COLUMBIA — Twenty-five years ago, the University of South Carolina purchased a collection related to the life and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for about $2 million.
It happens to be one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Locked inside the so-called "vault" at the Ernest F. Hollings Library on USC's main campus, some of the items belonging to the collection are jaw-dropping: a silver flask Fitzgerald's wife Zelda gave him; a copy of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that Ernest Hemingway signed for Fitzgerald; a first edition of "The Great Gatsby," complete with dust jacket, that's worth an estimated $375,000.
And the collection keeps growing. Earlier this year, the library at USC purchased with endowed funds an original play script from the 1926 Broadway production of "The Great Gatsby," which ran at the Ambassador Theatre in New York for 119 performances. USC acquired it from a rare book dealer in Santa Barbara, Calif., for $30,000.
"Collecting is like a disease," said Elizabeth Sudduth, the associate dean for special collections at the University of South Carolina Libraries. "You must always be looking."
The crown jewel of the collection is a ledger Fitzgerald kept for nearly two decades. In the book, he made handwritten notes about every novel and short story he sold, and chronicled his major life events.
Some of the ledger's earliest entries date back exactly 100 years, to 1919. The Great War had ended. The Jazz Age, which Fitzgerald would make so famous, had not yet begun. The 22-year-old fledgling writer, who would become one of the most celebrated American novelists of the 20th century, was poised to record it all.
And he did.
An entry from June 1919: "Big party. Montgomery. The break. Drunk in N.Y. ... Zelda’s mistake about the pictures"
And from July: "South Dartmouth. Betty. Prohibition. My ride to St. Paul. The Novel."
His notes are sometimes straightforward and often cryptic, but are considered invaluable for shedding light on a writer who famously drew inspiration for his books and stories from his own life.
"He starts to document everything he publishes, everything he sells," Suddeth said. "This is probably the single most valuable manuscript in modern American literature."
She could not put a price on it.
'An indefatigable collector'
In 1994, USC bought the Fitzgerald collection from professor Matthew Bruccoli, who taught literature at the university and was considered the leading Fitzgerald scholar of the 20th century.
"He was an indefatigable collector," said James L. W. West III, a Beaufort resident and a retired Penn State professor. West studied Fitzgerald under Bruccoli as a graduate student at USC in the late-1960s.
"He was really relentless in collecting everything in print either by or about Fitzgerald up until 2008, when he died," West said of Bruccoli. "He acquired the galley proofs of 'The Great Gatsby.' It must have been about 1970 and he was very excited about that. I remember other items — a British edition or a translation or a rare copy — and he never stopped."
Bruccoli arranged for his collection to be purchased by USC, but not before offering it for sale to Princeton University — Fitzgerald's alma mater and home to the largest collection of Fitzgerald's personal papers in the world. Princeton was not interested.
"Libraries have limited acquisitions funds," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in Princeton University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
If Bruccoli had offered the collection for free — such as Fitzgerald's daughter had done decades earlier with his papers — Princeton would have accepted it, Skemer said.
"The major consideration was that (Bruccoli's collection) was primarily printed editions," he said. "We buy very little Fitzgerald."
Part of the problem, Skemer explained, is that Fitzgerald first editions and other collectibles are so expensive. His first novel, "This Side of Paradise," was published nearly 100 years ago in 1920 and the market for Fitzgerald is still huge. This wasn't always the case.
"Fitzgerald had to be rediscovered. He died pretty close to penniless. His books weren’t selling," Skemer said. "He begins to be revived in the '40s, and really takes off in the '50s and '60s and has never let up."
Now, tens of thousands of new copies of "The Great Gatsby" are printed and sold every year. Many literary critics consider it the Great American Novel.
"He’s not No. 1 (in book sales), but we’re talking about books published in 1925 that still sell and sell and sell," Skemer said. "He became a posthumous, big-time success."
That 'elusive piece'
Bruccoli's Fitzgerald collection became so robust over the years partly because he struck up a long-running friendship with the writer's daughter, Scottie.
She gave most of Fitzgerald's papers to Princeton after her father's death in 1940 at the age of 44. But she gave the ledger to Bruccoli.
"He and Scottie Fitzgerald were good friends. I think she trusted him," West said. "It was a close relationship."
Other items Bruccoli purchased from rare book dealers. He bought that $375,000 "Gatsby" first edition in 1959 from a seller in Charlottesville, Va., and paid $30 or $35 for it — in installments.
"Not a week went by when he didn't acquire something," Sudduth, with the USC library, said. "There was always such excitement."
But there were other items that Bruccoli never could manage to get his hands on. One of them was that Broadway script of "The Great Gatsby" production. Suddeth called it that "elusive piece."
"Dr. Bruccoli had looked for this item for over 30 years and a copy just surfaced this year," she said.
It is the only known copy of the script still in existence.