“The Last of the Novelists”: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon
by Matthew J. Bruccoli

Chronology / 1939-1940

1/ Preliminaries

Close examination of the  manuscripts and notes for the unfinished novel known as The Last Tycoon allows us to gauge the state of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work-in-progress at the time of his death and thereby to re-assess this work properly. It is evident that in the case of work-in-progress authorial intention is the crucial consideration for interpretation and evaluation. In such a work we must scrutinize the evidence for clues to its evolution; and it is obligatory that we determine how far the work had really progressed.

All critical judgment of The Last Tycoon has been strongly influenced by Edmund Wilson’s redaction of the material. His text—still the only published text—is misleading because it presents Fitzgerald’s working drafts in a finished form. In addition to emending Fitzgerald, Wilson formed chapters out of episodes; but the reader of the Wilson text has no way of knowing how much editorial improvement he is absorbing.

Examination of Fitzgerald’s drafts reveals that he regarded none of this material as finished. There are no final drafts—only latest working drafts. After Chapter One there are no chapters, and even this chapter is marked for rewrite. Indeed, it is by no means certain that Fitzgerald knew how he would end his novel. The Last Tycoon is not really an “unfinished novel,” if that term describes a work that is partly finished. The only way to regard it is as material toward a novel.

Speculation about the unwritten portion of the novel soon becomes futile. Although this problem is extremely interesting, we cannot speak with confidence about it. Fitzgerald’s undated last outline provides only topics or ideas for the thirteen unwritten episodes. The most useful approach to the study of the novel is in terms of what Fitzgerald accomplished—not of what he was planning. His novel had developed in ways that were significantly different from his other work. Most notably, Monroe Stahr is a hero without a flaw. Unlike Amory Blaine, Anthony Patch, Jay Gatsby, or Dick Diver who are afflicted with character weaknesses, Monroe Stahr is intact up to episode 17, the last episode Fitzgerald wrote. It is clear that he was to be defeated in the end, but Fitzgerald plants no seeds of self-destruction in Stahr’s character. Although Stahr’s defeat is connected with his love for Kathleen, she is not the cause. Stahr’s affair with Kathleen only provides Brady with a weapon to use against him.

Fitzgerald was a life-long hero-worshipper, but he was not able to create an unflawed hero until he himself was in his forties. It is meaningful that Monroe Stahr is the first hero in a Fitzgerald novel with a successful career: Amory and Anthony have no occupations; Gatsby’s business activities are shadowy; and Dick Diver abandons his promising 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, he is nonetheless 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.

Apart from the narrative problems with Cecelia, the most serious problem in the drafts is that Stahr’s attraction to Kathleen is not entirely convincing. Stahr is no dreamy Jay Gatsby stunned by a rich girl. He has his pick of glamorous women, none of whom interests him. Then Stahr falls in love at first sight with Kathleen. Something more than her resemblance to his dead wife is required. Kathleen is beautiful, but Stahr is inundated by beauty. Sex doesn’t account for it either, even though he has presumably gone for a long time without a woman. Again, Stahr would have no trouble finding someone beautiful to sleep with. Raymond Chandler observed that Stahr was “magnificent when he sticks to the business of dealing with pictures and the people he has to use to make them; the instant his personal life as a love-hungry and exhausted man enters the picture, he becomes just another guy with too much money and nowhere to go.”

One of the standard 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 Last Tycoon Fitzgerald created his only strong novel hero. As a consequence, perhaps, the characterization of Kathleen is not compelling. Stahr so dominates 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 one of his working titles, “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 life-long respect for achievement and his guilt about his own irresponsibility.

The Last Tycoon has always been read as a Hollywood novel—a novel about the movies. Attention to the setting has obscured an aspect of the novel that is at least of equal significance: Monroe Stahr as businessman-hero. It is a commonplace observation that America, the great business nation, has produced few major business novels. The businessmen of our literature are largely unsatisfactory because they are seen from the outside by authors who are not sure what their characters really do. Howells’ Silas Lapham, James’ Christopher Newman, and Lewis’ George F. Babbitt are travesties. Curtis Jadwin is shown at work in Norris’ The Pit, but he is not a convincing character. It is noteworthy that Lapham, Newman, and Jadwin reject their business careers. Little space is devoted to Alfred Eaton’s business activities in O’Hara’s From the Terrace. The only searching studies of the American as businessman are Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood, Cozzens’ Henry Worthington, and Monroe Stahr.

Although it is far from certain that The Last Tycoon was Fitzgerald’s final title, it is clear that Fitzgerald conceived Stahr as a “tycoon.” The tentative title “The Love of The Last Tycoon: A Western” is instructive, for the subtitle connects Stahr with all the other poor boys who went West to seek their fortunes. Stahr is also in the tradition of the Horatio Alger heroes: from office boy to boss.

The interest in the American Dream is not a late development in Fitzgerald’s work. He was fascinated by success—both personally and as a theme—throughout his career. Ambitious poor boys abound in his work. Fitzgerald believed devoutly in success, but not with a simple-minded acceptance. He understood that achievement rarely matches aspiration. After all, he had lived his own bitter drama of success: The author of This Side of Paradise at twenty-four; the author of The Great Gatsby at twenty-nine; a crack-up case at thirty-nine. All through his childhood he was aware of his father’s business failure and his maternal grandfather’s success, and was sensitive to his situation as a poor boy at rich-boy schools. Fitzgerald’s response was not the seething resentment of a revolutionary, but rather envy qualified by the recognition of the limitations of success. Ambition was not a pejorative term for Fitzgerald. In his way he was as ambitious as any Ragged Dick or Monroe Stahr.

The interpretation of The Last Tycoon as a respectful study of the American business hero is enforced by a note Fitzgerald made for a projected scene in which Stahr is told to quit work by his doctors.

The idea fills Stahr with a horror that I must write a big scene to bring off. Such a scene as has never been written. The scene that to Stahr is the equivalent to that of an amorous man being told that he is about to be castrated. In other words, the words of the doctor fill Stahr with a horror that I must be able to convey to the laziest reader—the blow to Stahr and the utter unwillingness to admit that at this point, 35 years old, his body should refuse to serve him and carry on these plans which he has built up like a pyramid of fairy skyscrapers in his imagination.

He has survived the talkies, the depression, carried his company over terrific obstacles and done it all with a growing sense of kingliness—of some essential difference which he could not help feeling between himself and the ordinary run of man and now from the mere accident of one organ of his body refusing to pull its weight, he is incapacitated from continuing. Let him go through every stage of revolt.

Such a scene as has never been written. It is not forcing the evidence to claim that this phrase indicates Fitzgerald’s sense of identification with Stahr. Like his hero, Fitzgerald was working against failing health. With the irony by which life sometimes improves on literature, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack while writing about his dying hero.

Stahr possesses an impressive mastery of movie-making, but he does not actually make them. He functions as a leader and supervises the people who make the movies. Stahr does not write screenplays or direct movies or edit film; but he tells all of these people how to do their jobs better. It diminishes Stahr to classify him as an administrator, or even as a producer. Stahr is, as he claims, “The unity”—like a novelist.

As a boy Stahr wanted to be the person who had all the keys and knew where everything was. In running the studio he delegates very little—both because he does not have much confidence in his subordinates and because everyone has learned to depend on Stahr. His work is his life; and he would rather be dead than deprived of work. In every possible way Stahr is a refutation of all the cliches about movie executives. Endowed with supreme intelligence and taste, he has elevated an art form without being an artist. There is no criticism of Stahr in the pages Fitzgerald wrote. Even in the scene withthe union organizor, Stahr behaves foolishly but understandably and sympathetically. Bitterly unhappy and pathetically drunk, the frail, sick leader tries to beat up Brimmer himself.

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the extent to which Fitzgerald was able to project himself into Stahr and understand his allegiances, although Fitzgerald did not share them. Fitzgerald—while not politically active—had liberal convictions, but Stahr is a conservative. A self-made man, Stahr believes that anyone with ability can succeed, and resists any attempt by outsiders to interfere with his studio, his people. Even though Stahr admits to having originated the treatment of screenwriters that Fitzgerald bitterly resented, Stahr’s policies are justified in terms of his responsibilities. When Stahr says that writers are “unstable” and that “they are not equipped for authority,” Brimmer does not contradict him. Fitzgerald may have smiled ruefully when he wrote these words, but he did not violate the integrity of the characterization. From Stahr’s position writers are undependable, and he will not yield power to them. For many authors the writing of fiction is an opportunity to live another life. In writing The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald granted himself the chance to run a studio, and found that he would have run it much the way Stahr did.

It is an overstatement to claim that The Last Tycoon was developing as a political fable, but it is impossible to ignore what might be called the presidential theme in the novel as Fitzgerald associates Stahr with American leaders. Presidential references echo throughout the novel. Stahr’s first name is Monroe. In Chapter One, Cecelia, Wylie White, and Schwartze visit Andrew Jackson’s home. Prince Agge and Boxley see Stahr as a Lincolnesque figure, and Boxley’s recognition is specific: “he had been reading Lord Charnwood and he recognized that Stahr like Lincoln was a leader carrying on a long war on many fronts; almost single-handed he had moved pictures sharply forward through a decade, to a point where the content of the ’A productions’ was wider and richer than that of the stage. Stahr was an artist only, as Mr. Lincoln was a general, perforce and as a layman.” And there is even the comic scene involving the telephone talk with the orang-outang who looks like President McKinley; at first Stahr thinks the call is from President Roosevelt. In the unwritten part of the novel Fitzgerald planned tohave Stahr wander around Washington, D.C., sick. By means of these presidential associations Fitzgerald tried to place Stahr in the tradition of the American leaders, to endow him with a largeness of character that goes beyond the movie industry. The Lincoln connection is not far-fetched: Stahr is another poor boy who rose to a position of enormous responsibility without losing his humane qualities. From log cabin to the White House; from the Bronx to Hollywood. Stahr is the last tycoon, the last of the paternalistic bosses who takes full responsibility for his business. He is a production man, not a money man; and he is an anachronism, under attack from both the capitalists and the communists. He represents an older American tradition of personal responsibility, which is being defeated by the forces of collectivism. Unlike Thalberg, who fought for a bigger share of the profits, Stahr is not interested in money. He is literally working himself to death because he needs to exercise responsibility, and because there is nothing else he would rather do. But the financiers and the lawyers are taking over the studio. The novel marks the end of a phase of American capitalism—the end of individual responsibility in industry.

Robert Sklar has written that Fitzgerald was the last major American novelist “to grow up believing in the genteel romantic ideals that pervaded late nineteenth-century American culture,” and argues that “overcoming the genteel tradition was also, in Fitzgerald’s case, the prerequisite for creating lasting art.” The second part of Sklar’s thesis can be challenged, for it is by no means clear that Fitzgerald rejected the standards of his boyhood. Monroe Stahr is a 1935 incarnation of the nineteenth-century American hero—the self-made man who embodies the principles of integrity and responsibility. Perhaps, then, the mutual allegiances of Stahr and Fitzgerald provide the key to the meaning of the moving note, “I am the last of the novelists for a long time now.” That comment does not refer to technique or to form. It can only be understood in terms of theme and, above all, character. Fitzgerald believed in ordered social structures and in the role of individual character in maintaining them. His concept of character was romanticized, however, for he also believed in great men. Stahr represents the twenty-year development of the aristocratic romantic egotism introduced in Amory Blaine.  For all of Amory’s inchoate rebelliousness and iconoclasm, he is in quest of values that will satisfy his need to shape society while at the same time fulfilling his uniqueness. This attitude is a form of noblesse oblige—with the character’s sense of duty stemming from a conviction of his special ability. It can be differentiated from that of the Hemingway hero who generates a private set of rules in the absence of any belief in social order. The Hemingway code is built on controlled despair. Fitzgerald was a believer. He grew up believing in the promises of America. He believed in the possibilities of life. He believed in character. He believed in decency, honor, courage, responsibility. More than any other Fitzgerald hero, Monroe Stahr exemplifies these qualities. That may be why F. Scott Fitzgerald thought of him as “the last tycoon”—and of himself as the “last of the novelists.”

Next: Chapter 2 Backgrounds