Original Gatsby Film Payout to Fitzgerald: Less Than You’d Think

The author sold the film rights to the book in 1926

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F. Scott Fitzgerald was a prolific writer not just of books and screenplays, but also of personal information: he kept a detailed list of earnings and other information from the years between 1919 and 1937. That wealth of information, known as the Ledger, is now available online via the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection at the library of the University of South Carolina.

Some of the information the author recorded may surprise modern fans. For example, Fitzgerald received $13,500—$16,666 minus two 10% commissions—for the 1926 sale of the moving-picture rights to The Great Gatsby. That’s $177,538.73 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. As a point of comparison, the budget for the Gatsby movie due in theaters May 10 was, according to The Hollywood Reporter, $104.5 million.

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That factoid isn’t the only point of interest in the Ledger, which is divided into several sections including “Outline Chart of my Life” and “Zelda’s Earnings.” It contains records of everything he published—where and when—from the short story Babes in the Woods (Jan. 1917 in the magazine Smart Set) to Financing Finnegan (June ’37 in Esquire) to  several stories with the word “Scrap” written in the “Disposal” column. There’s a record of all the money he earned writing after he left the Army, which ballooned from $879 in 1919 to $10,180.97 in 1936.

As for Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s other earnings included: a $3939.00 advance in 1923, a $325 further advance in 1924, $1,981.85 for the book in 1925, a $900 advance on a theatrical version in 1925, $213 for Danish and Swedish rights, $2,250 for sound rights and $250 for the Modern Library edition.

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The chart of Fitzgerald’s life begins with the Sept. 24, 1896, birth of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald at 3:30 in the afternoon in St. Paul, Minn. (He was a big baby at ten lbs., six oz.) Other revelations: His first word was “up.” Nobody showed up to his 7th birthday party. At 18, while at Princeton, he annotated the month of Feb. 1915 with a remark about his sense of perfection: “If I couldn’t be perfect I wouldn’t be anything.” His fortunes changed the next year when he noted that his 19th year was one of “terrible disappointments & the end of all college dreams. Everything bad in it was my own fault.”

Fitzgerald’s Ledger can read like a tragedy. Notations made in later years show reflect the slow deterioration of the author’s world: “Zelda seems less well” and “Terrible worry” and “Debt bad” and “Story failure.” Still, for true fans, the fascination is undeniable.

And those true fans’ numbers may be growing: Gatsby is currently the top-selling print book on Amazon.com and the online retailer reports that print sales for April 2013 are four times what they were in April 2012.