The Last Tycoon
by Michael Millgate


On 29 September, 1939, Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher that his new novel, The Last Tycoon, had been set “safely in a period of five years ago to obtain detachment. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notes to The Last Tycoon, in Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York [1953]. p. 141) A year later, in September 1940, we find him telling Gerald Murphy that the novel is “as detached from me as Gatsby was, in intent anyhow.” (The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson. New York [1945|, p. 282.) That final qualifying phrase raises doubts which the letterhead reinforces (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation Studios, Beverly Hills. California).( Op. cii. . p. 281) and in fact the detachment seems to have proved elusive: The Last Tycoon lacks the distanced, curiously “classical” air of The Great Gatsby. The volume as we have it contains a collection of brilliant and powerful scenes; these hardly begin to cohere into a novel, and not only for the reason that the book was unfinished.

Indeed, we may doubt whether Fitzgerald could have finished The Last Tycoon according to his original conception. Many of Fitzgerald’s difficulties derived from the fact that he was, in effect, writing two novels in one: a “psychological” novel about Monroe Stahr, and a “social” novel about Hollywood. In his letter to Edmund Wilson of 25 November, 1940, the emphasis appears to be on the latter: “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it (the novel) but nobody seems to be going to.” (Op. cit. . p. 285) However, the starting-point of the book seems clearly to have been the genius of Stahr himself, “The Last Tycoon,” just as the central interest of The Great Gatsby had been in Gatsby himself. The “social” interest in The Great Gatsby, though considerable, serves primarily to display and explain the human relationships: it never takes control. In The Last Tycoon, as far as it had gone, the “social” content also remains reasonably functional, but we may judge from Fitzgerald’s plans for the conclusion of the novel that had he tried to work out the plot of The Last Tycoon along the lines he proposed, his growing interest in the intrigue, corruption and violence of Hollywood might well have taken control and swamped the rest.

Fitzgerald does not seem fully to have realized that in The Last Tycoon he faced a problem of construction quite different from the one he had so brilliantly solved in The Great Gatsby; otherwise he would surely not have tried to cast his new book so completely in the Gatsby mould. Since he planned The Last Tycoon as a short novel of about fifty-one thousand words, he turned naturally to The Great Gatsby for a usable pattern, and the frequent references to The Great Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s notes for The Last Tycoon and in his letters at this time make it clear that while he was planning and writing the new book he had the earlier one very much in mind. In any case, this would have been sufficiently plain from a comparison of the two. Each tells the story of a man who, from humble beginnings, has risen to a position of great power. In each we first come to know of the man not in person but by reputation and by the attitude of others towards him. Then we see the man himself in the center of his world, his position and his greatness defined by the nature of that world which revolves upon him as its axis: Fitzgerald’s outline for The Last Tycoon says explicitly that he intends the chapters describing Stahr’s day to be “equal to guest list and Gatsby’s party.”(Notes to The Last Tycoon, p. 142.) namely, to Chapter Three and the first two pages of Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby. We watch in each the failure of the man in his personal life, in an all-important relationship with a woman; then his violent, senseless death: and finally his funeral, so strongly contrasted with his life (in notes for the end of The Last Tycoon Cecilia imagines Stahr present at the funeral and saying “Trash!”).(Op. cit. , p. 132.)

The most important and perhaps the most questionable of The Last Tycoon’s debts to The Great Gatsby is the half-involved first-person narrator. Fitzgerald describes Cecilia as “of the movies but not in them”; (Op. cit. , p. 138) a very similar comment could have been made about Nick Carraway’s place in the world of The Great Gatsby. But Nick, as a piece of structural machinery, is a superb invention: he remains on stage almost throughout the novel, and we are never in doubt about the sources of his information. Nick as narrator never strains our credulity: Cecilia as narrator worries us from the start. Fitzgerald clearly intended her to play a Nick Carraway role, but because of her own limited participation in the action she cannot fulfill Nick’s narrative function. Nick’s other major role is to act as a vehicle for moral judgments, and here again Cecilia falls short. Fitzgerald planned a final scene in a sanatorium, intending to invest Cecilia, through her illness, with greater portentous-ness, but she lacks weight in the story as we have it. She seems too immature, and too involved emotionally with the people and actions she describes to be able to make worthwhile judgments or to help us to judge.

The correspondences between The Last Tycoon and The Great Gatsby are not accidental, and they may have helped to twist The Last Tycoon out of its proper path, whatever that may have been. Gatsby’s violent death has ironic appropriateness, but the violent death proposed for Stahr seems unmotivated and relatively without point, except in so far as Fitzgerald was planning a reference back to the airliner episode in Chapter One. The unsatisfactory love-affair forms the core of The Great Gatsby and indeed of Gatsby himself, but, although Fitzgerald told his publisher that he wanted Stahr’s affair with Kathleen to be “the meat of the book,” (Op. cit. . p. 139) he seems not to have had a completely clear conception of their relationship. In fact, Stahr the lover remains a somewhat shadowy figure in the chapters that we have, and it is certainly Stahr the producer and businessman who emerges the more vividly.

***

Because the making of motion-pictures involves questions of artistic judgment, it seems, as Fitzgerald noted, rather an odd kind of business. But it unquestionably is a business: as Cecilia Brady tells us on the first page, “My father was in the picture business as another man mignt be in cotton or steel.” (The Last Tycoon, p. 3) The enmity between Stahr and Brady derives largely from the latter’s exclusively business approach to film-making, but Stahr himself, though he must pronounce on matters of taste, remains inevitably a businessman as well. When Wylie White challenges Stahr’s description of himself as a “merchant,” Stahr sticks to the word and suggests that Charles Francis Adams, when he criticized “Gould, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Astor.” was “’probably a sourbelly.’ … ’He wanted to be head man himself, but he didn’t have the judgment or else the character.’”(Op. cit. . pp. 16-17.)

Stahr thus seems to align himself with the great American capitalists. But the tone of his answer works together with Wylie White’s admiration to prevent our thinking of him entirely in these terms, and when we see him at lunch with the financiers we quickly realize his isolation among them. As a young man he had been “more than now … a money man among money men. Then he had been able to figure costs in his head with a speed and accuracy that dazzled them.”( Op. cit. , p. 45) Since then, we learn. Stahr “had grown away from that particular gift, though it was always there.” (Ibid. ) Stahr remains a brilliant businessman, but he has become something more. Fitzgerald’s grand conception of Stahr both includes his business ability and transcends it:

He spoke and waved back as the people streamed by in the darkness, looking, I suppose, a little like the Emperor and the Old Guard. There is no world so but it has its heroes, and Stahr was the hero. Most of these men had been here a long time—through the beginnings and the great upset, when sound came, and the three years of depression, he had seen that no harm came to them. The old loyalties were trembling now, there were clay feet everywhere; but still he was their man, the last of the princes. And their greeting was a sort of low cheer as they went by. (Op. cit. , p. 27)

The kind of representative importance with which Fitzgerald intended to invest Stahr does not wholly emerge in the novel as we have it. But it becomes sufficiently plain that if Stahr is an embodiment of heroic individualism he has—despite his paternalism, his dislike of unions, and his fight with Brimmer—nothing of the Fascist about him. Indeed, one of the major themes of The Last Tycoon seems to be a partial identification of Stahr with Abraham Lincoln. Arthur Mizener has pointed out the importance of the Lincoln motif in Fitzgerald’s presentation of Stahr: he relates it, with the reference to Andrew Jackson in the episode at The Hermitage in the opening chapter, to the “political fable” Fitzgerald seems to have been developing in the book. (Arfhur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise, London 1951, pp. 295-6) It may be, however, that the identification of Stahr with Lincoln, though never complete, goes further than this, affecting other sides of Stahr’s character and other aspects of the book.

Boxley, the English novelist, finds Stahr irritating, but “he had been reading Lord Charnwood and he recognized that Stahr like Lincoln was a leader carrying on a long war on many fronts… Stahr was an artist only, as Mr. Lincoln was a general, perforce and as a layman.”(The Last Tycoon, p. 106) Going to Lord Charnwood’s biography, Abraham Lincoln, it is interesting to discover Charnwood quoting contemporary references to Lincoln as “the Tycoon’”(Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, London 1917, p. 234.) and as “King Abraham I.”’(Op. cit. . p. 377) The coincidence with Fitzgerald’s title is striking, and usefully reminds us that Fitzgerald intended Stahr as a “tycoon” in the original sense of that word quite as much as in the modern sense. There seems a possible hint here, too, of Fitzgerald’s description of Stahr as “the last of the princes” and of the moment when Kathleen assures Stahr that her real king was not nearly so king-like as Stahr himself.(The Last Tycoon, p. 112.)

There are other points of similarity between Charnwood’s Lincoln and Fitzgerald’s Stahr: both are men of humble origins and little education but of great ability and vision; both practice in their relations with subordinates complete accessibility and an unforced personal democracy; both accept without hesitation the full responsibility of their position while disliking many of the duties involved. As Fitzgerald saw, an obvious analogy can be drawn between Stahr’s position and Lincoln’s: Stahr can be seen as the commander-in-chief, receiving reports from the battleline, issuing orders to his generals (the directors), overseeing work which has to be done in detail by others. In a smaller way. Lincoln’s habit of telling a little story when a reproof had to be administered somewhat resembles Stahr’s method of handling Boxley, while it is surely in terms of the Lincoln analogy that the curious scene with the Negro on the beach at Malibu begins to take on fuller meaning: like Lincoln, but unlike Wylie White earlier in The Last Tycoon, Stahr will transform his kingdom for the Negro’s sake.

Above all, Stahr resembles Lincoln in responding supremely to the demands of power. Writers, he tells Brimmer,

“… are not equipped for authority… There is no substitute for will. Sometimes you have to fake will when you don’t feel it at all.”

“I’ve had that experience.”

“You have to say, ’It’s got to be like this—no other way’—even if you’re not sure. A dozen times a week that happens to me. Situations where there is no real reason for anything. You pretend there is.”

“All leaders have felt that,” said Brimmer. “Labor leaders, and certainly military leaders.”(Op. cit. . p. 121.)

Stahr stands as the center, the keystone of his world: in Fitzgerald’s imagery, he is “the king.”(Op. cit. , p. 112.)“the helmsman,”(Op. cit. . p. 105.)“the oracle.”(Op. cit. , p. 56.) He himself constitutes the “unity.”(Op. cit. , p. 58.) When he delivers a judgment: “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.”(Op. cit. , p. 56.) If the power of decision is, as many people would maintain, the essence of business success, then Stahr is one of the very few businessmen in fiction in whom we see the process of decision actually at work. His method, hinted at in the exchange with Brimmer, is magnificently expounded in his conversation with the pilot of the aircraft in the opening chapter:

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 just dp it.”

The pilot thought he had missed something.

“How do you mean?”

“You choose some one way for no reason at all—because that mountain’s pink or the blueprint is a better blue. You see?”

The pilot considered that this was very valuable advice. But he doubted if he’d ever be in a position to apply it.

“What I wanted to know,” he told me ruefully, “is how he ever got to be Mr. Stahr.”(Op. cit. . pp. 19-20.)

We know that Fitzgerald took this passage from an actual conversation, but that scarcely detracts from its impressiveness: indeed, we may see it as a mark of Fitzgerald’s shrewdness, which we have already seen guiding him to a convincing presentation of worlds other than his own, that he should have recognized, despite the almost absurd simplicity of the remark, its revealing accuracy. ’ Fitzgerald records that, listening to the speaker, he was impressed by “something more than shrewdness—by the largeness of what he thought.”(Notes to The Last Tycoon, p. 135.) It might be argued that the characterization of Stahr betrays traces of Fitzgerald’s old tendency to uncritical hero-worship; certainly his attempt to invest Stahr with “largeness” in the last two paragraphs of Chapter One, whatever its rhetorical success, is not altogether substantiated by what we see of Stahr in action. The very solidity and concreteness of Fitzgerald’s presentation of Stahr, the very convincingness of the scenes in what Cecilia calls “A Producer’s Day,” work against an acceptance of Stahr as a larger-than-life figure. However impressive his omni-competence, few of Stahr’s individual decisions seem especially remarkable—apart, perhaps, from his insistence on making a picture that will lose money. The shadowitiess with which Jay Gatsby is presented may raise occasional questions in the reader’s mind, but it has undoubted artistic advantages.

***

If he had lived, Fitzgerald’s completion and revision of The Last Tycoon might well have made this criticism irrelevant. There can be no question of the seriousness and thoroughness of Fitzgerald’s attempt in his novel to present a detailed portrait of a specific industry and of a dominating figure in that industry. His portrayal of Stahr and of Stahr’s world is scarcely less deliberate as social documentary than Dreiser’s portrayal of Cowperwood. This is made clear by such notes as: “[Brady] is the monopolist at his worst—Stahr, in spite of the inevitable conservatism of the self-made man, is a paternalistic employer.”(Op.Cit.. p. 140.) In his paternalism, indeed, Stahr seems rather reminiscent of Amherst in The Fruit of the Tree, but Fitzgerald has here an advantage over both Edith Wharton and Dreiser, and even over the author of his own earlier books, in his comprehensive knowledge of the world he presents and in his understanding, both as moralist and as novelist of manners, of all sides of his hero’s personality.

Completed, The Last Tycoon would have been triumphant evidence of Fitzgerald’s ability to write a social novel radically different from The Great Gatsby in both aim and method. Instead of relying on the brilliant poetic techniques which had enabled him to create the earlier novel’s wholly convincing yet somewhat insubstantial world of manners. Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon was attempting to reflect, through accretion of carefully selected detail, the whole fabric of the film industry as he knew it. The Last Tycoon would not necessarily have been a better book than The Great Gatsby nor more ambitious in scope than Tender Is the Night, but we may suspect that the Hollywood setting would have been not merely evoked, as the Long Island and New York settings are so skilfully evoked in The Great Gatsby, but recreated with complete solidity and understanding; while Monroe Stahr, for his part, would have become not only, with the possible exception of Dick Diver, the most fully drawn of Fitzgerald’s characters, but one of the outstanding portraits of a businessman in the history of American fiction.


Reprinted from American Social Fiction (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1964: New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), by permission of the author. The article first appeared as “Scott Fitzgerald as Social Novelist: Statement and Technique in The Last Tycoon,” English Studies, 43 (February, 1962), 29-34.

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