A biography on Nathanael West and his wife Eileen McKenney may on the surface seem to be an odd decision. After all, West and McKenney met in 1939 and were married a few months later and died in a car accident in December 1940. But Marion Meade does a good job of combining both biographies into one compelling read in Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKeneny.
I didn’t know much about West before I began reading this book and I knew nothing about Eileen. I was drawn to the book because of the time period and the cast of supporting characters including F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also finished reading Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties earlier this summer so I thought I would give this book a try.
West, born Nathan Weinstein, grew up in an upper-middle class family in Manhattan. A spoiled child, he frequently had his family bail him out of situations. He flunked out of Tufts University and managed to lie and cheat his way into Brown University. They sponsored his lifestyle. When he wanted to go to France to rub shoulders with the American ex-pats like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, family members paid for him to take an extended vacation. Ultimately the trip turned out to be a disappointment when it turned out that the many of writers were leaving and others seemed to have little interest in an “awestruck boy who had published a few things in his college magazine’. Also complicating things, many of the writers were probably Anti-Semites.
West was also frankly a mess. A a child he would spend time in the park watching people having sex and then startling them before running off. He didn’t have the best relationship with the female sex. While he did have a few girlfriends it seemed that he preferred to visit prostitutes which caused multiple instances of gonorrhea.
Eventually family members helped him get a job managing the Sutton Hotel, a job that he did well. While at the Sutton he began writing and published his first book, The Dream Life of Balso Snell as well as Miss Lonelyhearts, a book about a nameless man assigned to produce a newspaper advice column which sad and pathetic character write for advice. “Unable to find answers, and with his shaky Christianity ridiculed to razor-edged shards by his poisonous editor, he tumbles into alcoholism and a madness fueled by his own spiritual emptiness.”While at the Sutton he provided shelter for several writers including Dashiell Hammett and Edmund Wilson. Hammett who would later go on to write The Thin Man, would ultimately snub West later when when he had his big break in Hollywood.
Like his brother-in-law, humorist S.J. Perelman, West eventually made his way to Hollywood where he developed a fairly successful career at RKO. It was during this time that he wrote the novel that he is most famous for, The Day of the Locust. To this day, Locust is considered one of the best novels about Hollywood.
I read a comment that mentioned that Eileen was famous for being famous. That seemed to be an accurate description. McKenney was born in Indiana, the daughter of a mechanical engineer and a teacher. As a child she moved to Cleveland to be closer to her mother’s family with her parent’s and her sister Ruth. As a child Eileen was frequently refereed to as “the pretty one” while her sister Ruth was “the smart one”. The sterotypes wether completely true or not stuck for life. Ruth and Eileen seemed to live normal childhoods, except that their mother died during the flu pandemic. Their father thinking that the girls needed another mother, married shortly after. Ruth and Eileen never got along with their stepmother.
Ruth, a successful reporter for Ohio Newspapers, moved to New York managed to get a job at the New York Evening Post and later would write for The New Yorker. Eileen joined her sister in New York and they shared an apartment in Greenwich Village. The adventures would inspire Ruth to write a collection stories which became a best-seller, My Sister Eileen.
Eileen meanwhile, managed to marry poorly. She gave birth to a son, but later divorced her husband because of his drinking problem. She had a two-year affair with St. Clair McKelway, an editor at the New Yorker, but that relationship failed to end in marriage when she recognized McKelway exhibited some of the same behaviors as her ex-husband. She, along with her son Tommy, moved to Hollywood where she got a job working for Disney. Shortly thereafter, she met Nat and the rest is history.
There is so much more to this book. One of the things that I found most amusing is that at the time of their death, McKenney was more famous than West. Now, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many that have ever heard of McKenney. I enjoyed the book, though Meade’s use of slang words of the time started to grate on me toward the end of the book. But it was interesting to see how many of the notable authors struggled – both professionally and personally. They weren’t always the nicest people, they had real flaws.