Thirties Somethings

Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney BY Marion Meade. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover, 416 pages. $28.

The cover of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

On Sunday, December 22, 1940, at a crossroads outside El Centro, California, a husband and wife died in a car collision. The woman’s name and much of her private life were known to millions by virtue of a series of articles published by her sister in the New Yorker and the subsequent best-selling book My Sister Eileen (1938); in fact, a play based on that book would open four days later on Broadway to excellent reviews, followed by a record-shattering 864-performance run. The man, in contrast, was a novelist whose readers numbered in the thousands at best, according to the sales figures of his four books, the first two of which yielded a meager $780 in income. He was extravagantly admired by a coterie of critics and intellectuals, but for years he scraped by as a contract screenwriter. Their early demise (she was twenty-seven, he thirty-seven) was overshadowed by the death by heart attack the day before of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in what was definitively the worst weekend in American literary history.

What a difference seven decades makes. Today Nathanael West, né Nathan Weinstein, is recognized as one of the greatest, most original, and most influential American novelists of the twentieth century. Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) has been hailed as the closest thing to Dostoyevsky in our literature, while The Day of the Locust (1939) is the template for the savagely disillusioned Hollywood novel. The urblack humorist, West now enjoys the ultimate accolade, a Library of America edition.

His wife, Eileen McKenney, is a distinct back number, albeit with a certain shaky immortality as a figure of enduring Manhattan folklore, the ingenue outlander come to the big city to escape the stifling hinterlands for an awfully big adventure. My Sister Eileen, written by Ruth McKenney, is read by almost nobody today, but it inspired not only the stage adaptation but two feature films, a television series, and an undisputed masterpiece of a Broadway musical: Wonderful Town (1953), lyrics by Comden and Green, score by Leonard Bernstein. To this day, one imagines, dispirited young women in New York are singing some variation on the theme—“Why, oh why, oh why-oh / Did I ever leave Ohio?”—in their crummy apartments.

Marion Meade, the author of a number of well-regarded books about American humorists, had the good idea to pair the stories of this unlucky couple in her lively, slangy dual biography Lonelyhearts. With Dorothy Parker cracking wise, Edmund Wilson serial-pontificating, and S. J. Perelman, West’s brother-in-law, venting more spleen than the Marcellus Shale harbors natural gas, Meade is able to keep things hopping and amusingly atmospheric. She also manages to skate over the essential sadness of her core subject: literary failure and having one’s identity captured and defined by someone else’s work.

There was something dodgy, seedy, and faintly ridiculous about West. He was more oddball and sleazeball than screwball. Early on, his sexuality became fixated in the voyeuristic stage—he spied on fornicating couples in Central Park—and he was unable to sustain an adult sexual relationship, preferring to patronize streetwalkers and cathouses. As a result, he suffered recurring bouts of prepenicillin venereal disease, about which Meade provides below-the-belt particulars. The suspicion of adult incest lingers around his relationship with his sister Laura, Perelman’s wife. Despite dropping out of DeWitt Clinton High School, he was admitted to Tufts University on the strength of either a forged transcript or, more likely, bribery. Booted his freshman year, he gained admission to Brown through the identity theft of another Nathan Weinstein at Tufts, four years his senior. Both Miss Lonelyhearts and his lacerating satire of the American pluck-and-luck gospel, A Cool Million (1934), were marred by plagiarism, the former reproducing verbatim some actual heartrending letters to an advice columnist, the latter lifting a shocking fifth of its contents from Horatio Alger potboilers. A son of Harlem asphalt, West put on airs as a dapper country squire and sportsman, running up tabs at Brooks Brothers and high-end sporting-goods shops. An absentminded menace behind the wheel of a car, he persisted in his vehicular carelessness until his final accident did him and McKenney in.

Miss Lonelyhearts arrived in bookstores in 1933 accompanied by gilt-edged blurbs and superb reviews, but his publisher went bankrupt around its publication. Six years later, his other masterpiece, The Day of the Locust, met with critical misapprehension and reader indifference. The American public and even the Popular Front–fixated intelligentsia were in no mood to be told that the common man was a sullen and disappointed entity ripe for violence and proto-fascism, and American culture a fabric of tawdry, mass-produced dreams.

In truth, Meade has fresher material to work with in dealing with the McKenneys, and she makes the most of it. The sibling dynamic between the two Irish-American daughters of the Midwest was set early: Ruth, the older sister, was the smart, high-achieving, but overweight and homely one, while Eileen, a year her junior, was the pretty and popular one, who, in the family mythology, had to beat the boys off with a stick. Both moved to New York City in 1935, Ruth to make the literary big time, Eileen in search of a husband and a fresh start. They found that fabled lousy basement apartment in the Village with the windows onto the street and the metastasizing fungus in the bathroom, exactly as portrayed in films and musicals. The sub-Thurberian My Sister Eileen was one of the best sellers of 1938, and Eileen’s life was no longer her own.

The real Eileen was an altogether more complicated and unhappy being than her sunnily synthetic alter ego would suggest. She suffered a rape attempt as a teenager that probably made her sexually frigid. Her first marriage, to a radio-advertising salesman, ended with a Reno divorce when his drinking got out of hand, leaving her with a young son and little income. For a while, she was the mistress of the suave New Yorker editor and writer St. Clair McKelway and also received financial support from Ruth, who had married a communistically inclined heir to an American coffee fortune; they were the sort of people for whom the term “parlor pink” was coined. One fascinating tidbit Meade offers is that Ruth was tasked by the party with “penetrating” the New Yorker. Backward reels the mind. Despite straitened economic circumstances, Eileen lived the bibulous life among Manhattan’s swells for a time, but kind as McKelway was, he periodically had to be dried out, and she felt trapped and looked down on as a consequence of the persona Ruth had created for her. So she upped sticks for California, where people didn’t read so much and nobody would care who the hell “my sister Eileen” was, a by no means uncourageous thing for a single mother to do in 1939.

Quickly finding work as a secretary at Disney Studio, Eileen as swiftly entered the social swim of Hollywood’s Communist circles and was introduced to West at a dinner party. They did not precisely meet cute: He was recovering from a case of urethritis, and her political righteousness clashed with his nihilistic pessimism. Still, she was a good-looking woman, and West’s screenwriting career was finally hitting financial liftoff. So the New York neurotic and the Ohio shiksa either embraced or ignored their odd coupledom and married in April 1940. They set up house on a small farm in North Hollywood and, buoyed by the lucrative sale of a couple of West’s film treatments, enjoyed as happy and stable a domestic life as either had experienced. And then in late December, West chivvied McKenney into that ill-fated trip for some bird slaughtering, ending in a tragic twisteroo.

It’s hard to tease any larger meaning from this brief marital idyll and its abrupt end, and Meade doesn’t really try. Both figures enjoyed a vigorous afterlife in American culture, but it is West, of course, who really matters. Meade, unfortunately, cuts her story short before we learn how his literary reputation was rehabilitated and his novels ascended to canonical status, a study in changing tastes whose tendrils extend into multiple spheres, not simply the literary. You can learn more about our country and our culture from West’s two great works than you can from Fitzgerald’s fetishized Great Gatsby. West’s fixation on the grotesque, the damaged, and the pathetic freak-show aspects of American life anticipated by decades the work of photographers such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. The Day of the Locust still yields startlingly pertinent, almost metapolitical insights. W. H. Auden once diagnosed a cultural malady he termed West’s Disease—an inability to distinguish between adult, achievable desires and outsize, infantile wishes. That disease runs rampant today through our body politic. Of the sullen and sun-drenched midwestern transplants whose rioting provides the apocalyptic climax of the book, West writes, “They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.” Their direct descendants are the paranoid Tea Partiers, whose seething resentments overflow the boundaries of common sense. “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” Amen to that, and let’s hope it’s not our epitaph.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.