Ginevra King, the model for The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, spent her youth in this Lake Forest house that is now for sale.
BY DENNIS RODKIN
One of Chicago’s significant literary landmarks, the Lake Forest home of the self-possessed society belle who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love and the model for the radiantly self-centered Daisy Buchanan in his novel The Great Gatsby, is for sale for the first time in more than 50 years.
The house dates back to 1905, when the architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who designed many North Shore manors, built the place as a summer getaway for Charles B. King, a prosperous Chicago banker. Shaw gave the house broad overhangs to shade the four family bedrooms and a curvaceous main staircase that winds around the perimeter of a grand foyer. Eventually the place passed on to King’s son, Charles G. King, a wealthy stockbroker, who called the house and its 50 acres Kingdom Come Farm.
In 1915, King’s daughter Ginevra was a 16-year-old beauty, one of Chicago’s “Big Four” debutantes, visiting St. Paul, Minnesota. There she met and became, in her words, “dipped about” Scott Fitzgerald, then a student at Princeton. Their romance, conducted primarily through their letters to each other, lasted about two years, according to The Perfect Hour, a book about their relationship by James L. W. West III, a professor of English at Penn State.
Although the pair got together mainly on the East Coast, where they were both in school, Fitzgerald visited Lake Forest twice, in June 1915 and in August 1916. West couldn’t say definitively that Fitzgerald set foot on Kingdom Come Farm, only that he “stayed with a wealthy relative who lived in Lake Forest, but it seems reasonable he would have visited Ginevra in her house.”
Regardless of whether he saw the house, Fitzgerald went on to immortalize Ginevra—who abruptly broke up with the middle-class Minnesotan to marry a rich Chicago boy—in The Great Gatsby. She is widely acknowledged as a significant inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, the fragile goddess from Louisville who tossed over the striving Jay Gatsby to marry the rich Chicagoan Tom Buchanan.
Toward the end of his life, Fitzgerald—who died of a heart attack in 1940, only 44 years old—continued to refer to Ginevra as “the love of my youth.” Ginevra died in 1980, when she was 82. (Coincidentally, the mansion where Ginevra lived with Bill Mitchell, her first husband, is also for sale; the 14-room house, where Ginevra lived from 1918 until her divorce in 1939, sits on five acres in east Lake Forest and is listed at $6.5 million with Koenig & Strey GMAC.)
In 1954, the Chicago businessman Frank Reilly and his wife, Antoinette, bought the Kingdom Come Farm property from its third owners, at about the same time that littérateurs anointed Gatsby, initially only a modest success, a Great American Novel. The Reillys knew of the connection to Fitzgerald, but “they didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it,” says their son, Dennis, a 68-year-old retired physicist now living in Boston. With both parents now dead, he and his two siblings have decided to sell the house and the surrounding eight and a half acres. The house is listed with Houda Chedid of Baird & Warner, with an asking price of $6 million.
The house, which Shaw made wide and shallow to catch cross breezes, has remained largely unchanged since 1954. There is molding in a Grecian key pattern carved in the plaster of the living-room walls, murals on the dining-room walls, four light sconces in the dining room that past owners told the Reillys were Baccarat crystal, brightly colored panels of vitreous tile on the walls of five bathrooms, and a green onyx mantel over the fireplace in the master bedroom. The small kitchen needs an upgrade, but because it sits amid a cluster of butler’s and cook’s rooms, an expansive modernization would not compromise the integrity of the living spaces.
“It’s a rare, rare property,” says Chedid, who notes that a servant’s house and a stable (with another two acres) are also for sale separately, at a price to be negotiated. Dennis Reilly says his family kept as many as eight polo ponies in the stable when he was young.
Here Daisy Buchanan Lived
In a 1940 letter to his daughter written six months before his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was.” Sixty-six years later, as I drove through the Illinois suburb that sits thirty-two miles north of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, I kept looking around and wondering to myself what exactly it was that Fitzgerald found so great. I thought about him as I drank a coffee at a Starbucks that wasn’t there the last time I’d visited, and I noticed that the McDonald’s drive-through near the Metra train station seemed to be buzzing. All the suburban trappings I recalled from a childhood spent on the North Shore of Chicago were still there. To me, Lake Forest was a place I’d gotten to know by peeking through frosted car windows on my way to early morning hockey practice as a kid. Cozy, definitely, but not exactly the sort of place I associate with the Roaring Twenties decadence and wild parties conjured by Fitzgerald’s name.
Founded in 1861, Lake Forest, Illinois, was originally built as a college town by Presbyterians. After the Civil War, the city attracted residents whose last names were synonymous with the building (and a decade later, the post–Great Fire rebuilding) of Chicago. Thanks to its tranquility and natural beauty, as well as its isolation from main roads, Lake Forest became the Chicago metropolitan area’s most desirable neighborhood, attracting Rockefellers, Armours, Medills, and Marshall Fields. Lake Forest was the Greenwich of the Midwest: a haven for robber barons and meat packers far from the strikes, riots, and muckrakers that threatened the wealth and safety of the early twentieth century’s 1 percent. By the city’s 150th anniversary, in 2011, Lake Forest had served as the setting for a best-selling novel (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by native son Dave Eggers) and Oscar-winning film (Robert Redford’s Ordinary People). But the city’s first true claim to literary fame came in 1925, as a passing mention in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, in which we learn from narrator Nick Carraway that Tom Buchanan has bought a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. Carraway is amazed that a man of his own generation is wealthy enough to have done so.
Fitzgerald’s repeated mentions of Lake Forest in his work is not much commented on; it isn’t associated with him the way Princeton University, Long Island, and the South of France tend to be. Indeed, the casual mention in Gatsby might lead one to believe that it was just a city he’d read about or a place he saw on a map. But it’s something more than that. The reason Lake Forest became such a significant place to one of America’s great writers is simple: his first love was from there.
Ginevra King met Scott Fitzgerald for the first time on January 4, 1915, while visiting a school friend in Minnesota. The two began a romance that consisted primarily of written correspondence, until it was broken off in 1917. While a two-year letter writing campaign might not seem like much by today’s standards, it clearly made an impression. Several of Fitzgerald’s best-known female characters were based on a composite partially inspired by King and her letters: from Judy Jones in the short story “Winter Dreams” to Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise. The poor boy losing the rich girl is a common theme in Fitzgerald’s work, and the original model was surely his relationship with King. King’s influence is also present in the iconic character of Daisy Buchanan—Jay Gatsby’s obsession and one of Fitzgerald’s most memorable creations.
In the years leading up to World War I, King and her three closest friends—Margaret Carry, Courtney Letts, and Edith Cummings—were considered celebrities in Lake Forest and, indeed, throughout the Chicagoland area. Collectively known as the Big Four (a name they bestowed on themselves), they were the socialites of their era. The exclusive group didn’t allow new members, and each wore a rose-gold pinkie ring with The Big Four 1914 engraved on the inner band. They rarely went out in public without each other, were either loved or reviled by everyone who knew about them, and, with the brashness of the young and rich, didn’t care about what anybody thought. As if Gatsby’s one tie to Lake Forest wasn’t enough, Cummings, who in 1924 became the first golfer and female athlete featured on the cover of Time, is a reasonable culprit for the inspiration behind the sassy and dishonest golfer, Jordan Baker.
As with any truly great book, everybody who loves Gatsby comes away with certain ideas of what the novel is really about. You can’t help but attach meaning to parts of the book in an attempt to understand things: Was Gatsby a Jew? What’s the deal with the green light? Is it a book about the American Dream or is it mocking the very concept? Gatsby is the type of classic that deserves to have conclusions drawn about it by scholars and casual readers alike. And as soon as I learned about Fitzgerald’s Lake Forest past, I was reading a book about him and Ginevra King. Fitzgerald wrote the chunk of the book that takes place on Long Island while living on Long Island with Zelda by his side, but it seemed to me that The Great Gatsby could have just as easily have been set in Lake Forest.
According to King’s diaries and letters to Fitzgerald (which are available to the public at Princeton University), the young writer first visited her in Lake Forest late in June 1915. The trip was brief, but Fitzgerald surely admired the beauty of the affluent city. He wouldn’t have missed Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s Villa Turicum—the lakefront estate (situated on three hundred acres) designed by Charles Platt and inspired by Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens—and surely visited the public lawns manicured to resemble English gardens that he would later recall, in another “Ginevra story,” “A Nice Quiet Place,” as “immaculate.” He returned again the following summer. This time he had a bit more time to see Lake Forest and observe the culture. Since Fitzgerald’s own hometown in Minnesota mostly comprised the nouveau riche, his time spent in Lake Forest was perhaps his first exposure (not counting rowdy days at Princeton) to old money’s natural habitat. If that is indeed the case, the city that stretches out along Lake Michigan shaped the writer’s view of how the other half lived, and any fan of Fitzgerald knows that the lifestyles of the rich (both old and new) were fixations in his work. And it could be mere coincidence, but Lake Forest is part of the group of Chicagoland lakefront cities known as the North Shore; Gatsby’s West and East Egg, based off the Long Island cities of Great Neck and Sands Point, are also on a part of the island referred to as the North Shore.