The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1940)

From the Gilded Age, of the previous post, to the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Last Tycoon is the final, unfinished novel by the author F Scott Fitzgerald. Published posthumously in 1941, we are told the story of Monroe Stahr, one of the great movie producers of the golden age of cinema, through the eyes of an infatuated young woman, Cecelia, the daughter of Stahr’s business partner Pat Brady.

The story is set around 1935 and can be dated to real events and people of the time. The casual name dropping of some of the big movie stars fall like ticker tape over the pages of this novel. However, all is not well in the House of Hollywood. Scratch below the surface and a cutthroat world, where careers and reputations are sent into the ascendency because a face fits, or plummeting to the depths because a reputation has been sullied is never far.

Tripping through this world is Cecelia Brady daughter of Pat Brady. Rather than being In the movies, she’s Of the movies. We are told that Douglas Fairbanks attended her 5th birthday party and now she breezes in and out of studio offices, flies to and from college (with the stars of course) and mixes effortlessly at red carpet events. Seemingly unaffected by all of this she narrates the story of the great movie mogul and her unstinting love for a man who is nearly old enough to be her father.

We are fortunate that Fitzgerald left such detailed notes of his characters and plot, including the aim of a rather flexible 50-60 000 word count. However, I feel the novel had the potential to be more sprawling than even he intended and, I think, this is the popular opinion of others as well. Woven through the narrative are plot lines involving the Hays Code, communism, unrequited love, murder and plane crashes. All very salient to the times of course and I couldn’t help but think that it was quite similar to the movie Citizen Kane by Orson Welles in terms of scope and subject matter.

By the time Fitzgerald was writing this, my understanding is, he had arrived in Hollywood as a script writer, so his knowledge stems from this time in his life. His characters of Stahr and Brady are based on Irving Thalberg and Louis B Mayer. Mayer’s name may be more familiar as he headed the MGM film studio (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Thalberg worked at MGM and was regarded as ‘the boy wonder’, turning anything he touched to film gold. Unfortunately, he died tragically young at the age of 37 (in fact 75 years to the day on 14th September 1936).

At the time of his death Fitzgerald was still married to Zelda, his wife of 20 years, although they had not seen each other for about 4 years, after separating in about 1936. Fitzgerald was involved with another woman and Zelda was fighting her own demons because of her debilitating mental health issues. However, Zelda made the decision that Fitzgerald’s very good friend, Edmund Wilson, should revise the available drafts of The Last Tycoon with a view to publication.

What we have then is a ‘work in progress’. Would Fitzgerald have been happy for us to see this unfinished manuscript? I felt there was little to tie the chapters together in one respect. There were certainly story seams that drew characters and events together, but I thought these extended scenes focused on the characters rather more than the plot. Perhaps on further revision there would be more cohesion. However, having said that, I felt drawn into the world of these people and enjoyed being pulled along in their wake. At times there was a lack of clarity about the significance of a scene and I think this is reflected in one of the final chapters that Fitzgerald worked on. Stahr asks Cecilia to set up a meeting with a suspected Communist and union man. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but reading the notes Fitzgerald was referencing the union involvement in the studios around the mid 1930s and the trouble that followed. In letters to his publisher Fitzgerald was keen not to have his story set so close to world events of the early 1940s and far enough way from the mid 1930s that there was, effectively, some distance. These union matters would certainly be familiar to people.

Fitzgerald considered this novel to be most similar to The Great Gatsby. Clearly the American Dream is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s writing. He writes about people who are able to reinvent themselves – and there’s perhaps no-one better than an actor to do this, or indeed, Jay Gatsby – many of the stars Fitzgerald makes reference to came from relative poverty and hardship before ‘making it big’ in the movies. In the character Gatsby we learn he comes from a somewhat shady background and the story mostly deals with wealth and the excess that goes with the lifestyle he was trying to emulate. Perhaps it is the lengths that people are prepared to go to that fascinate Fitzgerald and, when considered in that way, these are quite interesting character studies in his novels. In The Last Tycoon Stahr is prepared to live a solitary existence after the death of his much loved wife. However, a chance encounter leads him to search out a woman because she is the doppelgänger of Stahr’s lost love. This demonstrates an obsession that can be found in grief and gives Stahr, the great and untouchable movie producer, a certain humanity. The same can be said for Gatsby, who goes to great lengths to be near the woman he loves and, in so doing, reveals a vulnerability.

I really did enjoy reading The Last Tycoon although it’s rather mournful to think of Fitzgerald’s life being cut so short. The irony can not be lost that his life, and tragically early death, reflects that of his protagonist and real life counterpart in Stahr and Thalberg.

On a final note, and to bring in another link to the previous book, Wharton and Fitzgerald met in 1925. Fitzgerald was quite the fan of Ms Wharton and sent her a draft of The Great Gatsby. When he was visiting France, Fitzgerald was invited to attend a gathering at Wharton’s residence outside Paris. Zelda refused to attend as she didn’t want to be made to feel ‘provincial’ and so the young Fitzgerald took it upon himself to get drunk when he arrived. Needless to say he made rather a spectacle of himself in front of Wharton and her acquaintances. This meeting led Wharton to write in her journal “To tea Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald the novelist – awful.”

6 thoughts on “The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1940)

  1. Excellent, informative look at “The Last Tycoon,” Sarah! I found that novel very compelling, despite it being flawed and unfinished. (Perhaps flawed because it was unfinished, as you allude to.) And I didn’t know about that Edith Wharton-F. Scott Fitzgerald meeting. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dave! I was quite drawn in I have to say, although I have a huge interest in that particular era and the movie industry at the time, so things like this are never going to disappoint! I liked the feel of the ‘on the ground’ writing – Fitzgerald gets across his familiarity and knowledge of the movies so well. And it was all rather serendipitous, reading this hot on the heels of Wharton (which is why the quick succession of posts). There were far too many links to pass up!
      Wouldn’t it have been something to be at a guest at the Wharton residence when that particular meeting took place though…?

      Liked by 1 person

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