The Fairway Flapper

May 15, 2013

The latest screen version of The Great Gatsby opened this week. That calls to mind the story of Chicago’s own Edith Cummings.

Born in 1899, Cummings grew up in Lake Forest among the social elite. She attended an exclusive boarding school and made her formal debut. Her father and brother were golfers. It seemed natural for Edith to take up the game.

She became very good very fast. There were no female golf pros yet, so Cummings played in the few amateur tournaments open to women. In 1919 she qualified to compete in the U.S. Women’s Amateur for the first time. 
 
Cummings became a favorite of the galleries. She was young, beautiful, and bursting with energy.
 
“She swaggered like a bullfighter, ready to pounce on any mistake her opponent made,” one reporter wrote.  A magazine called her the Fairway Flapper, and the name stuck. 
 
Cummings built up an impressive file of press clippings. Yet she couldn’t seem to win a championship. After another near miss, one of her fans said “Too much dancing, too much bootleg liquor.” 
 
In 1923 she finally broke through. The Women’s Amateur was being played at the Westchester Country Club outside New York City, and Cummings advanced to the 36-hole final match against the country’s top female golfer, Alexa Stirling. This time the Fairway Flapper was ready. Cummings closed out the three-time champion on the 34th green, 3 & 2.
 
Her victory made Cummings a national celebrity. She was featured in newspapers and all the “ladies’ magazines.” The climax was a cover story in Time magazine on August 25, 1924. Cummings was the first female athlete—indeed, the first golfer—featured on the magazine’s cover.  
 
The Time story came as Cummings was about to defend her Amateur title. But the magic was gone. Cummings was eliminated in an early round of match play. After 1924 she seemed to lose interest in competitive golf. She never won another tournament.

In 1934 Cummings married businessman Curtis Munson. When she died in 1984, most of the sporting world had forgotten her. And yet, Edith Cummings did attain her own bit of indirect immortality.

While in boarding school she’d met a young Princeton student named F. Scott Fitzgerald. Years later, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald created the character “Jordan Baker”–a champion golfer–based on Cummings. Trouble was, in Gatsby, the lady golfer is a cheater. 

Why would Fitzgerald portray his old friend that way? There are probably a dozen scholarly journal articles offering an explanation. In any case, nobody ever accused the real Edith Cummings of any rules-bending or underhanded play. Win or lose, the Fairway Flapper from Chicago was always a credit to the game.