The Last Tycoon is not a biographical novel; Monroe Stahr is a fictional character who exemplifies Fitzgerald's essential theme of aspiration.
Fitzgerald did not know Thalberg well, having worked for him—but not with him—briefly and unsatisfactorily. However, the impression that Thalberg made on him at their first encounter in 1917 is preserved in one of Fitzgerald's working notes:
We sat in the old commissary at Metro and he said, “Scottie, supposing there's got to be a road through a mountain—a railroad and two or three surveyors and people come to you and you believe some of them and some of them you don't believe, but all in all, there seem to be half a dozen possible roads through those mountains, each one of which, so far as you can determine, is as good as the other. Now suppose you happen to be the top man, there's a point where you don't exercise the faculty of judgment in the ordinary way, but simply the faculty of arbitrary decision. You say, 'Well, I think we will put the road there' and you trace it with your finger and you know in your secret heart and no one else knows, that you have no reason for putting the road there rather than in several other different courses, but you're the only person that knows that you don't know why you're doing it and you've got to stick to that and you've got to pretend that you know and that you did it for specific reasons, even though you're utterly assailed by doubts at times as to the wisdom of your decision because all these other possible decisions keep echoing in your ear. But when you're planning a new enterprise on a grand scale, the people under you mustn't ever know or guess that you're in any doubt because they've all got to have something to look up to and they mustn't ever dream that you're in doubt about any decision. Those things keep occurring.”
At that point, some other people came into the commissary and sat down and the first thing I knew there was a group of four and the intimacy of the conversation was broken, but I was very much impressed by the shrewdness of what he said—something more than shrewdness—by the largeness of what he thought and how he reached it at the age of 26, which he was then.
This encounter was written into the first chapter of the novel as Stahr's lecture to the pilot on responsibility.
When Fitzgerald began writing his Hollywood novel in 1939 he had not published a novel since Tender Is the Night in 1934. He was on the MGM payroll from July 1937 to December 1938 but received only one screen credit—for his collaboration on the Three Comrades screenplay. After MGM declined to renew his contract he supported his family by occasional brief free-lance screenwriting jobs and short-short stories for Esquire magazine. The short-shorts included seventeen stories about Pat Hobby, a broken-down Hollywood hack. These stories are not autobiographical; they are mainly satirical and have no direct connection with the novel Fitzgerald was writing at the same time. He needed financial backing to work on the novel and attempted to obtain an advance from Collier's magazine for the pre-book serial rights—that is, to sell the novel before it was written. Accordingly, he sent this prospectus to Collier's editor Kenneth Littauer on 19 September 1939:
This will be difficult for two reasons. First that there is one fact about my novel, which, if it were known, would be immediately and unscrupulously plagiarized by the George Kaufmans (*Fitzgerald was convinced that his play The Vegetable had provided playwright George S. Kaufman with the idea for Of Thee I Sing (1931). Editor. ), etc., of this world. Second, that I live always in deadly fear that I will take the edge off an idea for myself by summarizing or talking about it in advance. But, with these limitations, here goes:
The novel will be fifty thousand words long. As I will have to write sixty thousand words to make room for cutting I have figured it as a four months job—three months for the writing—one month for revision. The thinking, according to my conscience and the evidence of sixty pages of outline and notes, has already been done. I would infinitely rather do it, now that I am well again, then take hack jobs out here.
The Story occurs during four or five months in the year 1935. It is told by Cecelia, the daughter of a producer named Bradoguc in Hollywood. Cecelia is a pretty, modern girl neither good nor bad, tremendously human. Her father is also an important character. A shrewd man, a gentile, and a scoundrel of the lowest variety. A self-made man, he has brought Cecelia up to be a princess, sent her East to college, made of her rather a snob, though, in the course of the story, her character evolves away from this. That is, she was twenty when the events that she tells occurred, but she is twenty-five when she tells about the events, and of course many of them appear to her in a different light.
Cecelia is the narrator because I think I know exactly how such a person would react to my story. She is of the movies but not in them. She probably was born the day “The Birth of the Nation” was previewed and Rudolph Valentino came to her fifth birthday party. So she is, all at once, intelligent, cynical but understanding and kindly toward the people, great or small, who are of Hollywood.
She focuses our mention upon two principal characters—Milton [Monroe] Stahr (who is Irving Thalberg—and this is my great secret) and Thalia [Kathleen Moore], the girl he loves. Thalberg has always fascinated me. His peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success, the tragic end of his great adventure. The events I have built around him are fiction, but all of them are things which might very well have happened, and I am pretty sure that I saw deep enough into the character of the man so that his reactions are authentically what they would have been in life. So much so that he may be recognized—but it will also be recognized that no single fact is actually true. For example, in my story he is unmarried or a widower, leaving out completely any complication with Norma. ('Actress Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg's widow. Editor.)
In the beginning of the book I want to pour out my whole impression of this man Stahr as he is seen during an airplane trip from New York to the coast—of course, through Cecelia's eyes. She has been hopelessly in love with him for a long time. She is never going to win anything more from him than an affectionate regard, even that tainted by his dislike of her father (parallel the deadly dislike of each other between Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer). Stahr is over-worked and deathly tired, ruling with a radiance that is almost moribund in its phosphorescence. He has been warned that his health is undermined, but being afraid of nothing the warning is unheeded. He has had everything in life except the privilege of giving himself unselfishly to another human being. This he finds on the night of a semi-serious earthquake (like in 1935} a few days after the opening of the story.
It has been a very full day even for Stahr—the bursted water mains, which cover the whole ground space of the lot to the depth of several feet, seems to release something in him. Called over to the outer lot to supervise the salvation of the electrical plant (for like Thalberg, he has a ringer in every pie of the vast bakery) he finds two women stranded on the roof of a property farmhouse and goes to their rescue.
Thalia Taylor is a twenty-six year old widow, and my present conception of her should make her the most glamorous and sympathetic of my heroines. Glamorous in a new way because I am in secret agreement with the public in detesting the type of feminine arrogance that has been pushed into prominence in the case of Brenda Frazier, ('New York celebrity debutante. Editor.) etc. People simply do not sympathize deeply with those who have had all the breaks, and I am going to dower this girl, like Rosalba in Thackeray's “Rose in the Ring” with “a little misfortune.” She and the woman with her (to whom she is serving as companion) have come secretly on the lot through the other woman's curiosity. They have been caught there when the catastrophe occurred.
Now we have a love affair between Stahr and Thalia, an immediate, dynamic, unusual, physical love affair—and I will write it so that you can publish it. At the same time I will send you a copy of how it will appear in book form somewhat stronger in tone.
This love affair is the meat of the book—though I am going to treat it, remember, as it comes through to Cecelia. That is to say by making Cecelia at the moment of her telling the story, an intelligent and observant woman, I shall grant myself the privilege, as Conrad did, of letting her imagine the actions of the characters. Thus, I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.(This paragraph indicates that from the start Fitzgerald was concerned with point-of-view. See below, pp. 15-16. Editor.)
Two events beside the love affair bulk large in the intermediary chapters. There is a definite plot on the part of Bradogue [Brady], Cecelia's father, to get Stahr out of the company. He has even actually and factually considered having him murdered. Bradogue is the monopolist at its worst—Stahr, in spite of the inevitable conservatism of the self-made man, is a paternalistic employer. Success came to him young, at twenty-three, and left certain idealisms of his youth unscarred. Moreover, he is a worker. Figuratively he takes off his coat and pitches in, while Bradogue is not interested in the making of pictures save as it will benefit his bank account.
The second incident is how young Cecelia herself, in her desperate love for Stahr, throws herself at his head. In her reaction at his indifference she gives herself to a man whom she does not love. This episode is not absolutely necessary to the serial. It could be tempered but it might be best to eliminate it altogether.
Back to the main theme, Stahr cannot bring himself to marry Thalia. It simply doesn't seem part of his life. He doesn't realize that she has become necessary to him. Previously his name has been associated with this or that well-known actress or society personality and Thalia is poor, unfortunate, and tagged with a middle class exterior which doesn't fit in with the grandeur Stahr demands of life. When she realizes this she leaves him temporarily, leaves him not because he has no legal intentions toward her but because of the hurt of it, the remainder of a vanity from which she had considered herself free.
Stahr is now plunged directly into the fight to keep control of the company. His health breaks down very suddenly while he is on a trip to New York to see the stockholders. He almost dies in New York and comes back to find that Bradogue has seized upon his absence to take steps which Stahr considers unthinkable. He plunges back into work again to straighten things out.
Now, realizing how much he needs Thalia, things are patched up between them. For a day or two they are ideally happy. They are going to marry, but he must make one more trip East to clinch the victory which he has conciliated in the affairs of the company.
Now occurs the final episode which should give the novel its quality—and its unusualness. Do you remember about 1933 when a transport plane was wrecked on a mountain-side in the Southwest, and a Senator was killed? The thing that struck me about it was that the country people rifled the bodies of the dead. (*On 6 May 1935 Senator Branson M. Cutting and four others were killed when a passenger plane crashed at Atlanta, Missouri. Also aboard were members of a Paramount film crew. The local people aided in rescuing the injured; the wreckage was not plundered. See Richard Lowitt, Branson M. Cutting (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991). Editor) That is just what happens to this plane which is bearing Stahr from Hollywood. The angle is that of three children who, on a Sunday picnic, are the first to discover the wreckage. Among those killed in the accident besides Stahr are two other characters we have met. (I have not been able to go into the minor characters in this short summary.) Of the three children, two boys and a girl, who find the bodies, one boy rifled Stahr's possessions; another, the body of a ruined ex-producer; and the girl, those of a moving picture actress. The possessions which the children find, symbolically determine their attitude toward their act of theft. The possessions of the moving picture actress tend the young girl to a selfish possessiveness; those of the unsuccessful producer sway one of the boys toward an irresolute attitude; while the boy who finds Stahr's briefcase is the one who, after a week, saves and redeems all three by going to a local judge and making full confession.
The story swings once more back to Hollywood for its finale. During the story Thalia has never once been inside a studio. After Stahr's death as she stands in front of the great plant which he created, she realizes now that she never will. She knows only that he loved her and that he was a great man and that he died for what he believed in.
This is a novel—not even faintly of the propoganda type. Indeed, Thalberg's opinions were entirely different from mine in many respects that I will not go into. I've long chosen him for a hero (this has been in my mind for three years) because he is one of the half-dozen men I have known who were built on the grand scale. That it happens to coincide with a period in which the American Jews are somewhat uncertain in their morale, is for me merely a fortuitous coincidence. The racial angle shall scarcely be touched on at all. Certainly if Ziegfield ('Florenz Ziegfeld (1869-1911), producer of lavish annual Broadway-shows called The Ziegfeld Follies. Editor) could be made into an epic figure than what about Thalberg who was literally everything that Ziegfield wasn't?
There's nothing that worries me in the novel, nothing that seems uncertain. Unlike Tender is the Night it is not the story of deterioration—it is not depressing and not morbid in spite of the tragic ending. If one book could ever be “like” another I should say it is more “like” The Great Gatsby than any other of my books. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena. I have set it safely in a period of five years ago to obtain detachment, but now that Europe is tumbling about our ears this also seems to be for the best. It is an escape into a lavish, romantic past that perhaps will not come again into our time. It is certainly a novel I would like to read. Shall I write it?
Fitzgerald's copy of the letter continues:
As I said, I would rather do this for a minimum price than continue this in-and-out business with the moving pictures where the rewards are great, but the satisafction unsatisfactory and the income tax always mopping one up after the battle.
The minimum I would need to do this with peace of mind would be $ 15,000., payable $3,000. in advance and $3,000. on the first of November, the first of December, the first of January and the first of February, on delivery of the last instalment. For this I would guarantee to do no other work, specifically pictures, to make any changes in the manuscript (but not to have them made for me) and to begin to deliver the copy the first of November, that is to give you fifteen thousand words by that date.
Unless these advances are compatible with your economy, Kenneth, the deal would be financially impossible for me under the present line up. Four months of sickness completely stripped me and until your telegram came I had counted on a build up of many months work here before I could consider beginning the novel. Once again a telegram would help tremendously, as I am naturally on my toes and [the rest is missing].
Littauer replied on 10 October that he could not make an advance without seeing a “substantial sample of the finished product”—15,000 words. Fitzgerald needed the advance to write the sample. In November he sent Collier's a 6,000 - word draft of the first chapter, but the editor declined to support Fitzgerald's further work because the opening was “pretty cryptic.” Thereafter Fitzgerald combined writing his novel with money-making work.
Fitzgerald was a meticulous planner and painstaking rewriter of his novels. He wrote in pencil and revised his prose through layers of secretarial typescript: he never typed. Working slowly he had written 44,000 words for five chapters and the opening of the sixth chapter—for a planned nine-chapter novel—when he died. It is necessary to emphasize that he regarded these words as work in progress to be revised and rewritten. After Chapter 1, he wrote episodes to be combined into chapters in a later stage. The latest typescript for Chapter 1 is headed: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don't look—rewrite from mood.” Moreover, these episode drafts are in various states of revision. There is no final typescript for the finished parts of the novel. The surviving text is not just an unfinished novel: it is work in progress toward an unfinished novel—a novel in the process of development and refinement.
The Love of the Last Tycoon is properly read and judged as a work in progress: drafts in which Fitzgerald had not yet fulfilled his intentions but can be seen working toward them—or perhaps discovering his intentions in the act of writing.
Point-of-view—who tells the story; how it is told; from what perspective it is told—is the fundamental technique of fiction writing. It is the means by which the author controls the reader's response; and it is the means by which the author controls the tone of the work. Tone is the writer's attitude toward the material and therefore the attitude to be developed in the reader. The warmth of Fitzgerald's narrative voice is a defining quality of his prose.
Apart from plotting problems, the most serious difficulty in the drafts involves the use of Cecelia as narrator. There are two voices in the drafts of The Love of the Last Tycoon, but the voices of Cecelia and the omniscient narrator are not consistently differentiated. Having succeeded brilliantly with the partially involved narrator Nick Carraway in The Creat Gatsby, Fitzgerald intended to develop the device further in The Love of the Last Tycoon. His prospectus for Collier's expresses his plan for using Cecelia's narrative “to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.” This intention is not realized in the drafts, and Cecelia relates events she could not have witnessed. One of Fitzgerald's working notes indicates that he had decided to let the point-of-view inconsistencies stand: “Cecelia does not tell the story though I write it as if she does whenever I can get the effect of looking out.” There are two places where Fitzgerald found it necessary to remind the reader that the point-of-view had shifted: “This is Cecelia taking up the narrative in person”.
Fitzgerald was a lifelong hero-worshipper, but he was not able to create an unflawed hero until he himself was in his forties. Monroe Stahr is the first hero in a Fitzgerald novel with a successful career: Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch have no occupations; Gatsby's business activities are shadowy; and Dick Diver abandons his promising medical career. But Stahr is totally committed to his work and the responsibility that goes with it. He is Fitzgerald's only complete professional. Moreover, Stahr is immune to the emotional bankruptcy that is epidemic in Fitzgerald's work after 1930. A lonely young widower with a pervasive sense of loss, Stahr is nonethe-less not broken by loss, and he retains the capacity to love again. Stahr's one terrible mistake comes when he delays the decision to go away with Kathleen by one day—and during that day he loses her. If one is compelled to seek a flaw in Stahr, it is that he has an excess of reason or discipline; but it would be difficult to support this reading.
One of the familiar lines of Fitzgerald criticism is that his women are tougher than his men; that in what almost amounts to a reversal of traditional sexual roles, the men tend to be romantically weak, whereas the women are strong. In The Love of the Last Tycoon Fitzgerald created his only strong novel hero. As a consequence, perhaps, the characterization of Kathleen is not compelling. Stahr so commands the reader's attention and imagination that no one else in the novel can compete with him. It is possible that at forty-four Fitzgerald no longer felt as keenly about women as he once had. That Fitzgerald sensed a deficiency in his treatment of Kathleen is revealed by his note: “Where will the warmth come from in this. Why does he think she's warm. Warmer than the voice in Farewell. My girls were all so warm and full of promise. The sea at night. What can I do to make it honest and different?”
A clue to Fitzgerald's difficulties with Kathleen is provided by his working title: The Love of the Last Tycoon. The novel has a split focus. It is a love story and a character study of an American archetype. Stahr dominates the novel, and the strongest scenes are those that show him at work. There are many ironies in Fitzgerald's career, but none is more eloquent than that the “laureate of the Jazz Age” became the admiring creator of a worker-boss. Nevertheless, this irony is not surprising in view of Fitzgerald's lifelong respect for achievement and his guilt about his own irresponsibility.
Because it was necessary for Fitzgerald to interrupt work on the novel for income-generating writing, he prepared a careful outline-plan. The nine-chapter organization in the first column divides the chapters in thirty episodes, with a chronology and projected word counts. The middle column notes the principal action and function of each chapter. The third column provides a five-act structure. Although Fitzgerald had written seventeen episodes when he died, he had only started the third act. The novel was growing as he wrote, and the 51,000-word projection was no longer accurate.
Fitzgerald's outline-plan is supplemented by Sheilah Graham's 6 March 1941 report to Wilson:
This is how it was going to end:
Brady was out to ruin Stahr in the same way that at one rime, and perhaps all the time, L. B. Mayer was out to wrest control of Metro from and/or to ruin Irving Thalberg. Stahr was almost kicked out and decided to remove Brady. He resorted to Brady's own gangster methods—he was going to have him murdered.
On a plane flying back to Hollywood Stahr decides not to go through with the murder, which has already been planned and which other people are doing for him—if he did, he would be as bad as the Brady crowd. So at the next airplane stop he plans a cancellation of orders. I imagine the murder was to take place within a few hours. Before the next stop, however, the 'plane crashes, and Stahr is killed. Which left the murder to go through.
I think the final scene of all was to have been Stahr's funeral. And Scott was going to use an actual incident that happened at Thalberg's funeral. Harry Carey, a well-known actor in the old silents and popular in the early talkies, had been unable to get a job in pictures for several years before Thalberg died. He did not know Thalberg and was surprised to receive an invitation to act as pallbearer at his funeral. It was considered a great honor and only the most important and most intimate of Thalberg's friends (all of them important) were asked to be pallbearers. Harry Carey—slightly dazed, accepted and big-shots at the funeral were amazed when they saw Carey, presuming he had an inside track of some sort with Thalberg, and as a direct result he was deluged with picture offers and has been working ever since. The invitation was a mistake. It was meant for someone else, whom Scott told me about but whose name I have forgotten. ('One of Fitzgerald's notes reads: “Harry Gary gets Cary Wilson's invite. A new career.” Both Harry Carey and writer Cary Wilson were pallbearers at Thalberg's funeral. The widely reported anecdote is disputed in Bob Thomas's Thalberg (Garden City, NY: Doublcday, 1969). Editor)
Scott was going to have at the funeral all the Hollywood hypocrites assembled in full force. I had told him of the Marx Brothers sobbing their eyes out on the day Thalberg died—always making sure they were within crying distance of the “right” people. Scott was going to have Stahr's spirit say, “Trash!”
The English girl was to remain an outsider in Hollywood—I think one of Scott's notes has that she would never get inside a studio (although that is where Stahr first saw her on that idol floating down with the flood). Cecelia, that narrator, is writing her story in a sanitarium for T.B.'s, and this, of course, would be revealed at the end.
At the point where Scott left off things were to go badly for Stahr in business and love. Many things, although in the plan, would have been changed in the same way that he deviated within the structure of the plot on what he had already written and the plan. In the plan he had the American man the English girl married, a technician or something in the studio. But I think he was going to change that—make him more powerful, put him in the position of damaging Stahr.
As planned, the novel had an ending (the plane crash) followed by an epilogue (Kathleen and the funeral).
However, Graham's account does not necessarily provide Fitzgerald's final plot. It is unlikely that he had decided how the novel would continue. As late as 2 November 1940—less than two months before his death—he wrote to his wife, Zelda, that the novel “is still in the early character-planting stage.” This statement applies to Robinson and Zavras, who were obviously planted for plot purposes to be utilized in the unwritten episodes. Zavras's last speech to Stahr in Episode 11 is: “If you want anybody's throat cut anytime day or night... my number is in the book.”
The 1941 publication of Edmund Wilson's edition of this novel in a volume with The Great Gatsby and short stories elicited Stephen Vincent Benet's prescient declaration: “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.” In the half-century since then, F. Scon Fitzgerald's incomplete work has come to be regarded as the most promising—and the most disappointing—fragment in American fiction. The purpose of the present edition of The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western is to foster the proper assessment of the work in progress as a work of art.
Just as a work in progress requires special reading, so does it require appropriate editing. The rationale for this edition of The Love of the Last Tycoon is to provide a trustworthy reading text that preserves the form and organization of Fitzgerald's latest working typescripts while correcting typographical and factual errors that he expected to be corrected before publication of the completed novel. Thus the surviving episodes have not been combined into chapters, but nonfunctional errors (* A nonfunctional error is not deliberate and serves no purpose in the work; a functional error is intentional and purposeful in the interior world of the fiction) have been emended. Fitzgerald was a social realist. There is abundant evidence that he wanted to get details right. The many errors in his published books resulted from the lack of editorial help Fitzgerald expected and required. It is not an act of literary piety to protect and perpetuate obvious errors that distract careful readers. The proper function of a critical edition is to fulfill the author's clear intentions. The corrections in this edition involve only word substitutions: see Explanatory Note on Greek culture, 61.10-11-Fitzgerald's prose has not heen rewritten. Fitzgerald spelled and punctuated by ear. The misspellings have been corrected; in a few cases it was necessary to decide which word he was trying to spell. Fitzgerald's spellings of his characters' names have been retained, except for the Greek cameraman Pete Zavras, who is called Pedro Garcia in the drafts—almost certainly an authorial private joke. Fitzgerald's punctuation, which indicates the prose rhythms he heard as he wrote, has been retained when not potentially confusing. He was a light punctuator who rationed commas and preferred dashes to colons or semicolons. Fitzgerald never mastered the rules for punctuating dialogue, and these flaws have been corrected here. Despite a policy of conservative emendation, this new text of The Love of the Last Tycoon makes 843 emendations of words and punctuation in the typescript of the latest working drafts.
Matthew J. Bruccoli The University of South Carolina 1993