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On History

Where Daisy Buchanan Lived

December 25, 2012 | by

Conway Farms Golf Club, Lake Forest, IL.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

In a 1940 letter to his daughter written six months before his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was.” Sixty-six years later, as I drove through the Illinois suburb that sits thirty-two miles north of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, I kept looking around and wondering to myself what exactly it was that Fitzgerald found so great. I thought about him as I drank a coffee at a Starbucks that wasn’t there the last time I’d visited, and I noticed that the McDonald’s drive-through near the Metra train station seemed to be buzzing. All the suburban trappings I recalled from a childhood spent on the North Shore of Chicago were still there. To me, Lake Forest was a place I’d gotten to know by peeking through frosted car windows on my way to early morning hockey practice as a kid. Cozy, definitely, but not exactly the sort of place I associate with the Roaring Twenties decadence and wild parties conjured by Fitzgerald’s name.

Founded in 1861, Lake Forest, Illinois, was originally built as a college town by Presbyterians. After the Civil War, the city attracted residents whose last names were synonymous with the building (and a decade later, the post–Great Fire rebuilding) of Chicago. Thanks to its tranquility and natural beauty, as well as its isolation from main roads, Lake Forest became the Chicago metropolitan area’s most desirable neighborhood, attracting Rockefellers, Armours, Medills, and Marshall Fields. Lake Forest was the Greenwich of the Midwest: a haven for robber barons and meat packers far from the strikes, riots, and muckrakers that threatened the wealth and safety of the early twentieth century’s 1 percent. By the city’s 150th anniversary, in 2011, Lake Forest had served as the setting for a best-selling novel (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by native son Dave Eggers) and Oscar-winning film (Robert Redford’s Ordinary People). But the city’s first true claim to literary fame came in 1925, as a passing mention in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, in which we learn from narrator Nick Carraway that Tom Buchanan has bought a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. Carraway is amazed that a man of his own generation is wealthy enough to have done so.

Fitzgerald’s repeated mentions of Lake Forest in his work is not much commented on; it isn’t associated with him the way Princeton University, Long Island, and the South of France tend to be. Indeed, the casual mention in Gatsby might lead one to believe that it was just a city he’d read about or a place he saw on a map. But it’s something more than that. The reason Lake Forest became such a significant place to one of America’s great writers is simple: his first love was from there.

Ginevra King

Ginevra King met Scott Fitzgerald for the first time on January 4, 1915, while visiting a school friend in Minnesota. The two began a romance that consisted primarily of written correspondence, until it was broken off in 1917. While a two-year letter writing campaign might not seem like much by today’s standards, it clearly made an impression. Several of Fitzgerald’s best-known female characters were based on a composite partially inspired by King and her letters: from Judy Jones in the short story “Winter Dreams” to Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise. The poor boy losing the rich girl is a common theme in Fitzgerald’s work, and the original model was surely his relationship with King. King’s influence is also present in the iconic character of Daisy Buchanan—Jay Gatsby’s obsession and one of Fitzgerald’s most memorable creations.

In the years leading up to World War I, King and her three closest friends—Margaret Carry, Courtney Letts, and Edith Cummings—were considered celebrities in Lake Forest and, indeed, throughout the Chicagoland area. Collectively known as the Big Four (a name they bestowed on themselves), they were the socialites of their era. The exclusive group didn’t allow new members, and each wore a rose-gold pinkie ring with The Big Four 1914 engraved on the inner band. They rarely went out in public without each other, were either loved or reviled by everyone who knew about them, and, with the brashness of the young and rich, didn’t care about what anybody thought. As if Gatsby’s one tie to Lake Forest wasn’t enough, Cummings, who in 1924 became the first golfer and female athlete featured on the cover of Time, is a reasonable culprit for the inspiration behind the sassy and dishonest golfer, Jordan Baker.

As with any truly great book, everybody who loves Gatsby comes away with certain ideas of what the novel is really about. You can’t help but attach meaning to parts of the book in an attempt to understand things: Was Gatsby a Jew? What’s the deal with the green light? Is it a book about the American Dream or is it mocking the very concept? Gatsby is the type of classic that deserves to have conclusions drawn about it by scholars and casual readers alike. And as soon as I learned about Fitzgerald’s Lake Forest past, I was reading a book about him and Ginevra King. Fitzgerald wrote the chunk of the book that takes place on Long Island while living on Long Island with Zelda by his side, but it seemed to me that The Great Gatsby could have just as easily have been set in Lake Forest.

According to King’s diaries and letters to Fitzgerald (which are available to the public at Princeton University), the young writer first visited her in Lake Forest late in June 1915. The trip was brief, but Fitzgerald surely admired the beauty of the affluent city. He wouldn’t have missed Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s Villa Turicum—the lakefront estate (situated on three hundred acres) designed by Charles Platt and inspired by Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens—and surely visited the public lawns manicured to resemble English gardens that he would later recall, in another  “Ginevra story,” “A Nice Quiet Place,” as “immaculate.” He returned again the following summer. This time he had a bit more time to see Lake Forest and observe the culture. Since Fitzgerald’s own hometown in Minnesota mostly comprised the nouveau riche, his time spent in Lake Forest was perhaps his first exposure (not counting rowdy days at Princeton) to old money’s natural habitat. If that is indeed the case, the city that stretches out along Lake Michigan shaped the writer’s view of how the other half lived, and any fan of Fitzgerald knows that the lifestyles of the rich (both old and new) were fixations in his work. And it could be mere coincidence, but Lake Forest is part of the group of Chicagoland lakefront cities known as the North Shore; Gatsby’s West and East Egg, based off the Long Island cities of Great Neck and Sands Point, are also on a part of the island referred to as the North Shore.

Villa Turicum

There are some that believe King and Lake Forest may have even helped Fitzgerald come up with the initial idea for Gatsby. In his 2005 book, The Perfect Hour, which attempts to piece together King’s relationship with Fitzgerald, James L. M. West III points to a story that she wrote and shared with Fitzgerald in 1916. West suggests that Fitzgerald may have used the untitled piece “in search of material and inspiration,” pointing out a handful of similarities between King’s somewhat crude short story and Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. West also points out that the story makes clear that King was aware of Fitzgerald’s habit of observing her and her friends; one of her characters, a writer named “Scott Fitz-Gerald” keeps a card file on his old girlfriends. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s writing process sometimes involved him scouring old letters and journals in order to jog his memory or kick-start his creative drive. One batch of documents may have included a 227-page binder filled with transcripts of King’s letters, which she had asked him to destroy in a letter on July 7, 1917. The first page of the batch reads, “Strictly Private Letters: Property of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Not Manuscript).”

 

Kingdom Come Farm, today.

 

I visited Lake Forest again last year and thought more about Fitzgerald and King. I grabbed a coffee at the Starbucks that didn’t seem so new anymore, I ate lunch at a restaurant with three different autographed Vince Vaughn photos (another favorite son of the city), and I reread Gatsby before crashing on a friend’s couch in nearby Evanston. I tried to picture this writer, of whom I’ve only seen about a dozen photographs, sitting at his desk thinking of Lake Forest and the girl he once knew from there. The next day I got into a car and took the only thing resembling a literary pilgrimage I’ve ever taken in my life, as I drove through the city trying to experience what Fitzgerald had experienced. I looked out over the bluffs that faced Lake Michigan, trying to imagine a fabulous West Egg party taking place there. I tried to picture Meyer Wolfsheim making a stop in Lake Forest after he met with Chicago associates, and I envisioned Jordan Baker teeing up as I passed by the Onwentsia Club where King and her three friends were regulars. And when I caught a glimpse of the property once known as Kingdom Come Farms that was owned by King’s father, and, no doubt, hosted Fitzgerald at least once, I tried to imagine Gatsby pulling up in a yellow Rolls Royce, hoping to impress the girl who changed his life when he was a much younger man.

Jason Diamond is a writer who lives in New York. He's the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

49 COMMENTS

34 Comments

  1. CB | July 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    “Lake Forest, with its thousand enchanted verandas, the dancing on the outdoor platform at the club, and always the boys, centaurs, in their new cars.”

    “It was almost seven – a nostalgic hour, for it had been the loveliest of all at Lake Forest a year ago. Bathed and positively shining, one had intruded then for a last minute into the departing day, and, sitting alone on the veranda, turned over the romantic prospects of the night, while lighted windows sprang out on the blurring shapes of houses, and cars flew past with people late home from tea.”

    from “A Nice Quiet Place,” one of “The Basil and Josephine Stories” of Fitzgerald, written between 1928 and 1929

  2. Sadie Stein | July 23, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Oh, how wonderful – thank you! Editing this piece, I went down a bit of a Lake Forest Mansion rabbit-hole…and there are indeed some truly magnificent vistas!

  3. Jason Diamond | July 23, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    It’s really funny to go back there as an adult. I didn’t appreciate how lovely it really is.

  4. S. Tremaine Nelson | July 23, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Great post. Reminds me of Fitzgerald’s line in GATSBY about “Biloxi, Tennessee.” It’s impossible to tell if Fitzgerald meant Biloxi, Mississippi, or whether he imbued his narrator Carraway with an ignorance of southern geography. Seemingly inconsequential detail, like the Lake Forest mention, but nevertheless fascinating to consider.

  5. Lenore Riegel | July 23, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    This was an interesting piece, thanks. My favorite exploration of the Gatsby backstory comes from Jerome Charyn’s Gangsters and Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and the Birth of Broadway. You might enjoy reading it.

  6. Chris Lites | July 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    I went to college there. Beautiful campus, but you can smell the money in the air.

  7. Joe Carlson | July 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
    For starters if named “King” they feel entitled to call a property “Kingdom Come Farms” and not think of that as a tad pushy on their part. And, yes, when a Rockefeller hooks up with a McCormick you are talking “very rich.” Certainly not ordering out from Pizza Hut. Very nice piece, Jason. Knew about Vince Vaughn but not about Dave Eggers. As for THE GREAT GATSBY, it opens on Christmas Day with Leo and Carey Mulligan.

  8. Andy Hurvitz | July 23, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Wonderfully observed piece.

    Funny that you mention Starbucks. I first went into one in Lake Forest around 1993. At that time, I was living in NYC and there weren’t any there yet!

    I thought of Lake Forest and the entire North Shore in the 1920s while reading your article and remembered something I had seen months ago which is related to that time and place: http://imprint.printmag.com/branding/%E2%80%9Ca-true-visionary-gives-chicago-a-landmark-branding-campaign-circa-1920-30%E2%80%9D/

  9. Jason Diamond | July 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Andy, you’ve made my day. I actually have replicas of two of the posters from the North Shore line hanging on my wall that are both stunning. I never realized how many there were, but now that I know, I think I need to make it my mission to collect as many as possible. Thanks!

  10. Charlotte | July 23, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Lake Forest — sigh. I grew up there in the strange interstitial space where we were always broke (post-divorce) but my mother comes from one of those old families — and we were horsy. Fox hunting, show jumping. My 101 year old grandmother is still angry about not being allowed to compete at polo in the 1930s (she was really good). The beach below Villa Turicum is where we partied at night during high school although I think the pool and the steps have now fallen into the lake. We used to joke about being the best-defended suburb in America — the Armours had Ft. Sheridan built to the south after the Haymarket riots, and Great Lakes Naval base was just to the north. Now it seems more and more like anyplace else — just another fancy suburb.

  11. Andy | July 25, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Did Mr. T read Gatsby before deciding to chop down all the trees on his Lake Forest estate? Was this a grand statement on Fitzgerald’s version of the American Dream? We may never know.

  12. Anthony Martin | July 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I grew up in this area and, as anyone else who grew up there would likely agree, I prefer to picture the old Lake Forest that perhaps influenced Fitzgerald when he wrote Gatsby than the gaudy, superficial Lake Forest that exists now.

  13. Army Auchincloss | August 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Enjoyed the piece. My grandfather knew Scott and Zelda through House Party Reunions a Princeton. (He was Ivy, where, I believe, Scott was Cottage). Had more fun stories regarding Zelda than Scott. He even kept a scrapbook. The family knew the King family, including Ginevra and husband(s), through Onwentsia and Shoreacres. Although I grew up back East, as a kid, we would visit. We even flew in to view filming of Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” at my grandparent’s house in Lake Bluff. Cast included Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Lauren Hutton and Lillian Gish. My favorite was meeting Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy. Need I say it was late ’70′s? LOL

  14. V.R SURYANARAYANA | August 2, 2012 at 5:36 am

    An excellent revealed Information about Lake forest ,which related to Fitzgerald romance. Thanks to lovely JASON DIAMOND

  15. R. Austin Healy | August 2, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Writers of fiction make things up as they go along, so trying to pinpoint this or that place as an actual location in a novel is guess work at best. Unless, of course, you can talk to the author.

  16. Russ Miner | August 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    I really like your comments regarding the novel deserving conclusions from each reader. However, I disagree about the notion that West Egg could have been Lake Forest or that Jordan Baker could have been from the Midwest. Fitzgerald is my favorite author but he is not the subtlest author. The symbolism in his stories is pretty heavy-handed. The Easterners in Gatsby were warriors and survived. The Midwesterners, (except for Nick who was merely the observer and not really a participant in the drama), ended up overwhelmed.

  17. Joe | August 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    I taught at Lake Forest Academy, on the old Armour family estate on the west side of town, back in the mid-nineties, and regarded Lake Forest as quite beautiful (in a very posh sort of way) but crashingly lifeless and dull, especially if you were single. The sole bar in town had only 1 graffito in the men’s room, penned over the urinal in someone’s neat corporate script: “Ameritech management sucks.” That tells you everything you need to know about Lake Forest, I think.

  18. Jim Miller | August 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    If you live in Brooklyn, perhaps you should visit Sands Point, the actual East Egg in Gatsby.
    I friend of mine grew up in this house in the 50′s and has told me it was the house Fitzgerald modeled as the Buchanan’s.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Plum+Beach+Point+Road,+Port+Washington,+NY&hl=en&ll=40.839208,-73.729039&spn=0.001201,0.002559&sll=41.500765,-72.757507&sspn=1.217773,2.620239&oq=plum+point+road&t=f&hnear=Plum+Beach+Point+Rd,+Port+Washington,+Nassau,+New+York+11050&z=19&ecpose=40.83913191,-73.72903948,155.13,0,3.22,0

  19. marilyn nepp sturner | August 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    yes, he could have been a Jew with the last name of GaTz and his feeling of not really belonging at all to the people he has befriended and his association with Meyer… only a speculation and never thought about it before the book is a masterpiece which is one of my very favorites of all time!!

  20. Albert | August 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I feel like Carraway visiting among the Buchanan’s. Thanks for the piece. Can’t wait to see if Baz Luhrmann has done Fitzgerald justice…

  21. Barry Sullivan | August 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    I love “Gatsby,” one of those novels that although traditonal in structure has something of the impressionist about it. it is, I find, an effective touchstone to winnow the romantics from the prosaics, the former feeling passionately about Fitzgerald’s little gem and the latter feigning indifference.

    I took a little pilgrimmage to F.Scott’s last apartment in Hollywood–before he moved in with Sheila Graham after having a heart attack to avoid the stairs– and thought how the nearly great can live in such ordinary and accessible places. A lesson perhaps….

  22. William Ames | August 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Thought-provoking article. I would point out that it’s James L. W. West III, actually (W, not M). I had the privilege of taking one of his undergraduate courses in pursuit of my degree in English Literature at Penn State.

  23. Emily | August 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    This was a quaintly cute nostalgic reflection on imagining the times that one has never lived and can only imagine. However sometimes it’s better not to try and compare the mystic and perfect visions of times gone by to the present place that is over run by MacDonald’s and Starbucks. But still, it is a humble, interesting experience to read about.

  24. maggie | August 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    reading ‘Gatsby’ at the age of 15 really influenced me. became massive F. Scott fan. continually fascinated by the concept and reality of ‘rich’. loved the google map of the possible original Gatsby house! My mother was related to the Scottish Armour’s (don’t know if they are one and the same). love all the info, love from Scotland x – (btw did you know Robert Burns (Scots bard (poet)) was married to a Jean Armour?

  25. Yesterdays Wine | August 8, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Gatsby set in Chicago? The writer has to be absolutely, positively daft. I’m sure Chicago was exciting in the 20s, and beautiful. But New York was and is the heartbeat of the nation. And, for all its scenes in Long Island, it is finally a novel about New York. For Gatsby’s purpose – and Tom’s, Daisy’s and Jordan’s – it was the capital of greed and “meretriciousness.” Vulgar, self-exalted, self-promoting, a city of the best and worst possibilities. It is not insignificant that all the major players came from the Midwest or South. Believe me: they couldn’t be natives. The few natives – as well-drawn as they are – are merely part of the city furniture. Also fitting – they all went back home again, except for poor Gatsby.

  26. Dexter Green | August 9, 2012 at 8:37 am

    “Winter Dreams” is my favorite FSF story and this place was obviously on his mind as he wrote it. We all have our Judy Joneses. Thank you for including the golf course picture. Very much as I had imagined Sherry Island Golf Club might look.

  27. John Locke | August 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    I wonder if the writer of this has ever actually read the book. I mean most of the stuff they mentioned is noticed with the most cursory glance, but they listed things that have obvious meanings. The green light represents money, but more specifically, it is the light that shows him were Daisy is and the money he needs to reach her. The question of if he is a jew, besides sounding super racist, is irrelevant. The old money had many conflicting stories about how he got his money, but they almost all involved some sort of illegal activity. This shows the view that the old money had for new money, which as it happens to turn out is completely true about Gatsby. And finally, the main point of the article, of course she was the basis for Daisy, she was the basis for most of his characters, which the writer acknowledged. Anyone who has read Winter Dreams knows that she was the seed for his female characters. The fact that the writer “read” the entire book on a couch before taking a nap supports my theory.

  28. Benny Spinoza | August 9, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Mr. Locke, you misquoted the writer. I believe he said “reread” and not “read” as you mistakingly put. You should probably put the correct quotation if you want people to ever believe your points to be valid.

  29. JPaul | August 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    A Jew from North Dakota? Not bloody likely.
    Fitzgerald was from a nouveau riche place and Lake Forest was old money? Money must get old fast; there was maybe one generation of money between the two.

  30. Todd Protzman-Davis | August 9, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Well done; I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, and was pleased to see you utilized the image from my website.

  31. Leer Leary | August 10, 2012 at 11:21 am

    As a student at Stony Brook University, a friend working on his Masters in English, walked the route of the car… supposedly found the pilings where Dr. Eckleburg’s billboard stood near the Ash Heaps of Douglaston, L.I. (Where “Kiddie City” used to be).
    Sorry, I can not imagine another location than the GOLD COAST of Long Island…
    GATSBY in Illinois in the early 20th Century? Why, you must be all wet old sport!

  32. Kathryn Dohrmann | August 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Lake Forest is for good reason sometimes called the “enchanted forest.” It is a place of great physical beauty: on the east an inland sea (Lake Michigan) and high bluffs (the “bluff coast”); throughout town, deep ravines and oak-hickory forests; and on its western borders, native prairies, wetlands, and oak savannas. The land ethic is strong here, with thousands of acres of preserved open space. These natural riches are Lake Forest’s true wealth.

  33. Andrea Olmstead | September 23, 2012 at 10:31 am

    “WHO WAS F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S DAISY?” EBOOK PUBLISHED

    New Fitzgerald Research Leads to Unexpected Answer

    Boston, MA September 19, 2012

    Author and resident Andrea Olmstead has published “Who Was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy?,” a 23,870-word eBook that identifies a woman Fitzgerald scholars did not know was nicknamed “Daisy.” Olmstead demonstrates Daisy’s influence on four characters in three Fitzgerald novels.

    For a limited time (Wednesday, September 19 through Monday, October 1) an electronic book version of “Who Was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy?,” normally priced at $3.99, will be available as a free download at Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/236261. Coupon code: EZ47B

    Daisy, as the reading world knows, is the name Fitzgerald assigned the leading lady in The Great Gatsby. Thoroughly annotated, this eBook investigates for the first time Daisy’s long life, her relationship with Fitzgerald, and her influence on three other characters in This Side of Paradise and an early version of Tender is the Night.

    Founded in 2008, Smashwords operates the world’s leading eBook publishing and distribution platform serving authors, publishers, readers, and retailers.

    Musicologist Andrea Olmstead is the author of four books about the modernist American composer Roger Sessions, published by Routledge, Northeastern University Press, and UMI Research Press, as well as of Juilliard: A History (University of Illinois Press). Olmstead has taught Music History at The Juilliard School and The New England Conservatory of Music. She is also a librettist and CD producer.

  34. shelbylynn | November 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    this needs a cite!

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