One of Fitzgerald's last letters: 'You can tell him the truth - that I've been quite sick again, that I'm in debt and need [the money]'
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FITZGERALD, F. SCOTT. (1896-1940). American novelist; author of This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. TLS. (“Scott Fitzgerald”). 1p. 4to. Hollywood, November 25, 1940. To his secretary Isabel Owens.
It’s occurred to me that Bill Warren still owes me $475. I’ve no idea whether or not he is in any position to pay it but if you ever felt like constituting yourself a private collection agency it would certainly be worth $100. to me to see some of it. You can tell him the truth – that I’ve been quite sick again, that I’m in debt and need it. Of course, he is quite possibly broke. The storage company have not [sic.] sent me any amended bill. As I told you my idea is that their right hand doesn’t know what their left hand is doing. With best wishes to you both. Ever your friend…
Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise in 1920 and, as he had predicted, achieved instant fame. He became a prolific and beloved novelist and author of numerous short stories collected in Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille. For his writing, Fitzgerald was well paid. “In 1920, Scott earned a whopping total of $18,850 for his writing, a sum equivalent in today’s money to about $176,000. Only $6,200 of his income came from royalties on the novel. The rest derived from eleven short stories that he published that year, including $7,425 that Hollywood studios paid for the rights to three of his stories and options on future works. In fact, Scott’s short stories – and the movie rights associated with them – would always be the major source of his income,” (Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Zeitz, 2007). However, Scott and his young wife, Zelda, became notorious for spending their money faster than it came in on parties, trips and liquor. By the 1930s, Zelda was in a mental institution and Scott’s health was failing due to decades of alcohol abuse.
The Fitzgeralds lived in Baltimore from 1932 to 1936. “Baltimore gave the peripatetic Fitzgerald family something they’d never really had before: a home. The nearly five years that Scott, Zelda and their daughter, Scottie, lived in Baltimore was the biggest chunk of time the family ever spent together in one location, says University of Maryland professor emeritus Jackson Bryer. ‘Five years in one place is a pretty long time for them,’ he points out. Though Zelda was a patient at the Henry Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins and the Sheppard-Pratt Hospital for much of that time (with a short stint at Craig House outside New York City in between), ‘they had a stable life here,’ says Bryer. ‘And the relative stability of Baltimore and having his family all in one place may have given Fitzgerald what he needed to finish Tender is the Night,’” (“F. Scott Fitzgerald in Baltimore,” Style Magazine, Rudacille). It was during this time that Fitzgerald engaged Isabel Owens as his secretary. “In addition to her secretarial duties, Mrs. Owens acted as a foster mother to Scottie and companion to Zelda, who spent afternoons at La Paix with her family while a patient at Phipps. ‘Another one of my jobs was keeping the bill collectors happy,’ Mrs. Owens reported. ‘I had to pay a little here and there so they wouldn’t bother Scott,’” (ibid.).
In Baltimore, Fitzgerald first met the writer Charles “Bill” Warren where he was working on a musical called So What at theVagabond Theatre. They became close associates and Fitzgerald once took him to visit Zelda in the Shepherd Pratt Clinic in Baltimore where she challenged him to a game of tennis and then proceeded to take her clothes off. Warren copied Tender Is the Night as Fitzgerald wrote it (during which time Zelda attacked Warren precipitating a rush visit to the hospital). “After the novel was finished, Fitzgerald and Warren worked at writing a movie treatment of Tender Is the Night which they hoped to sell to Hollywood. They decided that the picture should have music and so put in that song, ‘Our Life Will Be a Wow,’ which Bill was rehearsing the night he met Scott. When the treatment was finished, Scott packed Bill off to Hollywood to try to sell it to the pictures. The older writer gave his junior partner a number of letters of introduction to movie people he had met one way or another… Warren had no luck selling the treatment of Tender Is the Night to the movies largely because, as Warren himself now admits, it was a terrible adaptation. Warren returned to the East,” (“The Making of ‘Crazy Sundays,’” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Latham). Following Fitzgerald’s return to Hollywood, Warren visited him and made “a second attempt to scale the walls of one of the studios and to break into the screenwriting business. Warren moved in with Fitzgerald and [Fitzgerald’s mistress, Hollywood columnist] Sheila [sic] Graham, with whom Scott shared a Malibu cottage… Scott had a terrible time being diplomatic with his bosses, and yet he kept trying because he thought that the movies could give him back the fame that he had won young with his Princeton novel, This Side of Paradise,” (ibid.).
Although Fitzgerald had dabbled as a scriptwriter since the early 1930s, his move to Hollywood in 1937 marked the start of scriptwriting as his primary source of income. At the time of our letter he was likely working on the screenplay for The Light of Heart, released in 1942 as Life Begins at Eight-Thirty starring Monty Woolley and Ida Lupino, as well as his last, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon.
Despite having written to Zelda a week earlier that his health was improving, Fitzgerald suffered the second of two heart attacks and died at the home of Graham on December 21, less than a month after writing our letter, one of his last.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Marketplace: The Auction and Dealer Catalogues, edited by Bruccoli and Baughman. Folded. With the original envelope and in very good condition. Matted with a colorized photo of Fitzgerald. We could not find any auction records of a Fitzgerald letter or document signed after ours.