The Legends of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

On account of his superlative, highly unique fiction, we tend to regard Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein, 1903-1940) as a literary figure as opposed to a theatrical or show biz one, but his fascinating and short life embraced both worlds.

A desultory and lazy student, West got into Brown University by using the academic transcript of his cousin (also named Nathan Weinstein) after he had flunked out of Tufts (which he’d got into by forging a better high school transcript). While at Brown he became the best friend of S.J. Perelman, who married West’s sister Laura. West lived in Paris in the ’20s for a spell, where he wrote the surrealist novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell, which was eventually published in 1931. Like all of West’s fiction, it was scarcely read during his own lifetime, and lambasted by critics, realism being the favored American aesthetic of the day. By this time, his brother-in-law Perelman was writing scripts for the Marx Brothers in Hollywood.

In 1933, West published Miss Lonelyhearts, an incredibly gritty, expressionist work about an alcoholic journalist who writes an advice column for a newspaper and spirals towards doom with his increasingly reckless behavior. Joseph Moncure March is one of the few American writers of his own time I’d compare this kind of thing to, so stubbornly downbeat and cynical, and yet so musical, summoning poetry from the tawdry, beauty from ugliness. Implausibly it was adapted into a Hollywood movie Advice to the Lovelorn (1933) starring Lee Tracy, though with all the bumps and warts planed off.

In 1934 he cowrote a play with Perelman called Even Stephen which remains unproduced to this day, and published his third novel A Cool Million, a subversion of the Horatio Alger idea more akin in spirit to Voltaire’s Candide. This kind of ruthless criticism of American optimism has rarely (I won’t say never) been in favor with either the public or producers who acquire literary properties and A Cool Million remains obscure.

In 1936, West became a Hollywood screenwriter, a position he held for the rest of his life, contributing to just over a dozen pictures, none of which have exactly proved immortal: Ticket to Paradise (1936), Follow Your Heart (1936), The President’s Mystery (1936), Rhythm in the Clouds (1937), It Could Happen to You (1937), Born to Be Wild (1938), Five Came Back (1939, probably the best known), I Stole a Million (1940), Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), The Spirit of Culver (1940), Men Against the Sky (1940), Let’s Make Music (1940), and Before the Fact (1940).

In 1939 came his crowning achievement Day of the Locust, a cynical, satirical and surreal tapestry depicting the sordid underbelly of Hollywood as he saw it. We have the edition of this book and Miss Lonelyhearts which you see pictured above. Almost everyone I know does.

The same year West met and married Eileen McKenney, a pen and ink artist at Walt Disney studios who had become famous as a character in a series of short stories in The New Yorker by her sister Ruth, published in book form as My Sister Eileen (1938). If you know the book or its sequels and various adaptations, then you know Eileen to have been the same loose cannon type as West. Their bliss, and I’m sure it was that, was doomed to be short-lived.

The Wests made an easy pair with the Perelmans but they also knew and had a lot in common with another couple: the Fitzgeralds. Like West, F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time in Paris, worked expressionistic elements into his fiction, was fond of the bottle, had a brilliant and erratic wife (though they separated towards the end), and later wrote for and about Hollywood (viz. The Last Tycoon).

Fitzgerald died suddenly of a heart attack in late 1940, and the Wests returned from a vacation in Mexico to attend his funeral as well as the premier of the Broadway adaptation of My Sister Eileen. But on the way, and not out of character, Nathanael West ran a stop sign, colliding with another car, and the Wests were both killed. Their fame, fortunately, would outlive them.

My Sister Eileen, about Ruth and Eileen’s adventures in Greenwich Village, played on Broadway for three years and was made into a 1942 movie starring Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair. Ruth then wrote a script based on the same stories which became the 1945 film Margie starring Jeanne Crain. In 1953, the Broadway musical Wonderful Town, based on My Sister Eileen premiered, with a book by Comden and Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, and starring Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams. In 1955 there was another screen version of My Sister Eileen with Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse. In 1960 there came a shortlived TV sitcom based on the book and play, starring Elaine Stritch and Shirley Bonne. Truth to tell, I think it still has legs as a sitcom (pun accidental).

Meanwhile, in 1957 Howard Teichmann adapted West’s Miss Lonelyhearts into a short-lived Broadway play. The following year, Montgomery Clift (who shared a birthday with West) starred in a Hollywood version much closer in some ways to the original novel. In 1983 Eric Roberts starred in a TV movie version that was closer still.

Best of all, John Schlesinger’s 1975 screen adaptation of The Day of the Locust, with Karen Black, Donald Sutherland, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith (as an old vaudevillian), Geraldine Page, Richard Dysart, Bo Hopkins, Billy Barty, and perhaps best and most memorable of all, Jackie Earle Haley in a turn that eclipses his other one that same year in The Bad News Bears for its weirdness, Schlesinger’s film does justice to West’s visions of freak show grotesquerie and its hellish, nightmarish, apocalyptic climax. In 1975 I’d have said “there’s no way to prepare you”. Nowadays I’d say just look out the window.

In 2010 the great Marion Meade, biographer of Buster Keaton, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, Victoria Woodhull, and Madame Blavatsky added Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney to her wonderful oeuvre. As with everyone else we’ve written about in this post, one should really own ALL of her books.