The Meticulous Business Ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald Kept Between Hangovers and Happy Hour

fitzgerald ledger
It used to be that accept­ing an advance on an unwrit­ten nov­el was as good as admit­ting fail­ure before the work is even fin­ished. Can you imag­ine blue-blood nov­el­ists Edith Whar­ton or Hen­ry James tak­ing a check before fin­ish­ing their books?

F. Scott Fitzger­ald may have been a long-suf­fer­ing wannabe when it came to high soci­ety, but he nev­er pre­tend­ed to be any­thing but a busi­ness­man when it came to writ­ing. For near­ly his entire pro­fes­sion­al life he kept a detailed ledger of his income from writ­ing, in which he not­ed the $3,939 advance he received for his in-progress nov­el, The Great Gats­by. The new Gats­by film out this sum­mer is the fifth adap­ta­tion. The first earned Fitzger­ald $16,666. (See the sur­viv­ing footage here.)

Recent­ly dig­i­tized by the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na, the lined note­book, which the writer prob­a­bly packed with him on all of his trav­els, paints a pic­ture of a prag­mat­ic busi­ness­man repeat­ed­ly on and off the wag­on. Sound like Gats­by? Maybe a lit­tle.

The famous­ly hard-drink­ing Fitzger­ald must have done his admin work after the hang­over wore off and before hap­py hour. He metic­u­lous­ly not­ed every pen­ny of every com­mis­sion earned, divid­ing the book into five sec­tions: a detailed “Record of Pub­lished Fic­tion,” a year-by-year account­ing of “Mon­ey Earned by Writ­ing Since Leav­ing Army,” “Pub­lished Mis­ce­lani (includ­ing nov­els) for which I was Paid,” an unfin­ished list of “Zelda’s Earn­ings” and, most inter­est­ing of all, “An Out­line Chart of My Life.”

A true Jazz Age sto­ry­teller, Fitzger­ald sets up the droll social scene of his own ear­ly days: Not long after his birth on Sep­tem­ber 24, 1896, the infant “was bap­tized and went out for the first time—to Lambert’s cor­ner store on Lau­rel Avenue.”

It’s worth a stroll through Fitzgerald’s clipped account of his child­hood, for the humor and the poignant ref­er­ences to birth­day par­ties and child­hood mis­chief. By 1920 the writer is mar­ried and has some pro­fes­sion­al momen­tum. In the mar­gins of that year’s page, he writes “Work at the begin­ning but dan­ger­ous toward the end. A slow year, dom­i­nat­ed by Zel­da & on the whole hap­py.”

By the last entry, the state of Fitzgerald’s life is grim—“work and wor­ry, sick­ness and debt.” The book reads like a whirl­wind of drink­ing, writ­ing, trav­el and jet-set­ting. Fitzger­ald holds his gaze steady on social dynam­ics, not­ing gath­er­ings and argu­ments with friends along­side the notes about his cre­ative bursts and dry spells.

Kate Rix writes about edu­ca­tion and dig­i­tal media. Vis­it her web­site at and fol­low her on Twit­ter @mskaterix.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.