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. Continue reading