Americans don’t have many unbending customs, but one of them is that if your mother had something to do with Hollywood, you have to write a rueful book about her. Wendy Fairey’s mother was Sheilah Graham, the beautiful and , formidable syndicated columnist who in the 1940s and ’50s was one of gossip’s Holy Hollywood Trinity, along with Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Graham seems to have been relatively scrupulous about the facts in her column, but she made up most of the details about her life. Born Lily Shiel, poor and Jewish, in the East End of London and raised in an orphanage, she repudiated and concealed everything, shaving about a dozen years off her age in the process. While forging herself, she went through three husbands and numerous lovers, two of whom were stellar. One was F. Scott Fitzgerald during the last three years of his life, when he wrote for the movies and struggled to quit drinking. The other was the vivacious British philosopher A.J. ”Freddie” Ayer (Language, Truth and Logic), who is the who of the whodunit aspect of this book, since he turns out to have been Fairey’s real father.
Graham never told her daughter, who grew up resigned to a father distant in every sense, a stolid British businessman named Trevor Westbrook, Graham’s second husband, who boasted that he never read a book. The agile logical- positivist and logical hedonist Ayer, who was devoted to good food and conversation and boasted that he had slept with 150 women, had seemed to be just a family friend. But soon after her mother’s death at 84 in 1988, Fairey got a hint from Ayer’s ex-wife. Fairey then turned detective, comparing photographs of Ayer with her own mirrored image, sorting out the dates of her mother’s adventures between Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 and Fairey’s birth in 1942. Eventually she got a letter from Ayer, then 78 and ailing but still cheerful, confirming her suspicion with characteristic briskness.
The crowd of three fathers — spiritual (Fitzgerald), nominal (Westbrook), and actual (Ayer) — and two mothers — the unmentionable Lily and the unquenchable Sheilah — evidently caused Fairey some confusion and pain. But it looks as if she was dealt a pretty good hand. Her mother was overbearing enough to aggravate the usual mother-daughter dilemmas, but she was also smart and skeptical enough to give Fairey ”an unwaveringly clear sense of Hollywood phoniness,” which was a priceless heirloom. The revered ghost of Fitzgerald, who had been the love of Graham’s impetuous life (and the subject of her 1958 book about their affair, Beloved Infidel), represented for Fairey literature and settled values (she became a professor of English literature). Westbrook’s miserly, eccentric life in an English country house was another far cry from Hollywood ostentation. And though she got to know Freddie Ayer as a father only at the end of his life (he died in 1989), as a family friend he had offered a glimpse of an urbane British literary world in which intellect and pleasure were inseparable. And her mother’s intrigues with these men formed, as she remarks, a tale of ”deception and perception” worthy of Dickens or Henry James.
The trouble is that so much of One of the Family reads less like a 19th-century novel than a monologue on a psychiatrist’s couch, complete with boring dreams. Fairey is too preoccupied with getting in touch with her feelings and staying there to give the story the panache it deserves. Since one unconventional parent or the other appears on almost every page, the book isn’t dull, but they often have to be discerned through a fog of resentment. Sheilah Graham and Freddie Ayer were witty and self-absorbed; unfortunately they seem to have passed on only one of these characteristics to their daughter, and not the one that readers would prefer.