Sheilah Graham Westbrook
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|Sheilah Graham Westbrook|
15 September 1904
Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, UK
|Died||17 November 1988
Palm Beach, Florida, US
|Pen name||Sheilah Graham|
|Occupation||Gossip columnist, author, actress|
|Period||c. 1924 – 1985|
|Subject||Celebrities, Popular culture, Hollywood|
|Spouse||John Graham Gillam (1925 – June 1937)
Trevor Westbrook (1941–1946)
Stanley Wojtkiewicz (1953–1956)
|Partner||F. Scott Fitzgerald (14 July 1937–1940)|
|Children||Wendy Westbrook Fairey
Robert T. Westbrook
Sheilah Graham Westbrook (15 September 1904 – 17 November 1988) was an English-born American nationally syndicated gossip columnist during Hollywood's "Golden Age", who, with Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, wielded power to make or break careers – prompting her to describe herself as "the last of the unholy trio."
Graham was also known for her relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, which she played a part in immortalising through her autobiographical account of that period, Beloved Infidel, a best-seller made into a film. In her youth, she had been a showgirl, and a freelance writer for Fleet Street, in London and published a few short stories and two novels. These early experiences would converge in a career that spanned nearly four decades as a successful columnist and author.
She was born as Lily Shiel in Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, the youngest of Rebecca (Blashman) and Louis Shiel's eight children (two died). Her parents were Ukrainian Jews. Her father, a tailor who had fled the pogroms, died of tuberculosis on a trip to Berlin while she was still an infant. Her mother and the children moved to a basement flat in a Stepney Green slum in the East End of London. Her mother, who spoke little English, struggled to provide for her children there by cleaning public lavatories. In 1914, her mother was forced by these dire circumstances to place her, at age 6, in the Jews Hospital and Orphanage.
In Recollections of Sheilah Graham, her daughter, Wendy Fairey, relates, "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."
Although Graham, then still known as Lily, had been trained for a career in teaching, when she left the orphanage, her mother was dying of cancer, and so she returned home to care for her.
Marriage to John Graham Gillam
Upon her mother's death, the sixteen-year-old took a job in a department store demonstrating a specialty toothbrush, and moved into her own tiny flat in London's West End. At eighteen, she married John Graham Gillam, whom her daughter describes in the above-cited memoir as "a kindly older man who proved impotent, went bankrupt, and looked the other way when she went out with other men." During this marriage, largely through the tutelage of her husband, she improved her speech and manners. She also enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, changed her name, and became a music hall dancer as a "Cochran's girl".
It was during her time in the British musical theatre that Graham began to write professionally, anecdotally receiving two guineas (£2.10) from the Daily Express for an article entitled, "The Stage Door Johnnies, by a Chorus Girl", which she wrote on a challenge by her husband. While still in Britain, she attained some success as a freelance writer and published two novels, both of which sold poorly.
In 1933, Graham struck out on her own to seek fame and fortune in America, leaving behind her first husband, whom she would divorce in June 1937. Her modest youthful success as a writer enabled her to land jobs as a staff reporter in New York City, working successively for the New York Mirror and the New York Journal American. She energetically pursued scoops, and wrote features with sensational headlines like "Who Cheats Most in Marriage?," a survey comparing the unfaithfulness of various nationalities of men.
In 1935, John Neville Wheeler, head of the North American Newspaper Alliance which was becoming the pre-eminent press service, recruited her to write NANA's syndicated Hollywood column. She describes having "landed in the film capital on two left feet," and needing to temper her brash outspokenness with film industry sensibilities. She also relates in her autobiographical book, A College of One, the dichotomy between dealing with "notoriously ignorant" filmmakers and the discomfort she felt over her own limited education and background in the company of her colleagues in journalism and screenwriters, mentioning Robert Benchley, Marc Connelly, Dorothy Parker and, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom she would soon become an intimate longtime companion.
The Hollywood years and Fitzgerald
Although marked by an inauspicious start, Graham quickly rose to fame through her column, "Hollywood Today," which she wrote daily for over 35 years, interrupted only by serving as a war correspondent during World War II. The column at its peak was carried in 178 papers in 1966, as compared to 100 papers for rival Louella Parsons and 68 for Hedda Hopper.
She divorced from John Gillam in June 1937, to become engaged to the Marquess of Donegall. A month later, she was to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom she relates having immediately fallen in love, and the engagement was broken soon thereafter. Ruthe Stein quotes her as saying, "I'll only be remembered, if I'm remembered at all, because of Scott Fitzgerald".
They shared a home, were constant companions, and Fitzgerald was still married to his wife, Zelda, who was institutionalised in an asylum. Nonetheless, Graham protested her description as his "mistress" in her book, The Rest of the Story, on the basis that she was "a woman who loved Scott Fitzgerald for better or worse until he died". It was, in fact, she who found his body in their living room, where he died of a heart attack in 1940. They had been together only 3½ years, but her daughter reports that Graham "never really got over him." During those three years, Scott outlined a "curriculum" for her, and guided her through it, which she later wrote about in detail in A College of One.
Upon Fitzgerald's death, seeking a respite from the social demands and frantic pace of covering "the film capital of the world," Graham arranged for an assignment as a foreign correspondent in NANA's London bureau. This also afforded her the opportunity to demonstrate her abilities as a serious journalist. Her first major story from the UK was an in-depth interview with George Bernard Shaw, and she later filed another with Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. Her brief respite from Hollywood stretched to the conclusion of the war.
While in her native Britain, she met Trevor Cresswell Lawrence Westbrook, whose company manufactured Spitfire fighter planes for the Royal Air Force. After her return to the United States in late 1941, they married. Graham's two children, Wendy and Robert were born during this marriage, which ended in divorce in 1946, and were given the Westbrook surname. Wendy, however, in her autobiographical book, One of the Family, writes of discovering as an adult that her father was, in fact, British philosopher, A.J. Ayer. Ayer also suggested that Robert's biological father was most probably the Hollywood actor Robert Taylor.
In August 1947, Graham was naturalised as a United States citizen, and in February, 1953, married her third husband, Stanley Wojtkiewicz, whom she was later to describe as a man "of Polish ancestry with an unpronounceable name." They were divorced after about two years of marriage.
Neither her foray into the world of foreign correspondence nor even motherhood prevented Graham from achieving her ambition to reach the top in her career. She demanded a salary of $5,000 a week to resume her column, an amount comparable to that of the stars she was covering. In addition, she was a regular contributor to Photoplay and had her own radio programme, moving to television in 1951, where she delivered commentary and celebrity interviews, a forerunner to the talk show. From 1952 to 1953, Variety, read widely within the entertainment industry, carried a separate gossip column by Graham, which differed in content, style, and attention to precise accuracy from that which she wrote for the general public.
In April, 1969 Graham changed the name and format of her syndicated column, citing waning public interest in Hollywood gossip. Retitled, "Hollywood Everywhere," the scope was broadened to include celebrities and public figures outside of the entertainment world, and would include more diverse commentary.
Later years and death
In 1971, Graham wrote her last syndicated column, and moved to Palm Beach, Florida where she continued for several years to make celebrity guest appearances on television and wrote on a freelance basis for magazines, and authored no fewer than nine more books.
Graham died on 17 November 1988 in Palm Beach of congestive heart failure at the age of 84.
- Gentleman-Crook. A Novel. (1933)
- One other early novel, unknown title, published in Britain before 1935.
- 'Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman (1958, with Gerold Frank)
- Rest of the Story: The Odyssey of a Modern Woman (1964)
- College of One: The Story of How F. Scott Fitzgerald Educated the Woman He Loved (1967)
- Confessions of a Hollywood Columnist (1969)
- The Garden of Allah (Crown, 1969)
- A State of Heat (1972, memoir)
- How to Marry Super Rich: Or, Love, Money and the Morning After (1974)
- For Richer, for Poorer (1975)
- The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thirty-Five Years Later (1976)
- The Late Lily Shiel (1978)
- My Hollywood: A Celebration and a Lament (1984)
- Hollywood Revisited: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration (1985)
|1939||That's Right - You're Wrong||Sheila Graham – Newspaper Columnist||Uncredited|
|1947||Jiggs and Maggie in Society||Herself|
|1950||The Great Jewel Robber||Television Commentator||Uncredited|
|1959||Girls Town||Sister Grace|
|1958||The Bob Cummings Show||Sheliah Graham||1 episode|
|1959||General Electric Theater||Aunt Cecilia||1 episode|
- Fairey, Wendy. "Recollection of Sheilah Graham". Oral History. Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 20 November 2006.
- Westbrook, Robert. "Robert Westbrook: Biography". Website. Retrieved 20 November 2006.
- Krebs, Ablin (19 November 1988). "Sheilah Graham Is Dead at 84; Wrote Hollywood Gossip Column". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 July 2009.