Too much is always too much—even of the best of the best. While the rest of this issue remains entirely devoted to that subject, we felt a pause during which to moralize briefly on that theme would not be unwelcome. And, indeed, the singular adventure of John T. Unger, though penned more than 80 years ago, illustrates for the modern reader the perils of indulgence in luxurious excess.
A native of that Midwestern metropolis of Hades, John has been tutored by his socially ambitious father in the most intricate nuances of bourgeois manners and tastes. Thus primed, John is enrolled in the prestigious St. Midas School (“the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world”), where he chances to make the acquaintance of a rather aloof classmate by the name of Percy Washington. Percy—who one day glibly announces to his friend that his father is the richest man in the world—invites John to visit his family’s home out West, in the wilds of Montana. John, somewhat skeptical of his friend’s assertions, indicates that his Hades upbringing has placed him in broad contact with society, and that many in his social circle might be described as rich; in fact, the Schnlitzer-Murphys, he notes, have diamonds as big as walnuts. To which Percy replies, “That’s nothing. My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton hotel.”
Said jewel—actually a mountain formed entirely of the priceless stone—furnishes the basis for the Washington family fortune in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which relates young John’s journey, while on summer vacation, to view the geological wonder. The site—discovered by Percy’s grandfather—can be reached only by a series of ever more remote trains and specially built, windowless, silk-tapestry-and-jewel-upholstered automobiles, for the Washingtons have gone to great lengths to conceal it, having bribed state surveyors and constructed an artificial magnetic field to misdirect compasses. The precious peak is further fortified by antiaircraft guns to deal with curious aviators, a few of whom, Percy sheepishly confesses, the family still holds prisoner to preserve the secret of their unfathomable wealth. The problem is, Percy explains, that the extraction of all the diamonds in the mountain would cause undue suspicion, not to mention panic in the markets. And so, carefully, his grandfather and father, through hundreds of small transactions, converted diamonds (none alarmingly large) into gold, then to other rare minerals, and finally to radium (at the time, the most compact medium for stockpiling liquid wealth), which was ultimately stored in thousands of safety-deposit boxes around the world. Those family members who survived the plunder (a great-uncle who tended to talk when he drank was discreetly disposed of) live in splendor atop the mountain in a massive château, where the walls are soft, solid gold studded with diamonds, the staircases are carved ivory, and the backlit floors blaze with gemstones of every hue. Hades’ most languid elite have nothing to compare with these splendors, and John marvels at the amenities, for the Washington family spares no expense in eliminating the slightest physical effort for its members. Residents need not even rise from bed to bathe: Slaves undress them where they lie, while fleece-lined slides convey them into golden tubs equipped with foaming fountains and moving-picture machines (this is, after all, the Roaring Twenties). Scores of musicians fan out from the ruby-and-ermine music room, filling the vast halls with their tranquil strains, while idyllic parkland scenes enfold the palatial fortress, thanks to the foresight of Percy’s father, Braddock Washington, who has “caused to be kidnapped” a landscape gardener, as well as an architect, a stage set designer, and a decadent poet (it is never clear what function the latter was to have served). Even Percy’s sisters shine like priceless pearls, and naturally (Fitzgerald being, always, Fitzgerald) John conceives a crush on one of them, Kismine, and asks her to marry him.
John suggests that the pair elope, admitting his presumption: “No one as rich as you are can be like other girls. I should marry the daughter of some well-to-do wholesale hardware man from Omaha or Sioux City, and be content with her half million.” At which juncture Kismine divulges that she once had a hardware heiress as a guest, but that her fate was, alas, the same as that of all the other guests: At the end of each summer, they are humanely poisoned. “In August usually—or early in September,” she explains tearfully. “It’s only natural for us to get all the pleasure that we can out of them first.”
To his horror and humiliation, John T. Unger realizes that, in the Washington domain, he is less the beneficiary of great luxury than he is its amusing accessory. He resolves at once to escape—to flee to the more mundane opulence of Hades, which, in the garish glare of Kismine’s revelation, seems suddenly far more pleasing. Kismine resolves to escape with him, and as a precaution, John suggests she take some of her jewels with her. As they head down the mountain, the government at last catches up with Braddock Washington: Airplanes swarm the mountainside, and Washington, rather than permit his private kingdom to be overrun by riffraff, blows the mountain up.
Those of us who have cultivated a passion for the very best—whether for a Feadship yacht, an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, or the Ferrari F430—can comprehend some measure of Washington’s irrational unwillingness to compromise the standards he has set. And we can understand, too, John’s disillusionment as he descends back into the vulgar world of privilege he had known before, the extravagances of which would now seem forever paltry and tarnished in contrast to those he had encountered on the mountaintop. Appreciation of quality is, after all, relative—our tastes evolve with each new experience or sensation. Still, perhaps wisdom is attained by not discovering too much too quickly. Once the portal of greater quality has opened, we can never turn back, nor can we settle for what we knew before. John’s consolation for this terrible piece of knowledge is the jewelry that his young bride-to-be has carried with her. But Kismine has indulged a passion of her own. Instead of commonplace diamonds, she has retrieved a cherished cache of rhinestones—her greatest treasure—for which she traded with a hapless guest her largest stones.