In the late 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was in Hollywood trying to write his way out of debt. Perhaps because he couldn’t quite make Hollywood work, it held a seductive power for him. Like the green light at the end of the most famous dock in literature, Hollywood was all the money, fun and beauty that escaped him. Amid the ruins of his screenwriting, there was “The Last Tycoon,” as it has been called till now--the novel that might have been his greatest. Mortality intervened. He died in December of 1940 at age 44.
The character of Monroe Stahr was based on Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM who died even younger than Fitzgerald. Today, Thalberg is best known as the name on a building at what has become the Sony lot. Fitzgerald long ago surpassed his subject in the public imagination and has become, in Cyril Connoly’s words, “an American version of the Dying God.”
The novel that was first published and is in print today was put together by Edmund Wilson from the unfinished manuscript, the author’s notes and Wilson’s own instincts. Now, Matthew J. Bruccoli, a leading expert on Fitzgerald, has assembled a critical edition that includes the relevant drafts, notes and addenda concerning Fitzgerald’s notorious spelling and punctuation. And he gives the book a new title. Bruccoli makes the case that Fitzgerald’s title was really Wilson’s choice. Bruccoli’s decision may well be right, but it’s hard not to think Wilson did his friend a favor by plucking out the essence and casting off the rest.
In the 1960s, Wilson criticized the Modern Language Assn. for publishing editions loaded down with critical apparatus. He felt that such scholarly undertakings tended to obscure the work, citing the French Pleiades Editions as an ideal mix of scholarship and text. Wilson’s views were part of what eventually led to the Random House Library of America.
Bruccoli’s introduction and account of the composition of the novel are sensitive and nuanced, the result of a lifetime of Fitzgerald study. He has published the substance of his commentary before, in the 1977 book “ ‘The Last of the Novelists': F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last Tycoon’ ” (now out of print). The reproduction of the typescript and notes ought to be the centerpiece of this edition, but they’re murky and difficult to read.
Most Hollywood fiction is written either by or about outsiders. Typically, a screenwriter will fail to find satisfaction and will write an angry book in which the producers and executives are vulgarians or fools. Monroe Stahr, on the other hand, has exquisite taste and a refined sensibility. Fitzgerald wrote of him: “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” Stahr’s story is narrated by Cecelia Brady, the college-age daughter of a studio executive. Her voice opens the novel: “Though I haven’t ever been on the screen, I was brought up in pictures.” An insider by birth, if not by inclination, Cecelia says: “You can take Hollywood for granted, like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand.” Her background is based on the childhood of Budd Schulberg, whose father was the head of production at Paramount in the 1920s.
The plot has two main threads: Stahr’s struggle for control of the studio and his pursuit of Kathleen Moore, a young English woman who fascinates him because she looks like his late wife. Raymond Chandler, in a letter to his English publisher, said that Stahr was “magnificent when he sticks to the business of dealing with pictures and the people he has to use to make them; the instant his personal life as a love-hungry guy and exhausted man enters the picture, he becomes just another guy with too much money and nowhere to go.”
There are two questions about the uncompleted book that bedevil anyone who reads it closely. What changes would Monroe Stahr have undergone had Fitzgerald been granted more time? Stahr is unflawed, which, as Bruccoli points out, is unlike the central figures of Fitzgerald’s other novels. Think of the self-destructive nature of Amory Blaine, Anthony Patch, Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver. Stahr has a sense of loss about him that seems larger than grief for his wife. It makes him emotionally elusive and gives rise to Chandler’s description.
Then there is the narrator and the question of point of view. Cecelia, unlike Nick Carraway in “Gatsby,” is not present for important sequences. Fitzgerald spoke to the issue in a letter to his publisher and a magazine editor: “I shall grant myself the privilege, as Conrad did, of letting (Cecelia) imagine the actions of the characters. Thus I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a God-like knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.” Just because Cecelia’s not there doesn’t mean she can’t construct a legitimate version of what happened.
It has always seemed to me that “Gatsby” suffers from Fitzgerald doing back-flips to get Nick into scenes so that he can narrate them. “Gatsby” was written by a man in his 20s. Fifteen years later, Fitzgerald was ready for a more daring narrative leap. There are problems with his strategy, but none so great that one can’t assume that Fitzgerald wouldn’t have found a voice that accounted for Cecelia’s point of view without limiting the story.
Fitzgerald was also aware of secondary problems. It’s hard to know what Stahr sees in Kathleen. Fitzgerald’s note here reads: “Where will the warmth come from in this. Why does he think she’s warm. . . . My girls were all so warm and full of promise. . . . What can I do to make honest and different.”
Kathleen was modeled on Fitzgerald’s companion Sheilah Graham. He was at her apartment on North Hayward at the end. In “Beloved Infidel,” Graham’s account of their relationship, she recalls that he had been reading the papers and eating chocolate bars. He had been telling her that if the book was successful they would travel together. “If ever I get out of this mess, I’ll make it up to you, Sheilo.” Then he stood up, tried to steady himself on the mantelpiece and fell dead on the floor.
Fitzgerald originally planned a work of 40,000 words. He left more than that, and by his own accounting, was less than halfway through the story. The embryonic quality of the novel is unmistakable, yet passages of insight or beauty often break through. The book has marvelous set pieces, vivid cinematic images and sustained invention: The earthquake (based on the 1933 Long Beach quake) and the mess it makes at the studio, “The Producer’s Day” in which we follow Stahr through his business dealings, and the celebrated “nickel for the movies” speech in which Stahr shows an English novelist (based on Aldous Huxley) why, despite the fellow’s misgivings, he does have an aptitude for screenwriting, are a few of the reasons the book endures, no matter which edition is at hand.