November 7, 2012
F. Scott Fitzgerald, cowpoke
by Sal Robinson
Though it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely ranch hand, it turns out that, for one summer in 1915, F. Scott Fitzgerald was just that, at the Castle Mountain Livestock Company, a few miles outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. Later the inspiration for Fitzgerald’s novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (soon to issued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series), Fitzgerald’s summer as a cowboy seems to have also left its traces in The Great Gatsby, as Landon Y. Jones suggests in an article for the Wild River Review:
The Donahoe family’s [Fitzgerald’s hosts] palatial stone manor, which Fitzgerald visited and which still looms atop a hill in White Sulphur Springs, may have contributed to his imagining of the “feudal silhouette” of Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house.”
Fitzgerald came out from Princeton at the invitation of his friend from prep school, Charles W. Donahoe. Donahoe, who was endearingly known as “Sap,” for Homo sapiens, was the son of Michael Donahoe, who owned the Castle Mountain Livestock Company, which was then, and is still, one of the largest cattle and sheep ranches in the region. Fitzgerald immediately got into the swing of things:
In the ensuing weeks, Fitzgerald would do what easterners visiting Montana often do: he went native. He outfitted himself in boots, brandished a pistol, rode horses, drank bad whiskey, played cards with cowboys, flirted with daughters of neighboring ranchers, and took but one bath a week.
Fitzgerald’s diaries from the time are pretty slim — presumably he was having too much fun to keep them up — but he records having won $50 at cards and, another night, he got drunk on “raw whiskey,” climbed up on a table, and sang sentimental tunes. He also notes down the names of a pair of sisters, Aubrey and Olga Black, though at the time he was conducting a passionate epistolary (and occasionally chaperoned) romance with Ginevra King, a Chicago debutante who would be one of the models for Daisy Buchanan.
Jones has tracked down many tantalizing parallels between The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Fitzgerald’s actual experience: for instance, White Sulphur Springs is indeed located in an isolated valley; Michael Donahoe was a vice-president of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, one of the largest trusts of the early twentieth century, which started out with the Anaconda mine in Butte, a mine so fabulously productive that Butte was known for a time as “the Richest Hill on Earth”; and a local resident Jones interviewed remembers playing as a child in caves on the Donahoe ranch, one of which was known for its glittering quartz crystal formations.
Fitzgerald was proud of the novella: though he wrote of it somewhat flippantly in the introduction to the collection in which it was first published, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), saying it “was designed utterly for my own amusement” and “If you like this sort of thing, this, possibly, is the sort of thing you’ll like,” Jones notes that in a letter to his agent Fitzgerald struck a different tone:
[H]e was “rather discouraged” that another of his lesser, pot-boiling stories could be sold for $1,500 while “a genuinely imaginative thing into which I put three weeks real enthusiasm [“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”] brings not a thing.”
And the trip stayed with him: later in life, in one of his famous lists, Fitzgerald put down among his favorite “places of the heart” Provence, the Riviera, Gstaad … and Montana.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.