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'Lonelyhearts': A Tragic Tale Of Forgotten Celebrities


Nathanael West was a man out of step with his time. When, in the Jazz Age, New Yorkers like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway moved to Paris to socialize and work, West followed suit and couldn't meet a fellow writer to save his life. When many novelists fled to Hollywood to join the legions of screenwriters and amass fortunes publishing just couldn't provide, West got stuck at the smallest B-movie studio of them all. Even now, when you think of the great American writers of that time, West is not remotely the first name to spring to mind, despite his recognized classics Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust.

West's bum luck and bent iconoclasm fills the pages of Marion Meade's new biography, Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. Locust may be one of the most defining books ever written about Hollywood, but it had the misfortune to be released only weeks after John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and it quickly disappeared from window displays. When the psychological realism of Steinbeck and Hemingway reigned, West was reveling in the absurd and the profane, populating his novels with midgets, prostitutes, an angry mob and a sanctified flea that lived in the armpit of Jesus Christ.

Meade tells West's story in a manner befitting her subject, with brevity and humor. She deftly deals with the controversies (like the quite true accusations of plagiarism) and lets his sometimes batty life story — a hooker enthusiast, West met his wife just after his release from the hospital for complications from repeated gonorrhea infections — crack its own jokes.

The other player in Lonelyhearts' entwined narrative is Eileen McKenney, West's evidently quite understanding wife who, at the time, was a celebrity in her own right. While West was trying to socialize with the New Yorker crowd, McKenney's sister Ruth was, in that very same magazine, publishing a series of Thurberesque essays with Eileen as the subject. The tales of two sisters from Ohio — one smart, one pretty — making their way in New York City were collected into the bestselling book My Sister Eileen, and later became a hit play. They were lighthearted pieces, with all the turmoil of their lives — the death of their mother, Ruth's own suicide attempts, Eileen's alcoholic first husband — disguised or omitted, and Eileen was reduced to a dumb blonde punch line. Meade rescues her from this empty-headed portrait and revives her as a charming, martini-swilling broad, a fitting complement to the nervous, sardonic writer.

Meade is in her element in the gin-soaked, tumultuous 1930s. The author of vivid, snappy biographies of Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay, she is deeply familiar with all of the key players, from the editors at the New Yorker to the purveyor of the Algonquin Hotel.

Nathanael West died young. A horrible driver all his life, he, at 37, neglected to heed a stop sign and killed both himself and McKinney. The legacy he left behind may be paltry in page count, but the books he wrote, and the novelistic life he led, are unforgettable.

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Jessa Crispin