Nathanael West (1902-1940) was born Nathan Weinstein in New York on October 17, 1902. Before he came to Brown, he attended Tufts College for less than a semester. That was long enough to learn of a former student named Nathan Weinstein, who had left Tufts after two years to enter dental school. West dropped out before his midterm examinations, leaving no academic record behind him. When he applied to Brown, the University received the transcript of the other Weinstein with two years of good grades and science courses already taken. With such a good start West was accepted at Brown and graduated two years later in 1924. He had done little to distinguish himself academically. His friends called him “Pep.” According to one of them, Quentin Reynolds ’24, the sobriquet was “the most inappropriate nickname ever given to a man, for Weinstein was slow-talking, slow-moving, and proudly lazy. He was tall, stoop shouldered, he took part in absolutely no Campus activities, and he studied just enough to get by.” Actually, he did not study enough to get by, so his completion of requirements for his degree was as well staged as was his matriculation. His emotional plea to Professor Thomas Crosby in the final days of his senior year was convincing enough to have his grade in the modern drama course changed from E to D to ensure his graduation. He had the name “Pep” before he came to Brown. As his childhood friend John Sanford told the story in a memorial essay written six years after West’s death, the child “Nate” was playing baseball for Camp Paradox against Pine Tree Camp for the Adirondack championship, having been chosen for the team, not for his athletic ability, but because he owned a fielder’s glove. The victory went to Pine Tree Camp when Nate ignored a long fly ball which hit him on the head for a home run with the bases loaded. Sanford surmised that he had been “standing there mooning about this Desty Esky, or Dosky Evsky,” whose books he read. After that “Pep” was his new name. At Brown he was one of a group of four literary-minded students who achieved prominence for their writings, Quentin Reynolds ’24 of Collier’s, humorist S. J. Perelman ’25, and professor and writer I. J. Kapstein ’26. His sister, Laura West ’31, married Perelman. West contributed a poem entitled “Death” and signed “Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein” to the student literary periodical Casements. The Liber Brunensis for 1924, in which his name appears as “Nathaniel Von Wallenstein Weinstein,” said of him, “Addicted to reading the latest and best, he introduced ‘Jurgen’ and ‘DeMaupasant’ to us – for which we are truly thankful. He passes his time in drawing exotic pictures, quoting strange and fanciful poetry, and endeavoring to uplift Casements. He seems a bit eccentric at times, a characteristic of all geniuses. To predict his future would indeed be a hard task ...”
After graduation there followed a Bohemian period in Paris, where he worked on his novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, followed by a stint as assistant manager of the family-owned Kenmore Hall Hotel in New York. After the stock market crash, he went to work for the Sutton Club Hotel, which became a meeting place for his literary friends and the inspiration for Miss Lonelyhearts. In 1933 he went to Hollywood and wrote motion picture scripts, while he continued writing his novels. The Dream Life of Balso Snell appeared in 1931, Miss Lonelyhearts in 1933, A Cool Million in 1934, and The Day of the Locust in 1939. Among his movie credits were “It Could Happen to You,” “Born to be Wild,” “I Stole a Million,” and “Advice to the Lovelorn,” the last a version of his book, Miss Lonelyhearts.
West was married to Eileen McKenney, who was the subject of a book, My Sister Eileen, by her sister, Ruth McKenney. On December 22, 1940, West and his wife were killed in an automobile accident near El Centro, California, en route to Los Angeles from Mexico. He had earned in his lifetime only $1,200 from his published works, all of which were soon out of print. Some years later his works became a critical success, and were adapted for the theater. Miss Lonelyhearts failed as a play on Broadway in 1958, and a movie called simply Lonelyhearts about the same time did not meet with much success. The Day of the Locust, which has been called “the best novel ever written about Hollywood,” was made into a movie in 1975.