The Last Tycoon by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1941)

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940. He was just 44 years old. He left unfinished his final novel, The Last Tycoon, which was published posthumously in 1941. He had shot to fame aged just 24 with the super-romantic This Side of Paradise (1920), followed two years later by The Beautiful and Damned, and a steady stream of short stories about the bright young things of Manhattan which helped define the Roaring Twenties, a brittle doomed mood he captured in with his best-known book, The Great Gatsby (1925). A difficult decade followed as America was hit by the Wall Street Crash and Depression, Fitzgerald’s partying slid into alcoholism and his marriage to Zelda hit the rocks as she experienced increasingly severe psychological problems. It was nine long difficult years before he published his last completed novel, Tender Is The Night, in 1934, to mixed reviews.

The Last Tycoon

The 1941 edition of the novel was assembled from surviving manuscripts and fragments by his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson and, 70 years on, is the version still published by Penguin. It is a short 150 pages long, divided into half a dozen chapters, themselves spliced together from short scenes, before the text breaks down in mid-paragraph, and the remaining 40 pages are made up of a synopsis of the rest of the plot pieced together from various sources, a letter to an agent sketching the plot, a diagram Fitzgerald left, and then increasingly fragmentary bits until it is just individual sentences from the notebooks.

In 1994 Cambridge University press published a version which included significantly more scholarly apparatus, more fragments, reordered part of the text and restored Fitzgerald’s preferred title, The Love of The Last Tycoon.

Plot

The plot is simple as a fairy story. It is 1935 (not long after the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s) and Monroe Stahr (based on the film executive Irving Thalberg) is the boy wonder executive at a big Hollywood studio. Stahr is phenomenally capable, supervising numerous films simultaneously, handling moaning actors, incompetent directors, drunken writers. All the while he nurses the hurt that his beautiful film star wife, Minna Davis, died and abandoned him. And another secret: two different doctors have told him that his time is limited. He has heart disease. He is going to die.

Stahr closed his eyes and opened them again. Zavras’ silhouette had blurred a little against the sun. He hung onto the table behind him and said in an ordinary voice.
‘Good luck, Pete.’
The room was almost black, but he made his feet move, following a pattern, into his office and waited till the door clicked shut before he felt for the pills. the water decanter clettered against the table; the glass clacked. He sat down in a big chair, waiting for the benzedrine to take effect before he went to dinner. (Ch 4)

(‘Clacked’? A characteristic Fitzgerald touch.) One day, during an ominous and allegorical earthquake which causes some damage on the sets, he sees the spitting image of his lost wife. The rest of the fragment describes his pursuit of her, variously named in the fragments Kathleen or Thalia.

Point of view

Interestingly, there are two points of view: the opening chapter and some subsequent episodes are told through the eyes of the daughter of one of Stahr’s business partners, Cecilia or Celia Brady. She loves Stahr from afar and takes a passionate interest in his doings but, though only ten years or so older than her, Stahr is in a different stratosphere, with inconceivable pressures and problems. All the other scenes are told by a traditional omniscient narrator. The only other novel I can think of which does this is Dickens’s Bleak House. Fitzgerald doesn’t handle the switch with subtlety: ‘This is Celia taking up the narrative in person…’

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937 and, although he continued to make most of his income from short stories he went to get involved in the film industry. He spent some time working on scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including some unfilmed work on Gone with the Wind, a project about Madame Curie, a complete script titled infidelity and so on. In 1939, MGM ended the contract and Fitzgerald struggled on as a freelance screenwriter.

Like Chandler, Fitzgerald is aware of the depth to which movies enter people’s souls, affecting their thought patterns and behaviour: entire generations have modelled their hairstyles, clothes, look and dialogue on the super-sharp figures on the silver screen. Thus Cecilia, fantasising about getting Stahr to love her, realises her deepest ideas about love might themselves have been formed by the man she is pursuing:

I still like to think that if he’d been a poor boy and nearer my age I could have managed it, but of course the real truth was that I had nothing to offer that he didn’t have; some of my more romantic ideas actually stemmed from pictures – 42nd Street, for example, had a great influence on me. It’s more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was. (Ch 1)

Though a fragment, the novel paints a vivid, detailed and persuasive portrait of a wunderkind Hollywood studio head. Stahr is seen from all angles and portrayed as a demi-god, the last of Fitzgerald’s sequence of hero-worshipped leading men.

Though Stahr’s education was founded on nothing more than a night-school course in stenography, he had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him. (Ch 1)

The omniscient narrator places him in numerous professional situations, managing directors, designers, actors and actresses and writers. He is described as, and we see the evidence that he is, a master of his trade.

Stahr was a marker in industry like Edison and Lumiere and Griffith and Chaplin. He led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age. (Ch 3)

Celia is important because she adds a different angle and point of view from the omniscient narrator. Because she has a passionate crush on the great man she allows Fitzgerald to indulge the Ivy League golden boy tones of his early work, mixed with Ayn Rand-like admiration for the superman. She is the device which allows Fitzgerald freedom to write at his most gushing:

Stahr had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously – even frantically – and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth. (Ch 1)

These two points of view, plus the sheer number of scenes in which we see him in action, build up a fascinating portrait of an American mogul. The steady accumulation of detailed descriptions of the minute-by-minute work and decisions and the decisive management of people and deadlines and material and technology are the reason people still call it the best novel ever written about Hollywood.

The first dictagraph messages blew in through the warm morning. While he shaved and had coffee, he talked and listened. Robby [the studio fixer who put in a full day the day before] had left a message: ‘If Mr Stahr wants me tell him to hell with it I’m in bed.’ An actor was sick or thought so; the Governor of California was bringing a party out; a supervisor had beaten up his wife for the prints and must be ‘reduced to a writer’… There was early snow on a location in Canada with the company already there – Stahr raced over the possibilities of salvage, reviewing the story of the picture. (Ch 3)

In fact chapters three and four consist solely of a prolonged account of one day in the life of the head of a Hollywood studio and make fascinating reading.  Raymond Chandler made his bitter hatred of Hollywood and its lousy morals abundantly clear in his sequence of Philip Marlowe novels. But Fitzgerald, despite his own adverse experiences, has nothing but admiration and respect for the talent and skill and hard work that went into the movies. Although he sounds a little world-weary, he is never cynical.

Style

Fitzgerald’s early style was a wonderfully starry-eyed youthful romanticism. The first two novels tell the story of very young men and women falling in love in the privileged world of East Coast Ivy league universities. But it was always an uneven style, with the odd use of words and bumpinesses of phrasing. Nowhere near as simplified and mannered as Hemingway, nor as curt and crisp as Chandler’s pulp style.

In this, his final, text he combines practical A to B prose, with romantic phraseology, and a stream of wonderfully expressed psychological insights, especially about love. He is old-fashioned. He uses ‘whom’ a lot, twisting sentences round to fit it. Various things are brought ‘forth’. Chandler would puke.

From where he stood (and though he was not a tall man, it always seemed high up) he watched the multitudinous practicalities of his world like a proud young shepherd to whom night and day had never mattered. (Ch 1)

Fitzgerald persistently uses words oddly, almost as malapropisms. ‘Multitudinous’? Not wrong, just unexpected. He has a strangely-angled vision of the English language and I can see why he might have struggled to produce the straight-shooting dialogue which movies require and Chandler covers whole pages with. In the ‘Stahr had flown’ quote, above, the use of ‘tenaciously’ and ‘frantically’ are not quite right and yet the force of the image overcomes the slight hesitancy of its expression. That sense of something not quite expressed right occurs on every page. But at the same time these slight unexpectednesses, the possible malapropisms, work to create odd insights:

‘Mr Stahr’s Projection Room’ was a miniature picture theatre with four rows of overstuffed chairs… Here Stahr sats at two-thirty and again at six-thirty watching the lengths of film taken during the day. There was often a savage tensity about the occasion – he was dealing with faits accomplis – the net results of months of buying, planning, writing and rewriting, casting, constructing, lighting, reshearsing, and shooting – the fruit of brilliant hunches or of counsels of despair, of lethargy, conspiracy, and sweat. (Ch 4)

‘Tensity’?

Something else again happens in the central sections of the text, the marvellous scenes where Stahr drives Kathleen, the image of his dead wife, up to his half-built millionaire house near the sea and there, in the half-built house, their souls meet and mingle, and then they go down to the shore to watch a local phenomenon, the night-time inrush of silver fish, and have a strange midnight encounter with a black man who is capturing the fish. That the star-crossed lovers might find themselves on a romantic outcrop over the sea is Hollywood ie expected. The strangeness of the mood, and the very strange but intensely memorable scene with the black fisherman on the beach, has all the weirdness of real life and a pregnancy of meaning which makes it literature. The next day Stahr wonders if it even happened:

Was it a trick? As the whole vision of the last night came back to him – the very skin with that peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it – he thought whether it might not be a trick to reach him from somewhere. Not Minna and yet Minna. The curtains blew suddenly into the room, the papers whispered on his desk, and his heart cringed faintly at the intense reality of the day outside his window. If he could go out now this way, what would happen if he saw her again – the starry veiled expression, the mouth strongly formed for poor brave human laughter. (Ch 4)

The papers whispering, his heart cringing… these phrases are slightly heckneyed – but they come from a more innocent time, a less knowing time, a more forgiving time. Right to the end Fitzgerald wasn’t afraid to be starry-eyed, romantic.

Probably because I’ve been reading him recently, the love scenes remind me of DH Lawrence, specifically the way the thing that passes between Stahr and Kathleen is seen as a force bigger than them, and is identified with Life. Lawrence died in 1930 but his influence was immense among intellectuals looking for a purer life of feeling and freedom. This is from the scene where Stahr tracks down and meets the woman who he had glimpsed the day before, and whose likeness to his dead wife haunts him:

There she was – face and form and smile against the light from inside. It was Minna’s face – the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs – and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation.
With a leap his heart went out of him as it had the night before, only this time it stayed out with a vast beneficence…
Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.
Stahr interrupted… but there were no words for what he really said. She listened closely without shame. Life flared high in them both… (Ch 4)

 ‘With a vast beneficence’? ‘Slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call’? You can hear his friend Hemingway chortling at the clumsy phrasing, his rival Hollywood hack Chandler sneering at Fitzgerald’s naive romanticism.

We’ll never know whether the finished novel would have hung together – and in his surviving outline the latter part of the plot becomes surprisingly convoluted – but this unfinished text contains numerous powerfully written scenes which shine with Fitzgerald’s undying sense of awe and wonder.

There is never a time when a studio is absolutely quiet. There is always a night shift of technicians in the laboratory and dubbing rooms and people on the maintenance staff dropping in at the commissary. But the sounds are all different – the padded hush of tyres, the quiet tick of a motor running idle, the naked cry of a soprano singing into a nightbound microphone. Around a corner I came upon a man in rubber boots washing down a car in a wonderful white light – a fountain among the dead industrial shadows. (Ch 2)

Cover of 'The Last Tycoon'

Cover of ‘The Last Tycoon’

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