Nathanael West was born on Oct. 17, 1903 in New York City in a house his father built. West, like his father, was an ambitious builder — but instead of hotels and apartments he constructed small, lyric novels out of plans and schemes. In spare and haunting prose, West worried over America as it battled the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II. His two most recognized works are surely Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939).

West loved dinner parties and parlor games. As I did research for his biography at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., I came upon a cache of letters and taped interviews that an earlier biographer (Jay Martin) had secured and saved. Martin’s respondents were, in each case, discussing their association with and knowledge of the real Nathanael West — or “Nat,” as some of them called him, or “Pep” as still others called him. No one called him by his real name: Nathan Weinstein.

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