in Fitzgerald’s life must deal with the fact that Graham already chronicled their romance in her biography Beloved Infidel, and her son Robert T. Westbrook dipped back into the history between them for an even more honest biographical work, Intimate Lies, which chronicles the relationship with casual honesty. Koslow takes a different approach, and instead firmly plants us within Sheilah’s head and doing excellent work capturing Graham’s perfume-laced arsenic way of writing and giving her a well-rounded sense of existence.
On the other end of the spectrum, this Fitzgerald always seemed to be groping desperately for circumstances he can control while being attracted to nothing but free spirits; his only response to feelings of social and financial inadequacy is to get stinking drunk. The ghost of Zelda hangs over the whole piece but – a necessity, since it’s from Sheilah’s point of view – her influence only echoes in the Fitzgerald we see through Sheilah’s eyes. The author doesn’t spare us his well chronicled drunken boorishness, his physical and emotional abuse, alternated with flashes of lyrical romanticism and begging. The truth sidles plainly up to the reader; without his words, Fitzgerald is every abusive spouse who ever sent a ‘please baby please’ text to their ex.
Another Side of Paradise doesn’t quite manage to be entirely perfect, just like its self-proclaimed unreliable narrator. The narrative is properly dotted with Old Hollywood references, though some of them are couched in too-modern terms (Sheilah’s take on Judy Garland’s studio-mandated starvation, for instance). There’s also something a little sloppy about slotting in a very long trip through Sheilah’s backstory just as she’s met Fitzgerald, though it includes some very effective story work and draws us deeply into Sheilah’s fate; we are made to understand intimately her desire for safety, family, upward mobility, excitement and glamour. The author also does an excellent job meditating on Graham’s conflicted feelings about her concealed Judaism, though there are a few heavy-handed moments thrown in for bad measure, even after having captured her revulsion at the growing fascism around her. Graham was a war correspondent during the Second World War in the UK, an amazingly dangerous position for a Jewish woman, but the book completely skips over her time as a war correspondent and ‘serious journalist’.
Koslow intelligently cherry-picks friends from Graham’s thickly-packed life; her friendship with Dorothy Parker in particular gets a lot of page time, and Koslow gets Parker just right too. On the other hand, her friendship with Robert Taylor is portrayed as an abortive affair, even though it’s been heavily presumed that he fathered her son (Koslow does feel comfortable making a completely impossible assertion about Graham’s daughter Wendy’s birth, however).
Sally Koslow has generally written an excellent novel about the joys and difficulties of trying to make your way in the pre-WWII world when you lack means and motives to socially advance. It celebrates Graham for all of the good things and bad things she brought into the world, and recognizes that even though she deeply loved Scott, not even love and the lure of true love can stop a person fixed on self-destruction.
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