“There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and the shabby gift of illusion”.
In his satirical collection of short stories Fitzgerald portrays the dazzling Jazz Age as a dazzling illusion, riddled with arrogant materialism and all-consuming greed. His humorous tone conceals a serious criticism, mocking the conventions of the society he mixed in whilst also defending it from serious attack. He knows it’s corrupt, conceited and doomed; but he also knows it’s fleeting, fascinating and magical. These stories capture – with razor-sharp wit – the essence of the exclusive upper class world of 1920s America.
The title story – ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz – is a unique allegory of the failings of blind capitalism. Its humble protagonist, John T. Unger, is invited to the home of his mysterious classmate Percy Washington – a descendant of George Washington himself, one of the founding fathers of America. Hidden in the Montana Rocky Mountains is Percy’s home – an “exquisite chateau” – built entirely on a diamond; a diamond as big as the Ritz.
Since its discovery one starry night by Percy’s grandfather, it has been home to the Washingtons and their immeasurable wealth, now protected by anti-aircraft guns to prevent its discovery. Their magnificent estate includes golf courses, forests and entire lakes, but the mansion is the real gem (pardon the pun). Littered with every precious stone the earth produces, the walls literally sparkle with the brilliants they’re studded with. Percy’s sisters – Kismine and Jasmine – wear jewels in their hair as though they were common flowers, unmoved by the splendour that surrounds them. Yet this glittering paradise holds a dark secret (much like many of Fitzgerald’s tales) in the transparent menace of the glass bowl in the golf course, a “pit” of foreboding destruction, a threat to the shimmering haven of the Washington’s empire.
A truly unusual story, Fitzgerald expertly conveys the fantastical – and doomed – lifestyles of the Roaring Twenties. Filled with biting satire, it relates the damning cost of relentless capitalism, and the ultimate failure of those who seek to further their own interests at the expense and exploitation of others. Creative, short and powerful, it’s a must-read.
Another story in the collection is the tragically funny “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”. It follows Bernice, a young girl unskilled in the social mechanisms of 1920s America. Her cousin Marjorie, however, is quite the opposite: a beautiful, charming socialite, the envy of all girls and the prize for all boys (yes, the 1920s were charming, but not without some sexism). Whilst Bernice comes to stay, Marjorie teaches her in the ways of being popular; Bernice learns how to be interesting, how to captivate and hold a man’s attention, and most importantly of all, how to attract multiple boys for a dance.
Yet Bernice’s pretensions to win her admirers- the intention to ‘bob’ her hair being her most notorious – cannot withstand the jealousy of her manipulative cousin, and her method of revenge is a brilliant end to the comical tale. I say comical, though it in fact hides a more ominous message, one with a relevance to humanity throughout history: illusions always fail.
Fitzgerald again, with a wonderfully cynical tone, highlights the trivialities of his treasured society, but permeates the human soul with skilful sensitivity; we’ve all tried to be something we aren’t, and we all know it can’t last forever. Neither can the Jazz Age.
The final short story I’ll mention here is ‘The Ice Palace’, a gorgeous tale of the cultural clash between Northern and Southern America. Sally Carrol Happer is a sweet, alluring Southern Belle, entirely captivated by the heady, warm paradise she lives in. She goes for rides in her friends’ cars, she swims in the warm waters of rural lakes, but she wants more. This arrives in the shape of the dashing Harry Bellamy.
Harry is from the North, a charming gentlemen Sally Carrol met earlier in the summer and is now engaged to. She travels to his icy home, soon unsettled by the freezing wind and relentless snow, yearning for her golden sunshine in the South. Yet she stays, for love, and at the climax of her visit goes to the Ice Palace; a breathtaking structure made entirely of flawless ice, with a sprawling labyrinth at its base. It’s in this cold, bleak puzzle that she realises where her true soul lies.
Another writer seemingly fascinated by the decaying splendour of Southern society, Fitzgerald depicts beautifully the essence of both North and South America, in all their stereotypical glory. It epitomises the struggle between agriculture and industry that was clearly emerging in America by the 1920s, the clash between the old and new world, echoing the inevitable downfall of Southern society and their tragic defiance of their fates.
I stumbled across this collection in my local Oxfam, and am thoroughly glad I did. As a fan of Fitzgerald these stories do not disappoint, made ever the better by their concise yet compelling plots that chronicle the ways of 1920s society with wonderful satire. This collection is the real diamond, far bigger than the Ritz.