It’s still one of the strangest and saddest coincidences in American literary history. Four days before Christmas, on Dec. 21, 1940, author F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed and died of a heart attack in Los Angeles. The very next day, Fitzgerald’s comrade-in-ink, Nathanael West, was killed with his wife in a car crash near the California town of El Centro. Fitzgerald was 44; West, 36.
Aside from dying young within hours of each other, Fitzgerald and West shared many things, including remarkable talent, heartbreak, and disdain for a place they would each describe, decipher, and ultimately defy in their fiction: Hollywood. At the time of his death, Fitzgerald was slaving away at The Last Tycoon, a novel about a wunderkind movie producer named Monroe Stahr (thought to have been based on MGM’s Irving Thalberg). Just a year and a half earlier, West published his own dark tale of Hollywood hysteria and corruption, The Day of the Locust.
For both men, writing about Hollywood — instead of writing for Hollywood — was an act of revenge. Like many a famous writer of the day, including Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner, they had ridden into Tinseltown figuring the movie factory would praise their poetry, fatten their wallets, and salvage their sinking careers. Instead, they realized that the studios had a hard, simple message for hotshot scribes, which Fitzgerald put this way in a letter to editor Maxwell Perkins: ”’We brought you here for your individuality, but while you’re here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.”’ So the literary lions scribbled away at grade-B screenplays, cringed at the rewrites, and watched glamour turn to humiliation.
They bit back with Tycoon and Locust, but at the end it looked like Tinseltown had won. Fitzgerald hadn’t finished Tycoon (his friend, New Yorker critic and author Edmund Wilson, patched it together for posthumous publication), and obituaries painted the great author of The Great Gatsby as a sad relic of the ’20s. Only years after West had died in painful obscurity would America grasp the rabid brilliance of Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts. But their enshrinement came with time: Both authors are now lit-course staples, and Hollywood must live under the shadow of two classics that reveal the grit beneath the glitter. And of course the movies are always hungry for a good story — especially a classic. So in 1975, The Day of the Locust became a film with Donald Sutherland; a big-screen version of The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, hit theaters the next year.
Dec. 21, 1940
While moviegoers wished upon a wooden star named Pinocchio, Fitzgerald friend and rival Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls rang the best-seller list and Artie Shaw’s ”Frenesi” was the high note on the music charts.