Miss Lonelyhearts is the second novel from Nathanael West, perhaps most famous for The Day of the Locust. The story of a lonely hearts columnist who becomes personally involved in the lives of some of the people who write to him was inspired by a real life version writing under the name Susan Chester. West met “Susan Chester” through his future brother-in-law, S.J. Perelman. Perelman was one of the most famous humor writer in the country and the advice columnist saw the raw and formless humor attached to her job and felt that perhaps Perelman could utilize his wit to fashion that comedy aspect in literature. What the advice columnist apparently failed to appreciate was the tragic dimension of those letters coming across the transom every day that were not silly.
The novel, like most of West’s work, is profoundly cynical and bitterly ironic. So is the story of the novel’s publication. West’s first novel came and went without making a splash among either reader or critics. By the time Miss Lonelyhearts was published in 1933, West had accumulated an armful of friends eager to put their name on the cover blurbs which trumpeted the work within. Thank to recognizable literary figures of the day like Dashiell Hammett and Erskine Caldwell recommending the book, Miss Lonelyhearts was able to compile a collection of the kind of important reviews read widely enough and taken seriously enough to guarantee at least a modicum of commercial success.
Unless, that is, those reviews coincide with the publisher declaring bankruptcy and the printer refusing to deliver copies until he was paid. A desperate scramble to find another publisher willing to cover the cost of printer and delivering the copies to bookstores came too late to take advantage of the marketing heat generated by the positive reviews. Ultimately, fewer than 800 copies were sold, netting West less than $1,000 income from his first two novels combined.
Miss Lonelyhearts has proven be particularly intriguing to producers wishing to adapt its immediately accessible story of lonely souls looking for love. The same year the novel was published, Hollywood very loosely adapted it under the title Advice to the Lovelorn. An attempt to transform the book into a stage play in 1957 managed a run of only a dozen performances. A year later, one of the most perfect casting decisions in Hollywood history was made when tortured actor Montgomery Clift was cast as the tortured male title character, but the same application of genius to casting failed in the service of narrative as the movie not only lacked the dark cynicism which pervades the novel, but even gave the story a happy ending. A TV movie starring Eric Roberts followed before the book finally was matched with what is probably the ideal medium an adaptation: a 2006 opera.