31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 25: “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

May 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Tales of the Jazz Age

Tales_of_the_Jazz_AgeF. Scott Fitzgerald will forever be tied in the public consciousness to his 1925 American classic, The Great Gatsby (a title most people of a certain generation are likely familiar with only as a result of Baz Luhrmann’s garish 2013 3D cinematic extravaganza). But Fitzgerald was also a prolific writer of short fiction, much of it for magazines. These stories were mostly written quickly, for money. As a result, some of them are brilliant, some are virtually unreadable.

In the former camp is a longish story from 1922 that first appeared in the periodical Smart Set and that its author described as a “fantasy.” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” examines one of Fitzgerald’s quintessential themes: wealth, and the corrosive effect it can have on the lives of the people it touches. Not just wealth, in this case, nor even Donald Trump–style opulence, but a bizarre, almost surreal mirror of American greed. The family at the heart of the story makes Gatsby and the denizens of East Egg look like Tin-Pan Alley paupers.

The family in question is the Washingtons, and the association with American foundational mythology is surely not accidental. (Indeed, we are told that the “father of the present Mr. Washington had been a Virginian, a direct descendant of George Washington and Lord Baltimore.”) The patriarch is Braddock Washington, a forty-year-old “with a proud, vacuous face, intelligent eyes, and a robust figure. In the mornings he smelt of horses – the best horses.” Braddock Washington, we are informed, “is by far the richest man in the world.”

The purveyor of this information is Percy, Braddock Washington’s son (the elder Washington is rarely referred to except by honorific or his full name). Percy is a student at the aptly named St. Midas’ School, a private boys’ school half-an-hour’s drive (by “Rolls-Pierce motor-car”) from Boston. “St. Midas’,” Fitzgerald writes, “is the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world.” The school’s exclusivity is inextricable from its cost; practically everything in this story is evaluated on the basis of its monetary worth.

Like The Great Gatsby, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is filtered through a sensibility that is separate from the ultra-wealthy subjects of scrutiny; unlike Gatsby, the story is cast in the third person, providing greater psychic distance and offering a somewhat more reliable perspective on events. This is significant, given the extraordinary nature of the tale: a first-person narration would have rendered it too outlandish to be trusted, but the relative reliability of the third-person narration acts as a balm to the reader’s credulity, and a means of grounding the absurd elements in a bedrock of plausibility.

The figure at the story’s heart is John T. Unger, a resident of a Mississippi town with the provocatively allusive name Hades. “Don’t forget who you are and where you come from,” John’s father advises him on the eve of the young man’s departure for St. Midas’. “You are an Unger – from Hades.” (In many ways, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is a kind of fantastical precursor to Gatsby: Mr. Unger’s advice chimes with the famous opening lines of that novel.)

Percy and John meet in second year, and John becomes intrigued by his classmate’s boasts regarding his family’s unfathomable wealth. “He must be very rich,” John says of Braddock Washington. “I’m glad. I like very rich people. The richer a fella is, the better I like him.” The dialogue between John and Percy is characterized by a kind of comic one-upmanship in which each tries to outdo the other with braggadocio about the riches they have encountered in their short lives, culminating with John’s claim to know a family, the Schnlitzer-Murphys, who own diamonds the size of walnuts. “That’s nothing,” Percy responds. “My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”

What places this story outside the realm of naturalism is that Percy’s statement is not intended metaphorically: he is being quite literal. The Washington family resides at the pinnacle of a mountain in the Montana Rockies – a mountain that is unique in that it is one gargantuan, solid diamond.

Of this outlandish premise, Fitzgerald writes in a note, “I was in that familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury, and the story began as an attempt to feed that craving on imaginary foods.” Fitzgerald himself was no stranger to wealth, although his stories and novels are characterized by an often caustic, conflicted relationship to money. The author is like a kind of stealthy double-agent, operating among the monied classes, but critiquing from within their blatant self-regard and immoral devotion to excess. When John first arrives at the Washingtons’ chateau, his initial wonderment is tinged with unease verging on fear: “What desperate transaction lay hidden here? What a moral expedient of a bizarre Crœsus? What terrible and golden mystery?”

John’s worry turns out to be well founded. Fitzgerald’s critique of unbridled American wealth finds its ne plus ultra in the notion of a diamond the size of a mountain, which offers the family that claims it untold riches, but also threatens to bankrupt them should anyone else discover it. Braddock Washington’s father, who sports the ridiculously pompous name Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington, hits on the crux of the problem:

It was an amazing predicament. He was, in one sense, the richest man that ever lived – and yet was he worth anything at all? If his secret should transpire there was no telling to what measures the Government might resort in order to prevent a panic, in gold as well as in jewels. They might take over the claim immediately and institute a monopoly.

Braddock Washington himself comes to a similar conclusion: “His one care must be the protection of his secret, lest in the possible panic attendant on its discovery he should be reduced with all the property-holders in the world to utter poverty.”

Fitzgerald’s satire is based in the essential contradiction at the heart of capitalism: although the family is the wealthiest in the world, the actual value of the diamond on which they reside is nil. Their fanatical devotion to preserving the secret of the mountain has divested them of any kind of basic morality: they see no problem in keeping black servants, whom they have managed to convince that slavery had never been abolished, or kidnapping or killing anyone who is in a position to give away the secret of the mountain’s provenance. “Cruelty,” Braddock Washington proclaims, “doesn’t exist where self-preservation is involved.”

Self-preservation, in this instance, equates to the preservation of all the creature comforts the Washingtons have come to expect as their due. But material gratification does not come without a price, in this case the isolation that accompanies the necessity of keeping the source of their wealth under wraps.

The love of money comes into direct conflict with love of a less craven kind when John begins to have feelings for Kismine, Percy’s sister, a relationship that provides the dramatic impetus for the reversals and plot twists of the second half. Along the way, Fitzgerald has much sport with his admittedly wild scenario, including one vicious dig at the Hollywood establishment: when John asks who was responsible for the layout of the family chateau, Percy responds, “I blush to tell you, but it was a moving-picture fella. He was the only man who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money, though he did tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn’t read or write.” (Fitzgerald himself did some contract work writing for Hollywood, so his cynicism about the boorish folk who people the industry is well-founded.)

The story culminates in an air raid on the family compound, and the apotheosis of the capitalist ethos, a moment in which Braddock Washington tries – unsuccessfully – to bribe God. As John and Kismine face the prospect of returning to Hades to live in poverty, the implicit question involves what, precisely, constitutes hell on earth.

Fitzgerald’s mode in this story is satire of a particularly fantastic stripe, and the tone is comic. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is not as substantial as Gatsby and, as a result, not quite as damning in its condemnation of a particularly American kind of capitalist venality. However, as Fitzgerald notes about the story, “If you like this sort of thing, this, possibly, is the sort of thing you’ll like.”

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