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

2/ Backgrounds

The remote inception of The Last Tycoon can be attributed to 14 September 1936, the date of Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg’s death. Five days later F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to C. O. Kalman: “Talbert’s final collapse is the death of an enemy for me, though I liked the guy enormously. He had an idea that his wife and I were playing around, which was absolute nonsense, but I think even so that he killed the idea of either Hopkins or Frederick Marsh doing ‘Tender is the Night.’” Samuel Marx, who was then MGM story editor, recalls that Fitzgerald woke Thalberg with a late-night alcoholic phone call in 1934 to try to sell him Tender.

On 16 October 1936 Fitzgerald informed Maxwell Perkins, his Scribners editor: “I have a novel planned, or rather I should say conceived, which fits much better into the circumstances, but neither by this inheritance nor in view of the general financial situation do I see clear to undertake it. It is a novel certainly as long as Tender Is The Night, and knowing my habit of endless corrections and revisions, you will understand that I figure it at two years.” Nothing further was forthcoming about this project. There is no evidence that Fitzgerald was thinking about Irving Thalberg as the subject for the novel; but the chronological connection is intriguing, since he wrote this letter less than two months after Thalberg’s death.

Although he did not know Thalberg well, the producer was precisely the kind of man who could capture Fitzgerald’s imagination because Thalberg represented the qualities that Fitzgerald admired.The most brilliant of the Hollywood producers, Irving Thalberg had taste, intelligence, and personal style. Already the leading Hollywood producer in his twenties, Thalberg—more than anyone else of his time—raised the quality of the movies. He was, in the language of This Side of Paradise, a personage.

Irving Grant Thalberg—the “boy wonder” of Hollywood—was born in Brooklyn on 30 May 1899, the son of William and Henrietta Heyman Thalberg. His parents were of German-Alsatian Jewish stock. William was a lace importer, and the family enjoyed a middle-class standard of living. Thalberg was not a poor boy, unlike Monroe Stahr. Henrietta was fiercely ambitious for her son, who had been born a blue baby and was not expected to have a long life.

Thalberg attended Brooklyn Boys’ High School until 1916, when he came down with rheumatic fever. After recovering, he studied in night school and went to work as a secretary-stenographer. In 1918 he was employed by Carl Laemmle at the Universal Pictures office in New York. Laemmle took Thalberg to California on an inspection trip and left him at the studio. When Laemmle returned, he made Thalberg the studio manager at twenty.

Dissatisfied with his salary at Universal, Thalberg joined Louis B. Mayer as Vice-President of the Mayer Company in 1923. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed by Loew’s in 1924, Thalberg became Second Vice-President and Supervisor of Production. Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, and J. Robert Rubin— “the Mayer Group”—participated in the profits of MGM. Thalberg’s capacity for work became a Hollywood legend, along with his taste and perfectionism. He routinely insisted on expensive retakes to improve films that were considered completed. His films at MGM included The Merry Widow (1925), The Big Parade (1925), Ben-Hur (1926), The Broadway Melody (1929), The Big House (1930), Anna Christie (1930), Trader Horn (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), and Rasputin and the Empress (1932).

Thalberg was a small man—5 feet 6 inches and about 120 pounds. He spoke quietly and had good manners, but could be tough. In 1927 Thalberg married actress Norma Shearer, and the marriage was regarded as a great success. They had two children. The Thalbergs lived quietly, for his health was always precarious.

Bad feeling between the Mayer Group and Loew’s developed in 1929 when Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s, tried to sell Loew’s and MGM to William Fox. Mayer and Thalberg opposed the deal, which was stymied by the stock-market crash and the threat of anti-trust proceedings. Loew’s placated the Mayer Group with a large cash bonus, but Thalberg was not satisfied. He felt that his share of the profits was incommensurate with his responsibility for the success of MGM. In 1929 the division of the profits was: Mayer, 53 percent; Thalberg, 20 percent, Rubin, 27 percent. A new contract was negotiated that raised Thalberg’s share to 30 percent by lowering Mayer’s to 43 percent. Mayer resented his young partner’s financial ambitions, but Thalberg continued to press for a larger share; by 1932 Mayer and Thalberg each received 37 1/2 percent of the profits. In 1932 Thalberg announced that he wanted to quit MGM. Schenck persuaded him to stay by offering a stock option. During these negotiations Thalberg and Mayer became estranged as Mayer, a powerful ego, felt that he was being disparaged by an ungrateful protege. That same year Thalberg collapsed from overwork. While he was recovering Mayer and Schenck hired David O. Selznick as a producer at MGM without consulting Thalberg, and he felt that he had been betrayed. In 1933 when Thalberg was en route to Europe MGM instituted a 50 percent pay cut, which Thalberg opposed because the studio was making money. While Thalberg was vacationing in Europe he received a cable from Mayer informing him that he had been removed as MGM production head. Although Mayer insisted that the move was designed to protect Thalberg’s health by relieving him of pressure, Thalberg was angered and hurt. When he returned he was given his own production unit. There was no change in his salary or percentage.

Thalberg’s reaction to the Screen Writers Guild is not clear. His biographer, Bob Thomas, states that Thalberg opposed the Guild and that he joined with Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox to support the Screen Playwrights. According to Thomas, Thalberg defeated a strike vote by the Guild by promising to shut MGM: “For if you proceed with this strike, I shall close down the entire plant, without a single exception.” However, Samuel Marx, who was then MGM story editor, insists, “Thalberg had nothing to do with the forming of the Screen Playwrights,  either—he was in Europe through the spring of 1933, when it began…In a very short time he assumed a neutral position.”

Thalberg came to feel that Mayer was lowering the standards of MGM films and that he was failing to cooperate fully with the Thalberg unit. Their estrangement became increasingly bitter. A new source of antagonism was provided in 1935 when Thalberg began planning the I. G. Thalberg Corporation, which would distribute through Loew’s but be independent of MGM. Mayer opposed the plan, and a compromise was worked out that would enable Thalberg to form his new company in 1939. Irving Thalberg died of pneumonia in September 1936.

The outstanding films made at MGM by Thalberg’s unit were The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), China Seas (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), A Night at the Opera (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), The Good Earth (1937), Camille (1937)—the last two of which were released after his death.

While Fitzgerald was writing The Last Tycoon he drafted an inscription “To Write in Copy to Shearer”:

You told me you read little because of your eyes but I think this book will interest you—and though the story is purely imaginary perhaps you could see it as an attempt to preserve something of Irving[. ] My own impression of him shortly recorded but very dazzling in its effect on me, inspired the best part of the character of Stahr—though I have put in somethings drawn from of other men and, inevitably, much of myself.

I invented a tragic story and Irvings life was, of course, not tragic except his struggle against ill health, because no one has ever written a tragedy about Hollywood (a Star is Born was a pathetic story and often beautiful story but not a tragedy and doomed and heroic things do happen here.
With Old Affection and Gratitude

The first documented meeting between Fitzgerald and Thalberg came in 1927 when Fitzgerald was working for First National on “Lipstick.” The thirty-one-year-old novelist and the twenty-seven-year-old producer talked briefly, and some twelve years later Fitzgerald wrote a memo to himself about the impression Thalberg had made on him:

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 then and some of them you don’t believe; but all in all, there seems 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 you 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 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.

The next recorded encounter between the two men came in November-December 1931 when Fitzgerald was employed by MGM to write a screenplay based on Katharine Brush’s Red Headed Woman, on which Fitzgerald was teamed with another writer, Marcel de Sano. Although Fitzgerald wanted to ask Thalberg—now hisboss—to let him work alone, he was dissuaded by studio friends. The Fitzgerald-de Sano screenplay was not used; and Fitzgerald believed that MGM held it against him when he returned to his family in Montgomery, though he had been hired for only five weeks. A now-legendary episode occurred during this 1931 Hollywood stint when, inspired by alcohol, Fitzgerald made himself ridiculous by performing a humorous song at the Thalbergs’ home. The next day he received this telegram: “I THOUGHT YOU WERE ONE OF THE MOST AGREEABLE PERSONS AT OUR TEA=NORMA THALBERG.” These events were written into “Crazy Sunday,” Fitzgerald’s 1932 story about Hollywood.

It is possible that Fitzgerald developed a certain resentment toward Thalberg during his work for MGM in 1931. Fitzgerald was just another employee, assigned against his will to collaborate with a writer he regarded as a hack. He did not know whether other writers were assigned to the same project, and he had no control over his own work. This factory system for screenwriters had been developed by Thalberg. Some resentment is discernible in “Crazy Sunday,” which presents a mixed assessment of the Thalbergs as Miles Caiman and Stella Walker. (The echoes in the name sounds—Stella Walker / Norma Shearer; Caiman / Thalberg—provide a clue to identification.) Caiman is described as “the only American-born director with both an interesting temperament and an artistic conscience,” but the neurotic depiction of him is not totally admiring. Yet after Caiman’s death in a plane crash—the same death Fitzgerald planned for Stahr—the narrator thinks, “What a hell of a hole he leaves in this damn wilderness—already!” The portrait of Stella Walker Caiman is even more ambivalent, if intended as a compliment to Norma Shearer Thalberg, for Stella is a shallow creature whose personality has been created by her husband. After she learns of Caiman’s death she wants to sleep with the narrator as a way of denying the reality of her husband’s death—that is, she feels that by being unfaithful to Caiman she can pretend that he is still alive.

It is always risky to read Fitzgerald’s fiction as straight biography or autobiography. The Caimans externally resemble the Thalbergs, but their characters are all invented. Indeed, Sheilah Graham reports that Fitzgerald said Miles Caiman was actually based on director King Vidor, who was being divorced from actress Eleanor Boardman while Fitzgerald was at MGM in 1931. Fitzgerald’s own comment on the sources for “Crazy Sunday” came in a 1935 letter to his agent, Harold Ober: “Do you remember how the Hearst publicity men killed my story ‘Crazy Sunday’ for Cosmopolitan. That was in case someone should get hurt, that it might offend Norma Shearer, Thalberg, John Gilbert or Marion Davies, etc. etc. As a matter of fact I had mixed up those characters so thoroughly that there was no character who could have been identified except possibly King Vidor and he would have been very amused by the story.”

Fitzgerald was not in Hollywood during the summer of 1935, the time of his novel. In the summer of 1937 Fitzgerald made his third trip to Hollywood. Deeply in debt and no longer able to write the Saturday Evening Post stories that had provided the basis for his income, he had ambitious plans for his new career. Writing to his daughter Scottie en route to Hollywood, he reviewed his previous movie ventures: “I want to profit by these two experiences—I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start—find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators—then fight the rest tooth and nail until, in fact or in effect, I’m alone on the picture. That’s the only way I can do my best work. Given a break I can make them double this contract in less two years.”

On 14 July 1937, shortly after his arrival in Hollywood, Fitzgerald met Sheilah Graham at Robert Benchley’s Garden of Allah apartment. They fell in love and established a relationship that endured for the rest of Fitzgerald’s life—with interruptions caused by his drinking bouts. The Last Tycoon owes at least two debts to Miss Graham: she provided an atmosphere of regularity that made it possible for Fitzgerald to write, and she was the model for Kathleen.

Fitzgerald went to MGM in 1938 with a six-month contract at $1000 per week, which was renewed for a year at $1250. After a polish job on A Yank at Oxford, he was given a good assignment to work on Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades for producer Joseph Mankiewicz. However, Fitzgerald and his collaborator, E. E. Paramore, began feuding; and Fitzgerald was outspokenly angrywhen Mankiewicz revised the script. Nonetheless, Three Comrades was a success, and brought Fitzgerald his only screen credit. Then he worked on several abortive projects—Infidelity, The Women, Madame Curie, Marie Antoinette—for producer Hunt Stromberg until his contract option was dropped by MGM in January 1939. Thereafter he free-lanced.

Readers who take The Last Tycoon as a roman a clef about Irving Thalberg diminish it. Fitzgerald’s note for Norma Shearer stipulated that Thalberg “inspired the best part of the character of Stahr,” but the rest came from other men— “and inevitably much of myself.” Stahr is a wish-fulfillment, an imaginative projection by Fitzgerald the unsuccessful screenwriter who went to Hollywood in 1937 hoping to become a producer.

Stahr’s sense of loss and his attempt to secure a new love are obvious reflections of Fitzgerald’s situation. The dead Minna is the hopelessly disturbed Zelda. Kathleen Moore is obviously based on Sheilah Graham. Just as Stahr is struck by Kathleen’s resemblance to his Minna, Sheilah Graham resembled Zelda. At the time Fitzgerald first saw Miss Graham—who, like Kathleen, was wearing a silver belt—she was engaged to the Marquis of Donegall, a circumstance Fitzgerald elevated into Kathleen’s liaison with a king. Miss Graham’s education in Fitzgerald’s “college of one” also parallels Kathleen’s experience. Finally, Stahr’s hesitation about marrying Kathleen is a reflection of Fitzgerald’s inability to marry Sheilah Graham.

Pat Brady was obviously based on Louis B. Mayer, though more in terms of Mayer’s position at MGM than his personality. The circumstance that Brady is Irish whereas Mayer was a Jew may suggest that Brady was partly inspired by Eddie Mannix, an Irish MGM executive. Like Brady, Mannix had once worked in an amusement park.

Many of the minor characters were drawn from actual Hollywood figures. It seems likely that Jacques La Borwitz was meant to suggest Joseph Mankiewicz, whom Fitzgerald never forgave for rewriting the Three Comrades screenplay. One of the notes for the novel reads: “La Borwitz. Joe Mank—pictures smell of rotten bananas.” (Fitzgerald seems responsible for changing the spelling from La Borwits to La Borwitz in the latest typescripts.) JohnnySwanson was Harry Carey. Robinson was based on Otto Lovering, the assistant director in Winter Carnival; the identification is confirmed in two of Fitzgerald’s character lists. Mike Van Dyke was based on Robert (Hoppie) Hopkins, a veteran MGM gagman. Box-ley was probably Aldous Huxley, who was in Hollywood with Fitzgerald. Jane Meloney may have been suggested by screenwriter Bess Meredyth, with something of Dorothy Parker. Rienmund was possibly based on MGM producer Hunt Stromberg, for whom Fitzgerald had worked.

Although Fitzgerald had earned some $90,000 in eighteen months at MGM, he was characteristically in need of money at the end of his contract and began working at freelance assignments. In February 1939 he made the disastrous Dartmouth trip with Budd Schulberg to work on Winter Carnival for producer Walter Wanger of United Artists—and was fired for drunkenness. Schulberg’s fictionalized account of the Winter Carnival debacle is in his novel, The Disenchanted (New York: Random House, 1951). Schulberg, the son of B. P. Schulberg, the former production head at Paramount, was a mine of information about Hollywood. One of the reasons why Fitzgerald and Schulberg did not do their work on Winter Carnival was that they were having long conversations about Hollywood. Fitzgerald wanted to know about B. P. Schulberg’s working habits and how they compared with Thalberg’s. At this time Budd Schulberg did not know that Fitzgerald was planning a Hollywood novel. When he let Schulberg read the opening chapters of The Last Tycoon in 1940, Fitzgerald remarked, “I sort of combined you with my daughter Scottie for Cecilia.” Scottie was nineteen and a student at Vassar. Although Fitzgerald and Scottie were in conflict over her attitude toward her studies and he was writing her a series of severe letters, he nonetheless believed that he felt her world intensely. It was therefore virtually automatic for Fitzgerald to project Scottie into Cecelia—adding the inside knowledge and the attitude of the Hollywood child he gleaned from Schulberg. At the time Fitzgerald was working on the novel, Schulberg was writing his own Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Schulberg had not known that he and Fitzgerald were, in a sense, competing, but he was not resentful when he read The Last Tycoon. Schulberg recalls: “It was a complex moment because hehad just finished reading ‘Sammy,’ had encouraged me with his praise, and had volunteered to write a letter to Bennett Cerf that could be used on the jacket. By this time I had known so many writers that I realized how they fed on one another.”

Next: Chapter 3 Preparation and Composition