The man who was Gatsby?

WILLMAR - Scholars of F. Scott Fitzgerald have long theorized over whether the author was inspired by an actual person when he penned his Jazz-Age classic, "The Great Gatsby." A St. Paul attorney thinks he might have found the answer. Dan Hardy h...

WILLMAR - Scholars of F. Scott Fitzgerald have long theorized over whether the author was inspired by an actual person when he penned his Jazz-Age classic, "The Great Gatsby." A St. Paul attorney thinks he might have found the answer. Dan Hardy has uncovered several compelling facts pointing to Willmar native Cushman Rice as the model for the wealthy, enigmatic character of Jay Gatsby.

"I feel strongly in 20 years' time no other name will have credibly been put forth," Hardy said.

Hardy grew up in Redwood Falls and has spent many summers at Green Lake, where he first heard some of the stories about Cushman Rice. The tales inspired him to tackle a biography of Rice, son of one of Willmar's most prominent early families who led a globe-trotting, storybook life as a soldier of fortune, big-game hunter and dashing man of the world.

More than 70 years after his death, Rice is remembered in Willmar mostly for leaving a bequest that helped the city establish Rice Memorial Hospital.

Few come to visit the mausoleum at Fairview Cemetery in Willmar, where Rice and his parents, Albert and Sophia Rice, are entombed.


In his heyday, however, Rice cut a wide swath nationally and even internationally, Hardy said.

"It was an incredible life. He's just someone I think is worth writing about," he said.

Hardy has been researching and writing a biography of Cushman Rice since 1998. He has completed eight of 13 chapters and is looking for a publisher.

At first, he didn't connect Rice's life story with "The Great Gatsby," which was first published in 1925. Then someone pointed out the many similarities between Rice and the fictional Jay Gatsby: both romantic types, both with a rural Midwest upbringing, both wealthy, and so on.

Then, through a series of connections that started with a Web site posting, Hardy was pointed toward some tantalizing clues.

One stood out above all the rest: A letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934, in which the author explains 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."

"When I read that, a shot of something went through me," Hardy said. "At that point I knew in my mind that [Rice] was Gatsby."

There's no evidence that Rice and Fitzgerald ever met, nor is Fitzgerald known to have ever mentioned Rice, Hardy said. Yet he believes Rice could well have been the spark that fired Fitzgerald's imagination in creating the character of Jay Gatsby.


As a native of St. Paul, Fitzgerald more than likely heard about Rice or read of his exploits, Hardy said. "Rice's name was in newspaper stories during Fitzgerald's college years. His Minnesota connection would certainly have been known to Fitzgerald."

In Fitzgerald's book -- a staple in American high school and college literature courses -- Gatsby tells the young narrator, Nick Carraway, his life story. He says he is "the son of some wealthy people in the middle-west -- all dead now."

He traveled through Europe and fought in World War I, earning a medal for chivalry from the kingdom of Montenegro. He has hunted big game. He is dashing and mysterious.

Many of these details are echoed in Rice's life, down to the Montenegrin medal for chivalry -- only in Rice's case the medal was conferred by the next-door nation of Serbia, Hardy said.

There's more: Like Gatsby, the source of Rice's wealth was frequently speculated on by his peers. Like Gatsby, Rice was known for throwing lavish parties and driving expensive cars. Rice apparently knew Arnold Rothstein, who is widely regarded as the model for the shady Meyer Wolfsheim in "The Great Gatsby."

"There are just too many similarities," Hardy said.

Hardy's theory, if it holds up, offers the first genuinely plausible identification of the source of the Gatsby character.

Until now, there has been "no one at the top of the list that is regarded as the model," Hardy said.


Fitzgerald himself said Gatsby was based on a romantic Minnesota "farm" type, Hardy said.

During the early part of the 20th century, Cushman Rice would have been the only person who fit this description, he said. "It's the first hurdle that you have to clear when you're making this argument. He has to have been from rural Minnesota. That's one of the reasons why I think the Rice argument is so compelling. And I think scholars have done an injustice to Minnesota by not pursuing that."

Hardy has tentatively titled his book, "The Man Who Was Gatsby: The Tales and Times of Cushman Rice."

He said he would like the chance to debate his Rice-Gatsby theory with Fitzgerald scholars. "It's a theory and theories are no good unless they're tested," he said. "I think it's a credible argument. Some people will find it more credible than others."

The Gatsby connection aside, however, the story of Cushman Rice is rich and fascinating in its own right, Hardy said.

"Cushman Rice is worthy of a full-blown biography himself," he said. "He had an extraordinary life and an extraordinary career, and he left an extraordinary legacy."

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