The Last Tycoon
The Fractured Moment
Few writers seem more obsessed with class and status than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and yet Fitzgerald manages to contain this fascination in such a way that it eschews snobbery and presumption. He is never breathless in the face of wealth, and describes it usually with a matter of fact awareness that whatever one's value there is a value greater somewhere else. "Riches have never fascinated me," he said in a letter to Ernest Hemingway in 1937, "unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction". These other qualities have nothing to do with blood or with education, but with a dignity and singularity the writer often makes it his purpose to search out, and yet it is a dignity and singularity that comes from Fitzgerald's very own version of what the Greeks would call hamartia. This translates as a flaw, but that the writer in relation to his own life would call a crack and, as we'll see, leads to a rupture in the nature of an event. Thus, while there are obviously descriptive passages emphasising the luxurious, this doesn't appear to be where Fitzgerald's creative purpose lies because the crack in the personality is more important than the beauty of the occasion: the narrative focus is to trace the singularity of character over breathtaking wealth, and to show how that singularity, through point of view and personal inclination, fractures an event.
Even the following passage from The Great Gatsby has an aloof aspect through Nick Carraway's narration. "At high tide in the afternoon I watched his [Gatsby's] guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bus to meet all trains." When the narrator says, on the first page of 'The Rich Boy', that the rich are "different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, is very difficult to understand", Fitzgerald is positioning himself between two worlds. As the narrator adds, "The only way I can describe young Anson Hunter is to approach him as if he were a foreigner and cling stubbornly to my point of view". Just as in The Great Gatsby he holds to the point of view of Nick, so he offers the book chiefly from that of a young woman in love with the central character here, and in each instance to search out the crack in personality and event that we shall explore. Fitzgerald's interest may superficially be in wealth but it doesn't have anything to do with siding with the wealthy or the less well off; it is just that money can usefully reveal a space where cash is less important than what it happens to be covering up.
For Fitzgerald wealth is an aesthetic question more than a political one; it is about finding the best possible vantage point for insight into loss. We can see this is a problem Fitzgerald was struggling with in the unfinished The Last Tycoon, as he tries to find a narrative position with which to view the central character, movie producer Monroe Stahr. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby and the narrator in 'The Rich Boy', Cecilia Brady's purpose is to generate observation without overt involvement. She might be in love with Monroe, and at one moment in the notes that conclude the novel incontinently betray him after an offhand comment to her father, but her function is to observe Stahr rather than interact with him. She is hardly disinterested, but because she accepts the unlikelihood of her feelings being requited, and that Fitzgerald presents her as a fair-minded person, she remains narratively passive: she isn't a rival to the mysterious Kathleen for Stahr's affections, nor is she manipulatively minded enough to intrude on this affair. As she says, looking back on her chances with Stahr: "When I wasn't dozing I was thinking that I wanted to marry Stahr, that I wanted to make him love me. Oh, the conceit! What on earth did I have to offer? But I didn't think like that then. I had the pride of young women, which draws its strength from such sublime thoughts as 'I'm as good as she is'." Yet she accepts her role as passive observer.
Now of course if she can't match up to the recently Hollywood ensconced Kathleen, who has come over from England, this has nothing to do with wealth and status. Cecilia is Hollywood aristocracy; someone brought up in Hollywood and where "Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party - or so I was told". Partly what makes Kathleen so appealing is that she exists outside the world of beauty and commerce and that she isn't made for the Hollywood machine. As Monroe notes, "he was glad that there was beauty in the world that would not be weighed in the scales of the casting department". It is a remark consistent with Fitzgerald's in the letter to Hemingway: how to find in someone not the issue of wealth but the integrity of character. When the narrator says that Stahr had "watched screen tests and seen their beauty vanish second by second, as if a lovely statue had begun to walk with the meagre joints of a paper doll", he sees Kathleen is different. If Monroe loses his head over this woman it isn't because he is losing himself, but finding within himself a more nuanced dimension. This partly lies in Kathleen's resemblance to his ex-wife, but it isn't only that. It is that he feels she is one of the few people he has met who didn't want or need anything from him. Where his "brother had gone to pieces over a dame, or rather dame after dame after dame," Stahr is very different. "Stahr in his younger days, had them once and never more than once - like one drink." Cecilia cannot compete with Kathleen not because she lacks any ostensible quality; more that she is not a woman who can access Stahr's subtle sense of desolation.
Indeed the one moment he does lose his head is when he literally has a couple of drinks too many. It is shortly after Kathleen has suddenly got married to someone else, and it happens one evening when he is in the company of Cecilia and a union boss, and the union man ends up flooring him with one punch after Stahr's insinuating insults. As Cecilia notes: "his wretched essay at getting drunk was over. I've been out with college freshmen, but for sheer ineptitude and absence of the Bachic spirit it unquestionably took the cake. Every bad thing happened to him, but that was all." If Kathleen is someone whom he admires partly because she doesn't want to be in the movies, he takes it out on union man Brimmer because he feels the unions want to be involved surreptitiously. As Stahr says, "Here's my typical experience...the best director in Hollywood - a man I never interfere with - has some streak in him that wants to slip a pansy into every picture, or something of that order. Something offensive. He stamps it in deep like a watermark so I can't get it out." When Brimmer reckons that this is typical organizational trouble, Stahr replies by saying "it's an endless battle. So now this director tells me it's all right because he's got a Director's Guild and I can't oppress the poor. That's how you add to my troubles."
Stahr can't do much about Kathleen marrying someone else, but he can try and take his mood out on a man he thinks is interfering with his pictures rather than a woman whom he admired partly because she didn't want anything to do with them. The scene is presented as a moment of weakness in Stahr, but it highlights a general strength. Stahr is a man who needs to get out of himself temporarily so that he can express his dismay at Kathleen's marriage. But it is a rejection of character rather than a reflection of it. As the novel tells us, Monroe is generally a fair man. "Beginning at about twelve, probably with the total rejection common to those of extraordinary mental powers, the 'see here: this is all wrong - a mess - all a lie - and a sham - ', he swept it all away, everything, as men of his type do; and then instead of being a-son-of-a-bitch as most of them are, he looked around at the barrenness that was left and said to himself, 'this will never do'. And so he learned tolerance, kindness, forebearance, and even affection like lessons."
This is Stahr's character, and even though Fitzgerald writes explicitly about the notion of the importance of characters versus the danger of types at the beginning of 'The Rich Boy', his use of the word type here indicates that Fitzgerald was as interested in types as characters, and we can maybe understand Fitzgerald's singular approach to the issue if we say a bit more about why the writer was interested in first principles of characterization. Though in the much quoted opening to 'The Rich Boy' Fitzgerald says "Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created - nothing", aren't there many writers who begin with an individual and end with an individual - that the character doesn't possess a dimension that raises them to a 'type'? One suspects that what Fitzgerald is talking about is the problem of stereotypes versus archetypes: start with a type and you end up with a stereotype; start with a character and you may end up with an archetype. Nineteenth century archetypes would include Miss Haversham, Heathcliffe, Jude, Madame Bovary, Rastignac and Anna Karina. They are individuals who become bywords for a particular type. Miss Haversham is the jilted spinster; Jude the thwarted learner, Rastignac the young man who wants to make his way in the big city, and so on. They are memorable not only because they are individuals but because they have become types. Monroe Stahr is presented as a consistent type with moments that are aberrant - he is the self-made man of Hollywood, diligent and careful, concerned and thoughtful. Yet at the same time Fitzgerald wants to make him of course a Fitzgerald type. There were many more flamboyant producers in Hollywood than the one Fitzgerald chose to base his character upon- Irving G. Thalberg - but it was a certain type Fitzgerald sought out, someone who would possess an ambivalent relationship with wealth, where wealth was secondary to another drive. He was searching out a type that would be consistent with his interest not in great power and wealth, but who possessed the necessary crack.
Gatsby of course is exactly one of these figures, and if the 20th century has created less memorable characters than the 19th, then Gatsby, along with Lolita, maybe Odette in Remembrance of Things Past, Mersault in The Outsider, would be one of these few figures of importance. However, we should remember that Fitzgerald adds in 'The Rich Boy' comments that would suggest he would be wary of this generalised approach to character, however well delineated since it might hide more than it can show. "That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and our voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves". Fitzgerald seems to be proposing singularity, where the type is often the general well-captured in the specific, and yet he chooses to call his story 'The Rich Boy'. Perhaps one reason why he would search out so often an angle on the character rather than directly comment on the character himself is because Fitzgerald was wary of the type. No matter how useful the generalization may be, no matter how Lady Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear and Medea are bywords for a behavioural category, the type is in danger of speaking to and for the society, where the individual can speak to an individual and bypass the social.
In a passage from the autobiographical and constantly enquiring The Crack- Up, Fitzgerald says at a certain moment in his life "I had a strong sudden instinct that I must be alone. I didn't want to see any people at all. I had seen so many people all my life - I was an average mixer, but more than average in a tendency to identify myself, my ideas, my destiny, with those of all classes that I came into contact with." It was as though Fitzgerald wanted at the same time as producing monumental characters, to find, in nuance, behaviour that would be too subtle to allow someone to become a ready type. All one can hope for is an angle on someone, and that the purpose of this oblique approach can lead to revelation and insight, but perhaps deliberately less than a rounded picture of a character. The figures in Fitzgerald are perhaps too indirectly presented to become quite archetypes, and even Gatsby's status as a type can be undermined by a re-reading of the book. The luxury of his lifestyle is in Fitzgerald's hands secondary to the small details of his character, evident for example near the end when Gatsby's father shows Nick the details of young Jay's schedule. Here we see the discipline of his early life, with dumbbell exercises, strict work hours and time for study, elocution practise and resolutions like no more smoking or chewing, and no wasting time.
This need for nuance as privacy, alongside a need to see behind people's surfaces, might have been a sudden instinct in Fitzgerald's life, by the time of the 'Crack-Up', but it is an important aspect of the work, with many of Fitzgerald's stories as well as some of the novels possessing this dimension of the immensely personal alongside the aloof. It is as if the gap between the two, between a person's private world and another's keenness to access it with consideration, gets close to the very essence of Fitzgerald's oeuvre. Indeed The Last Tycoon is a fine example of this concerned remove, of this questioning of ready assumption, with Cecilia observing Stahr and Stahr a figure of wary engagement, a workaholic producer who would go home after a day's work and read scripts or watch films. He was someone who could see through so many things that society was unlikely to hold much interest for him. As Cecilia says, "Stahr's education was founded on nothing more than a night school course in stenography, he had a long time ago run ahead through trackless wastes of perception into fields where very few men were able to follow him." Here is a man alone because he is ahead of the pack rather than part of the herd. Fitzgerald might find in Monroe Stahr the quintessential Hollywood producer, but Fitzgerald would have chosen Thalberg not because he was a great movie mogul but instead because he was an inconspicuous and fragile one, someone who contained within him areas of secrecy and surprise that a writer like Fitzgerald would want to enquire into. As Philip French observes in The Movie Moguls, "When Norma Shearer [the film star and Thalberg's future wife] first saw him she mistook him for the office boy". Later French notes that Thalberg had a "series of breakdowns". What would seem to have drawn Fitzgerald to the book was not the notion of the larger-than-life movie producer that could have been more hyperbolically captured through Selznick, Mayer or Cohn, but a smaller than life one, someone almost Kafkan in his presence in the world. Stahr's slightness is invoked on several occasions in the book, and in one scene Stahr's secretary Catherine Doolan talks of The Prince of Denmark. "'He's very handsome'. She was impelled to add pointlessly, ' - for a tall man.'" Stahr replies "Thank you, Catherine, I appreciate it that I am now the handsomest small man on the lot".
This idea of the small is as important to the writer's work as the large, the rich, the beautiful. Fitzgerald's admiration for Kafka was manifest. As he says in The Letters: "He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books that writers are never able to forget." The Last Tycoon might base itself on a movie mogul, but it has the fragility of a fragment, and we may even provocatively claim that, like Kafka's work, though for different reasons, its greatness resides in that it was unfinished. While Kafka's novels were unfinished partly because the writer would so revel in his own thoughts that the books could become endless, Fitzgerald's notes indicate that the shape he would have given to the book might have made it too contrived as the novel concludes on some of the possible ways it could have developed and concluded. We read that Cecilia's father, Brady, and Stahr would have been in great conflict, and that Stahr hires a hitman to kill Brady and then changes his mind but dies in a plane crash and the hit goes ahead. If Fitzgerald was obliged to give his stories at the high-paying Saturday Evening Post often happy endings, then his death while writing The Last Tycoon saves the novel from some of the contrivances Fitzgerald might have been temped to put into it as a writer who at the end of his life and career was trying to work in Hollywood.
After all, when Fitzgerald says in The Letters that Kafka would never have a wide public, Fitzgerald we know was always a writer who was concerned with success and sales, even though his sensibility could not easily produce work that would make money. Talking of The Great Gatsby in The Letters Fitzgerald says "the book is only a little over fifty thousand words long but I believe, as you know, that Whitney Darrow has the wrong psychology about prices (and about what constitutes the book buying public now that the lowbrows go to the movies) and I'm anxious to charge two dollars for it and have a full-size book." Fitzgerald here seems a writer caught between the 19th century figure as Somerset Maugham would describe him, and the Kafkan modernist who wanted to explore a problem, to revel in his mind's keenness of observation. When Maugham says in TenNovels and their Authors, "The Victorian novelists were working men who lived by their pen. They had to accept contracts to provide a definite amount of copy for eighteen, twenty or twenty four numbers, and they had so to arrange their narrative as to end each number in such a way as to induce the reader to buy the following one", Fitzgerald wasn't too unlike them. There was the danger of a coarseness of sensibility not through a failure of talent, but through the possibility of commercial success. The risk for Fitzgerald would lie in the subtlety of viewpoint giving way to melodrama of event.
Would this have been the problem in a finished version of The Last Tycoon? Maybe the finished book would have led to the creation of an archetype, but the present tome has the improvisatory, exploratory feel of The Crack-Up. It has the sense of enquiry more than an achieved archetyping and narrative wrap-up. Perhaps it is in the very tension between the demands of narrative and the exploration of the nuance of character that Fitzgerald often produced his best work; that he was never going to be an experimental writer in the Kafkan manner, but neither was his sensibility coarse enough to settle for the melodramatic. In 'The Rich Boy', Fitzgerald uses and denies melodrama at the same time. As the titular character Anson initially doesn't take seriously the thought of marrying Paula and then lets her slip away, and spends years thinking about what he has lost before meeting her again, he feels this loss no less acutely as he sees how she has aged so well and he has aged quite badly. At the end of the story, though, Paula dies giving birth to the third child she has told Anson she so desires with the a man she very much loves, after having two with a man she didn't really care about. "This baby is the first one I ever really wanted. You see I'm in love now - at last." Anson's "shocked at the treachery of her remembrance", before she then adds "I was infatuated with you Anson - you could make me do anything you liked. But we wouldn't have been happy..." The melodramatic dimension resides in that common narrative device of someone dying in childbirth, but Fitzgerald removes it from the arena of melodrama by it being of no direct consequence to Anson, and also by having the story narrated through a friend. If the story had been directly narrated and Paula had chosen to leave her husband, had gone off with Anson and become pregnant with his child, then lost it giving birth, and died also, then this would have been melodramatically predictable. However what is delicate here is Fitzgerald's desire for the cataclysmic event contained by the perception that refuses to give the event melodramatic force and instead gives it melancholic delicacy.
Maybe this would have been what Fitzgerald might have hoped to achieve through Stahr's death in the plane crash and Brady's murder, but would Cecilia have been too close to the events or would Fitzgerald have found the necessary aloofness? Now this aloofness, however, isn't at all the same as saying that Fitzgerald's work avoids feeling. It is rather that the more direct the feeling, the more chance there is not only of allowing for obvious storytelling, but also a misunderstanding of affect. As he so beautifully says in 'The Crack-Up': "Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work - the big sudden blows that come, and seem to come, from outside - the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within - that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again." As he adds, "The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick - the second kind happens almost without your knowing but is realized suddenly indeed."
This is an important passage in understanding Fitzgerald's work. The writer one feels, would need to eschew the melodramatic not only because of aesthetic taste and judgement, but also because he understands that the melodramatic is only one dimension of a catastrophic event. If perspective is so important to Fitzgerald it partly lies in trying to comprehend the event not as a moment, but as an accumulation. By the same reckoning, when we initially talked of Fitzgerald's attitude to wealth, class and status, these are irrelevant no matter how much he attends to them, next to an awareness that just as a catastrophe cannot be expressed through the singular, so success must be viewed from an angle that acknowledges its inevitable, ontological limitations. The Last Tycoon brilliantly combines both the awareness of the crack with the limitations of success. Monroe is a dying man who has buried his ex-wife and falls in love with a woman who resembles her. His fragility is constantly pointed up not only in relation to his stature, but also through his physical exhaustion. "Stahr picked up the script from his desk, let it fall as if it were, physically, too heavy to handle", perhaps because as Cecilia notes: "he was born sleepless, without a talent for rest or the desire for it." Stahr is hard-working, conscientious, fair-minded and superficially the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. But a dream life, like a nightmarish catastrophe, is part of an event that needn't manifest itself as an event, and so Fitzgerald's greatness may reside in the technical achievement involved in point of view, but it serves as, we've hinted, an ontological purpose, a belief that a life isn't made and broken by monumental happenings, but by an aspect of being that will make the luxurious tempered by sadness, and sadness tempered by despair.
In the first instance we can think of The Great Gatsby, and Gatsby's awareness that his love for Daisy was constrained by his inability to provide for her needs. "He might have despised himself, for he had certainly taken her under false pretences. I don't mean that he had traded on his phantom millions, but he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security." Years later he is still in love and arranges brilliant parties for many people but with the purpose of impressing only one: Daisy. As one of the Penguin book blurbs proposes concerning her character: she was "a girl whom he had dreamed about for over four years. This dream had long ceased to have any substance or connexion with reality - and for that reason he could not wake from it. He had doped himself with his own illusion." The first event is falling in love with Daisy and leaving; the second is trying to show Daisy what he has become even though she is now married to another man. The past regret becomes grandiose purpose, but he cannot return to it except as illusion. In 'The Rich Boy' it is similar: Paula is desperate to marry and Anson thinks: "this is the moment after all", and then thinks: "No, let it wait - she is mine." These are men who live outside the moment at the time and are haunted by it later in life. As the narrator says: "she took both his hands, and he saw in the freedom of the gesture that the memory of him had lost poignancy to her. But not to him - he felt that old mood that she evoked in him stealing over his brain, that gentleness with which he had always met her optimism as if afraid to mar its surface."
In The Last Tycoon the regret is less pronounced but the haunting equally evident. When Stahr first arranges to meet Kathleen the friend turns up instead in a mix-up, and Monroe is disappointed by how little she resembles his late wife. He doesn't initially think she is someone else; but that the light had been playing tricks on him. "this was just exactly a pretty American woman and nothing more - no beauty like Minna...the street lamp fell full upon her face, and it was difficult to believe that this was the girl of last night. He saw no resemblance to Minna at all". In each instance, in The Great Gatsby, 'The Rich Boy' and The Last Tycoon, the melodramatic is avoided not simply because of the refined, but because the Fitzgerald problematic lies in avoiding melodrama due to the schismic nature of event. Gatsby walks out on Daisy, Anson won't commit to Paula, and Monroe admits to never losing his head over Minna. But each time they live the other half of the event afterthe event. When Fitzgerald writes at the end of 'The Crack-Up' that "I could walk from her door, holding myself very carefully like cracked crockery, and go away into the world of bitterness, where I was making a home with such materials as are found there", he could have been speaking for a number of his characters. If Fitzgerald was no snob, and distrustful of melodrama, it may have been for the same reason: that he couldn't trust the givens of things. He couldn't assume the stability of perspective that would make an event singular enough to indicate status and success, and a moment present enough to pass for ready melodrama. Thus, just as Fitzgerald explores the problem of the crack psychologically, so he also explores it through an event that cannot be revealed at the time - in one time. Gatsby needs Daisy in the present and in the past, Anson needs Paula likewise, and Stahr splits the event into two women: his ex-wife and Kathleen. This fascination with schisms in various manifestations may also explain Fitzgerald's interest in narration at one remove, and his resistance to types no matter if he created in Gatsby an archetype nevertheless, as he finds an angle that allows for the melancholy unhappiness of the failure of event to become manifest.Cecilia's narration in The Last Tycoon, Nick's in The Great Gatsby and the narrator's in 'The Rich Boy', suggest a further removal to the event that cannot be complete at only one moment in time. As Fitzgerald would say in 'The Crack-Up': "I have spoken in these pages of how an exceptionally optimistic young man experienced a crack-up of all values, a crack-up that he scarcely knew of until long after it occurred."
Much of the writer's most interesting work covers the same problem as events in Fitzgerald's life. As Edmund Wilson would say of Fitzgerald's early period: "In his very expression of the anarchy by which he finds himself bewildered, or his revolt which cannot fix on an object, he is typical of the war generation". Fitzgerald explores well not so much the man in two minds, as the event in two places, and so no event, however luxurious and costly, could ever contain all the elements required to make it a singular thing. It is the crack-up as fractured moment, a variation and inversion perhaps of Fitzgerald's famous phrase: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
© Tony McKibbin