The Screwball World
of Nathanael West
and Eileen McKenney
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 392 pp., $28
They were an odd couple: a sardonic, secretive Jewish guy from New York and an outspoken, outgoing Irish gal from Cleveland. He was the author of "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust," blackly comic novels that depicted life as a ghastly, gaudy merry-go-round whose hapless riders were routinely knocked to the ground by malevolent fate. She was the heroine of the bestseller "My Sister Eileen," based on a series of popular New Yorker sketches which portrayed her as a pretty, not-too-bright innocent whose charm overcomes every obstacle she encounters in Depression-era Manhattan. When Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney married in April 1940, just six months after they met in Hollywood, it seemed the kind of improbable romance that could happen only in a screwball comedy.
They died eight months later in a car crash caused by his reckless driving -- just the kind of nasty "twisteroo" that West employed to unsettling effect in his fiction. It's not easy to write a joint biography of two people who knew each other for hardly a year, but Marion Meade generally surmounts this challenge in a readable narrative that traces their separate odysseys until their first encounter, only three chapters from the end of her book.
Before they met
West was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903, the son of a developer who rose to affluence constructing luxurious apartment buildings that transformed Harlem into a leafy suburb for New Yorkers moving uptown from crowded immigrant neighborhoods. (Meade, author of an excellent history of writers in the 1920s, "Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin," does a fine job throughout with the economic and cultural backdrop.) Nat was a clumsy, sleepy kid, an avid reader but a lousy student. He used another Nathan Weinstein's transcript to get into Brown, where he met his lifelong friend (and future brother-in-law) S.J. Perelman.
He changed his name to Nathanael West on the eve of a 1926 trip to Paris financed by a well-to-do uncle. There, he spent a lot of time in the red-light district and befriended Dadaist artists whose hallucinatory collages of found materials influenced his approach to writing. Back in New York, he got a job through family connections as assistant manager at a hotel, which gave him plenty of time to write. But his scatological first novel, "The Dream Life of Balso Snell," sank without a trace, and although "Miss Lonelyhearts" got good reviews, its momentum was killed when his publisher went bankrupt, another "cosmic banana peel" reinforcing West's view that "the universe is essentially rigged against us [and] the only intelligent response is laughter."
McKenney, born in 1913, grew up hearing that she was the pretty one, older sister Ruth, the smart one. Ruth excelled in school; Eileen was good at sports and attracting boys. She went to business school; Ruth went to college. When Ruth landed a job as a feature writer at the New York Post, Eileen followed her sister to Manhattan in 1934. Their misadventures in and around a squalid Greenwich Village apartment inspired the stories that got Ruth published in the New Yorker; meanwhile, Eileen had a bad marriage, a baby and an affair with an editor at the magazine. She seemed pleased by the attention "My Sister Eileen" brought her in 1938, but in psychoanalysis she expressed vehement resentment of Ruth for forging a career from her life. Maybe she'd be happier in California, she decided.
West was already there, doing well as a screenwriter but bitterly disappointed by the poor reviews and risible sales for "The Day of the Locust." Pithily described by Meade as "a Hogarthian landscape peopled by a host of tanned perverts and demented raw-food faddists," this view of Hollywood's seamy underside was decades ahead of its time, and West concluded that there was "no market whatsoever" for his novels. At a dinner party, "watching [Eileen's] cheerful manner in relating woebegone stories about herself," he was intrigued; she quickly warmed to a man who enjoyed the company of her 2-year-old son.
They were "two lonely people starved for fun," writes Meade in a rare display of empathy. Generally, her tone is cool and matter-of-fact. Though this seems fair when dealing with West's exceedingly ambivalent feelings toward women or his pitiless view of the misfits and grotesques he wrote about, it's off-putting when Meade attributes to McKenney a vapid desire to be "the pampered wife of a grateful husband . . . there would be no need to develop larger interests . . . or work at a job" without offering any sources for this alleged peek inside her subject's head. Heavy hints that West had homosexual relations with a couple of close male friends would also benefit from some backup in the footnotes.
Still, this is a shrewd portrait of two people who in their different ways were noteworthy participants in American culture during one of its liveliest periods. Meade's account of the West-McKenney marriage is necessarily brief, and scattered references to his friends' and wife's alarm at his terrible driving point inexorably toward its grim denouement in the fatal crash on Dec. 22, 1940, just four days before the theatrical version of "My Sister Eileen" opened on Broadway. Reviews proclaimed it "the laugh hit of the season," and only one noted McKenney's death. West, the obscure author of commercially unsuccessful books, wasn't mentioned at all; in the obituaries, he got second billing to "the bubbly heroine" who bore only a superficial resemblance to the real Eileen McKenney. He wouldn't have been surprised -- and he probably would have laughed.
Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times