The Love Of The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribners 1941)
There are many reasons not to review an unfinished book, and very few reasons to review one. It’s like excavating a ruined city: you know what you’ll find is a mere suggestion of the intended whole and, in the case of a book, a "whole" that existed solely in its creator’s mind. How can we judge that? Perhaps the most difficult task in examining a book like this lies in separating the myth of the writer from his final work. We approach it wanting to find it great, if only to corroborate our view of Fitzgerald as a genius, if ultimately a flawed and failed one.
As a writer, Fitzgerald was both highly imaginative and a willing experimenter, as opposed to the formulaic ‘hack’ he felt most Hollywood writers to be. The material he began with inevitably became quite different by the time of publication. Tender Is The Night, for instance, started off as a story about a man who kills his mother, yet there is no trace of that tale in the published version.
As it stands, Tycoon is written just over halfway, with a foreword by Fitzgerald’s friend and editor, Edmund Wilson, plus a few inconclusive notes and story outlines appended at the end. Fitzgerald thought he was back on track with this novel and compared it to The Great Gatsby, while fashioning certain scenes after parallel scenes in that book. He’d even hoped Tycoon would be the same length as Gatsby (55,000 words), but at a little over halfway it was already 70,000 words in length.
That Tycoon’s outline includes a double-murder plot, a plane crash where human remains are pilfered by children who do not otherwise figure in the story, as well as the fact that the story darts back and forth between the first person and an omniscient narrative voice, all contributes to the sense of reading a very disjointed work. While it’s not a complete first draft, enough of Fitzgerald’s last novel exists to give a sense of its intended breadth and scope, as well as its scheme of literary symbolism.
Fitzgerald had the misfortune of achieving great popular success at the age of 23 with his first novel, This Side Of Paradise. While Paradise isn’t a good book, it’s full of youthful vivacity, charm and sheer gutsiness, having been written from personal experience. His second novel, The Beautiful And Damned, brought more of the same. Also successful and autobiographical, and even less of a good novel, it is charged with remarkable insight into the mind of a man ruined by success. (So much so that one wonders how Fitzgerald could see this yet fail to stop his own impending downward spiral.)
All of this had the unfortunate consequence of making Fitzgerald believe he was both a genius and gifted in having a personal life to draw on for inspiration. I say unfortunate, because when the material dried up, Fitzgerald had little idea where to turn. Perhaps he’d convinced himself it was all gold, but in truth, Fitzgerald out of love was Fitzgerald uninspired, or worse: Fitzgerald experimenting in lieu of inspiration. (His awkward attempt at a stream of consciousness style, then much in vogue because of writers like Joyce and Proust, marred his fourth and most personal novel, Tender Is The Night; he was always more successful as a natural poet than a conceptualist.)
In this light, writing Gatsby must have seemed a lark. After several years of non-stop hilarity and partying in New York, Fitzgerald once again fictionalized his experiences. He wrote his third and greatest novel in Paris in the summer of 1924, then edited it in Rome in the fall. And voilá—a masterpiece in less than a year. How could he ever miss? It was his last real literary success, however, though contrary to popular myth he did go on to make a considerable amount of money in Hollywood. He just spent it badly.
From this point on, Fitzgerald would spend the rest of his life trying to live up to or reclaim his lost reputation as a ‘great writer.’ Where Gatsby took six months to finish, Tender took eight years, and Fitzgerald must have suspected he’d lost his touch. If it is a masterpiece—and I for one don’t think it is, however deeply felt it may be—then it’s at best a flawed masterpiece. Nor was it a commercial success, having been published at the height of the Depression.
By then, his personal life was a shambles, his finances were at a low ebb, and his literary reputation was in tatters. For with the end of the Roaring Twenties, those gay years that Fitzgerald himself nicknamed ‘The Jazz Age’, came an overwhelming lack of public interest in work that recalled those high times. And thus he found himself writing in Hollywood.
As much as Fitzgerald claimed to hate Hollywood, he was impressed by it, for he was drawn to glitter and Hollywood was the very essence of glitter. It’s no wonder he turned to it for inspiration for his fifth and final novel, the one he would not live to finish.
The Love Of The Last Tycoon is Fitzgerald’s fictional account of the last days of another ‘boy genius’, Irving Thalberg, who made his mark on films at a very young age. Called Monroe Stahr in the book, he falls in love with a young woman who reminds him of his dead wife. Stahr romances the look-a-like, only to discover she’s about to be married. The manuscript ends shortly after this point.
Fitzgerald’s outlines give a good idea of what he’d intended to follow: accustomed to getting his way, Stahr begins an affair with the now-married Kathleen, while his rival at the studio convinces Kathleen’s jealous husband to murder Stahr. On discovering the plot against his life, Stahr pays for a hit on his rival. Before the hit happens, Stahr dies in a plane crash, leaving Kathleen to mourn the tragedy. It’s sheer melodrama, of course, but then so was Gatsby, in many ways. And while it’s possible Fitzgerald would have amended his plot, he clearly intended this book to read like a Hollywood blockbuster, if one with artistic merit.
What exists of the novel is slight—much of it sketchy and at times rough—though there are passages and, indeed, entire scenes of an almost unendurable tenderness written with that luminous evocativeness that was Fitzgerald at his best. And except for a few silly outbursts, he clearly has the experimenting under control. It’s no wonder he felt as though he’d hit his stride again.
While the Romantic sensibility is still at work in the best of the book, this is a Fitzgerald we may have only sensed beneath the surface of his earlier work: sex scenes, reefers, prostitutes, notable characters of colour, and even mention of the pogroms of Europe. He’d stopped trying to make the world a beautiful place. A starker, if not downright grim, realism had crept into his Romantic outlook.
Was Fitzgerald a great writer? If this were his only work, we would probably not think so. In fact, if he hadn’t written Gatsby we wouldn’t remember him as well as other more prolific but less loved writers of his time, like Theodore Dreiser or Sherwood Anderson. But the fact is, he did write Gatsby, and because of it writing will never be the same, even if nothing else of his survives. And what this brief sketch hints at—the final majesty that might have been, the genius that may well have sparked again—is like the spires of a great cathedral half-hidden by mist, something we stand in awe of even as we wonder what it really looks like.
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