On the surface of it, it seems strange that F. Scott Fitzgerald died in an apartment off the Sunset Strip. But on Dec. 21, 1940, the shortest day of the year, Scott suffered a fatal heart attack in the apartment of the British-born gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham, at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. [map], just south of Sunset Blvd.
What makes it strange is that, in his prime years, Scott and his wife Zelda were such a part of the East Coast literary set and were so closely associated with the Lost Generation of American exiles living in Paris during the 1920s — along with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas — that, had his life played out like the plot of his novels, by rights he should have died in Greenwich Village or a Parisian garret.
But he died in Hollywood, in Miss Graham’s apartment — a fact which proved to be awkward, given the tenor of the times, because Scott and Sheilah had been in love and sharing digs for three years, even though Zelda Fitzgerald was still very much alive, though institutionalized with mental illness — and Zelda and Scott were still very much married.
F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood for the same reason many of his East Coast literary colleagues did. He was strapped for cash. In fact, his arrival in 1931 was his second run at success in the Movie Colony. He’d brought Zelda with him in 1927 when had been invited out to work on script for Constance Talmadge. United Artists rejected the script, however, and the Fitzgeralds returned east.
It was then that Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized in a sanitarium outside Asheville, N.C. Scott returned to Hollywood. In 1937, he moved into Villa #1 at the Garden of Allah Hotel. It was there that he worked on the script for the Rita Hayworth vehicle, “Red-Headed Woman.”
“He is famous even in Hollywood, where his meteoric arrivals and departures are discussed in film circles as avidly as they discuss themselves,” wrote Dorothy Spear in a 1933 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.
In “A Taste of Hemlock,” published in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 19, 1965, Joseph Scott III described the Garden of Allah’s role as the epicenter for the movie colony’s cultural elite:
In the 30s and early 40s the Sunset Strip, between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, was where local society and celebrities mingled to dine and quaff. The Clover Club, Moscow Inn, La Boheme, Trocadero, Mocambo and The Players were among the popular haunts…
If the Strip was a lush country for action, the Garden of Allah was its manor house. Thomas Wolfe, in a letter to Fitzgerald, refused to believe that anyone could live in such a place. But the literati did and made the one-time palatial residence of the Russian actress Nazimova headquarters for a generation.
Fitzgerald stayed at the apartment-hotel during his final Hollywood visit. The Garden’s guest list — which included Earnest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Charles Butterworth and O’Hara — was a reprise, in some ways, of the American exiles in Paris during the 20s.
[Budd] Schulberg, who has returned to work in Hollywood after a 25 year absence, said in an exclusive interview on the silver anniversary of Fitzgerald’s death that “the Garden represented probably the last time in this town where, under one collective roof, at one time or another, the greatest writing talents in America could be assembled.”
… Schwab’s drugstore, a block east, was a sort of supply ship for the Garden’s crew. As one reformed habitue said recently: “It gave one a sense of security to know that you could wake up at the Garden about 10 a.m., phone Schwabs and be certain that a bottle of Jack Daniels would arrive at your villa by the time you hung up.”
In 1937, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with Sheilah Graham. Scott writes that, in the spring of 1938, Graham moved Fitzgerald to a remote beach cottage, at 23811 Malibu Road, near the old Malibu Inn. A few months later, he moved again to a guest house at Belly Acres, the estate of Edward Everett Horton on Amestoy St. in Encino, in the Valley.
But by April 1940, Fitzgerald was living in an apartment at 1403 N. Laurel Ave.[map] in West Hollywood, two blocks east of Schwab’s and the Garden of Allah. Sheliah Graham lived a block away on Hayworth. (Among his neighbors in the apartment building was Lucille Ball, who was then keeping company with, but not yet married to, Desi Arnaz.)
Here’s Joseph Scott’s version of Fitzgerald’s last days and hours:
The author of “The Great Gatby” died, at 44, in his girl friend’s West Hollywood apartment on the Saturday before Christmas, 1940 … The shortest day of the year was, as Sheliah Graham remembered Dec. 21, bright and sunny. Although the forecast was cloudy with rain, the mid-afternoon temperature was 78 degrees.
Fitzgerald might have read in the morning papers that the Stanford football team was excused from Rose Bowl practice to go Christmas shopping. He did, about 3 p.m., pick up the latest issue of The Princeton Alumni Weekly and was compiling opposing player rosters for the 1941 Tiger team when the shade of death folded over him…
He attended his last party on Friday, Dec. 13, at the home of the promising young novelist, Nathaniel West (“The Day of the Locust”). Both West, 36, and his wife were to be killed in an auto accident the day after Fitzgerald’s death…
Because of Scott’s unconventional living arrangements — and perhaps due to his wife’s fragile mental state, it appears there may have been an attempt to cover up the exact circumstances of his passing.
A month earlier, he’d suffered a nonfatal heart attack earlier at Schwab’s, reportedly while he was standing in line to buy cigarettes. This may have been the source of a rumor that floated around for years that he expired on the floor of the famous drug store. Another myth — one that lives even yet on the Internet — was that Fitzgerald died in Villa #1 at the Garden of Allah.
Though she is largely forgotten today, Sheliah Graham was a powerhouse gossip maven in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her “Hollywood Today” column was carried in 178 papers, at its peak. By comparison, the columns of her better-remembered rivals, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, were only carried in 100 papers and 68 papers, respectively.
Sheilah Graham wrote a couple of books about her life with Fitzgerald, including Beloved Infidel (with Gerold Frank) in 1958, and The Garden of Allah in 1969. Beloved Infidel was made into a stultifying boring movie in 1959, starring Gregory Peck as Scott and Deborah Kerr as Sheilah Graham.
Zelda Fitzgerald was out of hospital and living at home in Alabama in December 1940 when Scott died. She was soon re-hospitalized in the sanitarium in the North Carolina mountains. She died there in a fire in 1948.