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West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan
Lauded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald is synonymous with The Great Gatsby, the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation...Not many know that in the twilight of his life and career--when his wife Zelda was in a mental asylum, and Fitzgerald was struggling financially--he tried to launch a comeback as a Hollywood screenwriter. This is focus of Stewart O'Nan's gorgeously-written fictional biography, West of Sunset. Here O'Nan discusses the inspiration behind the book.
"There are no second acts in American lives." When F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with this terrifying adage, he was dead broke and living in a rented apartment in Hollywood, writing scripts for MGM to pay Zelda's hospital bills and their daughter Scottie's private school tuition. He'd fallen in love with a beautiful and mysterious young Englishwoman who looked like Zelda. The novel he was working on, The Last Tycoon, is about a producer who's lost his wife and falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious young Englishwoman who looks like her. The producer, like Fitzgerald, is in despair and has a bad heart, but his new love gives him the hope to care again.
It's Monroe Stahr's second act that Fitzgerald is referring to in his famous quote. The events of the novel are supposed to test this assertion. Of course, because Fitzgerald cares for Stahr, so do we, so we hope it isn't true. Is that a romantic view of life or just human nature? In Gatsby, the saddest, most frightening exchange is when Nick warns Gatsby, "You can't repeat the past," and Gatsby, in the glow of his rekindled love, says, "Why of course you can, old sport."
This isn't Fitzgerald's second time in Hollywood, it's his third. The first two were utter failures, so he's not trying to repeat the past, he's trying to redeem it. He's living at the Garden of Allah, where his best friends are Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker, and his neighbors include Robert Benchley, Talllulah Bankhead, and S.J. Perelman, then writing for the Marx Brothers. There are lots of wild pool parties and dancing beneath the stars, lots of love affairs and studio intrigues. It's 1937, so naturally Hemingway, at the height of his fame, blusters into town, raising money for Spain, making Fitzgerald feel like even more of a loser. To pay off his debts, he writes for Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford and Shirley Temple. He's on the lot when they're shooting The Wizard of Oz, eating in the commissary with the Munchkins and flying monkeys. He works, uncredited, on Gone With The Wind, pulling all-nighters with the amphetamine-popping David O. Selznick. It's the Golden Age of the studio system, and he's in the thick of it, and madly in love, except that every few months he flies back east to spend strange, supposedly therapeutic vacations with Zelda, taking her to Virginia Beach or Charleston for a week. Sometimes Scottie joins them, the family reunited, but Scottie and Zelda's relationship is volatile (Scottie is 16 and independent) and though Scott tries to hold things together, inevitably they explode. After each trip east, he falls apart"”spectacularly"”and his new love, Sheilah, has to pick up the pieces"”until she tires of it and he has to pledge to quit drinking to win her back.
His biographers see Fitzgerald's last years in Hollywood as a failure and a waste of his time, a sad coda to a once-promising career. I disagree. It's in Hollywood that he rediscovers his love of writing and his love of the world. The dialogue he writes for Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades helps her win the Oscar for best actress; the same for Vivien Leigh two years later. He wakes up at five in the morning to work on the Pat Hobby stories for Esquire, spends all day writing at the studio, then comes home and works on The Last Tycoon, which, though unfinished, is regarded with his friend Nathanael West's Day of the Locust as perhaps the best novel ever written about Hollywood. He's a writer again. He may be broke and in bad health, but he's happy, because he knows the book he's writing is good, and for a writer"”it's a terrible thing to admit, but it's true"”that's all that matters.
The full title of The Last Tycoon, found, along with his famous quote, in his notebooks, is The Love of the Last Tycoon, A Western Romance. That's what I hope West of Sunset is: a romance about a man who knew he was lost and managed to find himself again"”a story about love and regret and second chances, and dancing beneath the stars.