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The following excerpt is from F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit by Dave Page and John Koblas (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1996). It is excerpted with permission from North Star Press of St. Cloud.
As the wealth of the Northwest poured through Duluth's harbor for transit east, some of it slipped off trains and ore boats and remained behind. Newspaper articles in the Duluth dailies during the summer of 1909 featured photographs of new buildings: a larger high school, an ornate train station, and Glensheen, a baronial manor fronting Lake Superior just north of the city.
But for the future creator of Jay Gatsby, the image which burned its way more than any other onto Scott's impressionable mind was Thomas F. Cole's yacht Alvina, riding at anchor in Duluth harbor. The 214-foot pleasure vessel sailed amidst much fanfare into Duluth harbor just a few weeks before Scott's arrival. Cole, his son, and friends had cruised from Cleveland, where the Alvina had been refitted at U.S. Steel's shipbuilding facilities.
As president of Oliver Mining Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, Cole was the acme of glamour and may have provided Fitzgerald with part of the model for Dan Cody, Jay Gatsby's mentor in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald himself credits Robert Kerr - a Great Neck, New York, acquaintance - for the creation of Cody. Kerr told Scott a story about rowing out to a yacht to warn the owner of a dangerous tide. (A watchful editor kept Scott from mistakenly putting a tide in Lake Superior.) While Cody may have started his literary life as a neighbor's tale, he wound up in The Great Gatsby as an extension of Fitzgerald's own experience: the similarities between Cody and Cole are just too numerous to be coincidental.
Like Cody, Cole made his money from copper interests in Montana; and like Jay Gatz, Scott must have fantasized as he sat by Duluth harbor that Cody would pick him up and take him for a cruise on the gleaming white Alvina. After all, this was the same young boy who - when he was four years old - "wore a blue sailor suit & told enormous lies to older people about being really the owner of a real yatch [sic]."
A much abbreviated version of Gatsby's young adulthood was spliced into Gatsby, including the Kerr episode - after it had been filtered through Fitzgerald's own experience in Duluth. This is how Scott described seeing the yacht in The Great Gatsby:
To young Gatz, resting on his oars and looking up at the railed deck, that yacht represented all the beauty and glamor in the world. I suppose he smiled at Cody - he had probably discovered that people liked him when he smiled. At any rate Cody asked him a few questions (one of them elicited the brand new name) and found that he was quick and extravagantly ambitious. A few days later he took him to Duluth and bought him a blue coat, six pairs of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap. And when the Tuolomee left for the West Indies and the Barbary Coast Gatsby left too.
Cody had, as recorded in Gatsby, been drifting around Lake Superior and turned up as James Gatz's destiny in Little Girl Bay. Similarly, Cole delighted in taking the Alvina on trips out of its home port into Lake Superior, and he may have passed Little Girl's Point on Lake Superior's South Shore about fifty miles east of Ashland, Wisconsin. These excursions were duly reported in the Duluth News.
To any young man hoping to make an impression on the world, Cole could easily have served as a mentor. His was a real-life rags to riches story. Three years prior to Scott's visit to Duluth, everyone on Wall Street was asking "Who's Cole?" This former mine worker and railroad breakman shunned publicity, concentrating his efforts instead on working his way up the iron ore hierarchy, finally earning a spot in the Steel Trust as vice president of Oliver Mining. Within a year he was its president, and in less than a decade, this six-footer was able to pay $25 million for control of all Montana copper mines outside of Amalgamated Copper Company.
But Scott was not as fortunate as Kerr, who, like Gatsby, had been hired by the yachtsman he had warned. Scott's only chance to approach Cole and his yacht probably occurred during Venetian Night - a large social gathering sponsored by the Duluth Boat Club on the evening of August 9, the day after Scott met his mother in Duluth. The boat club began this reenactment of the ancient festival of Venice two years earlier at its new home on Park Point, the longest fresh water sand bar in the world. Unlike the rest of the Duluth area, the natural stand of pine on the bar had not been logged off, and these conifers provided a cool backdrop for the club's activities. On Venetian Night, six to seven thousand spectators stood in awe as 140 canoes, rowboats, and sailboats ablaze with Japanese lanterns paraded along the water.
Those Christmas tree-like ships bobbing in Duluth harbor were quite dazzling; however, all eyes were riveted on the center of the harbor as the "elaborately decorated boats were led out into the bay and around Thomas F. Cole's yacht, the Alvina .brightly lighted from stem to stern for the occasion, they not faintly reproduced in the mind the pictures and descriptions of the luxuriously equipped craft with which the beautiful Cleopatra was wont to travel the Nile." It is hard to imagine that this image of Cole's yacht floating majestically in a blazing sea of luminous butterflies, dragons and other creatures did not leave a permanent image in Scott's mind; but if Fitzgerald had any direct contact with Cole, it has not been recorded. Henry Dan Piper noted, however, that "knowing of Fitzgerald's interest in 'success' stories" of Midwesterners making millions and coming out East, his Long Island friends collected newspaper accounts of such people. Since Cole appeared in the New York papers, it is possible that Scott may have learned or relearned about him through clippings.
The only mention Scott made of Duluth in his Ledger was a reference to appendicitis. This was not the first nor last time Scott cried "wolf" with the intestinal inflammation. In fact, appendicitis seemed to be Fitzgerald's disease of choice. In January of the same year as his Duluth trip - along with swimming, boxing and taking showers at the YMCA - Scott recorded in his Ledger an earlier "Appendicitis attack." Amory's "appendix burst" in This Side of Paradise, and appendicitis manages to work its way into The Great Gatsby. During the party at Myrtle and Tom's apartment in New York City, Myrtle says to her sister that "I had a woman up here last week to look at my feet and when she gave me the bill you'd of thought she had my appendicitis [sic] out." The year after The Great Gatsby was published, while traveling with Zelda to Hollywood (Scott had been hired to work for United Artists as a script writer), Zelda recalled in a letter to daughter Scottie:
Daddy got so nervous [on the train trip West] he thought he had an appendicitis so we had to get out and spend the night at a place called El Paso on the Mexican border - but he was well by the time we got to the hotel.
Scott recovered in Duluth as well, and he, his mother and sister continued their journey to Buffalo.