The novelist Nathanael West died in a car crash on December 22, 1940, at the age of 37. West and his wife, Eileen McKenney, were returning to Los Angeles from a trip to Mexico when West ran through a stop sign and hit another car. West and his wife were both killed instantly.
West had a reputation as a reckless and distracted driver. One of the anecdotes he liked to tell was about one of the numerous times he was pulled over because of some traffic violation. He chatted amiably with the policeman but still got a ticket. “Nice guy. Terrible driver,” the cop muttered.
West was born in New York as Nathan Weinstein, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He changed his name when he was 26, choosing an odd spelling of the more usual “Nathaniel.” (His explanation for his choice of the name West is typically humorous, “Horace Greeley said ‘Go west young man,’ so I did.”)
West was not famous when he died. He was working as a studio screenwriter in Hollywood at the time, along with his close friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Fitzgerald had died suddenly the day before West’s death and his grief may have played a part in West’s inattentive driving that day.)
West’s posthumous fame rests on his four novels, which gained in popularity and critical attention in the decades after his death. I read all of his books when I was young and have come back to them often.
Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust are his tragicomic masterpieces. Miss Lonelyhearts is about a man who takes on the job of writing a newspaper column replying to readers’ problems. The problems are often horrendous and Miss Lonelyhearts (the only name he is given in the book) wants to reply with a Christian answer of hope but is prevented by his editor.
The Day of the Locust is about a set painter in Hollywood who enters into a strange romantic triangle and descends into the chaotic underworld of Los Angeles. It is frequently cited as being the best book about Hollywood. (The “other man” in the love triangle is named Homer Simpson and Matt Groening has said that he named his own cartoon character after his father, who was named Homer, and West’s character.)
West’s wife was the subject of a series of New Yorker stories and a successful Broadway play and a movie, My Sister Eileen, written by her sister, Ruth McKenney. West’s closest friend from college was the humorist S.J. Perelman, who also became his brother-in- law when he married West’s sister, Laura.