Babe in the Woods: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Unlikely Summer in Montana
In July 1915, a fresh-faced young man got off a train and presented himself at a working cattle-and-sheep ranch in the North Fork of the Smith River, a few miles outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. He was slender - about 5'8," 150 pounds - and handsome, with champagne-colored hair and blue-green eyes. He carried himself so lightly on the balls of his feet that his wife later wrote, "There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretely enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention."
The ranch hands must have been astonished at the sight. F. Scott Fitzgerald had arrived in Montana. In the summer before his junior year at Princeton University, the boyish, eighteen-year-old Fitzgerald had traveled west to visit the Castle Mountain Livestock Company, the ranch owned by the family of his wealthy prep school and college friend, Charles W. Donahoe. In the ensuing weeks, Fitzgerald would do what easterners visiting Montana often do: he went native. He outfitted himself in boots, brandished a pistol, rode horses, drank bad whiskey, played cards with cowboys, flirted with daughters of neighboring ranchers, and took but one bath a week.
More significantly, Fitzgerald also found in Montana a western version of the predatory capitalism and baronial lifestyles that had so fascinated him in the East. Montana gave Fitzgerald the setting for one of his best-known short stories, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” written just six years after his visit. His literary imagination continued to be fired by the stories he heard at the ranch about wide-open Butte and its Copper Kings. In Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s mentor, Dan Cody, is described as a version of Marcus Daly, “a product of the Nevada silver fields, of every rush for metal since seventy-five. The transactions in Montana copper . . . made him many times a millionaire.” The Donahoe family’s palatial stone manor, which Fitzgerald visited and which still looms atop a hill in White Sulphur Springs, may have contributed to his imagining of the “feudal silhouette” of Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house.”
Surprisingly, despite the exhaustive scrutiny given to virtually every stage of Fitzgerald’s life, the details and consequences of his visit to Montana have remained unknown and unexamined. Why? One explanation is that Fitzgerald’s experience in Montana does not fit easily into the better-known narrative of his life with its themes of urbanity, sophistication, and Jazz Age dissolution and settings like New York, Paris, and the French Riviera. Moreover, unlike the steady parade of well-born eastern writers and artists who visited and celebrated the region before and after him—Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt, Struthers Burt, and Frederic Remington, to name only a few—Fitzgerald did not embrace the typical easterners’ vision of the West as a place of manly renewal, an “exhilarating region of adventure and comradeship in the open air.” The contrasting experiences of Fitzgerald and his friend Ernest Hemingway in the West are especially instructive. A fellow Midwesterner, Hemingway did not visit the northern Rockies for the first time until 1930, fifteen years after Fitzgerald. But Hemingway repeatedly returned to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for his increasingly obsessive hunting and fishing trips. Fitzgerald never returned to the Rockies at all (though he spent his sad, last years writing screenplays in Los Angeles). If he ever caught a trout or shot an elk, he never mentioned it. A few other travelers were not as enamored of the West as Hemingway either. The India-born Rudyard Kipling, exulted over fly fishing for cutthroat in the Yellowstone’s Yankee Jim Canyon in 1889 but saw no romance whatsoever in the unwashed westerners “without clean collars and perfectly unable to get through one sentence unadorned by three oaths.”
Fitzgerald’s trip to Montana came in the precise middle of what turned out to be a watershed year in his life, one that divided a time of blossoming promise from his most bitter disappointments. He’d grown up middle class in St. Paul, Minnesota, a city that “was like a great fish just hauled out of the Mississippi and still leaping and squirming on its back.” His parents sent him East to the Newman School, a Catholic prep school in New Jersey. Fitzgerald would later describe himself as “one of the poorest boys in a rich boys’ school.” His closest friend at Newman was Charles Donahoe, a thoughtful and respected classmate who had been born in Anaconda, Montana, but whose family had recently moved to Seattle. Everyone called him “Sap”—not derogatorily but after sapiens, as in Homo sapiens, or wise man. Sap and “Fitz” played football together and both went on to Princeton University in New Jersey in the fall of 1913.
Then, at a party in St. Paul during Christmas break of his sophomore year in college, Fitzgerald met the girl who would change his life. She was Ginevra King, a wealthy, high-spirited debutante from Chicago who boarded at the Westover School in Connecticut. Fitzgerald was instantly smitten with Ginevra. On the train back to New Jersey, he joined Sap, who was returning from his home in Seattle. Fitzgerald sent Ginevra a giddy telegram saying that he had celebrated meeting his friend with “a quart of sauterne and 3 Bronxes.”
Fitzgerald and Ginevra carried on an intense, epistolary romance throughout the spring of 1915. In June, they met for dinner at the roof garden of the Ritz Hotel in New York City, followed by a Broadway play and a Florenz Ziegfeld review at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Ginevra was chaperoned by her mother, but Fitzgerald never forgot that evening. Years later he would recall the night “she made luminous the Ritz Roof.” In his fiction, Ginevra appears again and again as the quintessential Golden Girl, the model for a series of beautiful, spoiled women, including Isabelle Borgé in This Side of Paradise, Kismine Washington in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and of course Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was also conquering college. He had written the book and lyrics to the Princeton Triangle Club’s musical comedy, Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, and was the frontrunner to become the club’s president in the fall. He was beginning to contribute to the Nassau Lit, the undergraduate literary magazine edited by his friend Edmund Wilson, the future literary critic. After he and Sap were both admitted to the prestigious Cottage Club, they exuberantly chased one another around in the biggest snowstorm in Princeton in years. He was poised to become a Big Man on Campus—a position he ardently sought—and was dating a rich and socially prominent “top girl.” After visiting Ginevra in Lake Forest, Illinois, in June, Fitzgerald boarded a train in St. Paul and headed to Montana to see Sap’s ranch.
The Castle Mountain Livestock Company was—and still is—among the largest and oldest stock ranches in the watersheds of the Smith and Judith rivers. It was founded in the 1890s by homesteaders George and Wilhelmina Danzer on a tributary of the Smith River. To the west and north lay the Big Belt and Little Belt mountains; to the southeast, the Castles. Originally known as the Dogie Ranch, it grew by merging with neighboring ranches until 1903, when it was bought by Michael Donahoe, Sap’s father and an Anaconda Company vice-president. A year later, Michael purchased the fantastical Stone Castle, constructed in 1892 by Byron Roger Sherman, a stockman and mine owner. The three-story structure, with five living rooms, was built with granite blocks hauled a dozen miles from the Castle Mountains by sixteen-ox teams. In 1910, Donahoe moved his family to Seattle, but they continued to use the Stone Castle and the ranch during the summer. By the time Fitzgerald arrived in 1915, the ranch had grown to more than thirty thousand acres and ran 2,762 head of cattle and 4,436 sheep.
Like most visitors to the West, Fitzgerald traveled by Pullman car. He could have taken either the Northern Pacific to Billings or the Great Northern to Lewistown or Great Falls. Both railroads were controlled by James J. Hill, the celebrated “Empire Builder” and the Fitzgeralds’ fabulously wealthy neighbor on the fancier end of Summit Street in St. Paul. Fitzgerald was acutely aware of Hill. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s father mourns after his son’s funeral, “If he’d of lived, he’d of been a great man. Man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.”
The most direct and most picturesque route to central Montana, however, would have been the Milwaukee Road—the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway—to Harlowton. From there, Fitzgerald would have taken the old route of Richard Harlow’s Montana Railroad, popularly known as the Jawbone for Harlow’s financing methodology. At Ringling, he would have switched to the White Sulphur Springs & Yellowstone Park Railway, a recently built spur line that shuttled passengers twenty-one miles north to White Sulphur Springs. (The line never extended to Yellowstone, in part because automobiles were officially admitted to the park for the first time in the same month Fitzgerald arrived.)
In 1915, White Sulphur Springs was a weather-beaten mining, ranching, and farming community with five hundred citizens and a thriving saloon and red-light district. If some of the mines had fizzled—nearby Castle was already a ghost town by then—the wettest spring in years was producing bumper crops of grains, hay, and alfalfa. In Europe, World War I had been raging for a year, but in this isolated valley—where a later writer, Ivan Doig, would grow up—international troubles seemed far away. How did Fitzgerald spend his time at the ranch? The only hints come in a few cryptic entries he made in a monthly ledger book he kept as a kind of diary, which is now in the rare books collection at the Princeton University Library. He recorded the names of horses (Sport and Son of a Bitch) and the ranch foreman (Dick Collins, who later ran his own hay ranch on the Smith River). Most certainly he was writing letters to Ginevra King—and waiting for her replies. “No news from Ginevra” Fitzgerald wrote mournfully in his journal entry for August 1915 (though she did post at least two letters to him during his stay). Perhaps as a consolation, he noted the names of “Aubrey & Olga Black,” the attractive daughters of a local lawyer named Powell Black. (In one of her letters, Ginevra teased Fitzgerald for having his head turned by “the village maidens.”) In 1918, Aubrey married Richard Ringling of the circus family and eventually became one of the biggest landholders in the valley.
There was little available entertainment at the ranch, though Fitzgerald recorded in his ledger that he won “$50 at cards.” Another time, he got drunk on “raw whiskey” and felt comfortable enough in his new environment to climb on a table and sing what he called “Won’t you come up” to the presumably bemused cowboys. (The song may have been the folk standard, “Buffalo Gals,” with its “Won’t you come out tonight?” refrain.) On the way home at the end of the summer, Scott and Sap visited the Donahoe home in Seattle, most likely taking the Milwaukee Road by way of Sixteenmile Canyon and Butte.
Fitzgerald’s visit to Montana marked a high moment of his youth. Returning to Princeton in the fall, he immediately plunged into the new Triangle Club musical, writing lyrics to Edmund Wilson’s book called The Evil Eye. One of Fitzgerald’s songs, a take-off on Puccini’s opera, The Girl of the Golden West, suggested in its precociously witty lyrics that the Smith River Valley was still with him:
“Girl of the Golden West”
Then, on the cusp of his greatest successes in college, Fitzgerald suddenly and almost inexplicably self-destructed. Never a good student, he flunked a make-up exam for a course he had failed the previous semester, rendering him ineligible to be an officer or even to perform in the Triangle Club production he had co-written. His once-ardent romance with Ginevra King was cooling; he saw her only once in the fall, at a football game, and would later say she dropped him “with the most supreme boredom and indifference.” He continued to neglect his courses, and after a short stay in the infirmary, he used the illness as a pretext to drop out of college entirely. “To me college would never be the same,” he wrote years later in The Crack Up. “There were to be no badges of pride, no medals, after all. . . . A man does not recover from such jolts—he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” The new things for Fitzgerald to care about were the short stories he had begun writing. One of them, “Babes in the Woods,” a description of the night he met Ginevra King, was first printed in the Nassau Lit. He later sold it to The Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, for thirty dollars—his first short-story sale—and eventually used it in a chapter in his wildly successful first novel, This Side of Paradise.
Montana did not appear in Fitzgerald’s fiction until “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” the satirical novella he wrote in the fall of 1921. A fable of the corrupting power of great wealth, it tells of a young man, John T. Unger, who is invited by his prep-school classmate, Percy Washington, to visit his family’s sheep-and-cattle ranch in Montana. When he arrives, Unger discovers that the Washington family lives in a vast castle, which “rose from the border of the lake, climbed in marble radiance half the height of an adjoining mountain.” He marvels at “the many towers, the slender tracery of the sloping parapets, the chiseled wonder of a thousand yellow windows.” Unger quickly learns that the family has amassed the world’s largest fortune from a mountain that is made of a single, gigantic diamond—not unlike Butte’s “richest hill on earth,” where Michael Donahoe worked for the Anaconda Company. To protect their vast fortune, the Washingtons have matter-of-factly murdered all visitors. But Percy has two beautiful sisters, Kismine and Jasmine Washington (shades of Aubrey and Olga Black). Unger falls in love with Kismine and escapes with her as the mountain is blown to smithereens.
Though Fitzgerald considered it the best writing he’d ever done, the story was turned down by several magazines until The Smart Set bought it for $300. Fitzgerald wrote his agent that he was “rather discouraged” that another of his lesser, pot-boiling stories could be sold for $1,500 while “a genuinely imaginative thing into which I put three weeks real enthusiasm [“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”] brings not a thing.”
When the story was later collected in Tales of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald said he’d written it to satisfy “a perfect craving for luxury.” It was a craving that would find its finest expression in The Great Gatsby, with the luxurious setting moved from Montana to Long Island.
Scott and Sap remained in touch while both trained on the home front during World War I. The war ended before either man was sent abroad, but during that time Fitzgerald sent Donahoe what remain the only surviving manuscript chapters of the first draft of This Side of Paradise. Sap was unenthusiastic about Fitzgerald’s portrait of Princeton: “You have given a description of Princeton which while accurate enough overemphasizes the social climbing drinking etc.” But he wrote affectionately about their summer at the ranch (“Do you remember those tests we made up at the ranch? I believe that practice helped me when I took the psychological test here as I cracked down with an A.”) Fitzgerald mischievously borrowed Donahoe’s name to use in a list of office workers in one of his early stories, “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong.”
After “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” Fitzgerald never returned to the mountain West in his fiction. Yet he clearly had affectionate memories of the region. In his notebook, he jotted down an idea for a plot about “Lois and the bear hiding in the Yellowstone” and, in a long list of his favorite “places of the heart,” mentioned Montana alongside European playgrounds like Provence, the Riviera, and Gstaad.
Why did Fitzgerald not write more about the West? Did it not have the same allure for him as it did for similarly educated Ivy League graduates like Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Theodore Roosevelt (Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail)? Roosevelt and Wister were products of privilege who both struggled with finding their identities in the urban and industrialized East. They came West as adolescents when they were seeking to define their masculine roles during times of personal crisis. They found in the wide-open spaces an idealized alternative to what they perceived as the corrupt, jaded, and socially restrictive East Coast. To Wister and Roosevelt, cowboys and ranch hands they encountered were courtly Galahads of the Plains, not the uncouth roughnecks who so disgusted Kipling.
Unlike those writers, however, Fitzgerald did not see the West through eastern eyes. To the contrary, the writer whose boyhood home of St. Paul was in the heart of the Great Plains, saw the East through western eyes. (In Fitzgerald’s time, the rubric “Middle-West” was just coming into popular use.) If anything, Fitzgerald’s summer in Montana only reinforced his self-image as a non-easterner.
In his writing, Fitzgerald reversed the westerly thrust of the American imagination. The typical Fitzgerald character is not an easterner who travels west to seek personal freedom, or renewed health, or reclaimed masculinity. Instead, Fitzgerald wrote about westerners who venture east only to wreck themselves on the shoals of status and Old World corruptions. Near the end of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Nick Carraway, reflects: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
In the summer of 1925, Sap Donahoe joined Scott and his wife Zelda for a memorable drive through France. Fitzgerald later listed it as among the “most pleasant trips” of his life. In the years after, though, the two friends gradually drifted apart, most likely because Donahoe lived and worked across the continent in Seattle, managing his family’s business, and rarely came east. In Fitzgerald’s mind, however, Sap Donahoe continued to remain the beau ideal of a man’s man. In an essay published in Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote that Donahoe was the “man [who] represented my sense of the ‘good life,’ though I saw him once in a decade. . . . He is in the fur business in the Northwest and wouldn’t like his name set down here. But in difficult situations I had tried to think what he would have done, how he would have acted.” (As Fitzgerald predicted, the self-effacing Donahoe later claimed that he was not the man so described.)
The Castle Mountain Ranch remained in the hands of the Donahoe family for a half century after Fitzgerald’s visit. Sap’s two sons, Charlie and Henry, spent their boyhood summers putting up hay on the ranch, which, as it gradually acquired homesteaders’ properties, grew to forty-four thousand acres. In 1967, the ranch was sold to Charles and Connie Nicholas of Dillon. A few years later, the Nicholases sold it to Louis L. Ward of Kansas City. Sap Donahoe died in Seattle in 1973, thirty-three years after Fitzgerald’s own fatal heart attack in 1940 at the age of forty-four. Today Sap’s son Henry lives in San Francisco; his other son, Charlie, died just this past July.
Under its present name, the Castle Mountain Cattle Company is still operated on the North Fork of the Smith River by the Ward-O’Hara family, owners of Russell Stover Candies and the Whitman’s Chocolates brands. The original log buildings have been replaced, and the ranch no longer raises sheep—the rocky terrain has proved too difficult. The Stone Castle still stands in White Sulphur Springs, but is now the home of the Meagher County Historical Society, to which the Donahoe family donated the building in the 1960s. The herd of three thousand cows, calves, and yearlings remains the ranch’s enduring link to the time Sap and Fitz were there. The Angus cattle still bear the D double D brand—the one F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen when he first traveled to the golden West in 1915.
Here is an update: I surmised that the reference for Fitzgerald's short story story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, may have been to Butte, Montana’s “Richest Hill on Earth.” But this past summer I learned of a more likely possibility during a visit to the Meagher County Book Festival in White Sulphur Springs. During a discussion of Fitzgerald’s visit, a longtime resident asked me if Fitzgerald had “ever written about the caves on the ranch.”
"Not to my knowledge," I replied.
The man then said that as a boy he and his friends used to play in two caves on the same ranch that Fitzgerald had visited. One was the well-known Ram’s Horn Cave, a limestone cavern almost 500 feet deep and nearly a mile in length. More intriguing, though, was “Crystal Cave,” a smaller cave on the same property named for its formations of glittering quartz crystals. If Fitzgerald had seen Crystal Cave, as he almost surely did, then the inspiration for “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” was literally beneath his feet.
Landon Y. Jones
Babe in the Woods first appeared in Montana: The Magazine of Western History - published quarterly by the Montana Historical Society.
 Zelda Fitzgerald, in Save Me the Waltz (Carbondale, Ill., 1967), 35, quoted in Matthew J. Bruccoli and Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York, 1981), 88.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (New York, 1959), 55, quoted in G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (New Haven, Conn., 1968,) 31.
Rudyard Kipling, American Notes: Rudyard Kipling’s West (Norman, Okla., 1981), 82.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (New York, 1978), note 309.
Quoted in Arthur Mizener, Scott Fitz-gerald and His World (London, 1972), 13.
Quoted in Andrew Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald (New York, 1962), 55. The original draft of the telegram is in Fitzgerald Scrapbooks, Series III, Documents (Oversize), F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers (hereafter Fitzgerald Papers), C0187, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey (hereafter Princeton). A Bronx cocktail is a potent mix of gin and orange juice that was popular before Prohibition.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Lost City,” in The Crack Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York, 1956), 24.
“Statement of Expenses & Receipts, year ending Dec. 31, 1916,” file 1, box 11, Castle Mountain Cattle & Sheep Company Records, 1877–1971, Collection 536, Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Montana State University Libraries, Bozeman.
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 169.
Entry for August 1915, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger: A Facsimile, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (Washington, D.C., 1972) (the original is in the Fitzgerald Papers, Princeton); Ginevra King to F. Scott Fitzgerald, August 2, 1915, box 2, Ginevra King Collection Relating to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Co 950, Princeton. For more on the Black and Collins families, as well as a comprehensive history of the area, see Lee Rostad, Mountains of Gold, Hills of Grass: A History of Meagher County (Martinsdale, Mont., 1994).
August 1915 entry, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger.
The complete lyrics are in Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Time: A Miscellany (Kent, Ohio, 1971), 38–39.
F. Scott Fitzgerald to Scottie Fitz- gerald, October 8, 1936, in The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York, 1963), 19; Fitzgerald, The Crack Up, 76.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” in Tales of the Jazz Age (New York, 1922), 150.
F. Scott Fitzgerald to Harold Ober, February 5, 1922, quoted in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Scottie Fitzgerald Smith (Columbia, S.C., 2002), 156; Fitzgerald, Tales of the Jazz Age, viii.
Charles Donahoe to F. Scott Fitzgerald, October 27, 1918, in Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret M. Duggan, with Susan Walker (New York, 1980), 34; Charles Donahoe to F. Scott Fitzgerald, August 21, 1918, box 39b, Fitzgerald Papers, Princeton.
Fitzgerald, “The Notebooks,” in The Crack Up, 154, 225. The “Lois” mentioned by Fizgerald was probably Lois Moran, a Hollywood actress with whom he became infatuated in 1927.
For an insightful discussion of this subject, see G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience.
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 177.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Notebooks” and “Handle with Care,” The Crack Up, 224, 79; Charles Donahoe to Arthur Mizener, January 10, 1948, box 2, Arthur Mizener Papers on F. Scott Fitzgerald, C0634, Princeton. Donahoe spent his career managing his family’s financial and real-estate interests, including the ranch. Fitzgerald’s assertion notwithstanding, he was never in the fur business.