When 13-year-old Scott Fitzgerald of St. Paul first visited the fashionable southeastern Minnesota resort of Frontenac in 1909, it wasn’t necessarily the beauty of the natural surroundings that entranced him.
Rather, as was so often the case with young Scott, it was an unattainable girl of grace and status who caught and held his interest.
The lovesick teen, who would grow up to become F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, fell head over heels that summer for Evelyn Garrard, whose grandfather had founded Frontenac a half-century earlier. Evelyn was more than a year older than Scott, and came from a family whose wealth dwarfed that of the middle-class Fitzgeralds. Evelyn had the sort of pedigree that would allow her to select from any number of suitors.
None of that would discourage the youthful Fitzgerald, who lived on the fringes of St. Paul’s well-to-do Summit Avenue neighborhood, and who would routinely fall for girls of the highest class.
There was no reason Frontenac, with its stunning location on Lake Pepin, its upper-crust families, elegant homes, and summer soirees, should be any different.
And when romance fell short of all Scott hoped for, there was always material to be stored away for the future—as was the case when the thinly disguised history of the Garrard family turned up a decade later in one of his best-known stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
In 1909, Fitzgerald’s family had recently moved back to St. Paul after a sojourn of a few years in Buffalo, N.Y. The Fitzgeralds, whose financial situation had recently grown more tenuous, settled near Summit Avenue, and young Scott set about making new friends. He was, by all accounts, a bright, clever boy who perhaps bragged a bit too much about himself.
Just a year earlier, Scott had already fallen in puppy love with Violet Stockton, a rich girl who visited her grandparents in St. Paul in the summer of 1908. “She was very pretty with dark brown hair and eyes big and soft,” Scott recorded in his juvenile diary. “She spoke with a soft southern accent leaving out the r’s.” By the end of that summer, though, Scott and Violet had had a falling out, and the young romeo recorded “I just hate Violet.”
Scott arrived in Frontenac on July 27, 1909 in the company of boyhood pal Tams Bixby Jr., son of the president of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, according to Fitzgerald scholar Dave Page, who recounts the visit in the 2017 book “F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota.” Scott signed the guestbook at the historic Frontenac Inn, and within days had gathered a group of playmates for summertime adventures. Among them was Evelyn Garrard, and Fitzgerald admitted to being “smitten” with her. Violet Stockton was quickly forgotten.
Frontenac at the time was a summer haven for wealthy families from St. Paul and Minneapolis. Grand summer “cottages” were arrayed along the bluffs, and refined lodging was available for discerning guests. Evelyn’s family lived in Winona Cottage, a large, rambling white home.
In contrast to such affluence, shortly after his arrival in Frontenac, Scott was sent $1 by his father, who basically told him not to spend it all in one place.
When summer was over, Scott went back to St. Paul, but thoughts of Evelyn went with him. It is known that she made occasional visits to St. Paul with her family, according to Page, and she and Scott might have seen each other at parties and dances.
It wasn’t until four years later, in the summer of 1913, that Scott, now 17, returned to Frontenac. His ardor had not cooled. “Visiting the Garrards,” Fitzgerald wrote in his ledger. “I love her — oh—oh—oh.”
Within two years, though, Evelyn was engaged to be married to another man (as was Violet Stockton). Scott, meanwhile, had fallen in love with Ginevra King, an heiress from Lake Forest, Ill., who would haunt his dreams and stories for the rest of his life. That romance fell apart when Scott overheard a member of Ginevra’s family proclaim that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”
A good writer, though, wastes nothing, especially heartbreak. Ginevra would show up in numerous Fitzgerald stories, as would Violet. As for Evelyn, her family, given different names and slightly different backgrounds, would feature in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” according to Page.
That story, which satirizes the way Americans chase wealth, was rejected by popular magazines when Fitzgerald submitted it in 1922. Eventually, the lesser-known Smart Set accepted the story, and paid $300 for what became a classic.
That wasn’t the last time Fitzgerald returned to Frontenac in his fiction. One of his later stories, “Three Hours Between Planes,” published posthumously in 1941, includes a reference to Frontenac. “Oh yes, it was at Frontenac,” one character recalls, “the summer we—used to go to the cave.”
Frontenac, and his summers with Evelyn Garrard, obviously stayed in Fitzgerald’s memory bank for a long time.
Finding a ‘Diamond’ in Frontenac?
Much as the young F. Scott Fitzgerald could be awed by wealth, John T. Unger, the protagonist of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” is impressed when his prep school classmate, Percy Washington, declares that “My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”
Unger is a sort of stand-in for Fitzgerald in the story, which is possibly based on the Garrard family, of Frontenac, Minn. Fitzgerald got to know the family’s history on summer visits to Frontenac, where he carried on a teenage infatuation with Evelyn Garrard, the granddaughter of Gen. Israel Garrard, founder of the riverside village.
In “Diamond,” the founder of the Washington family’s Montana fiefdom is called Col. Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington, a character apparently based in part on Gen. Garrard, according to Fitzgerald scholar Dave Page, of St. Paul.
There is a fantastic quality to Fitzgerald’s story. He called it an “extravaganza,” written out of “a perfect craving for luxury.”
Was that craving kindled in the exclusive enclave of Frontenac, where Fitzgerald discovered a wealthy family able to control its own corner of the world? In the story, for example, Unger is told that the Washingtons have never let their land be surveyed by the government.
On one of the first days of his visit to the Washington estate, Unger meets “the most beautiful person he had ever seen.” Her name is Kismine, and Unger falls under her spell. “Here, for the first time in his life, he was beside a girl who seemed to him the incarnation of physical perfection.”
A couple of years earlier, Fitzgerald had felt exactly that way about Evelyn Garrard.
So, perhaps the Garrards of Frontenac found their way into one of Fitzgerald’s most famous stories, as Page has suggested.
On the other hand, the story likely had several sources. Following his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1915 at a friend’s ranch in Montana.
“The trip provided the setting for ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,’ in 1922,” according to Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli.