By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 14, 2010; B08
The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
By Marion Meade
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 392 pp. $28
Eileen McKenney and Nathanael West, the subjects of this rather peculiar joint biography, met in California in October of 1939, married in April 1940, and died together in December of the same year in an automobile accident near the Mexican border, an accident undoubtedly caused by the reckless driving for which West was notorious. He was 37 years old, and she was a decade younger. At the time McKenney was by far the better known of the two, being the subject of and inspiration for a best-selling book, "My Sister Eileen," written by her older sister, Ruth, and she was the featured player in news stories about the accident.
Now, of course, it is Nathanael West who enjoys a great literary reputation and something of a cult following for his four novels and various fugitive writings. His two most famous (and best) novels, "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust," remain very much in print and have been made into first-rate movies, with memorable performances by Montgomery Clift in the former and Donald Sutherland in the latter. Eileen McKenney is by no means forgotten, as stage, film and television adaptations of her sister's book have kept her memory alive, but since she never did anything of note on her own, apart from marrying West, there isn't much else to remember about her.
Precisely what inspired Marion Meade to write about them is a mystery. She has written two novels and several works of nonfiction, most notably a well-received biography of Dorothy Parker, who knew West fairly well. But West already has been the subject of a rather massive biography by Jay Martin, and the vultures of academe have picked his carcass to pieces. Presumably the device that Meade fastened upon to distinguish her book from the others was to bring McKenney into the story as, in effect, an equal partner. But West remains the dominant figure for the obvious reasons: He accomplished more, he had more famous and interesting friends, he had a longer life.
He was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903, to Russian Jewish parents whose families had arrived in Manhattan late in the 19th century and made a successful life for themselves. His father, Max Weinstein, built apartment buildings in Harlem (well before it evolved into the heart of African American life) and permitted his son to develop "the Champagne tastes of a trust-fund baby." Nat was utterly uninterested in school, preferring to read on his own, which he did voraciously: "While still besotted by his Russian heroes Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he worked his way through Conrad, Cabell, Proust, Pater, Coleridge, Thackeray, and Montaigne, and also pored over books on Christianity, Jewish mysticism, Islam, witchcraft, and the supernatural."
Eileen McKenney was born 10 years later in the Indiana town of Mishawaka, two years after the birth of Ruth, who by her own later admission was "homely as a mud fence." Their mother, "in an attempt to rectify nature's inequities, . . . began assigning roles to her girls. Sister Eileen, she told them, was the pretty one, and Sister Ruth was the smart one. . . . For the rest of her life, Eileen doubted her intelligence while Ruth, who would still have large buttocks and double chins at twelve, yearned to be thin and pretty." When Eileen was 6, the family moved to Cleveland. She grew into a "healthy, self-confident young woman," though sometime near her graduation from high school she "appears to have been raped," a "traumatic event [that] planted feelings of shame and unbearable memories that would linger in the years to come," as well as making her an unenthusiastic participant in consensual sex.
Nat managed to get himself into and through Brown University, though he scarcely distinguished himself. The school's most lasting influence on him was through two friendships he made there, with S.J. Perelman and Quentin Reynolds. The former went on to become one of the country's most famous and beloved humorists (though he doesn't seem to have been especially loveable) while the latter became a famous newspaperman, especially during World War II. It was Reynolds who, early in his career at the New York Post, told Nat about being required to do occasional work as an advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist, thus planting the seed that years later became "Miss Lonelyhearts."
Eileen found work in Cleveland at an insurance company, answering the phone and typing reports, while Nat drifted through various jobs. In 1926 he had changed his name to Nathanael West, doubtless in response to the anti-Semitism that was then widespread, notably in the literary and book-publishing community to which he aspired. "The fiction business had long been monopolized by Gentile writers, just as American publishing was traditionally white Anglo-Saxon Protestant," and though Nat in his Brooks Brothers clothing and accessories tried hard to present a Waspish appearance, he never could escape his Jewishness.
In 1934 Eileen moved to New York, where Ruth already had established herself as a newspaperwoman and soon would be writing pieces for the New Yorker. Some of these were about the life she and Eileen lived in their tiny basement apartment in the Village, and in 1938 she collected them as "My Sister Eileen," which became a number-one bestseller and was adapted into a spectacularly successful Broadway play that opened four days after Eileen's death. The book brought Eileen a certain fame, but otherwise her life was pretty ordinary. She married, not happily, and had a son, Tommy, but divorced her husband "after twenty-one months of marriage" and then found her way to California.
By the time she got there, West had published all of his novels, to a generally baffled critical reception -- reviewers were turned off by his strange characters and deep pessimism, failing to grasp his vivid portrait of the dark side of the American Dream -- and commercial indifference. He was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, a job he approached not with the contempt that most literary people brought to this remunerative work but as "a business," to be taken seriously and given one's best. None of the movies to which he contributed was a great success, but he was good at his job and after a long apprenticeship was making a good living at it.
When he and Eileen met, they quickly became attached, though they probably didn't consummate their relationship for some time as he was recovering from one of his periodic bouts of gonorrhea. "At the heart of the unplanned relationship were the feelings of two lonely people starved for fun," Meade writes, and though friends were puzzled by the romance between this intellectual and this pretty girl from Ohio, something that seems to have been real love grew between them. Nat was kind to her little boy, and Eileen devoted herself to "overseeing every aspect of their lives -- the house, the shopping, the driving, but especially the psychological stroking and patting that Nat had been starving for his whole life."
What a pity that it was Nat, not Eileen, who was behind the wheel of his new Ford station wagon that December day in 1940. One likes to think of them living happily, if not forever, at least for far longer than was granted to them. It's a sad story, and contrary to what Meade says at the end, it really isn't redeemed by the eventual recognition and respect that came to West. The little world they had built for themselves in their brief time together was shattered, and no book can replace that.