Cecilia Brady is flying to California for a summer vacation from college. On the plane she meets Wylie White, an alcoholic screenwriter, and Schwartz, a ruined film producer. Monroe Stahr, the partner of Cecilia’s father, is also aboard, though traveling as Mr. Smith. When the plane is grounded in Nashville, Tennessee, Schwartz sends a note to Stahr warning him about Pat Brady, Cecilia’s father. When the plane takes off again, Schwartz stays behind and commits suicide.
Stahr had been the boy wonder of the motion-picture industry. He had been in charge of a studio in his twenties and almost dead from overwork at thirty-five. Indeed, he is half in love with death for the sake of his dead wife, Minna Davis, a great star with whom he was deeply in love. Since her death, he has worked harder than ever, often remaining in his office around the clock. In contrast to Stahr, Brady is mean and selfish. Lacking taste and understanding little of the technical end of the industry, Brady acquired his share of the studio through luck and has retained it through shrewdness.
One night, while Cecilia is visiting the studio, an earthquake occurs, rupturing a water main and flooding the back lot. Stahr, working with his troubleshooter, Robinson, to clear away the mess, sees a film-set sightseer perched on top of a huge idol, a piece of a set that has come loose and is now floating in the flood. The girl reminds him of his dead wife, and he tries to discover her identity. That night, Cecilia falls in love with Stahr, but she feels that her attachment is hopeless.
A self-made man and paternalistic employer, Stahr personally manages almost every detail at the studio. Though he is not an educated man, he has raised the artistic level of motion pictures and does not hesitate to make good films that might lose money. As a result, he has incurred the distrust of the studio’s stockholders, who see filmmaking only as a business. Their distrust of the producer is, however, mixed with genuine respect for his many abilities.
In addition to dealing with opposition from the stockholders, Stahr is concerned because the studio’s writers are the target of Communist union organizers; he works closely with his writers and wants them to trust him. Wylie White, in particular, enjoys the producer’s favor, although he resents Stahr. White is hoping to marry Cecilia for the sake of her father’s influence. Typical of Stahr’s interest in his employees is his investigation of the attempted suicide of a cameraman, Pete Zavras. Stahr learns that Zavras has been unable to find work because of a rumor that he is going blind. Stahr is able to put an end to the rumor by providing Zavras with a statement from an eye doctor.
Stahr is successful in locating the young woman he saw on the back lot after the earthquake; her name is Kathleen Moore. At first she is reluctant to meet him, but eventually they have a brief, passionate affair. Stahr learns that she was once the mistress of a deposed monarch and that she is about to marry the man who rescued her from that situation when it became difficult. Stahr realizes that marriage to Kathleen could give him the will to go on living. While he hesitates, her fiancé arrives ahead of schedule, and she goes through with the marriage from a sense of obligation. Cecilia, knowing nothing of these matters, is still desperately hoping to attract Stahr’s attention, all the more so after she discovers her father in a compromising situation...
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with his secretary. At Stahr’s request, Cecilia arranges a meeting between Stahr and a Communist union organizer. Stahr gets drunk before they meet, however, and tries to beat the man up.
At this point, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript ends, but the rest of the story may be pieced together from the author’s notes. Because the studio is in financial difficulties, Brady tries to push through a wage cut. Stahr, opposing this plan, travels to the East Coast to convince the stockholders to postpone the wage slash. Brady cuts the salaries and betrays the writers while Stahr is ill in Washington, D.C. Although he breaks with Brady after that, Stahr agrees to go along with Brady’s plan for a company union, chiefly because Stahr feels personally responsible for the welfare of his employees. Wylie White has also turned on Stahr.
Kathleen and Stahr resume their relationship, and when Brady tries use his knowledge of the affair to blackmail Stahr, the producer threatens him with information about the death of Brady’s wife. Fitzgerald considered having Brady persuade Robinson to undertake Stahr’s murder, but he apparently rejected this idea in favor of having Brady inform Kathleen’s husband, a film technician involved with the union organizers, of Kathleen’s affair with Stahr. This leads to a lawsuit against Stahr for alienation of affection, but Stahr is somehow saved by Zavras, the cameraman.
Stahr becomes alienated from Kathleen and is no longer able to dominate his associates at the studio. Nevertheless, he continues to oppose Brady. Finally, Stahr feels that he has to eliminate Brady before Brady has him killed. After hiring gangsters to murder Brady, Stahr flies east to provide himself with an alibi; he changes his mind on the plane, however, and decides to make a phone call to stop the killers at the next airport. The plane crashes before he can carry out his intention. Fitzgerald was uncertain about including an episode in which the plane’s wreckage is plundered by three children who discover it, the idea being that the children’s individual personalities would be reflected by the items they steal.
Stahr’s funeral is a powerful, detailed, ironic arraignment of Hollywood sham. It includes an incident in which a has-been cowboy actor is invited to be a pallbearer by mistake and consequently enjoys a return of good fortune. Cecilia later has an affair, probably with Wylie White, and then suffers a complete breakdown. At the end of the novel, the reader learns that she has been telling the story while a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium.