Nathanael West’s harrowing novel of life in 1930s New York is about a young man who poses as the female writer of an agony column. The pivotal moment in its creation occurred in 1929, while West was working as an assistant manager at the Kenmore Hall Hotel on East 23rd Street, New York. One night in March, West’s friend, the satirist SJ Perelman, dropped by and asked West if he would care to come along to Siegel’s, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he was going to meet a friend who wrote an agony column for the Brooklyn Eagle under the name of ‘Susan Chester’. ‘Susan’ had said that she had some readers’ letters that Perelman might be able to use as comic material. West agreed, and they all read the letters over dinner. It soon became clear that the letters were not really suitable for Perelman: they were full of tragic tales of unwanted pregnancies, hopeless love, tubercular husbands and dead children, and were signed with pseudonyms such as ‘Despairing’, ‘Down-hearted wife’ or ‘Broad Shoulders’. But they were a revelation to West. Deeply moved by the simplicity of the appeals for help, he took the bundle of letters back to the hotel with him and for the next few weeks studied them. He read aloud them to friends, who reported that, uncharacteristically, he seemed to be experiencing strong empathy with these toilers: he was, one reported, ‘terribly...hurt by them.’
At the same time West received a promotion. In 1930 he moved from the Kenmore Hall Hotel to the position of full manager at the Sutton Club Hotel on East 56th Street. His friends now referred to him as ‘PN West, the great writer and bordello-keeper’ (the ‘P’ was for ‘Pep’, West’s nickname). In his capacity as manager he was free to allocate any of the empty rooms gratis to friends, many of whom happened to be struggling writers. As time went by the Sutton was occupied by, among others, the Perelmans, Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellmann, James T Farrell, Dashiell Hammett and Erskine Caldwell. The hotel underwent a transformation into a nexus of 1930s literary talent. West’s position as manager meant that he had full control of the hotel’s mail, and he and Lillian Hellmann began to entertain themselves by steaming open the letters of the guests. They found that the clientele led lives richer in grotesquerie and self-destructiveness even than the correspondents of the Brooklyn Eagle. Ex-movie extras were selling themselves to any takers, male or female; suicides were planned and executed, one person leaping from the hotel terrace through the glass ceiling of the dining room while dinner was in progress.
The two influences fused. West took the ‘Susan Chester’ lonely hearts letters and combined them with his secret knowledge of the inhabitants of the Sutton, and between 1930 and 1932 produced Miss Lonelyhearts. It is generally considered his finest work. Miss Lonelyhearts went beyond the practised cynicism of Dorothy Parker, Perelman and West’s other literary friends of the 1930s into an area of quite terrifying human degradation.
It is interesting to think that it would have never happened had it not been for the rather pernicious habit of reading other people’s letters.
Martin, Jay: Nathanael West (Secker and Warburg, 1971)