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.

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  1. Brian Joseph Avatar
    Brian Joseph

    I have only read The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Based on those books I felt that Fitzgerald had a knack for showing the ugly side of human nature. At the very least he was interesting in displaying it. Based on your commentary it seems that this interest manifests itself in this book. I am curious to read it


  2. mudpuddle Avatar

    never read have read any Fitzgerald (mea culpa)… interesting post, tho… i may/might… no probably won't. too many other books i'm slavering over…


  3. Stephen Avatar

    I like the way you described his writing. I've read Gatsby, but it was years ago, and I think the only reason I did so was because of ONE SENTENCE from the book:\”Riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”\”I don't know why it resonates with me so, but it does, and it's an unforgettable line for me.


  4. Cleo @ Classical Carousel Avatar
    Cleo @ Classical Carousel

    I just cannot stomach Fitzgerald. I can minimally appreciate The Great Gatsby but I couldn't make it through Tender is the Night. Here's the link to my review: I'd be interested to hear if you had the same reaction. I do agree that there is something quintessentially American about his writing, and I will admit I will probably read more of his works, including giving Tender Is The Night another shot, if only to get through it. But honestly, it's only because his works are short; if they were Dickensian in length, I wouldn't touch them with a 10 foot pole …. time and it's good use would be too much in the forefront.Great review as always! On another note, I just started The Professor so I believe we're reading that one 'together' so to speak!


  5. Sharon Wilfong Avatar
    Sharon Wilfong

    Good review, Marion. I am with you in that I liked Fitzgerald's writing in The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned and I really enjoyed his short stories. Not only the writing but to get a glimpse into the flapper era.I did not enjoy This Side of Paradise and, like you, I could not finish Tender is the Night, even though it's considered his masterpiece (incest, really? yuck!).He is an honest writer, however, he does not sugarcoat or glamorize the self-destructive life style he and Zelda engaged in. By the way, there is a good biography called Zelda, that offers a lot of insight into his work. Every woman in his stories is Zelda.Also, she was a person more deserving of compassion that is known, I think.


  6. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    That's a good way of putting it. I'm not sure anyone would call Fitzgerald a naturalist, but I feel there is something of naturalism in his writing.


  7. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    His books are a lot of bang for the buck… short (page-turners), but racy and incredibly depressing. You're probably better off skipping him. 😉


  8. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    That's a good one… I can understand that feeling, definitely been there.


  9. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    Just read your review…looks like you got further along in the book than I did! Glad I gave up, because it sounds like the plot only got worse. It's too bad, because I really enjoy Fitzgerald's poetic writing style. But yeah, I just couldn't handle the infidelity that was going on, it was so random and over-the-top.There's some song writers who always sing about the same thing, like being hurt / cheated on, or falling in love / breaking up. They basically write the same song in a dozen different ways. I think Fitzgerald is like that. It works, to an extent, then it gets old.I was JUST thinking about The Professor last night and wondering if you were still planning to read it. 🙂 I had just started it before I took a break… I shall resume!


  10. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    It must be hard to be married to a celebrity. I'd like to read the novel she wrote, someday.


  11. Ruth Avatar

    Hmm, this doesn't sound like its for me. I had such a bad experience with This Side of Paradise, after reading only half of it. I agree that Fitzgerald's writing style is quintessential American and worthy, and I'll probably try something else — after all, The Great Gatsby is on my personal canon list!! : ) But what??? Doesn't sound like Tender is the Night is a thumbs up, unless you think it is worth a try. What's left? Maybe his letters? His bio, like the one Sharon suggests?


  12. Marian H Avatar
    Marian H

    There's The Beautiful and the Damned… it's on my Classics Club list, so I expect I'll be tackling that one in the near future. I do want to read his short stories, too, especially Benjamin Button.


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