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Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney Hardcover – March 11, 2010
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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. He had no real relationships with women - a couple of possible "engagements" - before he met and married Eileen McKenney. I'm actually a little confused about his attraction - and vise-versa -with McKenney.
West died before he could taste true literary fame. And before he could experience a true home life with wife and child. I wonder how different - and more interesting - McKenney and West's lives would have been if they had lived longer.
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. Eileen died before she was able to completely move away from the 'pretty' mantle bestowed upon her by her mother and become a person in her own right. Ruth never completely recovered from Eileen's death and never enjoyed much success with her infrequent subsequent work.
The level of research and footnoting on this book was first rate. Meade did a phenomenal job digging into lives of her subjects who were interesting and quirky in their own right. It is loaded with a lot of personal information about not only her main subjects, but their friends and associates. She presented an indelible picture of the dominant emerging writers of the era and provided a lot of interesting information regarding how West's contemporaries interacted with one another.
This is a great read for anyone interested in West, his works, and 20th century american literature.
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