the novel was unfinished and in rough form at the time of fitzgerald's death at age 44. the literary critic and writer edmund wilson, a close friend of fitzgerald, collected the notes for the novel and edited it for publication. the unfinished novel was published in 1941 as the last tycoon, by which name it is best known.
in 1993, another version of the novel was published under the title the love of the last tycoon, as part of the cambridge edition of the works of f. scott fitzgerald, edited by matthew j. bruccoli, a fitzgerald scholar. bruccoli reworked the extant seventeen chapters of the thirty-one planned according to his interpretation of the author's notes.
set in the 1930s, the last tycoon traces the life of hollywood studio manager monroe stahr, clearly based on irving thalberg (head of the film company metro-goldwyn-mayer), whom fitzgerald had encountered several times.
the novel begins with young nyc college student cecelia brady (first-person narrator), the daughter of influential hollywood producer pat brady, preparing to fly home to los angeles. at the airport, she is surprised to meet an old friend of her father, author wylie white. white is accompanied by a failed producer introduced as mr. schwartz. due to complications during the flight, they make a forced landing in nashville, tennessee. the threesome decide for a spontaneous trip to the historic estate of former president andrew jackson, but on arrival the attraction is closed. wylie then procedes to flirt shamelessly with cecelia while mr. schwartz is fast asleep. when schwartz awakens, he informs them that he has changed his mind and will not travel to los angeles with them. he asks wylie to deliver a message to a friend, which he gladly accepts. the next day, wylie and cecelia learn that schwartz committed suicide right after they left nashville.
cecelia realises that the message schwarz gave to wylie was in fact for monroe stahr, her father's business partner. she has had a crush on monroe for many years. cecelia arrives at her father's film studio to pick him up for a birthday party. due to an unexpected minor earthquake, cecelia, her father, and his companions all end up in stahr's office. a water pipe bursts and floods the set. stahr beholds two women desperately clinging to the head of a statue – finding one of them to be the spitting image of his late wife. the day after, stahr asks his secretary to identify the girls for him. she presents him with a phone number which he immediately uses to arrange a meeting with one of the girls. unfortunately, it is not the girl he wished to see, she does not resemble his wife at all. stahr gives her a ride home, ｗhere she insists that he'd come in and meet her friend (the young irish-born kathleen moore). as soon as moore opens the front door, stahr recognises her to be the woman he had seen the other night.
kathleen withstands his advances to her and even refuses to tell him her name. it is only when stahr happens to meet her again at a party that he can convince her to go out and have a cup of coffee with him. he drives her to the building site of his new house in santa monica. kathleen seems reluctant to be with stahr, but she still ends up having sex with him. a short time afterwards, stahr receives a letter in which kathleen confesses to have been engaged to another man for quite some time. she has now decided to marry him despite having fallen in love with stahr.
stahr asks cecelia to arrange for a meeting with a suspected communist who wants to organise a labour ｕnion within the film studio. stahr and cecelia meet the man over supper ｗhere stahr has one over the eight and gets involved in a violent confrontation. cecelia takes care of him and they grow closer. cecelia's father, however, becomes more and more unhappy with stahr as a business partner and has wanted to get rid of him for a long while. he could not approve less of his daughter's fancying him. brady knows of stahr's continued affair with the now-married kathleen and tries to blackmail him into leaving the company. as he fails to achieve his goal via blackmail, he does not even shy away from hiring a professional killer. stahr survives, and, in retaliation, also appoints a man to have brady killed. unlike brady, stahr's conscience sets in. but, just as he contemplates to call the execution off, his plane crashes on its way back to new york city. the contract killer finishes his job unhindered and leaves cecelia both without a father and without a lover – the two men who meant the world to her.
fitzgerald wrote the novel in a blend of first person and third person narrations. while the story is ostensibly told by cecelia, many scenes are narrated in which she is not present. occasionally a scene will be presented twice, once through cecelia and once through a third party.