Nathanael West Slept Here
By Joe Woodward.
Scholars stand on the shoulders of giants to do their work and biographers stand on their graves. If not on their graves, exactly, certainly on the cracked sidewalk below their bedroom windows, on the stoop of their five-story walk up on East 81st Street. If not on their graves, exactly, certainly outside their apartment building at 110th Street at the end of Central Park, in a bent-wood chair at Café Le Dome in Montparnasse, in the desert near El Centro at the intersection where death gets met, and so on. Scholars deal in hypothesis and intellectual argument and biographers in hurt feelings and lost letters /found—and finally, on being there.
Being there as research method does more than enrich what we imagine, it affirms or undoes what we know altogether. I know this first hand, as on-the-job training; I’ve been hard at work on my first book, a literary biography of Nathanael West—the grandmaster-petite who penciled Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. How useful naiveté! What began for me in boyish curiosity, a cheap thrill akin to lingering at the scene of an accident, became finally something essential. Slowly, as I’ve visited one location after another, walked in West’s footsteps, I’ve begun to understand the importance of “being there.” As I’ve followed West from one rented apartment to another in New York, I’ve found how his proximity to the hills and lakes of Central Park surely influenced his later love of the outdoors. As I’ve walked further downtown, where West first worked as a young man at the Kenmore Hotel and the Sutton, I’ve come to understand how apart one area of a city can feel from another. And beyond New York even, in California, I’ve found that Nathanael West only once lived beyond eyesight of the Hollywood sign. Etcetera and so forth.
Long before I began my biography of West, however, I was interested in the lives of writers and where they lived them. I stalked Thoreau to his pond, only to find it as everyone does, that it sat so close to town. I shadowed Mark Twain into his long attic study in Hartford, and so on. But of all of my early literary stalking, perhaps none has stayed with me as my trip to William Faulkner’s woods. It was the middle of some summer and, naturally, naturally, I was on my way somewhere else.
I’m leaving Martin Luther King’s Dexter Baptist Church on my way to Graceland when I finally get to William Faulkner’s house. It’s late, late afternoon. We’ve been waylaid in Birmingham getting gas and Big Gulps. It’s already past closing time, past 4 p.m. when we make it to Bailey’s Woods and my son Sam has to pee. It isn’t Sam’s fault he can’t hold it, it’s the fault of 64 ounces of Big Gulp. Without realizing it immediately though, Sam pees where William Faulkner played as a boy, where he contemplated Light in August and Go Down Moses, and so on. My wife takes a photograph of Sam and Noah at the mouth of William Faulkner’s woods when Sam finishes. This photograph I have never since found.
We are lucky, I think, even if we’re late. We find a graduate student in love on his cell phone. We knock on William Faulkner’s parlor window and pretend like we’re praying. We are not pretending, really. The graduate student insists through the glass that William Faulkner’s house is closed. We shout that we’ve come all the way from California, by way of Alabama. He keeps talking on his cell phone and waving us off. Finally when he realizes we are not going away he shrugs and opens the door. He tells us we have ten minutes.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that William Faulkner’s house is a big white Greek revival, pre-Civil War, a columned stereotype befitting the stereotype of the southern man of belle letters. His house sits on 32 acres, which in turn requires it to have its own name, I suppose. According to our guidebook its name is Rowan Oak; it has been ripped from the pages of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer, the booklet reports, writes that Scottish peasants placed Rowan wood crosses over their doors to fend off evil spirits and ensure peace and refuge. Rowan Oak stands for refuge, then. When you get here you understand this.
Left alone to wander, the children on their own somewhere else in the house, Michelle and I, two middle-aged English majors, move quietly through the house of Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and so on. We walk the boards the master walked and hardly say a word to each other. We point and we smile in silence. I have wondered since my early teens how he did it all. I have, too, wondered where he did it.
We glide across the wood floors like competent thieves. We steal upstairs into his bedroom, into the separate bedroom of his wife, into the rooms where the children lived. Then when we come downstairs we fall into his office. I stand agape; that’s the best way to say it. I am what ”agape” means. I follow with my eyes the grease pencil lines Faulkner wrote on the wall. Faulkner wrote out the plot outline for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fable on the walls of his study and left them there. His typewriter sits above his chair. Everything is where it was on the day he died.
You do not leave Rowan Oak without knowing more about William Faulkner than you did when you arrived. We all know he was from the South, of the South, but his South is particular. The exactness of the place is important. Coming here, too, to Rowan Oak, you understand how much he loved his particular South. You see his love in the outline of his formal gardens, in the clean lines of the stable he built, in the calm and ease and sway and sweet smell of Rowan Oak. I read somewhere that William Faulkner sat on his front porch most afternoons looking into his woods. It makes sense now that what he saw there was more than trees.
Nathanael West had no Rowan Oak of his own. This is as disappointing to his biographer as it surely was to him. He did dream of such a place; he even bought a small farm in Bucks County with his sister and brother-in-law and there pretended, from time to time, he was William Faulkner-like, at any rate. Still, that farm was no place he was from. West was born and raised in New York City, but even still, the city was never really his home, either. The last years of West’s life he lived in a string of rented apartments and houses in Hollywood. Everyone knows Hollywood is no place anyone is from.
In the summer of 1940 Nathanael West took a break from Hollywood. He was newly married, flush with cash, and consumed with beginning a new novel—a novel with a cast of characters he would soon drown in a quagmire of an invented “friendship club.” West spent the whole summer polishing the novel’s outline and honeymooning with his new wife Eileen in the idylls of Oregon. The idylls anywhere is perhaps as close to a “home” as West ever had. The idylls anywhere certainly reminded him of a boyhood spent in Central Park, of summers in upstate New York at Camp Paradox, and so on. West and Eileen lived this summer in a small rented cabin on the McKenzie River. He wrote in the mornings. In the afternoons and evenings the pair fished and hunted together. Too, they entertained friends who flew up from Los Angeles.
Even if Hollywood was no place West was from, he had lived there nearly full-time from 1935 to 1940. He studied the place and wrote of it in The Day of the Locust (1939). Indeed, Hollywood was a relatively happy place that summer, too, even if much of America and Europe was not. At that moment, the finest constellation of movie moguls ever to rule a back lot ran their studios with optimism and bravado, men like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn. Together they pumped out celluloid candies and made money doing it; Greta Garbo’s first comedy Ninotchka, opened in 1939, surprising fans and critics alike and earning her fourth and final Academy Award nomination. Katherine Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress for her 1940 comedic classic The Philadelphia Story, an unusual but beautifully timed gift from a lovesick Howard Hughes. These halcyon days held some of the best work and biggest box-office for our grandest movie stars: Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Vivian Leigh, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracey, and others. And yet, all the while, in the span of these months between 1939 and 1940, the political situation in Europe grew grim and bloodier. While premiere lights spun frantically in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, trumpeting each new and grand entertainment, Hitler evaded Poland, the USSR joined Nazi Germany in official friendship, and Mussolini pronounced in June of 1940 that Italy would stand with the 3rd Reich.
Looking back now on it now, as West’s biographer, it seems personal contentment could not have been an easy feat during these months. To begin with, West was broke. Just months earlier he had spent nearly all of his savings buoying the production of a failed play, a bad play, really, a play depicting the absurdity of war just as America was readying itself for what most felt was a righteous and right war against an out-of-control German Empire. West’s play, Good Hunting, written with Joseph Schrank, opened and closed in the span of two days at the Hudson Theater on Broadway. So, then, this supposed care-free summer spent licking his wounds in the woods with his new bride was exactly what West would have needed. What he needed most, though, was to get back to Hollywood and get to work.
On his return to Hollywood in early September, West hit it big. With the help of a new writing partner, Boris Ingster, West finished and sold two different film treatments to two different studios for the extraordinary combined sum of $35,000—by far the most lucrative and facile twenty-six pages of his entire writing life. Even with the daily pressures of working on the new novel at night and pumping out film scripts during the day, these months appear to have been good ones for West—so much better than the desperate decade of the 1930s he had just crawled out of.
By December, with money from the sale of his two film properties, West and Eileen searched for and found a new and bigger house. They packed up and moved out of their small quarters on Cahuenga Terrace, where West had lived as a bachelor—out of Hollywood and over the hills into the valley suburbs. West’s new house, unlike his previous rental apartments, was set down among walnut and pear trees in the quiet countryside of North Hollywood. It was no Rowan Oak, again, but it was grand in a quiet, California way. The house at 12706 Magnolia Avenue, a California-style hacienda, was surrounded by two acres of orchards and bounded on its edges by small farms. It had been built by the British actor and film director Clyde Cook just four years earlier, in 1936. Certainly, it was completely “other than” the string of small apartments West had endured during the last five years he had lived in Hollywood.
West’s new house was as close to his beloved country farm in Bucks County as he could get in California, the farm being the only real estate West ever owned. He purchased the property with his sister Laura and brother-in-law and friend Sid Perelman, but in reality he was rarely ever there. West was sometimes happy there, but often lonely, too. There in the quiet of his Pennsylvania woods, West finally completed his two middle novels of which he felt some pride, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934). So, while the new house on Magnolia was beautiful and represented a fresh start for his new marriage to Eileen, it, too, must have felt temporary. In fact, he and Eileen had already spoken of putting an end to their Hollywood days as soon as possible, so they could settle down permanently in Pennsylvania. All they needed was the money to do it.
West and Eileen waited just days before hosting their first lavish dinner party at the new house. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his constant companion at the time, noted gossip columnist Sheila Graham, were among the Wests’ first guests. The Wests were regular guests of Fitzgerald’s at his home nearby in Encino, too—though Eileen didn’t care for Fitzgerald much, accusing him to his face of pandering, in his work, to the rich (a charge he was used to). Fitzgerald saw West as much as anyone else in Hollywood it seems. The two authors became close friends and more importantly perhaps, over the years, Fitzgerald became a serious literary mentor to West. They spoke frequently of their own work and of literature en masse. Perhaps it was more than a coincidence then, that during these last months of 1940, while West had just published his Hollywood satire, The Day of the Locust, a novel which Fitzgerald liked and praised—Fitzgerald himself worked to finish his own Hollywood story, The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald during this time was publishing his now infamous Pat Hobby stories to some success—stories built around the misadventures of a hapless screen writer stuck in the metaphorical meat grinder of the dream factories.
Fitzgerald and Graham joined the Wests and other studio friends for dinner at the new house on Magnolia on Friday, December 13. They were joined, too, by Dorothy Parker whom West knew from his life in New York and time in Bucks County. Screenwriters Albert and Frances Hackett joined them, and Hilaire Hiler, too. The Hacketts hailed from New York City and had come to Hollywood to write an adaptation of their successful play, Up Pops the Devil for Paramount Pictures. In 1934, they had written the script for The Thin Man, which earned them one of their four Academy Award nominations. Together they would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for their original drama based on The Diary of Anne Frank. Hilaire Hiler was perhaps the single friend West made in Paris—an abstract painter who in the late 20s ran the Jockey Club on the Left Bank, an artist’s hangout. That night, it was reported, they ate and drank and sang ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ long into the evening. They surely reminisced about the decadent and now distant Twenties, of what it looked like to them through the lens of current affairs—the decade-long debacle of the Great Depression and the coming Second World War.
Of all his guests at the party that night, West was among the least successful, least famous, least rich. It cannot be said that he squandered his talent though, nor his fame and fortune as Fitzgerald and Parker remain accused. West’s talents, in fact, were steadily maturing. The work West did on his last novel The Day of the Locust was well-received, a critical success at least. Too, West was finally finding success writing for pictures—with a string of recent writing credits and the sale of two original projects. West’s financial present and future looked brighter than ever. Coupled with his recent marriage, there was a great deal for West to celebrate that night.
This was not true for everyone at the dinner party. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was continuing to try to work his way out of financial ruin; his earnings had fallen from a height of $37,599 in 1931 (his wealthiest year) to a debt of more than $40,000 by 1937. Fitzgerald’s agent at the time, Harold Ober, wasn’t able to sell a single story for more than a year. All this led Fitzgerald, in 1937, to return to Hollywood to work for MGM for $1,000 a week—a generous sum considering he still didn’t have a single writing credit after almost two decades of trying. At this same time, Parker, who had an Academy Award for A Star is Born and more than a dozen writing credits was earning between $1,750 and $2,500 a week, and then West was earning just $350. It was a well-worn (and not unfunny) rumor that F. Scott Fitzgerald had actually been dead for years by 1940; his star faded like the 1920s themselves—all of it blotted out by the chaos of the 1930s and coming World War.
Dorothy Parker’s star was forever brightening and dimming in Hollywood. While critics have said she did some of her best work writing for film, others have argued she wasted herself and her talent there. Was there more literature in her? Once a well-regarded, savagely funny critic for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and an award-winning short story writer, Parker now was seen as slowly dissolving herself in gin. She attended to her studio work, though, it’s true. She championed, too, with West’s help and others the successful founding of the Screen Writers Guild. And again, with her husband Robert Benchley, as a writing team, they sometimes made $5,000 a month in Hollywood. Parker was well paid partly because she was famous and partly because she could write good scripts and fix bad ones. She was good for business. Even though, all the while, she herself like the others, was largely at odds with Hollywood. Parker wrote in The New Yorker in November 1927 that “I attend no movies, for any motion-picture theater is as an enlarged lethal chamber to me.”
It’s fair to say that everyone at the West’s home that night was from somewhere else. They were all in one way or another “at odds” with everything, with writing for pictures, with Hollywood, California, the West. On one hand, their salaries were outrageous and in theory could provide time away later to work on their own projects. Yet, for few did things work out this way. Did Hollywood ruin Fitzgerald, Parker and West? Did Faulkner’s Rowan Oak save him? Were their literary careers ruined by Hollywood? Certainly, this is a well-worn and popular thesis, particularly concerning Fitzgerald and West. However, recently, some have argued the contrary. Tom Cerasulo in his new book Authors Out Here puts forth the argument that writing for Hollywood actually provided these writers a living and a community to sustain themselves. Isn’t art born as much out of obstacle as opportunity, and so on?
No one at the party that night could have known it, but it was the last time any of them would see F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nathanael West alive. Fitzgerald would never finish The Last Tycoon and never see the whole of his Pat Hobby short story cycle published. And West, he would never get beyond the start of that fifth novel. The following weekend they would both be gone. Scott would die at the age of 44, the following Saturday, of a heart attack while reading the Princeton alumni magazine, and West, at 37, and his new wife Eileen, at 27, would die in a horrific car accident in the middle of the California desert.
As Nathanael West’s biographer, it’s disappointing to me that I cannot load my family into a gold Toyota minivan and visit his Rowan Oak. West and Faulkner were hunting buddies when they were refugees in Hollywood; they were never, likewise, land barons together. You cannot find a graduate student in love on a cell phone anywhere Nathanael West ever was. It’s possible, as I’ve said, to pilgrimage to his birthplace on East 81st Street in New York City.
It’s possible to go to his boyhood apartment at the edge of Central Park, to walk the streets of Paris in January and stand in front of his hotel—which I’ve waited until now to tell you has become a reasonably priced and well kept Best Western. If you’re in fairly good shape, too, you can climb the steep hill grade of Ivar Street and stand in front of that seedy apartment where West imagined all Hollywood horrors anew. What you cannot do anymore is visit that last rented house in North Hollywood where West and Eileen held that last dinner party. There, there is nothing left.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Woodward’s biography of Nathanael West will be published by O/R Books in Winter 2010. A two-time winner of a Los Angeles Press Club Award, his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Los Angeles Times, 3:AM, Southern Indiana Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and is upcoming in Zone 3, and Connecticut Review.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 30th, 2010.