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Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney [NOOK Book]


NATHANAEL WEST—novelist, screenwriter, playwright, devoted outdoorsman—was one of the most gifted and original writers of his generation, a comic artist whose insight into the brutalities of modern life proved prophetic. He is famous for two masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). Seventy years later, The Day of the Locust remains the most penetrating novel ever written about Hollywood. 

EILEEN MCKENNEY—accidental muse, literary heroine—was the inspiration for her sister ...
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Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

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NATHANAEL WEST—novelist, screenwriter, playwright, devoted outdoorsman—was one of the most gifted and original writers of his generation, a comic artist whose insight into the brutalities of modern life proved prophetic. He is famous for two masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). Seventy years later, The Day of the Locust remains the most penetrating novel ever written about Hollywood. 

EILEEN MCKENNEY—accidental muse, literary heroine—was the inspiration for her sister Ruth’s humorous stories, My Sister Eileen, which led to stage, film, and television adaptations, including Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town.  She grew up in Cleveland and moved to Manhattan at 21 in search of romance and adventure. She and her sister lived in a basement apartment in the Village with a street-level window into which men frequently peered.  Husband and wife were intimate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Katharine White, S.J. Perelman, Bennett Cerf, and many of the literary, theatrical, and movie notables of their era.  With Lonelyhearts, biographer Marion Meade, whose Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin earned accolades from the Washington Post Book World ("Wonderful") to the San Francisco Chronicle ("Like looking at a photo album while listening to a witty insider reminisce about the images"), restores West and McKenney to their rightful places in the rich cultural tapestry of interwar America.
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Editorial Reviews

Dorothy Gallagher
…[a] breezily entertaining new book about Nathanael West and his crowded circle of friends and relations. Meade, the author of a life of Dorothy Parker and other biographies, knows these characters and their territory.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
When their car smashed into another during the waning days of 1940, Nathanael West (né Nathan Weinstein) and his pretty young wife, Eileen McKenney, were largely unknown to the public. At 37, West’s four novels, with their pitchfork skewering of the American dream, hadn’t sold especially well. West was then better known within Hollywood circles for his potboiler-script writing and doctoring. Eileen became famous a few days after the pair’s untimely death with the Broadway opening of My Sister Eileen, written by Ruth McKenney. Meade (Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?)has skillfully concocted a snappy dual biography of this odd couple. He was a promiscuous New Yorker whose sexual orientation could not unreasonably be questioned in light of his fiction. Eileen was an uptight Midwesterner whose probable rape as a youngster left her sexually unresponsive. Thrown into this mix is Ruth McKenney, Eileen’s ugly duckling sister, who turned herself into a favorite among New Yorker sophisticates. This is a well-packed re-creation of the lives of star-crossed lovers through an era that would come to be defined in part by Nathanael West—but only well after his death. 32 photos, 1 map. (Mar. 11)
Kirkus Reviews
An ingenious dual biography of a classic American author and an unlikely literary muse. The romance between novelist Nathanael West (1903-1940) and Eileen McKenney (1914-1940) was tragically brief. They met in October 1939, married six months later and died in a car accident shortly before Christmas 1940. Consequently, only a fraction of the latest biography by Meade (Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, 2004, etc.) covers the life the two shared together. However, the book shows that they were often kindred spirits, and the author offers a glimpse of how literary life functioned on the East and West Coasts in the '20s and '30s. The son of an upper-middle-class Manhattan family, West grew up as a ne'er-do-well who entered Brown University by essentially committing identity theft. Battling his own lassitude and a pervasive anti-Semitism-he eventually changed his name from Nathan Weinstein-he found time in New York to produce a handful of comic novels, including the acclaimed Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). He struck his fortune in Hollywood, though, getting to know the many writers who headed to California to make a quick buck from the studios-a culture West skewered in his final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939). McKenney wasn't an author, but she was embraced by New York's literati thanks to her sister, Ruth, whose series of embellished humor pieces about Eileen ran in the New Yorker. For all their notoriety, each harbored deep anxieties that helped connect them. West questioned his talents and bemoaned his poor sales, while McKenney was a product of a broken home who raised her son alone after divorcing her alcoholic husband. Meade doesn't labor to suggest thatthe pairing was kismet, nor does she aggressively foreshadow the accident that cut short her subject's lives. Instead, she foregrounds their intelligence, humor and luck-both dodged the worst of the Great Depression-and creates a substantive tale about finding the good life in tough times. A funny, informed, daringly constructed literary biography. Agent: Lois Wallace/Lois Wallace Literary Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review

An odd fact about Nathanael West appears in the second paragraph of Marion Meade's Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. West's novels, she tells us, were republished by the Library of America in 1997, and "At number 93, he was the first Jewish writer enshrined in an elite pantheon."

"Jewish writer" -- to say nothing of the "first" -- is not an appellation many readers would naturally apply to Nathanael West. But thanks to Meade's biography, West's assimilationist upbringing will no longer be forgotten. Nor will be the two women, Eileen McKenney and Ruth McKenney, whom Meade brings along in this dual-or more accurately triple-biography. West was unjustly neglected as a writer during his lifetime, and is now being recanonized, with his Jewish heritage a visible part of the picture. By contrast, the McKenney sisters were famous during their lives, and have been, unfortunately, forgotten.

Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in 1903 to Lithuanian-born mother Anna and father Max. The family lived on New York's Upper West Side, with a comfortable income from Max's real estate developments. The Weinsteins and their many relatives valued education, and most of Nat's cousins attended Ivy League schools. Nat, however, was never a strong student, and by high school he spent most of his days truant, in the New York Public Library, reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He lied his way into Tufts University by forging a transcript -- with his parent's complicity and knowledge. "[i]ssues of right and wrong -- the morality of stealing another's personal data -- did not matter greatly to theWeinsteins," Meade notes. Nicknamed "Pep" by friends at school as an ironic moniker that highlighted his general lassitude, Nat was kicked out of Tufts, but fudged another transcript -- stealing one from another Nathan Weinstein-- to get into Brown, where he eventually graduated.

Meade's portrait of West's wealthy upbringing and his solitary, dilatory habits is sharply drawn and proffers much new material. (Amazingly, the most recent biography of West is the now forty-year old Nathanael West: The Art of His Life by Jay Martin, and the standard biography remains Stanley Edgar Hyman's out-of-print Nathanael West from 1962.) Meade is even-handed in her treatment, but she is not enamored of her subject. Perhaps for good reason: West was a spoiled and entitled young man who altered the truth to get ahead. So too, perhaps, his name. When in Paris, he changed it to Nathanael (the "ae" had a nice ring to him) West (as in "Go West, Young Man," he told others). Later, he would make it seem he had lived a long time in France, when "[i]n fact, he was a lucky kid whose relatives underwrote a standard tour". Back in New York without a job, West thought it odd that "[N]o one offered to hire him because he had graduated from Brown. In fact, he didn't waste his time looking for work. Fortunately, he had a well-off father."

When Max's fortunes fell, though, Nat had to find work, and he became a manager at the Sutton Hotel. In his spare time, he started writing, over and over, tortuously, the sparse novel that would be his best success while he was alive, Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933. While continuing to work at the Sutton, he bought a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and became close friends with his neighbor, the novelist Josephine Herbst. Perenially short on paying work, West decided to try to weather the Depression in Hollywood, which had already seduced other writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and his old friend, S.J. Perelman, who had married West's sister, Laura. The film industry did not, however, provide easy pickings. West struggled for years until he finally made a modest wage working for a B-movie studio.

West, who frequented brothels from adolescence on (and suffered bouts of venereal disease), had only two, fairly short, romantic partnerships, and, as Meade repeatedly points out, included homoerotic themes in all his writings. In 1939, the year his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust was published to mediocre reviews, he met and quickly married Eileen McKenney. An infamously poor driver, West got into a car accident on December 22, 1940, while driving with McKenney, in Mexico. Both were killed. West was thirty-seven, and McKenney twenty-seven.

When news of their deaths spread, it was McKenney who garnered headlines. She was already something of a celebrity, for reasons utterly unrelated to her husband's eventual renown. Born in Cleveland, McKenney was dubbed by her family "the pretty one", in contrast to her sister Ruth, the smart one. Ruth became a journalist, and the two moved to New York City, where Ruth started publishing sketches in The New Yorker. After Eileen's first marriage, which bore a son, ended in divorce, Eileen moved in with her sister, who supported them all. Ruth compiled her New Yorker sketches into a breezy book called My Sister Eileen. It became a best-seller and spawned plays and musicals (Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town is based on it). By the time Eileen met West, she was a household name. But she was also broke. She moved to Hollywood and became a secretary at Disney.

Despite the inherent fascinations of both of her subjects' lives, Meade, the author of numerous other biographies, including Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, makes more of the McKenney/West "screwball world" than there is. West and McKenney do not meet until the 270th page of this 314 page book. The sense that one is waiting for something -- for the lonelyhearts to meet -- tries the reader's patience, and the energy and fullness of the book, contrasted with the lack of clear purpose, makes it feel crowded. Which is a shame, because Meade is a great biographer, and she includes sharp sketches of Lillian Hellmann, Dorothy Parker, Bennett Cerf and Katharine White and others in addition to the three major players. Ruth McKenney, a trailblazer among female journalists, whose Communist politics led her to write a book about a rubber strike in Ohio and who eventually became an expatriate, deserves a biography of her own.

Ultimately, the book is about West, and one wishes Meade might have included more discussion of his literary work, and engaged more directly with his major novels. West's home-grown surrealism and fragmented, in-the-outskirts observational acumen make The Day of the Locust the best book about Hollywood yet. But it is no small accomplishment that Lonelyhearts gives us a better understanding of West and his unique voice -- regardless of his place in the line of authors admitted into the Library of America.

--Anne Trubek

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547488677
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/10/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 416
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Marion Meade
MARION MEADE is the author of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? and Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. She has also written biographies of Woody Allen, Buster Keaton, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Madame Blavatsky, and Victoria Woodhull, as well as two novels about medieval France.
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Read an Excerpt

SUNDAY, MARCH 16, 1930
THE LOBBY OF the Kenmore Hall Hotel was deserted at three in the morning. Its skylit lounge was shrouded in pearl shadows, the passenger lift stood wearily at attention, the night porter dozed in the vestibule. Sitting behind the front desk was the assistant manager, a long-legged youth of twenty-six in a Brooks Brothers, three-button wool suit. On this night he bent over the keyboard of a typewriter, pounding out a letter to his girlfriend, Beatrice, in Paris and puffing on a cigarette. “Nothing happens,” he wrote.
   Kenmore Hall, a pretty redbrick residence hotel not yet two years old, was home to hundreds of young professionals who booked by the week or month. Prized for its desirable address near Gramercy Park, its reasonable rates, and amenities such as a pool and roof garden, the place always had a waiting list for vacancies, sometimes a long one. Nat was supposed to remember guests’ names, but he happened to know a great deal more, and not just gossip either. He knew exactly when they awoke and when they left for their offices, who got mail and from whom, what time they went to bed, and which ones couldn’t sleep, because the bleary-eyed were known to shuffle down to the lobby and fret about it, as if he could do anything. There were friendly women who found pretexts for inviting him to their rooms. To all proposals he would beg off with an easy smile and a general refusal worded to give no offense. He took fewer pains with the prostitutes, alone or in pairs, who constantly tried to sneak past the desk on their way to the elevator. Hookers—and stolen bath towels—were his biggest aggravations.
   Otherwise, the position of assistant manager was not terribly taxing. Aside from charming everyone, the main requirements on the graveyard shift were staying awake and issuing orders in emergencies. Even at the best hotels, the worst things were liable to happen after midnight, and Nat had trained himself to take in stride noisy parties, fires, heart attacks, failed suicides, occasional corpses, and unscheduled checkouts of guests trying to jump their bills. As some anonymous hotelier once said, “Listen to everything and say nothing.” And so Nat had diligently learned to comport himself with a silky mixture of servility and severity.
   But typically nights at Kenmore Hall were serene. From the tiled spa and pool below his feet rose the steady slapping of brilliant sapphire-colored water. Stacked on top of his head stretched the hushed building, seven hundred rooms, twenty-two stories, its long carpeted hallways mouse-quiet. He kept a room there and when nothing required his special attention he could, if he wished, slip upstairs to 207 for a short rest (but he could never close his eyes). Occasionally he invited people to drop by for a nocturnal swim. Alone, he was rarely in the mood to bother changing clothes and showering, returning to the desk with wet hair and the faint perfume of chlorine still in his nose. For a year now, he’d been saving his free time for his book. Last winter, something like March—or maybe February—he had gone to eat at Siegel’s, a deli nestled under the Sixth Avenue elevated tracks in the Village. It was a friendly place smelling of pickles and pastrami, and Nat liked stopping there before work to meet two former classmates, Quentin Reynolds and Sidney Perelman, both of them writers and the latter his sister’s fiancé. One day Quent showed up with a handful of letters from readers of the newspaper where he was employed. Like most big papers, the Brooklyn Daily Times published an advice column, “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart Letters,” which appeared on the women’s page, hemmed in by meat-loaf recipes and Modish Mitzi fashion cartoons. Signing theatrical pseudonyms (“Puzzled,” “Heartbroken and Blue”), the letter writers typically sought guidance on unrequited love or how to attract husbands sure to bring them lifetimes of misery.
   Whether there ever had been a person named Susan Chester scarcely mattered; the Susan beat was rotated throughout the newsroom, to female and male staff alike. The only qualification for doling out advice was reasonable good sense. Not surprisingly, the assignment was viewed as an irritation, something to be endured without complaint, accompanied by prayers for speedy deliverance. Quent, keen to cover sports or straight news, was stuck with Susan for the moment. To Siegel’s he brought six letters the paper had discarded as too disturbing for its readers, thinking Sid might be inspired to do a satire on advice columns.
   Midway through dinner the letters were passed around the table, but Sid handed them back with a shrug. A few showed “comic superficialities,” he told Quent, but where were the laughs? For that matter, were they true? It was hard to tell if the writers were real people. Some impressed Sid as stock characters, your average New York crackpot. What he needed were subjects lending themselves to subtle ridicule, like his lampoon of dental magazines, in which he offered a guide to performing one’s own extractions. The Dear Susan letters were quickly forgotten when the conversation shifted to more pressing matters. In recent months he and Quent had been collaborating on a humorous novel but had yet to agree on a suitable title, something catchy that might sell a million copies. Through the Fallopian Tubes on a Bicycle?
   Nat, who had remained silent, began to look at the letters out of curiosity. One of them came from a woman identifying herself as Broad Shoulders, who claimed that her husband beat her and infected her with gonorrhea before abandoning her with a brood of kids. Another writer was a crippled sixteen-year-old who feared never being asked for a date. Still others described problems having to do with the evils of gin. To be sure, the situations sounded pitiful, but after a point it was really hard not to giggle.
   Immediately Nat was intrigued by these freaky people who, claiming to be cheated of a normal life, kept busy reporting their sagas to anonymous editors, and to strangers who might bear witness to the ¬unfairness of their plights. How in the world did they manage to keep going, let alone write about it? Of course Sid could be right in suspecting the letters to be stunts. For all Nat knew, they came from aspiring writers in disguise, although there had to be easier ways to get ¬published.
 As the men were leaving the restaurant, Nat decided to stick the letters in his pocket. It was possible that the material was wrong for satire but useful fodder for fiction. To begin with, the idea of Quent, a big guy who’d played varsity football at Brown, being shoved onto the lovelorn beat and forced to pretend he was Susan Chester, was good for a few laughs. With the addition of the crazed letter writers—a regular mulligan stew of loons, cripples, permanent deadbeats, and retards—the story became even more tempting. Imagine what complications might follow if the poor guy had to meet one of these screwy dames.
   For weeks on end, Nat pondered the letters. Maybe something unpredictable could be done, perhaps a kicky cartoon story about a male advice columnist. Such an original concept would surely provide a lot of fun. A whole year had passed since that evening at Siegel’s and he had made little progress on his story about a columnist he was calling Thomas. Later, of course, the columnist wouldn’t be called Thomas and Nat would forget he ever had writer’s block, even try to repress how he got the letters in the first place. But now he was bogged down in details like whether to use first- or third-person narration. He couldn’t tell who was the hero and who the villain. Were they the same person? And did it really matter? After reading several chapters, Sid said the manuscript resembled something out of Beowulf. It was too epic, too professorial, too ridiculously intellectual. Get rid of the Dostoyevsky stuff, he suggested; forget about playing amateur psychologist and start describing “people and things,” like other writers. Nat said that was “just what I was trying to avoid.” He didn’t want to be like anybody else.
   He had already completed a first novel deemed absolutely, positively unpublishable by all who had seen it. A published author in his daydreams, he imagined himself living on some little street in the heart of the Latin Quarter, lounging on the sand beaches of the Côte d’Azur, and writing whenever the mood took him. Planning to join his girlfriend in June and get married, he had memorized ship schedules but now he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. He couldn’t. Quitting his job was too scary. When Beatrice found out, she would kill him.
   With the appearance of daylight on that Sunday morning in March, Nat’s shift was drawing to a close. Beyond the lobby the early morning smell of baking bread floated in from the kitchen; above stairs, there were polished shoes and folded newspapers lying outside doors and laundry baskets that would soon be overflowing with crumpled sheets; and so another day was about to dawn for the dreaming ladies and gentlemen of Kenmore Hall. In a rush to finish his letter, Nat ignored the spelling errors and ended gracefully something he hadn’t wished to write in the first place. He typed, “You are a swell girl,” which was true, followed by “and I love you,” which was open to some doubt.
   When his night-duty report had been turned over to the manager, it was time to weave his way uptown, past Madison Square Park, toward Times Square and Columbus Circle, into the quiet streets of the Upper West Side, where he lived with his parents in a cramped apartment, its four rooms a melancholy reminder of all that had gone wrong lately. Five months after the stock market crash, upheavals in residential construction had left developers like Nat’s father feeling powerless and his wife of thirty years terrified. Consumed with worry, Anna Weinstein could not be bothered with her son’s Gentile girl or his ambition to become a writer—and as she liked to say, everybody knew that writers were good-for-nothing bums.
   His mother didn’t believe in him. The trouble was, neither did anybody else. But he was going to be writer anyhow; it was something he had known since he was eight, reading Anna Karenina on his roof in Harlem. If writing meant becoming a bum, that’s what he would be.
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Table of Contents

  The Ensemble xiii
  Introduction xv
 15 14 GAY STREET 171
 22 TOGETHER 288
 23 EL CENTRO 300
  The Works of Nathanael West 325
  Notes 328
  Acknowledgments 362
  Photo Credits 367
  Index 368
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Moderately successful Hollywood writer barrels through stop sign, killing wife and self

    This book relates the crucial biographical information on Nathanael West (Weinstein) and Eileen McKenney (whose sister immortalized her in "My Sister Eileen"). I perservered in reading this, so it must have been vaguely interesting, but I was glad when it was over. I think it might have benefitted from one more pass through editing. West was a writer and a fairly unscrupulous character who dabbled in fraud - financial and otherwise, prostitution (as a regular customer) and other unsavory activities. When someone dies at 37 basically due to his own arrogance (He was a terrible driver and refused to take steps to improve or even admit his problem which led to his and Eileen's demise), what can be said? He made a good living as a screen writer and wrote some bizarre novels which most people didn't care to read. If you are also bizarre, perhaps you will want to check them out. Both West and McKinney were caught up in the Communist infatuations of the liberal-leaning film and artistic community of the late 30s.

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