The Last Tycoon … Questioning Why I Read Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is one of those authors who provokes in me a love/loathe reaction.  There was something unforgettable and moving in The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise; the surreal, Wuthering-Heights level of drama and the tragic stories lingered in my mind a long time afterward.  Tender is the Night haunted me in a different way: an instant trainwreck with little rhyme or reason, it left me so disgusted I had to quit reading early on.  So when I saw the library had just added The Last Tycoon to their ebook collection…and it was available, and it was under 200 pages…I invariably got pulled into checking it out and reading it over the 4th of July.

There aren’t many authors I would recommend reading solely for their writing style, but I think every aspiring American writer should read something by Fitzgerald, even if it’s just a chapter.  There’s something distinctly American about his style.  It’s a strange, signature combination – breathless, matter-of-fact, poetic, alluring, and mournful all at once.  The Last Tycoon (1941), set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, has all of this, and being an unfinished novel it holds an additional sense of mystery, somewhat diminished by the addition of Fitzgerald’s notes and plans for the novel at the end.

I usually can’t tolerate “meta” stories, i.e. stories about authors or movies about movie makers, so it’s to Fitzgerald’s credit that my favorite thing about this book is its setting and the commentary on Hollywood in the 1930s.  He doesn’t even bother to change the names, so you’ll see a minor cameo by Gary Cooper, a mention of Cecil B. DeMille, and a myriad of other name-dropping references fans of classic film will enjoy (unsurprisingly, some actors and actresses are disparaged, but Fitzgerald manages to leave them anonymous, at least by name).

The plot is both compelling and frustrating.  Our Gatsbyian protagonist, Monroe Stahr, is a brilliant film producer still mourning the death of his wife, Minna, while battling the last months of his own life.  One night he catches a glimpse of her doppelganger in the face of an elusive British woman, who, as it turns out, is as interested in him as he is in her.  The book is partly told in third person and partly in first person, because the other piece of this lust-triangle is the sometime narrator, Cecelia Brady, a much younger girl who since childhood has had a massive infatuation with Stahr.  The storyline follows the ups and downs of Stahr’s work life, Cecelia’s plotting to be with him, and their efforts to find out more about the woman who looks like Minna.

That the story is believable doesn’t make it any less depressing, and once you distill it down to the simple facts, it becomes incredibly unromantic and pedestrian.  Stahr has the makings of a great character, but the female characters throwing themselves at him are even less likeable than Daisy Buchanan, so you end up very irritated that Stahr has anything to do with them.  As in The Great Gatsby, there’s also a number of derogatory references to people of other races through the book.

As a story of Hollywood it is all readily believable, and in fact Stahr was based on the real-life head of MGM, Irving Thalberg.  The consolation prize is you feel you’re reading about history, rather than something completely fictional.

While I’m not sure I’d recommend The Last Tycoon, I’m not completely sorry I read the book.  Like This Side of Paradise, it’s a peek into a different era. The biggest takeaway from this book for me is that more things have stayed the same than have changed.