Monday, April 04, 2016
West of Sunset
I have to imagine that Stewart O'Nan would have second thoughts about writing a book from the perspective of one of America's great writers. The book is not in the first person, but it is always with Fitzgerald, as he heads west to earn cash, leaving his wife, Zelda, in a mental hospital in North Carolina and daughter Scottie is in boarding school. He is pained to be away from them, but falls into a relationship with Sheilah Graham, a beautiful young gossip columnist.
O'Nan seems to have done his research, as a look at Fitzgerald's filmography matches the story. In those days writers were hired like assembly-line workers, sitting in offices on the lot, being handed properties that they worked on sometimes by committee. It's a somewhat interesting notion--writers not coming up with new ideas, but taking an idea and creating something out of it, guaranteed pay even if the movie was never made. Fitzgerald would receive only one credit--a movie called The Three Comrades--but he worked on others, most notably Gone With the Wind, which he was brought in by David Selznick after he was let go by MGM. "Only in Hollywood could you be simultaneously fired and put on the hottest property in town."
Fitzgerald is the classic fish out of water. As O'Nan puts it, he was a Midwesterner who never fit in in the East, and then an Easterner who never fit in the West. "L.A. had never been his city, and as the glowing late night coffee shops and drive-ins slid by on both sides, he thought he understood why. For all its tropical beauty there was something charmless and hard about it, a vulgarity as decidedly American as the picture industry which thrived on the constant waves of transplants eager for work, offering them nothing more substantial than sunshine."
There are a lot of celebrity cameos. Fitzgerald is joined in the writers' bullpen by his old friend Dorothy Parker. He takes lodging in the legendary Garden of Allah cottages, where he befriends Humphrey Bogart. He is often as starstruck as anyone else would be, as in this trip to the studio commissary: "Right beside Ronald Colman, Spencer Tracy was tucking into a triple-decker club; next to him, her famous lips pursed, Katharine Hepburn blew on a spoonful of tomato soup."
Fitzgerald needs Hollywood, though, as his stories are not being bought as much as they used to be. Although he never says it, we can feel the degradation of being treated like a mere scribbler by producers and others, but he comes to a realization that despite his reputation and fame, he is no better than a scribbler. We feel for him, but we also tut-tut him, devoted to Zelda, but not above adultery. Zelda is described in pathetic terms, with her teeth cracked and extra weight put on.
Fitzgerald would work in Hollywood for a few years, until his death at 44 in 1940, which is the end of this book. He managed to bounce around studios, but almost put an end to it after a drunken trip to Dartmouth College with Budd Schulberg to research a film. Walter Wanger fired him on the spot. As O'Nan puts it: "Like a weakness for underage flesh or declaring oneself a Bolshevik, drinking was a pardonable offense in Hollywood, but not indefinitely."
I don't know much about Graham, but she is revealed to Fitzgerald as something of an impostor, a Jew from London with the real name of Lily Scheil, who rose from poverty, became a showgirl, got engaged to minor royalty and reinvented herself. Though the comparison is never spoken, we could wonder if Fitzgerald's attraction grew for her because of her similarities to a certain Jay Gatz.
This is a gorgeous novel, a must for fans of Fitzgerald are Hollywood in the thirties. Or, like me, both.