Love of The Last Tycoon by F. Scott FitzgeraldPosted: September 17, 2022 Filed under: the California Condition Leave a comment
“There’s a writer for you,” he said. “Knows everything at and at the same time he knows nothing.”
This is a strange book. It opens in “flyover country”: literally. We’re on a transcontinental airplane trip. Very different from current day air travel: there are sleeping compartments, the passengers all chat, the stewardess offers them pharmaceuticals. (Are we on a Douglas Sleeper Transport?).
A theme of this book is the ability to see the whole picture, as if from on high, so maybe the plane flight makes sense as a metaphor. Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr, the tycoon of the title, is up with the pilots:
Obviously Stahr had put the pilots right up on the throne with him and let them rule with him for a while. Years later I travelled with one of those same pilots and he told me one thing Stahr had sad.
He was looking down at the mountains.
“Suppose you were a railroad man,” he said. “You have to send a train through there somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and not one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide – on what basis? You can’t test the best way – except by doing it. So you do it.”
The pilot thought he had missed something.
“How do you mean?”
“You choose some way for no reason at all – because that mountain’s pink or the blueprint is a better blue. You see?”
Fitzgerald based Stahr on Irving Thalberg, a boy wonder who ran production at MGM. In Genius of the System, there are some quotes from transcripts of story meetings with Thalberg, and he really does sound like this.
The plane we open on is forced to land in Tennessee. Our narrator, Cecila Brady, is taken to see Andrew Jackson’s house, The Hermitage. What of this? Or just a detail that felt real? Is Fitzgerald suggesting something of the movie obsession with American myth? Did he have in mind how the mansion on the Culver studios lot was modeled on Mount Vernon?
It’s said Jack Warner’s second wife redesigned the house to look more like Monticello.
Fitzgerald never finished this book. He died while writing it, after eating a Hershey bar. The day before he’d been wrestling with the scene where Stahr and the Communist get in a fistfight. Sheilah Graham says he told her:
Baby, this book will be good. It might even make enough money for us both to leave Hollywood.
He left Hollywood the next day.
Like John Fante’s Ask The Dust, Love of the Last Tycoon involves the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.
When he heard about the thousands dead at Long Beach he was still haunted by the abortive suicide at dawn
Wikipedia tells us only about 128 people actually died in the quake. Maybe a misperception at the time is accurate. Or who knows?
An evocation of a studio backlot:
Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland – not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French châteaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway by night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire.
Stahr makes a decision:
The oracle had spoken. There was nothing to question or argue. Stahr must be right always, not most of the time, but always – or the structure would melt down like gradual butter.
Here’s Malibu, 1933:
Past Malibu with its gaudy shacks and fishing barges they came into the range of human kind again, the cars stacked and piled along the road, the beaches like ant hills without a pattern, save for the dark drowned heads that sprinkled in the sea.
Would there were still fishing barges there.
The perspective of Love of the Last Tycoon is kind of odd, it’s narrated by Cecilia Brady, but she’s often describing, maybe imagining, scenes she was not present for.
This is Cecilia taking up the story. I think it would be most interesting to follow my own movements at this point, as this is a time in my life that I am ashamed of. What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.
In Gatsby too there’s a sort of observer/narrator.
The English novelist Boxley doesn’t get it with writing for the movies. Stahr tries to help him:
“If you were in a chemist’s,” conceded Stahr, and you were getting a prescription for some member of your family who was very sick -“
“- Very ill?” queried Boxley.
“Very ill. Then whatever caught your attention through the window, whatever distracted you and held you would probably be material for pictures.”
“A murder outside the window, you mean.”
“There you go,” said Stahr smiling. “It might be a spider working on the pane.”
“Of course – I see.”
“I’m afraid you don’t, Mr. Boxley. You see it for your medium but not for ours. You keep the spiders for yourself and you try to pin the murders on us.”
Stahr tries to press the point:
Our condition is that we have to take people’s own favorite folklore and dress it up and give back to them. Anything beyond that is sugar. So won’t you give us some sugar, Mr. Boxley?
More geography, LA 1933:
They rode through Griffith Park and out past the dark studios of Burbank, past the airports and along the way to Pasadena past the neon signs of roadside caberets… they passed over the suicide bridge with the high new wire.
Stahr on writers:
“I never thought,” he said, ” – that I had more brains than a writer has. But I always thought his brains belonged to me – because I knew how to use them. Like the Romans – I’ve heard that they never invented things but they knew what do with them. Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt – since I was a boy.”