COLUMBIA, S.C – Hollywood myth has it that writer F. Scott Fitzgerald gained, then squandered a fortune. However, the cold, hard numbers of the writer's tax returns tells a different story.
Fitzgerald, best known as the author of The Great Gatsby, was comfortable but never acquired what might be called a fortune, according to his tax returns released Tuesday by the University of South Carolina.
The returns show that in 1929, his most profitable year on record, Fitzgerald earned just under $30,000 — or about $300,000 in today's dollars.
USC released Fitzgerald's federal income tax returns for much of the 1920s and '30s, which encompass his writing career and are part of the university's Matthew K. & Arlyn Bruccoli collection of Fitzgerald materials.
Bruccoli, a USC English professor who has written a biography of author, said he fished the returns out of Fitzgerald's daughter's garbage can several decades ago "with her permission."
The tax forms, in Fitzgerald's handwriting, include notations on the side.
They are accompanied by a letter from the Internal Revenue Service saying Fitzgerald paid $193 too little in taxes one year and threatening to charge him 6 cents a day interest until he paid up.
Bruccoli said the returns refute several myths about Fitzgerald.
"The first myth is the libel and slander that he made a fortune and squandered a fortune," Bruccoli said. "The other myth is that Hollywood was his ruin. That helped him get out of debt."
Fitzgerald's worst year, during the middle of the Depression, came in 1936 when his earnings fell to $7,500. MGM studios came to the rescue, hired him as a screenwriter at $1,000 a week and in 1937 he reported income of $23,000.
Fitzgerald's writings conjure thoughts of the Prohibition era with flappers and lots of drinking.
Fitzgerald drank, Bruccoli said, but "the returns make very clear that he didn't drink his talent away. ... He was paid well, and his income reflects that he was a serious, professional writer."
In 1925, the year The Great Gatsby appeared, Fitzgerald's income was $17,148. The following year, in which he started receiving money from the novel's publication, his income jumped to $23,000.