Unfinished Business: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Love of the Last Tycoon
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Was Fitzgerald’s final novel a masterpiece-in-progress, or an all-out mess?
Each month “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes, to find the real story.
In 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 from a heart attack just off Sunset Boulevard. He was survived by his wife, Zelda, their daughter Frances (a.k.a. “Scotty”) and around a hundred pages of a novel-in-progress titled The Last Tycoon.
At least that’s the title Edmund Wilson gave it when he edited the drafts into book form the following year. Its only surviving title page declares it to be Stahr: A Romance. But in a letter to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner, Fitzgerald’s companion Sheilah Graham explained that just three weeks before his passing, he’d decided to change the name to The Love of the Last Tycoon.
This is the title it goes by today after biographer Matthew Bruccoli reissued the book in the 90s along with a slew of Fitzgerald’s working notes. Bruccoli points a page of these notes that says “Title” at the top. Beneath it are some cringeworthy options, all crossed out, including “The State of Metro” and “The Lumiere Man.”
“The Last Tycoon” is there, but scribbled out. Over “The Love of the Last Tycoon” there’s a checkmark — or a slash? Nearby a small note says, “This is the familiar Fitzgerald formula but the boy grows tired.”
That’s crossed out too.
It’s disconcerting there’d be this much ambiguity surrounding just the title of an unfinished novel, let alone what’s on the pages themselves. Yet almost inevitably after the passing of a great author, their last incomplete project is dolled up and presented to the grieving readers this way.
An unfinished manuscript becomes a kind of parting gift and a glimpse at what might have been. Sometimes it is presented like a real, completed work, instead of some mixture of masterpiece and mess. Often, it has been reorganized or revised by editors or executors. There’s little certainty if the author would have wanted the final product to look as it does, or if they would even want it to be read. In fact, sometimes we know for a fact that they wanted it killed with fire.
It’s disconcerting there’d be this much ambiguity surrounding just the title of an unfinished novel, let alone what’s on the pages themselves.
An unfinished work ends up being both a shame and a treasure. The wrongness of exposing someone’s rough draft weighs against the rare glimpse at how the sausage was made. These works both spoil our illusions of genius and remind us how human our literary heroes are, and how arduous and arbitrary the writing process is for even the very best.
As in the case of Fitzgerald, we’re often left with many open questions of what might have been if only that last work had been finished.
What exists of The Love of the Last Tycoon was not even a final draft, but a “latest working draft.” The story revolves around charismatic Monroe Stahr, a fictional 30s Hollywood producer, modeled on real-life Irving Thalberg, the “boy genius” who headed MGM from 1924 to 1936. Fitzgerald had worked for him, and notes show how impressed he was. Stahr is an idealistic melding of art and commerce, an anti-Gatsby whose success resulted from hard work, bottomless confidence, and a deep creative sensibility.
“An unfinished manuscript becomes a kind of parting gift and a glimpse at what might have been.”
Stahr runs his movie studio like a dream factory, bringing stories to life. As with The Great Gatsby and Dick Diver in Tender is the Night, Stahr is first glimpsed through the eyes of an awed outsider — a young woman named Cecilia Bradogue, who Fitzgerald describes as “a pretty, modern girl neither good nor bad, tremendously human.” The daughter of a rival producer, she starts out, in his words, as “a princess… a snob” but then crucially “evolves away from this,” as evident as she looks back on her interactions with Stahr from years later.
According to Fitzgerald’s notes and letters, the novel was meant to span a few months in 1935 and revolve around a love affair between Stahr and a woman named Thalia Taylor, tinged with Cecilia’s unrequited love for Stahr, and set against an inter-studio rivalry between Stahr and her father involving mobsters and murder-for-hire. It would end with Stahr’s death in a plane crash — representing the impending end of Hollywood’s golden age.
In concept, the novel had the potential to be equal to, if not greater than, his earlier ones. There’s a sense of his desire to write a novel with a less-flawed hero, who Bruccoli describes as “Fitzgerald’s only true professional” that might have embodied the hard-working writer Fitzgerald always was under the surface of his Jazz Age partygoing.
Love interest Thalia was not to be another beautiful, cold Daisy, or generous, wounded Nicole Diver, but “the most glamorous and sympathetic” of his heroines — a 26 year old widow who he wanted to “dower… with a little misfortune.”
An unfinished work ends up being both a shame and a treasure.
The move to the West Coast, the focus on filmmaking, and the backdrop of the Great Depression all would have been fresh territory for Fitzgerald, still widely regarded as a writer of the 20s, of elite Manhattanites and Ivy League ex-patriates in Europe.
Bruccoli calls Tycoon “the most promising — and the most disappointing — fragment in American fiction.”
Because of course, it could just as easily have been a disaster. A total train wreck. No offense to Fitz — it’s the nature of any book half-written. Part of the thrill and the misery of writing is that we’re never sure if we’ll ultimately reach the high benchmarks we set out for ourselves. Writers of even a dozen great novels might just as likely miss with the thirteenth.
As it stands, Tycoon consists of seventeen “episodes” out of an outlined thirty. These would have added up to a little more than five of nine chapters. Fitzgerald projected that he’d need to write about 60,000 words to trim to 50,000 — around the length of Gatsby. At the time of his death he’d written about 44,000 words. Two-thirds, maybe, of what he hoped the final first draft might be.
As in The Great Gatsby, the story opens in the first person, but from Cecilia’s female perspective, which he hadn’t tried in his earlier novels. It works, I think — at least what little we get of it. After a few episodes he switches the focus to Stahr, and goes into a close third person, showing us Stahr’s world, even though it is ostensibly still Cecilia recounting the events, as it “comes through” to her.
Fitzgerald wrote —
“I shall grant myself the privilege, as Conrad did, of letting her imagine the actions of the characters. Thus, I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first-person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.”
This might have worked in time, but it remains a tangle in the hundred pages he’d drafted before his death. With Gatsby, the story coming through Nick, keeps us at an arm’s length from Gatsby, so we see the glittering façade with just occasional glimpses of the fraud beneath. In Tycoon, Fitzgerald puts right there with Stahr for dozens of pages, and his episodes have a distinctly different voice from Cecilia’s own.
There are also several large plot holes still in the notes, minor characters whose names aren’t consistent, and loads of spelling errors.
Also, I’m sorry, but the hero, working in the movie business, was really going to be named Stahr? Oh Fitz.
Would he — could he, have solved these problems?
This is what vexes and intrigues us when reading an unfinished work. If all we have is a “working draft” we can only speculate. Was Fitzgerald, at 44, a writer at the height of his abilities, ready to tackle these problems and all the other new frontiers he hoped to? Or had the boy grown tired, as he had written in his own title notes?
By then, Tender is the Night had failed to live up to the sky-high expectations of many critics, cranky after a nine-year wait. His wife Zelda had been institutionalized, again. Scotty was off at Vassar. Fitzgerald struggled with alcoholism as well as his finances, even though he’d signed a lucrative deal with MGM (and Thalberg). He’d already had two other heart attacks.
Much of what we know about Fitzgerald’s vision for The Love of the Last Tycoon comes from a long letter he sent to Collier’s a year before his death, outlining the plot and asking for a $15,000 advance so that he could get out of his screenwriting obligations and focus entirely on the novel. He starts out very confidently, assuring the editor there that he has everything about the novel completely worked out and there is “nothing that worries me in the novel, nothing that seems uncertain.”
But by the end of his long pitch he turns desperate.
“As I said, I’d rather do this for a minimum price than continue this in-and-out business with the moving pictures where the rewards are great, but the satisafction (sic) unsatisfactory and the income tax always mopping one up after the battle […] Four months of sickness has completely stripped me and until your telegram came I had counted on a build up of many months here before I could even consider beginning the novel. Once again a telegram would help tremendously, as I am naturally on my toes and” —
The rest of the letter is missing.
Collier’s asked to see a long sample. Fitzgerald sent them around half of what they asked for. They declined to give him the advance.
And yet, he did write it — or two-thirds of it, anyway, in barely fourteen months. And while it surely wasn’t The Great Gatsby at the time he died, who knows what he might have done with another year, or two?
All we can really do is hold the fragments and notes that we have together and, like Cecilia, imagine the rest to be. Maybe it would have been the comeback he wanted it to be.
Perhaps one of the most famous Fitzgerald quotes is that “there are no second acts in American lives.” It is often brought up in connection to Gatsby, or to Dick Diver, but in fact it belongs to The Love of the Last Tycoon. Or — maybe it does. Edmund Wilson found the line among the numerous pages of notes Fitzgerald left behind after his death, and included it with a series of other loose bits in the back of The Last Tycoon.
Because Fitzgerald never got to deliver the line in context, it has been interpreted to mean many things: that in America we cannot ever truly escape our pasts, or reinvent ourselves. Or did he mean that our lives leap over the steady, developing middle of a traditional film structure? We go straight from set-up to ending, always booming and busting. As a part of Tycoon, the line resonates with the plane crash that would end Stahr’s determined life. Perhaps Stahr was going to think something like it, as he went down. Or perhaps it was just a thought of Fitzgerald’s own understanding of the suddenness of death after surviving two earlier heart attacks.
One hint might be in the actual final title of the book. According to Bruccoli and Graham, it wasn’t just supposed to be The Love of the Last Tycoon, but The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western.
I tend to think that he meant to say something about those with great ambitions, as writers often have. Those who go West, seeking fortune, making something from nothing, will always leave behind their incomplete attempts, their missing pages and cross-outs. This unfinished business is at the very heart of the dream.