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Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney Hardcover – March 11, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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NATHANAEL WEST--novelist, screenwriter, playwright, devoted outdoorsman--was one of the most gifted and original writers of his generation, a comic artist whose insight into the brutalities of modern life proved prophetic. He is famous for two masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). Seventy years later, The Day of the Locust remains the most penetrating novel ever written about Hollywood.

EILEEN MCKENNEY--accidental muse, literary heroine--was the inspiration for her sister Ruth's humorous stories, My Sister Eileen, which led to stage, film, and television adaptations, including Leonard Bernstein's 1953 musical Wonderful Town. She grew up in Cleveland and moved to Manhattan at 21 in search of romance and adventure. She and her sister lived in a basement apartment in the Village with a street-level window into which men frequently peered.

Husband and wife were intimate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Katharine White, S.J. Perelman, Bennett Cerf, and many of the literary, theatrical, and movie notables of their era. With Lonelyhearts, biographer Marion Meade, whose Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin earned accolades from the Washington Post Book World ("Wonderful") to the San Francisco Chronicle ("Like looking at a photo album while listening to a witty insider reminisce about the images"), restores West and McKenney to their rightful places in the rich cultural tapestry of interwar America.

Amazon Exclusive: An Essay from Marion Meade, Author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

The year 1939 turned out to be golden for Hollywood--Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz--and particularly lucky for the gifted but largely undiscovered novelist and screenwriter Nathanael West. That fall, he met a sassy young Ohioan--Eileen McKenney, the All-American Girl heroine of the best-selling My Sister Eileen stories--and, though allergic to commitment, wound up marrying her a couple of months later.

It was chemistry, like one of those Frank Capra screwball comedies in which wisecracking babes are always falling for handsome heartthrobs but wind up as runaway brides in the arms of Cary Grant. Sadly, no mushy romantic finale awaited Nat and Eileen. Eight months after their wedding, just days before the Broadway premiere of the play based on her sister's stories, they died in a car crash in the middle of the lettuce fields just outside El Centro, California.

Today, West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust are recognized as American masterpieces, and though McKenney is barely remembered, her legacy still lives on; My Sister Eileen became the basis for Leonard Bernstein's enchanting musical Wonderful Town. Nat and Eileen lost their lives far too soon, but with Lonelyhearts, they're back and ready for their close-ups.

(Photo © Jerry Bauer)

A Look Inside: Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

A young Nathanael West, 1917 The glamorous Eileen McKenney Fishing was one of Nat's passions Last known photo of Eileen, 1940

From Publishers Weekly

When their car smashed into another during the waning days of 1940, Nathanael West (né Nathan Weinstein) and his pretty young wife, Eileen McKenney, were largely unknown to the public. At 37, West's four novels, with their pitchfork skewering of the American dream, hadn't sold especially well. West was then better known within Hollywood circles for his potboiler-script writing and doctoring. Eileen became famous a few days after the pair's untimely death with the Broadway opening of My Sister Eileen, written by Ruth McKenney. Meade (Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?)has skillfully concocted a snappy dual biography of this odd couple. He was a promiscuous New Yorker whose sexual orientation could not unreasonably be questioned in light of his fiction. Eileen was an uptight Midwesterner whose probable rape as a youngster left her sexually unresponsive. Thrown into this mix is Ruth McKenney, Eileen's ugly duckling sister, who turned herself into a favorite among New Yorker sophisticates. This is a well-packed re-creation of the lives of star-crossed lovers through an era that would come to be defined in part by Nathanael West—but only well after his death. 32 photos, 1 map. (Mar. 11)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (March 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151011494
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151011490
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,854,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Marion Meade's joint bio of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney (the "Eileen" in "My Sister Eileen") is a bio of two people who lived in interesting times, but somehow never seem to come alive in the book. Meade's book is well-written as she works with the material she has. But because both subjects lived abbreviated lives, dying at age 37 and 28 in a car crash in late 1940, there's not decades of material to look at and interpret. That is particularly true of McKenney, whose major claim to fame is that of the subject of her sister's books. She comes across as beautiful/bossy/tall/blonde/a Communist-sympathiser/a mother at an early age/an office worker, etc. She moved out to Los Angeles from New York (after having moved from Cleveland in her late teens), met Nathanael West, married him, and died early. I honestly don't get the feeling there was much "there" there.

West - born Nathan Weinstein - comes off better in Meade's bio. Born into a fairly wealthy immigrant Jewish family of builders, he spent his early life as the adored first (and only) son, dropping in and out of schools -both secondary and colleges - until a somewhat disreputable application (using another Nathan Weinstein's transcript) got him into Brown. He graduated and went to work in the family business. Most of his adult life was spent writing and he eventually published four novels, the two best known are "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust". He spent his 20's living in New York and Paris, hanging out with the literary geniuses of the time, and working as a hotel manager. He really comes off as sort of a cipher; he blends in to whatever group he's with. Sexually precocious, he contacted gonorrhea several times in his life.
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If modern audiences are aware of Nathanael West at all, it is on the basis of his two well-known novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day Of The Locust which are sometimes included as required reading in 20th century literature classes at colleges and universities. Eileen McKenney's primary claim to fame amounted to being the subject of a series of stories written about her by her sister Ruth McKenney. After her death, a play and a musical and two movies were based on these stories.
This book is primarily a dual biography of Nate and Eileen with a lot about the often depressed and sometimes suicidal writer/professional communist Ruth McKenney thrown in. I found it interesting and liked it very much. The one thing I did not like about the book was the title. I found it misleading as neither McKenney nor West could have been substitutes for characters in any number of madcap movies that were so popular in the late 1930's. Marion Meade wrote an exceptional book, but I did not find anything in it that would imply it was funny or 'screwball'. I can only guess that she was trying to sum up the era and not her subject. The McKenny sisters lives were not particularly joyous after the early death of their mother and the same could be said about the pampered and indulged West whose personal cynicism was echoed in his novels. West's real idea of fun was his fondness for hunting and running up unpaid bills at Brooks Brothers. The level of shared happiness Nate and Eileen had was short-lived. They seemed very different from one another and it is difficult to ascertain if their short lived marriage would result in a long and enduring happiness had they lived. I would have to sum this book up as the ultimate tragedy. West died before he was able to bask in the critical acceptance he craved.
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Format: Hardcover
About two years ago, I Googled Ruth McKenney after accidentally catching a late night airing of the film My Sister Eileen--and have been fascinated ever since by her backstory: her vaguely sketched childhood, the wild success of the book, the resulting play and film/s (including "Wonderful Town")--and the tragic, untimely death of the titular Eileen and her new husband, novelist and screenwriter Nathanael West, just four days before the opening of the successful play. Here, Loneyhearts offers a survey of insights into these two figures, each notable and fascinating for being, in his/her own very different ways, on the periphery of literary success. I was especially fascinated with the trajectories of both West and Ruth McKenney as working writers. West, for years carefully crafting stories with repulsive, distasteful characters with some review success, while (toward the end of his life) writing lucrative B-movies with extraordinary discipline. McKenney, manic (and mentally ill), spewed volumes of homespun, highly fictionalized, (highly edited!), and highly salable "memoir" to support a lavish lifestyle, despite being philosophically committed to the Communist Party. You can't make this stuff up and the book offers a highly readable, accessible dip into fascinating--and almost lost--pieces of literary history.
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It's one of the oddest Venn diagrams in American literature: Nathanael West, the writer of surreal, cynical, apocalyptic novels, meets Eileen McKenney, the charming heroine of her sister's series of comic memoirs. They marry and eight months later are killed when West, a notoriously bad driver, speeds through a stop sign. The West marriage gives Meade a chance to discuss two distinct threads in American literature and to throw in commentary on the couple's circle. The problem is that she doesn't really have much interesting to say about the literary world in which the couple moved. Moreover, while West left behind a large paper trail with which a biographer can work, Eileen McKenney West did not. Meade writes quite scornfully of the "corny" stories Ruth McKenney wrote about growing up in Ohio and living in Greenwich Village, criticizing her work for exaggeration and for existing in a no man's land, neither fact nor fiction; however, Ruth McKenney's stories are the *only* source given for several of the most dramatic stories Meade retells. (Though you have to turn to the footnotes to figure this out.) Eileen West McKenney sounds like a charming and likable woman, but one questions whether there is enough information about her to justify a biography--even half of one.
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