One of the many novels that have stuck with me and I carry around in my head is a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.”
The story first appeared in the June 1922 issue of The Smart Set, a popular magazine of the 1920s. Originally titled “The Diamond in the Sky,” Fitzgerald had attempted to sell it to the Saturday Evening Post, which had published many of his other stories, but its harsh anticapitalistic message was rejected by the conservative magazine. In September 1922, the story appeared in his second collection, Tales of the Jazz Age.
The story was inspired by Fitzgerald’s 1915 visit to the Montana home of a Princeton classmate. It tells of young John Unger, who is invited to visit a classmate at his impossibly lavish home in Montana. Gradually, Unger learns the sinister origins of his host’s wealth and the frightening lengths to which he will go to preserve it.
In this story, Fitzgerald begins to explore many of the themes he used later when writing his best-known work, The Great Gatsby. The carelessness and immorality of the vastly wealthy and the American fascination with wealth are personified by Braddock Washington and his narcississtic family, who seem to believe that all others have been put on Earth for their amusement.
It is old enough to be in the Public Domain, so I will include the whole story below. You should read it. It’s not that long, really quite tightly written, and a pretty good reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
THE DIAMOND AS BIG AS THE RITZ
F. Scott Fitzgerald
JOHN T. UNGER came from a family that had been well known in Hades–a small town on the Mississippi River–for several generations.
John’s father had held the amateur golf championship through many a heated contest; Mrs. Unger was known “from hot-box to hot-bed,” as the local phrase went, for her political addresses; and young John T. Unger, who had just turned sixteen, had danced all the latest dances from New York before he put on long trousers. And now, for a certain time, he was to be away from home. That respect for a New England education which is the bane of all provincial places, which drains them yearly of their most promising young men, had seized upon his parents. Nothing would suit them but that he should go to St. Midas’ School near Boston– Hades was too small to hold their darling and gifted son.
Now in Hades–as you know if you ever have been there–the names of the more fashionable preparatory schools and colleges mean very little. The inhabitants have been so long out of the world that, though they make a show of keeping up to date in dress and manners and literature, they depend to a great extent on hearsay, and a function that in Hades would be considered elaborate would doubtless be hailed by a Chicago beef-princess as “perhaps a little tacky.”
John T. Unger was on the eve of departure. Mrs. Unger, with maternal fatuity, packed his trunks full of linen suits and electric fans, and Mr. Unger presented his son with an asbestos pocket-book stuffed with money.
“Remember, you are always welcome here,” he said. “You can be sure boy, that we’ll keep the home fires burning.”
“I know,” answered John huskily.
“Don’t forget who you are and where you come from,” continued his father proudly, “and you can do nothing to harm you. You are an Unger–from Hades.”
So the old man and the young shook hands and John walked away with tears streaming from his eyes. Ten minutes later he had passed outside the city limits, and he stopped to glance back for the last time. Over the gates the old-fashioned Victorian motto seemed strangely attractive to him. His father had tried time and time again to have it changed to something with a little more push and verve about it, such as “Hades–Your Opportunity,” or else a plain “Welcome” sign set over a hearty handshake pricked out in electric lights. The old motto was a little depressing, Mr. Unger had thought–but now….
So John took his look and then set his face resolutely toward his destination. And, as he turned away, the lights of Hades against the sky seemed full of a warm and passionate beauty.
St. Midas’ School is half an hour from Boston in a Rolls-Pierce motorcar. The actual distance will never be known, for no one, except John T. Unger, had ever arrived there save in a Rolls-Pierce and probably no one ever will again. St. Midas’ is the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world.
John’s first two years there passed pleasantly. The fathers of all the boys were money-kings and John spent his summers visiting at fashionable resorts. While he was very fond of all the boys he visited, their fathers struck him as being much of a piece, and in his boyish way he often wondered at their exceeding sameness. When he told them where his home was they would ask jovially, “Pretty hot down there?” and John would muster a faint smile and answer, “It certainly is.” His response would have been heartier had they not all made this joke–at best varying it with, “Is it hot enough for you down there?” which he hated just as much.
In the middle of his second year at school, a quiet, handsome boy named Percy Washington had been put in John’s form. The newcomer was pleasant in his manner and exceedingly well dressed even for St. Midas’, but for some reason he kept aloof from the other boys. The only person with whom he was intimate was John T. Unger, but even to John he was entirely uncommunicative concerning his home or his family. That he was wealthy went without saying, but beyond a few such deductions John knew little of his friend, so it promised rich confectionery for his curiosity when Percy invited him to spend the summer at his home “in the West.” He accepted, without hesitation.
It was only when they were in the train that Percy became, for the first time, rather communicative. One day while they were eating lunch in the dining-car and discussing the imperfect characters of several of the boys at school, Percy suddenly changed his tone and made an abrupt remark.
“My father,” he said, “is by far the richest man in the world.”
“Oh,” said John, politely. He could think of no answer to make to this confidence. He considered “That’s very nice,” but it sounded hollow and was on the point of saying, “Really?” but refrained since it would seem to question Percy’s statement. And such an astounding statement could scarcely be questioned.
“By far the richest,” repeated Percy.
“I was reading in the World Almanac,” began John, “that there was one man in America with an income of over five million a year and four men with incomes of over three million a year, and–”
“Oh, they’re nothing.” Percy’s mouth was a half-moon of scorn. “Catchpenny capitalists, financial small-fry, petty merchants and money-lenders. My father could buy them out and not know he’d done it.”
“But how does he–”
“Why haven’t they put down his income tax? Because he doesn’t pay any. At least he pays a little one–but he doesn’t pay any on his real income.”
“He must be very rich,” said John simply. “I’m glad. I like very rich people.
“The richer a fella is, the better I like him.” There was a look of passionate frankness upon his dark face. “I visited the Schnlitzer-Murphys last Easter. Vivian Schnlitzer-Murphy had rubies as big as hen’s eggs, and sapphires that were like globes with lights inside them–”
“I love jewels,” agreed Percy enthusiastically. “Of course I wouldn’t want any one at school to know about it, but I’ve got quite a collection myself I used to collect them instead of stamps.”
“And diamonds,” continued John eagerly. “The Schnlitzer-Murphys had diamonds as big as walnuts–”
“That’s nothing.” Percy had leaned forward and dropped his voice to a low whisper. “That’s nothing at all. My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”
Full Text: http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/diamond/diamond.html