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Author to make case at London conference that Cushman Rice was model for Jay Gatsby

WILLMAR -- Author Dan Hardy has built a compelling case that Col. Cushman Rice, son of one of Willmar's prominent early families and a globe-trotting soldier of fortune, was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, "The Great Gatsby."

Hardy will have the chance to present his theory July 12 at the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference in London.

The week-long conference features dozens of speakers and panel discussions devoted to the life, works and times of the American novelist.

"I've got 20 minutes to make my case. I think I've got a good argument," said Hardy.

The St. Paul attorney has been working for almost a decade on a biography of Cushman Rice.

The final chapter of "The Man Who Was Gatsby: The Tale and Times of Cushman Rice" will be completed in September, Hardy said.

Rice, who died in 1932 at the age of 54, is mostly remembered in Willmar today for his legacy of Rice Memorial Hospital, which was established with a bequest from the Rice family.

During his lifetime, however, he cut a wide swath on both the national and international scene.

Hardy, originally from Redwood Falls, grew up hearing stories about Rice's colorful life as a soldier, gambler, big-game hunter and world traveler.

"His life was essentially designed for a biography," he said.

As he delved into his research, similarities between Rice and Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age classic, began to emerge.

Both characters were dashing and mysterious. Like Gatsby, Rice was known for throwing lavish parties and driving expensive cars. Like Gatsby, the source of his wealth was frequently speculated on.

There's no evidence that Fitzgerald and Rice ever met, but Rice's name would have often appeared in contemporary news accounts and Fitzgerald likely would have been aware that Rice was from the Midwest, Hardy said.

He points to the most significant clue: a letter written by Fitzgerald in 1934, in which the author says that the Gatsby character "was created perhaps on the image of some forgotten farm type of Minnesota that I have known and forgotten, and associated at the same moment with some sense of romance."

"I think that's the clincher," Hardy said.

Fitzgerald's letter, he said, is "the clearest statement, in my opinion, he ever made" about his inspiration for Gatsby.

Scholars and historians have speculated without success on the source for Fitzgerald's character, Hardy said. "There's no one right now who is the accepted model for Jay Gatsby. There have been Fitzgerald scholars who have spent decades of their career trying to find the model for Gatsby."

Hardy's theory, if it holds up, offers one of the strongest, most compelling links to date with an actual person.

Rice "fits to a tee," Hardy said. "There's no other person I can find. Nobody has even a close second... I'm absolutely convinced that in 10 years' time, people will say, 'OK, Rice was the forgotten farm type."

It's this case that Hardy plans to present in London next month.

"It's a theory. This is an opportunity to test that theory," he said.

He will make a similar presentation later this year to a Twin Cities group of Fitzgerald scholars.

For his biography of Cushman Rice, Hardy researched local sources, read 300 books and collected some 3,000 facts.

Rice was a fascinating character whose life story reads like an adventure novel, he said.

"He is inherently interesting," he said. "People in Willmar should be proud of that. He left a great legacy."