The Inexhaustible Variety of Life

A walk among the massive boats, fast cars, pitched fairways, facts and fictions of White Bear Yacht Club, potential birthplace of the great American novel
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author.

We waited for the car to pass. The tee box was perched a few yards above Dellwood Road, but nobody wanted to risk knuckling one into a door panel, so we listened as the roar approached—something American, an abundance of bouncing valves—then felt it blow past us, a red blur we could have reached out and touched with our drivers.

We each swung a little quicker, rushing our balls out across the double yellow lines and safely onto the other side of the property, then crossed the street to follow them on a course that had us feeling a little tipsy. And that seemed about right, considering the name I’d come chasing.

I had already been charmed by the layout’s topography—it was a course on tilt, with hills that hinted at the sled runs that cross these holes when the Minnesota snows settle in—and captivated by its history: Harry Vardon’s brother, Tom, had been the head pro back when Walter Hagen held the course record, and among its former members was Harrison “Jimmy” Johnston, who halted Bobby Jones’ U.S. Amateur winning streak at two in 1929. 

Its design chops were similarly stout: William Watson and Donald Ross both get credit for its routing. (Opinions vary on who deserves the lion’s share.) It all seemed quite impressive for a golf club whose name, seen on a roadside sign, would never lead you to believe anyone could golf there at all.

In Volume 3 of his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak calls White Bear Yacht Club “one of the last hidden gems in America,” and while that label has worn thin in general, it still fits here, where the course has long been upstaged by the adjacent docks. Today, both pastimes thrive at this getaway north of St. Paul, but boating glory came first, some 20 years before the members added golf to the hills above the lake. The A Scow, a flat-bottomed sailing dinghy that revolutionized racing around the world, was invented at White Bear, and such nautical prestige made this the only course I’d ever visited where the top official went by “commodore” instead of “president” or “captain,” and where your dues scored you reciprocal entry to any yacht club in the world.

As we followed our golf balls around blind bends and across greens propped on their edges, I wondered at how coveted those boat slips must be to overshadow a course so frothy with fun. It was like golf atop a waterbed, and its heaving ebbs and flows paired lyrically with the lakeside setting. Yet it wasn’t the golf holes or the lake or the commodore that had brought me here, nor was it the legend about the Dakota warrior who killed a white bear on nearby Manitou Island, where it’s said the animal’s spirit lives on today. Rather, I’d come because a century ago a transcendent writer had changed the lake’s name to Black Bear and the club’s name to Sherry Island (a spirit of a different sort) in one of his best-known short stories. He titled it “Winter Dreams,” and it was first published just months after his summer-long stay at White Bear Yacht Club in 1922.

As the host site of such a literary vacation, the course became a personal must-play, especially as the overlaps between “Winter Dreams” and the club grew more conspicuous. Then a local historian detailed to me the letter that the author had sent from White Bear to his editor that summer—a now-famous note that hinted at the new novel floating around in his head—and these hills and hallways took on a mystique to knock the breath out of any book lover.

There was a chance—maybe a too-romantic notion, but perhaps not—that on that tee above the road as a careless driver roared past, or alone on a dock in the evening with party sounds close by, or at his desk in the heat of the day while his newborn daughter napped next door—somewhere here at White Bear, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination may have met Jay Gatsby for the first time.

He spent a lot of time around golf clubs—that’s where the parties were, especially during Prohibition—but, according to Troy University professor and Fitzgerald scholar Kirk Curnutt, even though it shows up in his fiction (Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby is described as a golf cheat; in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” the planet’s richest man owns a backyard course that’s all putting green, uninterrupted by rough or hazards; and “Winter Dreams” is a caddie story at heart), Fitzgerald wasn’t interested in golf the way, say, John Updike might have been.

“I think his total interest in it was the class conflict between caddies and the wealthier families,” Curnutt says. “I’ve always told my students to think of ‘Winter Dreams’ as kind of the proto-Caddyshack.”

I hoped Professor Curnutt’s students appreciated the analogy, and I imagined myself acing his class via a stunning slew of Caddyshack recitations. I recalled that one of the movie’s poster taglines was “The Snobs Against the Slobs!” and his point about “Winter Dreams” seemed spot-on.

“Fitzgerald really is capturing that country-club conflict between the service industry—which is what Dexter Green [the story’s protagonist] is a part of at that point—and the elite membership. ‘Winter Dreams’ is considered the urtext of Gatsby, sort of an early version of it, in the sense that Dexter is on the outside of that world, looking in to try and win over Judy Jones. It’s often considered the best of Fitzgerald’s short stories for capturing the theme of what they call ‘the golden girl’ in his fiction, which is a middle-class young man’s pursuit of a beautiful, wealthy woman. It’s a very masochistic theme. It’s like Fitzgerald tried to tell himself he wasn’t good enough for these women, over and over again.”

When caddie Dexter falls for Judy in “Winter Dreams,” his fate of heartache and frustration is sealed. Gatsby’s destiny is much the same when it comes to Daisy; he’ll do and give anything to prove himself worthy. It’s a theme from Fitzgerald’s own life: At age 19, he became infatuated with heiress and socialite Ginevra King. When King’s father deemed Fitzgerald unfit for his daughter, he did so with an assertion that Fitzgerald recorded in his ledger and never quite shook, in neither his life nor his literature: “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”

“The Dexter and Judy story in ‘Winter Dreams’ is pretty much [Fitzgerald] reliving that snub,” says Curnutt. In both “Winter Dreams” and Gatsby, playing loose with class structure has consequences. It’s a point the professor illustrates via Caddyshack: “Sometimes I even show a few scenes to my students, and when you get to that relationship between Danny Noonan and Lacey Underall—he basically cheats on his fellow worker at the club. That’s when the students really get it.” 

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul and, as his full given name suggests, was a blood relative of the poet who penned the national anthem. He knew White Bear Yacht Club well before he rented a room there in 1922. As a teenager, he performed some of his earliest plays there while he was home from school out East, first at an elite New Jersey boarding school, then at Princeton. Such a privileged upbringing calls into question Fitzgerald’s self-styled standing as the “poor boy” outsider.

“He was not poor,” explains Dave Page, a Twin Cities historian and Fitzgerald scholar. “He was not outside looking in. He was an upper-middle-class insider. He was going to private schools; he was going on vacation in the Adirondacks. This ‘outsider looking in’ was a bit of a myth, the same kind of thing Hemingway tried to foist—that he was this poor, starving writer.”

It was a status Fitzgerald advanced by way of a well-known story from his family’s time living in Buffalo. Upon hearing the news of his father losing his job, Fitzgerald returned a quarter to his mother, the one she had given him to go swimming. He recalled praying, “Please don’t let us go to the poorhouse; please don’t let us go to the poorhouse.”

They did not go to the poorhouse. But Fitzgerald would have to go to the public course.

“When they were living in Buffalo, there was a newspaper article listing him as one of the young boys that were playing golf at the country club, in 1905,” Page says. “His father gets laid off in the spring of 1908. Later on, it says in his ledger that in June of 1908, he was now playing at the public golf course. That was how they had dropped: from the country club to the public links. Now, if you’re talking to the average poor person, I don’t think that is an indication of being a poor boy looking in.”

For Fitzgerald, being relegated to the public course stung, and it stuck with him. His 1931 novel A Freeze-Out chronicles the travails of Alida Rikker, whose father was set to be blackballed from the private Kennemore Club. She tells her friend, “You’ll have to come and play with me on the public links.…I played on the public links in Buffalo all last spring.” To which her private-club playing partner replies, “Alida, don’t be absurd.…I’d feel so silly.”

White Bear Yacht Club may have resembled the fictional Kennemore Club in some fashion—its members included the founding family of 3M, along with architect Allen Stem, who designed Grand Central Station in New York—but, according to Mary Jane LaVigne, a Fitzgerald expert and longtime White Bear resident, his trips up to the lake as a St. Paul youth would have offered more than a glimpse of social hierarchy and exclusivity. While she concedes that it was likely his first exposure to a place where, quoting from Gatsby, “people…were rich together,” White Bear widened Fitzgerald’s view of things.

“The way it was to be wealthy in St. Paul at that time was not how it was to be wealthy on the coast,” LaVigne explains. “It was not a closed society, but really a permeable place, especially at the lake. It was more porous than you would think, and I think that comes out in The Great Gatsby. Think of the scenes where every kind of person is coming and going. [Fitzgerald] had a whole childhood that was connected with coming and going from White Bear Lake, visiting people’s houses, and I think this mixing of people is part of his White Bear story. Fitzgerald really is a product of a very cultured, rich, open-minded circle of people that did a lot of interesting things.”

It was an upbringing Fitzgerald must have wished for his own daughter, as he returned to Minnesota while his wife, Zelda, was pregnant with their first and only child, Scottie. Their daughter was born in St. Paul in the fall of 1921; the following summer, they settled at the yacht club with their baby and her nurse. There are competing accounts of their White Bear months: One report feels like the Fitzgerald the public wanted to know, while the other is far plainer than the lives lived in his novels.

It is undisputed that Zelda was the more dedicated White Bear golfer of the two; she played the course often, and Page’s F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota points to a newspaper account that listed a Zelda Fitzgerald as advancing to the third round of a local women’s championship. It was also documented that when Sinclair Lewis came to visit Fitzgerald at the club, Fitzgerald fretted over whether there was alcohol available for his friend, and made a special trip to acquire some (a not-so-simple errand during Prohibition, or when your friend drank like Sinclair Lewis). The fact that Fitzgerald didn’t have plenty on hand for the writer, a fellow Minnesotan who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, places into doubt the more Fitzgeraldian (and more prominent) version of his White Bear Yacht Club story: that he and Zelda got booted for boozing hard and raising hell.

“The people who tell stories choose to tell a certain story, and I think that’s because that’s what people want to hear about him,” explains LaVigne. “He fictionalized himself, the way we all fictionalize ourselves now on social media. He was the original reality TV star, and whenever you do that, you become your story.”

LaVigne’s research told a less-raucous White Bear tale in which Zelda spent her afternoons playing golf, and her husband worked at his desk all day. In the evening, they enjoyed their cocktails, but they also behaved like parents and adults, not necessarily the hysterical bottle-tossers the public expected. Rather, Zelda would sit in their room each night and review what her husband had written.

“Zelda was a very astute literary person,” LaVigne explains. “Scott would read her his pages at the end of the day, and she would comment and make suggestions. That was their time here. I have not found anything verifiable to say that [they were banished]. The people who lived at the yacht club were going to be the rowdies anyway; they had weddings and events there. It’s just a little bit of a stretch for me to think that anything they were doing as young parents would be so rowdy that they would get kicked out.”

Whatever the reason, the family left White Bear that September. (An approaching winter seems the most likely motivation for leaving a Minnesota yacht club.) Though Fitzgerald often spoke of returning, he never made it back. A triumphant homecoming, the poor boy celebrated and redeemed—that never would have fit his story.

I spent some of my afternoon at White Bear with a club historian named Mark Mammel. He had written the club’s golf centenary book, which dove deep into its celebrated golf heroes—Johnston primary among them—and his research confirmed that we were looking at a Watson course with Tom Vardon and Ross touches. What that trio had shaped was exciting enough to shake Fitzgerald off my mind; if a Venn diagram labeled one circle “quirky” and another circle “quality,” White Bear Yacht Club would exist at the center of its intersecting slice.

“The first time I went to Scotland, I came back and saw the yacht club differently,” Mammel explained. “I said, ‘I get it.’ You can’t remake Scotland in Minnesota, but you want this fun feel of the ground being in play. And you want it to move together. It had to flow, and this place flows. From hole to hole, you walk through the course and it’s almost like a story. Like a novel. That’s what I love about playing here.”

Mammel was aware of the short story that had been set at a fictionalized version of his club, and he explained that the clubhouse Fitzgerald lived in no longer existed; it burned down in 1937 and was rebuilt nearby. The fire seemed like a factoid, an ounce of local trivia, but I wondered if it might be more. I almost didn’t want to consider what might have been lost when Fitzgerald’s room went to ash.

We’ll never know how much of “Winter Dreams” Fitzgerald actually wrote before leaving White Bear, if any at all, nor is there evidence pointing to the yacht club as any specific inspiration for a book that a long roll of scholars would call the great American novel. But as I walked across the street, from the golf side of the property and down to the boat slips, I couldn’t help but jam the pieces together: Without White Bear Yacht Club, is there “Winter Dreams”? And without that story’s Dexter Green, is there a Jay Gatsby? I recalled LaVigne explaining how The Great Gatsby was set during the same months—from Long Island’s summer solstice to leaves blowing into the pool—that Scott and Zelda lived at the yacht club, and I could not help but wonder if on some evening at White Bear, after reading his pages to Zelda or putting Scottie to bed, F. Scott Fitzgerald looked out a window and saw a green light at the end of a dock. And I’d be entirely void of heart and imagination if I didn’t at least suspect that three months living beside a thicket of sails and masts had perhaps given the world the closing line to close all others: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The following is an excerpt from “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Some of the caddies were poor as sin and lived in one-room houses with a neurasthenic cow in the front yard, but Dexter Green’s father owned the second best grocery-store in Black Bear—the best one was “The Hub,” patronized by the wealthy people from Sherry Island—and Dexter caddied only for pocket-money.

In the fall when the days became crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter shut down like the white lid of a box, Dexter’s skis moved over the snow that hid the fairways of the golf course. At these times the country gave him a feeling of profound melancholy—it offended him that the links should lie in enforced fallowness, haunted by ragged sparrows for the long season. It was dreary, too, that on the tees where the gay colors fluttered in summer there were now only the desolate sand-boxes knee-deep in crusted ice. When he crossed the hills the wind blew cold as misery, and if the sun was out he tramped with his eyes squinted up against the hard dimensionless glare.

In April the winter ceased abruptly. The snow ran down into Black Bear Lake scarcely tarrying for the early golfers to brave the season with red and black balls. Without elation, without an interval of moist glory, the cold was gone.

Dexter knew that there was something dismal about this Northern spring, just as he knew there was something gorgeous about the fall. Fall made him clinch his hands and tremble and repeat idiotic sentences to himself, and make brisk abrupt gestures of command to imaginary audiences and armies. October filled him with hope which November raised to a sort of ecstatic triumph, and in this mood the fleeting brilliant impressions of the summer at Sherry Island were ready grist to his mill. He became a golf champion and defeated Mr. T. A. Hedrick in a marvellous match played a hundred times over the fairways of his imagination, a match each detail of which he changed about untiringly—sometimes he won with almost laughable ease, sometimes he came up magnificently from behind. Again, stepping from a Pierce-
Arrow automobile, like Mr. Mortimer Jones, he strolled frigidly into the lounge of the Sherry Island Golf Club—or perhaps, surrounded by an admiring crowd, he gave an exhibition of fancy diving from the spring-board of the club raft.…Among those who watched him in open-mouthed wonder was Mr. Mortimer Jones.

And one day it came to pass that Mr. Jones—himself and not his ghost—came up to Dexter with tears in his eyes and said that Dexter was the—best caddy in the club, and wouldn’t he decide not to quit if Mr. Jones made it worth his while, because every other caddy in the club lost one ball a hole for him—regularly—

“No, sir,” said Dexter decisively, “I don’t want to caddy any more.” Then, after a pause: “I’m too old.”

“You’re not more than fourteen. Why the devil 
did you decide just this morning that you wanted to quit? You promised that next week you’d go over to the State tournament with me.”

“I decided I was too old.”

Dexter handed in his “A Class” badge, collected what money was due him from the caddy master, and walked home to Black Bear Village.

“The best—caddy I ever saw,” shouted Mr. Mortimer Jones over a drink that afternoon. “Never lost a ball! Willing! Intelligent! Quiet! Honest! Grateful!”

The little girl who had done this was eleven—beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be who are destined after a few years to be inexpressibly lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men. The spark, however, was perceptible. There was a general ungodliness in the way her lips twisted down at the corners when she smiled, and in the—Heaven help us!—in the almost passionate quality of her eyes. Vitality is born early in such women. It was utterly in evidence now, shining through her thin frame in a sort of glow.

When he was twenty-three Mr. Hart—one of the gray-haired men who like to say “Now there’s a boy”—gave him a guest card to the Sherry Island Golf Club for a weekend. So he signed his name one day on the register, and that afternoon played golf in a foursome with Mr. Hart and Mr. Sandwood and Mr. T. A. Hedrick. He did not consider it necessary to remark that he had once carried Mr. Hart’s bag over this same links, and that he knew every trap and gully with his eyes shut—but he found himself glancing at the four caddies who trailed them, trying to catch a gleam or gesture that would remind him of himself, that would lessen the gap which lay between his present and his past.

It was a curious day, slashed abruptly with fleeting, familiar impressions. One minute he had the sense of being a trespasser—in the next he was impressed by the tremendous superiority he felt toward Mr. T. A. Hedrick, who was a bore and not even a good golfer any more.

Then, because of a ball Mr. Hart lost near the fifteenth green, an enormous thing happened. While they were searching the stiff grasses of the rough there was a clear call of “Fore!” from behind a hill in their rear. And as they all turned abruptly from their search 
a bright new ball sliced abruptly over the hill and caught Mr. T. A. Hedrick in the abdomen.

“By Gad!” cried Mr. T. A. Hedrick, “they ought to put some of these crazy women off the course. It’s getting to be outrageous.”

A head and a voice came up together over the hill:

“Do you mind if we go through?”

“You hit me in the stomach!” declared Mr. Hedrick wildly.

“Did I?” The girl approached the group of men. “I’m sorry. I yelled ‘Fore!’”

Her glance fell casually on each of the men—then scanned the fairway for her ball.

“Did I bounce into the rough?”

It was impossible to determine whether this question was ingenuous or malicious. In a moment, however, she left no doubt, for as her partner came up over the hill she called cheerfully:

“Here I am! I’d have gone on the green except that I hit something.”

As she took her stance for a short mashie shot, Dexter looked at her closely. She wore a blue gingham dress, rimmed at throat and shoulders with a white edging that accentuated her tan. The quality of exaggeration, of thinness, which had made her passionate eyes and down-turning mouth absurd at eleven, was gone now. She was arrestingly beautiful. The color in her cheeks was centered like the color in a picture—it was not a “high” color, but a sort of fluctuating and feverish warmth, so shaded that it seemed at any moment it would recede and disappear. This color and the mobility of her mouth gave a continual impression of flux, of intense life, of passionate vitality—balanced only partially by the sad luxury of her eyes.

She swung her mashie impatiently and without interest, pitching the ball into a sand-pit on the other side of the green. With a quick, insincere smile and a careless “Thank you!” she went on after it.

It began like that—and continued, with varying shades of intensity, on such a note right up to the dénouement. Dexter surrendered a part of himself to the most direct and unprincipled personality with which he had ever come in contact. Whatever Judy wanted, she went after with the full pressure of her charm. There was no divergence of method, no jockeying for position or premeditation of effects—there was a very little mental side to any of her affairs. She simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physical loveliness. Dexter had no desire to change her. Her deficiencies were knit up with a passionate energy that transcended and justified them.

When, as Judy’s head lay against his shoulder that first night, she whispered, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Last night I thought I was in love with a man and tonight I think I’m in love with you—”—it seemed to him a beautiful and romantic thing to say. It was the exquisite excitability that for the moment he controlled and owned. But a week later he was compelled to view this same quality in a different light. She took him in her roadster to a picnic supper, and after supper she disappeared, likewise in her roadster, with another man. Dexter became enormously upset and was scarcely able to be decently civil to the other people present. When she assured him that she had not kissed the other man, he knew she was lying—yet he was glad that she had taken the trouble to lie to him.

The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world! They had existed and they existed no longer.

For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”