The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney: A ‘Suspicious’ Literary Biography

“I’m very suspicious of literary biographies,” novelist and social critic J.G. Ballard observed in a 1983 interview, “I don’t believe a word of most biographies that I read. Take yourself, be honest: could you imagine someone living, say, 30 years after our death creating even the beginnings of an accurate report about what it is like to be inside your head, live your life? They couldn’t do it, could they?” Indeed, outside of advancing academic understanding of an author by exploring the human condition and the society in which the writer lived – the most valuable and useful role and function of any probing chronicle – the need for personal biographies of significant figures in the arts is dubious, at best.

Over the last 20 years I must have studied a dozen biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, books that can handily be broken down into categories and sub-categories: Fitzgerald’s life and work in Hollywood (way too many of those), his time as an expatriate in Europe in the ’20s, tomes that poke and pry around Scott’s romances and their influence on his prose, explorations of the contentious love/hate relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway (a topic of research that has spawned a virtual cottage industry of study) and on and on ad nauseam.

Despite all those hagiographies and deconstructions, however, I learned more about the author of The Great Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli) and Fitzgerald’s own The Crack Up than I did from any gossip laden post-mortem examination. Consider the following passage from the titular essay The Crack Up (1936) wherein a nauseatingly self-pitying Fitzgerald, convinced that he has “cracked”, is being consoled by a friend who finds herself “cast in the usually unappealing role of Job’s comforter”:

“Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen — ” she said (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks – really thinks.) So she said: “Listen: Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you – suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes – your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that cracked – it’s the Grand Canyon.”

“Baby et up all her Spinoza?”

With just one terse, smug, and dismissive comment (not to mention the gall of comparing his own troubles to those of Job), Fitzgerald reveals more about his arrogance, obnoxiousness, and even his misogyny (I doubt he would’ve uttered such a quip to Hemingway’s face) than all of those aforementioned biographies combined.

The latest unnecessary literary biography to come down the pike is Marion Meade’s inappropriately titled Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, a clumsy and awkward attempt to weave parallels between the darkly comic life of Nathaniel von Wallenstein Weinstein (nee Nathanael West), author of the surrealist novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939) and the product of a wealthy New York family, and Eileen McKenney, a spoiled, not-so-bright WASP from staid and suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Writing in the Sacramento Book Review, Angela Tate hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head when she observed: “For all that the title of Lonelyhearts proclaims, this dual biography of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney will be a description of their ‘screwball’ life, Meade actually paints a picture of two bleak lives brightened momentarily by a short-lived marriage … Though West and McKenney shared a desire for larger-than-life existence, their backgrounds couldn’t have been more disparate.”

West and McKenney (the subject of her sister Ruth McKenney’s sketches for the New Yorker, published as My Sister Eileen in 1938 and later a major success on stage and screen) met at a Los Angeles dinner party in October 1939, married on 19 April 1940, and perished together in a car crash in El Centro, California, on the afternoon of 22 December 1940, one day after the death of West’s friend and idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Such a brief, whirlwind romance is hardly on par with the great love stories of literary history, but Meade would have us believe otherwise and in the end she fails as spectacularly as West’s short-lived career as a writer. The press materials for Lonelyhearts certainly do not help Meade’s misguided cause, acknowledging that “many critical studies of West’s work have been published since his death”, adding that Lonelyhearts is “the only biography in decades, and the first to explore his and Eileen’s lives together … (a) long-overdue book (that) delivers a fuller understanding of West and his boundless talent.”

It is unfathomable how any serious student of West’s often-magnificent talent could believe that a document of his 14-month, rather uneventful marriage (except for that horrific smash-up on Route 80 near the Mexico border, referenced briefly in J.G. Ballard’s disturbing novel Crash) can be considered “long overdue”. Talk about hubris.

In what remains the definitive biographical work, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1970), Professor Jay Martin devotes 29 pages to the courtship and marriage of West and McKenney, beginning with chapter 18 on page 370 (First Edition) and ending at the conclusion of Martin’s exhaustively-researched narrative on page 399 (Martin also devotes nine pages to events leading up to the fatal accident in the opening chapter of the book, titled December 22, 1940, for a total of 38 pages committed to Nat and Eileen).

Meade’s Loneyhearts dedicates 44 pages to the West/McKenney relationship; the lovebirds meet in page 270 and it all ends with the squeal of rubber on asphalt and the crunch of glass and steel on a lonely highway on page 314. Meade has simply appended six pages to Jay Martin’s authoritative text and that is considered “long-overdue”?

The additional biographical material on sisters Ruth and Eileen McKenney reveals two wholly less-than-admirable characters; the cruel manner in which the young ladies treat their well-intentioned stepmother after the death of their birth mother, as one example, is callous and reprehensible, a stone perhaps better left unturned if Meade expected the reader to find the McKenney girls sympathetic; the unexpected result is a churning of the stomach and a lack of desire to learn anything more about these two abhorrent, spoiled, self-centered siblings.

Further, whether Lonelyhearts “delivers a fuller understanding of West and his boundless talent” depends on whether one is familiar with Jay Martin’s book or the Library of America’s collection of West’s novels and other writings (capably edited by Sacvan Bercovitch) or outstanding collections of academic essays such as Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the Cheated, edited by David Madden (Everett/Edwards, 1973) or the 2005 Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (Chelsea House) to name a few.

With Lonelyhearts, Marion Meade brings absolutely nothing new to an already-crowded table, despite the bold jacket copy asserting that the biographer (whose previous subjects include Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, and Buster Keaton) “restores West and McKenney to their rightful places in the rich cultural tapestry of interwar America.” Somewhere in the afterlife West is having a good chuckle at such grotesque hyperbole.

“I once tried to work seriously at my craft but was absolutely unable to make even the beginning of a living,” West lamented to editor Edmund Wilson in a letter from Hollywood composed in June 1939. “At the end of three years and two books I had made the total of $780.00 gross. So it wasn’t a matter of making a sacrifice, which I was willing enough to make and would still be willing, but just a clear-cut impossibility. I seem to have no market whatsoever and while many people whose opinion I respect are full of sincere praise, the book reviewers disagree, even going so far as to attack the people who do praise my books, and the public is completely apathetic.”

The entire tragic-comic arc of West’s life and work was governed by what Fitzgerald called in The Crack Up “the ineluctable workings of economic law.” The Great Depression of the ’30s, more than any other force, interfered with a vengeance upon any plans Nat had to be a serious author and for a man who was stubbornly disinclined toward any career that didn’t involve literature or foreign travel it’s not too wild to assume that the Fates interfered on that December afternoon in 1940 and put an end to his suffering before it became too unbearable.

To be fair, Marion Meade’s biography details West’s extremely tough luck in life and in publishing and she does a good job exploring the roots of West’s deep cynicism (the premature death of a beloved cousin shortly after his 21st birthday caught Nat unprepared for the intrusive reality that “fate was undeserved and random” and colored his whole outlook on life afterwards) but the author loses sight of the true narrative in a futile attempt to correlate the paths of West’s and McKenney’s personal life stories, a narrative move that ultimately proves to be as fatal as Nat’s talents behind the wheel of an automobile.