Scott Fitzgerald and the Lake Forest Four
Who Taught Him the Difference.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
By Megan McKinney
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy.”
For a few days during the summers of 1915 and 1916, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a houseguest in Lake Forest. The experience would forever mark both the author and his literature; it was here, for example, that he decided “the very rich are different from you and me.” However, whether this was a subject of later debate with Ernest Hemingway, in which the latter is said to have replied, “Yes, they have more money,” has been a matter of scholarly dispute for decades. Nevertheless, it was here that previous attitudes harbored by the incipient author gelled and new perceptions were absorbed.
Scott Fitzgerald was a houseguest at Kingdom Come Farm in Lake Forest 100 ago.
During these fragments of both summers, Scott was in the continuing company of Ginevra King and the Lake Forest Big Four, described in last week’s Classic Chicago. Although the girls were still in their teens when they introduced Fitzgerald to the rarified world of those he considered America’s very rich, they were then more recognized than he.
In June 1915, Scott made his first visit to the privileged Chicago suburb and began a meticulous study of the foursome and their peers that would exert a profound effect on his work for the next two-and-a-half decades.
The revelation had begun on a frigid January night in 1915 when 18-year-old Scott Fitzgerald’s future was transformed by meeting 16-year-old Ginevra King at a party in his native St. Paul, Minnesota. She was young —she had lost her last two baby teeth only days before — beautiful, and from money that was old enough to resonate in her voice and manner. The combination so bewitched Fitzgerald that the exquisite Ginevra became his continuing muse. She was prototype not only for The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, and both Isabelle Borgé and Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise, but also for the elusive rich girls in scores of his short stories. Fitzgerald himself said that Winter Dreams’ Judy Jones — typical of the heroines he based on Ginevra — was patterned after “my first girl 18-20 whom I’ve used over and over and never forgotten.”
“Flirt smiled from her large black-brown eyes and shone through her intense physical magnetism,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his first meeting with Ginevra. “She had that curious mixture of the social and the artistic temperaments found often in two classes, society women and actors. Her education or, rather, her sophistication, had been absorbed from the boys who had dangled on her favor; her tact was instinctive, and her capacity for love-affairs was limited only by the number of the susceptible within telephone distance.” Scott Fitzgerald quickly joined the ranks of the susceptible.
The Garfield King Chicago house, 1450 Astor at Burton, in 1915.
Through Ginevra and his visits to the houses of her parents, the Charles Garfield Kings, in Chicago and Lake Forest, Fitzgerald received temporary entrée to world of wealth and privilege he had previously only imagined and which would repeatedly inform the prose surrounding his enduring theme of the unattainable “top girl.” Ginevra represented the quintessential upper class American woman — rich, polished and desirable, but remote —through whom all of life’s rewards would be achievable, if she could only be won.
The rear of the Garfield King Lake Forest house at 210 South Ridge Road.
During evenings throughout the Lake Forest summers of a century ago, band music floated from the great houses with dancing couples spilling out from spacious rooms to broad terraces. And, as Fitzgerald wrote of his heroine in Babes in the Woods, “The vista of her life seemed an un-ended succession of scenes like this, under the moonlight and pale starlight, and in the backs of warm limousines and low cosy [sic] roadsters stopped under sheltering trees — only the boy might change.”
Scott participated in a few of these gatherings, but one of the young men always present, and in attendance to Ginevra, was the dashing young polo player, tennis star and aviator Deering Davis. Although Deering was a ubiquitous member of the local junior set, he would be an exception to the rule of marrying within their circle. Among his future wives were silent screen star Louise Brooks and Austrian Countess Marie Berchtold, formerly married to a Count Esterházy of Hungary.
When Scott was a guest at one of these parties in June 1915, Deering announced rather boastfully, “I’m going to take Ginevra home in my electric.” It was a statement that leveled Scott. He had no electric; he had no automobile at all, not even in St. Paul.
It was becoming increasingly evident to Fitzgerald that he had wandered into another — almost alien — world, a place in which all of his contemporaries had their own automobiles, even the girls. Each of the Big Four had a “machine” of her own, emphasizing to Scott the disparity between himself and everyone in Ginevra’s surroundings. She was his girl — or at least so he thought — and yet this Deering Davis, because he had an electric, assumed that he would take her home. Scott’s chagrin increased as his stay progressed and he overheard Big Four member Courtney Letts comment that Deering was “as poor as a church mouse.” A poor church mouse indeed, with an automobile when Scott had none.
According to Fitzgerald scholar Arthur Mizener in his The Far Side of Paradise, “Ginevra King was a celebrity, a beautiful and wealthy girl from Chicago who had already acquired a reputation for daring and adventurousness … other men were part of her charm, for though she conquered everywhere quite deliberately, she remained essentially untouched, free.” She was the girl Fitzgerald would, “without much conscious intention …make the ideal girl of his generation, the wise, even hard-boiled, virgin who for all her daring and unconventionality was essentially far more elusive than her mother — and, in her own way, far more romantic.”
Scott’s second visit to Lake Forest in August 1916 was partial inspiration for the quirky short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” By associating with the Lake Forest crowd in their rarified world, he would develop the recurring theme of an heiress who dallies with a poor boy and then discards him to withdraw into the security of her money and social position in a place where “people played polo and were rich together.” This theme, although it would become legendary almost a decade later in Gatsby, appeared in its most extreme form in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when the hero discoveries that houseguests of the Ginevra character are routinely euthanized by her father before their scheduled departure from the fabulous — but clandestine — Montana diamond upon which the family chateau is built.
When his beloved realizes her lover senses the truth, she tells him, “I’m honestly sorry you’re going to — going to be put away — though I’d rather you’d be put away than ever kiss another girl.” Then, as an afterthought, she adds, “Besides, I’ve always heard that a girl can have more fun with a man whom she knows she can never marry.” Fitzgerald’s sense that Ginevra might be toying with him crystallized during that visit, when he was devastated and never quite recovered from overhearing the words, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”
The bizarre story set on a mountain-sized diamond in the American West probably had been percolating in his mind for more than a year. In July 1915, he had visited Princeton classmate Sap Donahue at his family ranch in Montana, giving him a setting for a chilling story that wouldn’t completely gel for another few years.
Possibly the premier literary event of 1925 was the publication of The Great Gatsby, with Ginevra appearing as the elusive Daisy Buchanan, who obsessed Jay Gatsby, and Big Four member Edith Cummings as Daisy’s golf-playing friend, Jordan Baker. In it, Scott wrote of Edith that “there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings.”
It was not merely exposure to the Big Four that shaped Scott Fitzgerald’s view of the world during his Lake Forest visits; he was transfixed by the suburb itself. When, in the 1922 novel The Beautiful and the Damned, he stated that Lake Forest belonged “in the same league as Newport, Southampton and Palm Beach,” it was no passing burst of enthusiasm. He was so permanently entranced with the community’s allure that, 25 years after his first visit, he wrote his daughter, Scottie, “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was!” And he transported that feeling of wonder to Chicago.
After being introduced to the Big Four and their lush town-and-country milieu, Fitzgerald wrote in “First Blood,” one of his Josephine Perry stories, “… the first stars were out over Lake Shore Drive, and all about her she could feel Chicago swinging around its circle at a hundred miles an hour, and Josephine knew that she only wanted to want such wants for her soul’s sake. Actually, she had no desire for achievement. Her grandfather had had that, her parents had had the consciousness of it, but Josephine accepted the proud world into which she was born. This was easy in Chicago, which, unlike New York, was a city state, where the old families formed a caste … and there were no ramifications, save that even the Perrys had to be nice to half a dozen families even richer and more important than themselves…”
“Into Chicago,” he continued in “A Nice Quiet Place,” another of the Josephine stories, “resonant with shrill June clamor; out to Lake Forest, where her friends moved already in an aura of new boys, new tunes, parties and house parties yet to be … Summer, summer, summer — bland inland sun and friendly rain. Lake Forest, with its thousand enchanted verandas, the dancing on the outdoor platform at the club, and always the boys, centaurs, in new cars.”
The serene suburban community, established by Chicago Presbyterians in 1856, stood, as it does today, above Lake Michigan on high bluffs some 30 miles north of the city. Lush vegetation and deep ravines give surprise and mystery to the natural landscape, and tree-shaded streets curve around manicured grounds, often edged by hedges and fences that shield from public view a sampling of some of the nation’s loveliest 19th and 20th century country houses. Successive generations of the heirs of Chicago’s dry goods, meatpacking, banking and real estate fortunes have danced on the lawns, terraces and in the ballrooms of these estates, cavorted in their swimming pools and competed on the courts of their tennis houses. And, presiding over it all from 1895 has been Onwentsia, the area’s premier country club.
Although the two summers in Lake Forest in the company of the Big Four greatly contributed to forming his view of those he considered “the very rich,” it was one young woman and one house in Fitzgerald’s “most glamorous place in the world” that were most responsible for the lingering fantasies which were to shape his literature.
When architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed Kingdom Come Farm in 1905, he carefully planned the gracious white frame main house for the leisure of long, relaxed summer days away from the heat of the city, as well as moonlit nights of dancing under a clear summer sky. The broad eaves of its roof were created to shade second-story bedrooms, and ground floor French doors opened to porches and outdoor rooms that easily connected the house with its grounds and the warm weather pleasures they offered.
It was “more mysterious and gay than other houses,” Fitzgerald wrote of the lovely villa in Winter Dreams. “There was a feeling of mystery in it, of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and strange than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through these deep corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid already in lavender, but were fresh and breathing and set forth in rich motor cars and in great dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.”
Fitzgerald repeated the description almost verbatim in The Great Gatsby, adding, “It amazed [Gatsby] — he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there — it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him.”
Robert F. Carl