The Great Gatsby might be one of the season’s most anticipated Hollywood movies, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous sojourn to Hollywood was a cruel tragedy that humbled one of the century’s great pens. As Some Like it Hot Director Billy Wilder once said, describing the frustration and futility that Fitzgerald encountered in California, “He made me think of a great sculptor who was hired to do a plumbing job. He did not know how to connect the f—ing pipes.”
Entertainment Weekly has a feature in its current issue, “The True Hollywood Story of F. Scott Fitzgerald” by Clark Collis, detailing the author’s sad attempts as a screenwriter, and now, the University of South Carolina’s Matthew Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library has posted Fitzgerald’s detailed financial ledger documenting his year-by-year assignments, with his fees, from 1919-38. For instance, you can learn that he received $2,500 for the Hollywood adaptation of his 1919 short story, “Head and Shoulders.” In 1922, 86 years before David Fincher and Brad Pitt made a movie about it, he was paid a cool grand for his short story about a boy who ages backwards, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” First National paid him $3,500 for his work on a script called Lipstick, which they eventually abandoned, but it was Gatsby that brought him his biggest payday: $16,666 for the movie rights in 1926, one year after he published the novel. (A stage adaptation brought him more than $6,000.) That greater figure might sound like a pittance for something as revered as Gatsby, but that equals about $220,000 in 2013 dollars — not Jay Gatsby money, mind you, but a decent sum for a novel that wasn’t a huge success when it was initially published.
In fact, you could argue that Fitzgerald was actually overpaid for his meager Hollywood work, getting $6,000 for a treatment he wrote for MGM in 1931. Though the ledger doesn’t include mention of Fitzgerald’s compensation for 1938’s Three Comrades, his only solo screenwriting credit, nor his work on the never-produced Infidelity and Gone With the Wind, for which he went without a credit, it does illuminate his unpredictable year-to year finances. In 1924, he wrote a short story for the Saturday Evening Post titled, “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” for $1,000. At the time, he was barely making $20,000 and, in fact, he would only surpass $36,000 once during this period, in 1931.
Numbers are relative, but as the numbers begin to pour in on May 10 when Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D adaptation opens in theaters, it’s easy to imagine that F. Scott and Zelda would be boggled by all those zeroes in the box-office grosses. Though he might be even more impressed by a semi-coherent screenplay.