Reversal of fortune

A short, ill-fated marriage and the fickleness of fame

By Floyd Skloot
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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“Lonelyhearts’’ is the dual biography of a couple who were married for just eight months following a whirlwind courtship, then died together in a car crash in late 1940. The story it tells is therefore less about their lives together than about the separate, fateful journeys that brought them into each other’s worlds.

Nathanael West, 37 at the time of his death, was the author of four poorly reviewed short novels, none of which sold well. As biographer Marion Meade notes, “The public was not just apathetic’’ about West’s work, filled as it was with emotionally and physically damaged characters haunting society’s edges, “but some reviewers actually went out of their way to excoriate his defenders.’’ West was living in Hollywood and beginning to make his way as a screenwriter, but by almost any measure he was an artistic flop.

Born Nathan Weinstein, the son of a New York real estate developer, West was a high school dropout who gained admittance to Ivy League universities by forging transcripts, spent years managing a string of New York hotels, fancied himself an outdoorsman, and worked haphazardly to compose his dark, odd fiction.

Ohio-born Eileen McKenney, 10 years West’s junior, was famous for being famous. Her older sister Ruth had published the best-selling collection of sketches, “My Sister Eileen,’’ in 1938. These pieces had been published in The New Yorker, and at the time of Eileen’s death a play based on the book was about to open on Broadway.

Time, however, reversed the couple’s reputations. West, whose novels were gathered in a 1997 Library of America volume, has become a canonical figure in our literary culture, his vision regarded as ahead of its time. Meade sums up West’s thematic core this way: “since the universe is essentially rigged against us, efforts to improve this lousy world are futile and the only intelligent response is laughter.’’ Foreseeing the tenor of late 20th- and early 21st-century experience, he wrote about “the breakdown of the American Success Dream.’’ Meanwhile, Eileen is remembered, if at all, only to the extent that her sister’s long out-of-print novel (and its sequels and Broadway incarnations, including the musical “Wonderful Town’’) remain in anyone’s memory.

In essence, “Lonelyhearts’’ is a deeply ironic biography about fame and the fickle nature of literary and cultural success. West, disgusted by what he perceived as the “American Dream hocus-pocus,’’ could never stop pursuing his dream of success as a novelist even as he excoriated that very pursuit. When he failed, he moved further into dreamland by writing for the movies, still viewing the quest as absurd while being tormented by its frustration. Dying young, he achieved the literary immortality he yearned for. McKenney, memorialized in life as a charming, pretty, ditzy kid sister, was actually a woman burdened by “the sorrow of her mother’s death’’ when Eileen was young, by “the scheming stepmother’s rock-hard heart, the golf-obsessed father’s impatient belittling,’’ and by a rape and failed first marriage. So she was known widely for what she was not, or not known for what she was, and spent her brief life in search of an authentic sense of self. A “screwball world,’’ indeed.

As a biographer, Meade has proven herself to be superb at capturing the gap between her subjects’ image and reality, as in her accounts of Dorothy Parker, Buster Keaton, and Woody Allen. She is also adept at seeing individuals within the framework of their times, as she did in “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties’’ (2004). Some of the strongest material in “Lonelyhearts’’ concerns life during the Great Depression, the context in which West’s novels and McKenna’s sanitized portrait were written, and particularly the Hollywood of this era, a place West found to be “thick with characters in search of a comic novelist.’’

The book focuses far more on West than McKenna, and it takes 270 pages for them to meet. It also reveals him as a character who cheated, plagiarized (“roughly 20 percent’’ of West’s novel “A Cool Million’’ was lifted from Horatio Alger’s published work), lied and did so without concern.

Over and over, Meade tells readers that West was “a thoroughly incompetent driver.’’ Eileen demanded that he often let her do the driving, but “he would make her stop a block short of their destination and switch places with him.’’ That is a typical Nathanael West moment, both wacky and harsh. Readers know what is coming as the couple hurtles toward a crossroad near the California-Mexico border in December of 1940, with West behind the wheel, but we are still shocked at the entirely avoidable end. That “Lonelyhearts’’ tells a wackily harsh story should not be surprising to anyone familiar with West’s novels.

Floyd Skloot’s recent books include the memoir “The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life’’ and the poetry collection “The Snow’s Music.’’ His “Selected Poems: 1970-2005’’ won a Pacific NW Book Award last year.

LONELYHEARTS: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

By Marion Meade

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 392 pp., illustrated, $28