Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
By Marion Meade
Hardcover, 416 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $28
In The Hotel
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.
From Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney by Marion Meade. Copyright 2010 by Marion Meade. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, USA. All rights reserved.