Long Before Michelle Wie and Nancy Lopez, Edith Cummings Was a Celebrity in Women’s Golf

February 19, 2015

The scholars have been fighting about this for years: Who is the greatest golf character in the history of American fiction, Dan Jenkins’s semiliterate touring pro Kenny Lee Puckett from Dead Solid Perfect or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elite lady amateur Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby?

Amanda Blumenherst, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who read Gatsby both in high school (in Mrs. Mead’s English class at Xavier Prep in Phoenix) and in college (at Duke), is going with Jordan Baker. Miss Baker, you will recall, is Daisy Buchanan’s BFF, Nick Carraway’s passing love interest and a scandalous figure on the national golf scene. “They oughtn’t to let her run around the country this way,” Daisy’s dunderhead husband, the former Yale football player Tom Buchanan, says of Jordan.

Blumenherst—28, newly a mom, married to a baseball player and taking a prolonged break from her LPGA career—was recently having an alfresco coffee at a Starbucks near her Scottsdale home, baby William in one hand, Gatsby in the other. “Such good writing,” she said. She majored in history, minored in theater and English, and graduated in four years with a 3.83 GPA. Her husband, Nate Freiman, a first baseman for the Oakland A’s, was a classmate. He graduated with a 3.85.

Her coffee companion was a fellow Gatsbyphile. I showed Blumenherst a book published last year called So We Read On, Maureen Corrigan’s tribute to the Fitzgerald masterwork. On p. 60, Corrigan writes that Fitzgerald based Jordan on an amateur golfer he knew named Edith Cummings. Not the cheating-scandal part. But Fitzgerald gave his golfer Edith’s sporty good looks and jaunty walk, along with the nonchalance that the born-rich do so well. “Edith Cummings,” Blumenherst said. “I feel like I know that name.”

She did know the name. In 2006, at the end of her freshman year at Duke, Blumenherst won the Edith Cummings Munson Golf Award for her superior golf and superior grades. She remembers the sudden thrill and surprise of being called to a podium as the winner in a hotel ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. The annual award gives $5,000 to the general scholarship fund of the honored golfer’s school. After winning the Women’s Am two years later, Blumenherst had one-year possession of its trophy (itself a tall and stunning creature) and saw that Cummings was the winner in 1923.

Cummings was born rich, married (as they used to say) well and spent her adult life playing golf and giving away money. She became a celebrity as a teenage debutante, part of a clique called the Big Four. Another member was her friend Ginevra King, Fitzgerald’s first great love. Cummings graced the cover of Time on August 25, 1924, as an emblem of her era. Today she’s featured in a short documentary called Before Babe: The Women Who Changed Golf. She played in a floppy hat and swung with a patrician rhythm that likely hypnotized Fitzgerald. She was the Fairway Flapper.

The movie versions of Gatsby never really capture Jordan Baker, let alone the tingly sensation of the dream-fueled novel. At Princeton, in the years before World War I, Fitzgerald would almost certainly have known players on the Princeton golf team, in an era when Ivy League golf was covered in the New York Times. But Fitzgerald was not a golfer himself, making his insights into the game’s underground subtleties even more astounding.

The novel’s narrator and Fitzgerald’s stand-in, Nick Carraway, seeking to see the world at moral attention, meets Jordan Baker on p. 24 of the book’s familiar Scribner edition with the watery-eyed temptress on the cover. By p. 51 he is half-smitten with her. On p. 60 (there’s that page again) he remembers the “unpleasant” story he had once heard about her:

At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers—a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal—then died away. A caddy retracted his statement, and the only other witness admitted that he might have been mistaken.

What a telling synopsis of a buried incident. Blumenherst considered the passage and said, “You know then that there’s no way Nick’s going to wind up with Jordan. She cheats at golf! Nick’s way too honorable for her.”

Well said, Ms. Blumenherst. Who could have a relationship with such a person? Only a genius novelist with a magical ability to mix memory and desire and the generations of readers on whom he cast his long, green spell.

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