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The Finances of F. Scott Fitzgerald

JA June 13

First published in the Newsreel section of Meanjin Vol 69/1

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Scene from adaptation of The Great Gatsby

The financial statements of an author, no matter how adored, may not at first seem like the stuff of great literary ephemera. But when Matthew Bruccoli, an English professor and biographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, discovered the American writer’s tax returns one year at his estate, he knew enough to keep them for a second look. Years later, he passed the papers to friend and fellow academic William J. Quirk who, writing in The American Scholar, reveals that there is just as much of a story to be found in numbers as there is in words.

Today, Fitzgerald’s novels are widely regarded as literary classics and it would be easy to assume then that his income reflected this success. While this is in part true, his financial records also show a man painfully aware of how easily money can be spent and how incapable he was of living more modestly.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the American tax system relied almost solely on the honesty of its citizens and it appears that Fitzgerald was meticulous about keeping records. Up until 1937, three years before his death, he kept a series of impeccable ledgers, which noted the income generated from each short story, play or novel sold. In 1919, his earnings were meagre, less than US$900. In 1920, he sold fifteen short stories and saw through the publication his first novel, This Side of Paradise, earning $17,055, which was enough to push him into the top-earning tax bracket of the time. This, however, was not to last. Although Fitzgerald was a consistent earner over the course of his lifetime (on average around $24,000 a year), his spending habits and personal hardships meant that he never managed to find stability. For Fitzgerald, and perhaps many writers, money represented freedom; it bought him time to write and was not something to be hoarded.

In 1921, he married Zelda Sayre, who was said to be the inspiration for many of his jazz-age heroines, including the infamously tragic Daisy Buchanan. Within three months the young couple were broke. Nevertheless, it was at this point that Fitzgerald happily discovered his publishers would give him an advance on royalties. In an essay, ‘How to Live on $36,000 a Year’, published in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1924, Fitzgerald wrote that the only lesson he learnt from that time was that ‘money usually turns up somewhere in time of need, and that at the worst you can always borrow’. Thus began a cycle of wealth, near-poverty and borrowed time that would continue for the next twenty years.

In 1923, the couple moved to Great Neck in the Midwest, where they rented a house and indulged in various expenses, including a nurse for their young daughter, two servants and a laundress. Fitzgerald began writing The Great Gatsby, helped along by the sale of the film rights to This Side of Paradise for $10,000. Yet, unsurprisingly, the money did not last long. The family found themselves living hand to mouth and when his play The Vegetable closed after a one-week run, Fitzgerald again found himself in financial difficulty. To generate some quick revenue, he worked twelve-hour days and sold several short stories, earning another $17,000.

By the next year, Gatsby was still unfinished and money was, once more, spread thin. The author’s tax return for 1924 shows a deduction for a ‘trip to Europe for the purpose of obtaining material for stories’, denoting the family’s move to the French Riviera, where, they had be told, they could live in relative luxury for very little by riding on the back of the strong American dollar. The move paid off and Gatsby was published in 1925. Yet, like its follow-up, Tender is the Night, the novel was not well received during Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Later statements show the annual royalties for Gatsby to be as little as $5.10.

Moreover, around 1929, Zelda suffered a breakdown, an illness which precipitated a terrible spiral into schizophrenia. Fitzgerald lost even greater control of his income in an effort to provide her with medical care. He wrote a moving letter describing the following years to his editor Max Perkins in 1936, by which time his financial situation was in shambles: ‘Such stray ideas as sending my daughter to a public school, putting my wife in a public insane asylum, have been proposed to me by intimate friends, but it would break something in me that would shatter the very delicate pencil end of a point of view.’ By his death in 1940, Fitzgerald’s assets were valued at little more than $35,000.

Fitzgerald followed up his essay on his finances with another, ‘How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year’, which reflected on his time on the Riviera and was also published in the Post. One passage reads:

In half an hour, Renée and Bobbé, officers of the aviation, are coming to dinner in their white ducks … Afterwards in the garden, their white uniforms will grow dimmer as the more liquid dark comes down, until they, like the heavy roses and the nightingales in the pines, will seem to take an essential and indivisible part in the beauty of this proud, gay land. And though we have saved nothing, we have danced the carmagnole and … we haven’t yet been sorry that we came.


 

Comments

by Phyllis Johnson
13 Jun 10 at 11:56

Yes, It seems to have been Feast or Famine for the Fitzgerald’s. Because his wife Zelda was a bit of a spoiled southern belle and did not have the skills necessary to be a good housewife or mother it seems only logical to hire staff to help them in these areas.However, Zelda did contribute. She was quite a writer herself and Scott did not mind “borrowing” some of her ideas as his own. He is without a doubt my favorite author, but I must say, without Zelda he would have never known the success that brought him such fame and fortune.

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by Peter Anderson
14 Jun 10 at 14:52

This is one of those moments when we need a clear indication of the comparative value of those dollar amounts.

Let’s rewrite a sentence or two using today’s Australian dollar figures … Imagine if we said this of a writer’s earnings today.

“In 2009, his earnings were meagre, less than $20,000. In 2010, he sold fifteen short stories and saw through the publication his first novel, This Side of Paradise, earning $180,000, which was enough to push him into the top-earning tax bracket of the time.”

Here all I’ve done is take the shift from from 1919 to 1920 and run with about the same sort of differences using Australia’s current tax brackets.

In light of this, are we to assume that the title of his essay “How to live on $36,000 a year” was ironic?

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