Sunday, September 18, 2022

How to Live on $36,000 a Year

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, All the Sad Young Men & Other Writings 1920–1926

“It became a habit with many world-weary New Yorkers to pass their weekends at the Fitzgerald house in the country.” Illustration by American artist Moses Lawrence Blumenthal (1879–1955) for “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” The Saturday Evening Post, April 5, 1924.
Two weeks before F. Scott Fitzgerald’s new play, The Vegetable, made its debut, the author sent a frantic letter to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s:
I have got myself into a terrible mess. As you know for the past month I have been coming every day to the city to rehearsals and then at night writing and making changes on the last act and even on the first two. It’s in shape at last and everybody around the theatre who has seen it says it’s a great hit. I put aside the novel three weeks ago and wrote a short story but it was done under such pressure that it shows it and [Metropolitan editor Carl Hovey] doesn’t want it. I am so hard pressed now for time trying to write another for him that I'm not even going [to] the Harvard Princeton game Saturday. . . .

If I don’t in some way get $650 in the bank by Wednesday morning I’ll have to pawn the furniture.
As Perkins had in the past and would again so many times in the future, he arranged have additional funds put into Fitzgerald’s bank account.

Fitzgerald had spent nearly two years trying to find a Broadway producer willing to take on The Vegetable, the first play he had written since his student days. Finally, in the summer of 1923, Sam H. Harris, owner of a Broadway theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, agreed to finance the production. Sam Forrest, who was currently staging the hit Owen Davis play, Icebound (which would win the Pulitzer Prize), signed on as the director. Ernest Truex, star of the popular 1921 play (and 1923 movie) Six-Cylinder Love, played the lead role. Convinced that the show would be a critical and commercial success, Scott and Zelda eagerly anticipated the royalties a Broadway hit and national tour would bring. Accompanied by their neighbors Ring and Ellis Lardner, the Fitzgeralds went to Atlantic City for the tryout run, and Zelda sent an account of the opening night to her friend Xandra Kalman in Minnesota:
In brief, the show flopped as flat as one of Aunt Jemima’s famous pancakes—Scott and Truex and Harris were terribly disappointed and so was I as I had already spent the first week’s N.Y. royalty for a dress to wear to the opening night that could not be exchanged. . . . The first act went fine but Ernest says he has never had an experience on the stage like the second. . . . People were so obviously bored! And it was all very well done, so there was no use trying to fix it up.
For much of 1923, work on the play had kept Fitzgerald from writing short stories for magazines—his bread and butter—and he published only two that year. His earnings nevertheless totaled nearly $28,750, comprising an unexpected $10,000 for the movie rights to his first novel, This Side of Paradise (a film that would never be made); an additional $3,500 for other work for the movies, including title cards for the silent-film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon; advances of $3,939 for his next novel, which would eventually be titled The Great Gatsby; and the remaining amount from book royalties, essays, and short stories (including four that would appear the following year).

Unfortunately, the Fitzgeralds somehow managed to spend close to $36,000—an exorbitant sum in 1923, when the average American earned $1,400. After the show flopped, Scott owed several thousand dollars to various friends and to his agent, Harold Ober. His ineptitude with finances inspired him to write the self-mocking autographical account, “How to Live on $36,000 a Year,” as well as a sequel sent from Europe, “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” both of which The Saturday Evening Post enthusiastically published. A decade later, Fitzgerald told Perkins that the two articles “attracted such wide attention in their day that I have yet to hear the last of them.”

At the end of 1923, Fitzgerald stopped drinking and in a matter of months wrote ten stories, which earned him $16,450 from the magazines and allowed him both to pay his outstanding bills and to spend the summer of 1924 finishing up The Great Gatsby. Yet he was soon in debt again. “That was the mystery of the Fitzgeralds’ finances: they never knew where their money had gone because they had nothing to show for it,” writes Matthew J. Bruccoli. “The cycle of debt kept Fitzgerald in bondage to the magazines. It seemed he could always write another story, and his story price kept going up. Writing stories provided Fitzgerald with no satisfaction and generated guilt because he knew that his chance for greatness depended on novels.”

In all, Fitzgerald published 164 short stories in magazines but included only 46 of them in his four collections. There are few masterpieces among the uncollected stories, but, as Bruccoli reminds us, “even his weak stories are redeemed by glimpses of what can be conveniently called ‘the Fitzgerald touch’—wit, sharp observations, dazzling descriptions, or the felt emotion.” More recently, the distinguished Fitzgerald scholar James L. W. West III described the author’s mixed record of success and his struggle to balance commercial demands and artistic goals: “He knew how to reach his audience; he also knew how to be compensated for what he wrote. He wanted to make money and to be taken seriously—a difficult combination for any author to pull off.”

Notes: Liberty Bonds were U.S. government bonds issued to help finance American participation in World War I. The bonds paid 3.5 percent interest. The “large check from the movies” mentioned by Fitzgerald was the $2,500 he received when his short story “Head and Shoulders” was sold to Metro Films. The “town about fifteen miles from New York” was Great Neck, Long Island, where the Fitzgeralds lived from October 1922 to April 1924. The “small windfall” was the $10,000 for the film rights to This Side of Paradise, mentioned above. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey defeated Argentinian Luis Firpo, at New York’s Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923. As most of his readers would have known, ringside tickets cost at least $27.50 each, undercutting his claim that he and Zelda spent only $55.00 each month on tickets for “between three and five shows.”

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“You ought to start saving money,” The Young Man With a Future assured me just the other day. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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