Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
For those intrigued by where the stories that made up some of their favorite shows came from, here’s a book to make Wonderful Town even more wonderful. Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green famously based their second musical together, their follow up to On The Town, on the play My Sister Eileen. Ah, but the story doesn’t stop there!
As many serious aficionados know, My Sister Eileen was itself based on the short stories of Ruth McKenney which were published in “The New Yorker.” (Their last name was changed to Sherwood for the stage.) It is also fairly common knowledge that those stories were based on McKenney’s actual experiences with her sister Eileen. But beyond that depth, how many know much of the real story of the real Eileen?
Not quite as well known, at least not to people in my circle, is the tragic fact that Ruth McKenney’s sister Eileen died in a car accident in the desert near El Centro, California just four days before My Sister Eileen opened on Broadway. She was twenty seven years old. At the wheel of the car was her husband of eight months, the novelist and screenwriter Nathanael West.
Sometimes it can be taking things to extremes to then try to find out something about the source of the source of the source — in this case the actual lives of Ruth and Eileen. But when that effort leads you to a biographical work that is both a pleasant read and provides a view of a number of worlds that swirled around the commercial arts of the 1920s and 30s, it can be a pleasure.
Author Marion Meade has written extensively about those worlds in “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties” and biographies of Dorothy Parker, Buster Keaton and others. She structures her book as an alternating pair of biographies for the first three fourths of her narrative. Interweaving chapters tell the stories of Eileen and Nathanael before they came together at the ends of their short lives. Each story is interesting, and each is interestingly told.
Eileen did, indeed, grow up in an Iowa Irish-Catholic family before heading off to New York City with her sister Ruth who hoped to become “a great writer.” Once settled in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village where fungus grew from the bathroom ceiling, Eileen continued her habit of attracting every eligible man in the neighborhood while Ruth looked on with a literate consternation.
Eileen married and had a son, but the union ended in a divorce that reeked of alcohol — his, not hers. She headed west with her son to get a new start in the film colony, landing a job as a secretary in Walt Disney’s thriving studio. In the meantime, Ruth had made a name for herself as a writer in the Big Apple. Her most successful pieces were the ones she wrote about her Sister Eileen for “The New Yorker.”
Interspersed in Meade’s telling of this tale is the flip side: the story of the man who would die in the car with Eileen on their way back from a brief Mexican holiday to attend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own funeral.
Born Nathan Weinstein, the son of the builder of up-scale apartment houses in the then-fashionable neighborhood of Harlem, the boy floundered through school and college and worked as the night manager (read: desk clerk) for one of his father’s apartments. The job left him plenty of time to write. What he wrote seemed a strange blend of philosophical twists on trite themes of literature and scenes that crossed the line into something resembling smut.
His luck was no better than his taste. When he finally did get a book published and it drew some good reviews to offset the bad, his publisher went bankrupt. All but 800 copies from the first printing were still at the printers when the publisher went under and they refused to deliver them until they got paid. By the time he got the book into distribution the momentum had been lost and no one remembered — or bought — his book.
That’s enough to make any author decide to try his luck somewhere else. For West, the somewhere else was Hollywood where studios were paying published authors more to draft screenplays, or “treatments,” than a mere 800 copies of any book could provide.
West worked for a number of film factories and even provided a hit or two (anyone recall “Five Came Back” or “I Stole a Million”?) but retained his ambition to be a novelist. He finally combined both worlds by writing a novel about the movie business: “The Day of the Locust.” It has become something of a minor classic of the genre.
Meade brings the worlds of these two briefly united people to life. In the process, she provides a feel for the Harlem of the 1900s and 1910s, Manhattan of the 1920s and Hollywood of the 1930s. Her tale takes her into key moments in the stories of literary figures from Bennet Cerf to the habitues of that round table at the Algonquin and the work-a-day world of the writers’ stables of the major studios in Hollywood.
Then, too, there’s the pleasure of tracing the elements of the real Eileen’s life with her sister Ruth into the musical Wonderful Town. Who knew there really was a character like “Wreck“ who could, as the show’s song says, “Pass The Football” and who stayed home during the off-season to iron the laundry while his live in girl friend went off to work? Well, just look at page 171.