USGA Museum Moment: The Famous 1923 Photograph

January 6, 2009

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

In the early decades of the last century, golf reporting resembled social correspondence and the paragraph about 1923 U. S. Women’s Amateur Championship in the Official USGA Record Book could just as easily have been an engagement announcement:

 “Miss Edith Cummings, of the Owentsia Club, Lake Forest, Ill., a sister of Dexter Cummings, the national intercollegiate champion at the time, defeated Miss Alexa Stirling, 3 and 2, in the final at Westchester-Biltmore Country Club, Rye, N.Y.”

Had they chosen to emote, golf writers would have been delirious over the two dazzling women in this photograph, just one of more than 100,000 historical black-and-white photographs in the USGA Museum archives.

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After the conclusion of the 1923 U.S. Women's Amateur Championship, held at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., Edith Cummings (right) is congratulated by runner-up Alexa Stirling. (USGA Museum)
 

Taken on Oct. 6, 1923, by an unknown photographer, the image depicts Cummings and Stirling as they shake hands before the Robert Cox Trophy for the Women’s Amateur Championship. From left to right Stirling, who gained lasting fame for winning three times, and Cummings, who would find immortality in the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, The Great Gatsby. In Rye, ironically, they are just a few miles from Fitzgerald’s fictional sites of East Egg and West Egg.

Stirling was a titian-haired beauty with a wide bright smile. Stirling grew up in Atlanta near East Lake Golf Club, not far from legendary nine-time USGA champion Bob Jones, and was the daughter of a doctor. In 1908, Jones and Stirling were invited to a children’s party where the entertainment was a six-hole golf tournament. Stirling made the lower score, but Jones wound up with the trophy and throughout his career the little three-inch cup was his most treasured prize.

“I’ll always believe Alexa won that cup,” Jones wrote, “…but I took it to bed with me that night…I’ve a hundred and twenty cups and vases now, and thirty medals, but there’s one little cup that never fails of being kept well polished. And I never slept with another one.”

Stirling was modest about the incident. “I had an advantage over Bob in those days,” she said later. “I was 12 and he was only 6.”

Stirling won her first U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1916. The following year, championship golf was halted with the beginning of World War I and Stirling and Jones barnstormed in exhibition matches, raising a hefty $150,000 for the Red Cross. In 1919, when the Women’s Amateur resumed, Stirling won it again.

In 1920, Stirling won her third straight Women’s Amateur but the Roaring 20s had begun. It was “The Jazz Age,” and giddiness overtook a prosperous America in the aftermath of the war. The country was in a mood to celebrate and one of the celebrants was Cummings.  The daughter of a wealthy Chicago socialite, Cummings graduated from an exclusive boarding school as one of the era’s great debutantes, a member of a group from Chicago known as “The Big Four,” which included Cummings, Courtney Letts, Margaret “Peg” Carry and Ginerva King, the muse of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The four young women drifted from one enchanting party to another, played tennis together and wore rings that read “The Big Four.”

“...so legendary for their beauty that they were known by that designation for the rest of their lives,” wrote Scott Donaldson in his story “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald.”

King was Fitzgerald’s first love, the worshiped subject in a tortured relationship in which he could not keep up with the tremendous King fortune. The romance was doomed. Cummings was one of King’s closest confidantes and met Fitzgerald in 1915 when she made a lasting impression and inspired one of the great characters in Gatsby.

Although she drifted from party to party, Cummings had a serious side and devoted time to golf, developing a game with which she could compete on a national stage.

Cummings was an heiress whose bubbling hi-jinks captured the imagination of the press. She was described in Look as having “…far outshone the reigning stage and screen beauties and all other athletes except Babe Ruth,” a curious referral, perhaps to charisma.

In 1922, Cummings advanced to the semifinals of the Women’s Amateur. In 1923, she was one of the players assembled in Rye, N.Y. The two Westchester courses, designed by Walter Travis, had opened in 1922. The best players were hitting the ball farther than in years past, with Cummings, Stirling and Glenna Collett smacking their drives nearly 230 yards. Collett, a huge favorite, lost in the third round.

A “keen, blustery wind” greeted the final match between Cummings and Stirling and they were bundled in sweaters and wool skirts. Stirling took an early lead and Cummings lost a great opportunity when she missed a 20-inch putt at the 18th that would have pulled her to within one hole of Stirling. After lunch, Cummings recovered and played the first seven windy holes in 1-over 4s. Stirling’s reliable short game deserted her and the match ended at the 34th green with Cummings the champion, 3 and 2.

Reporters dubbed Cummings “The Fairway Flapper” and the following year Cummings caused another stir when she was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, the first woman athlete and the first golfer so honored.

The TIME correspondent wrote: “Golfing women of the U. S. consulted their professionals about form; their tailors about costume; their husbands or parents about travelling expenses; their time tables about trains for Providence, R.I., where the women's national championship will open Sept. 1.

“There is but a single thundercloud darkening Champion Edith's horizon at Providence,” said TIME, citing Cumming’s vigorous, accurate game. “Barring a vagrant, unpredictable typhoon, the only disturbance charted is the dark little terror whose native haunt is Providence—Glenna. She is indeed a thundercloud, always has been, particularly for Edith.”

When the energetic, spirited Cummings lost in the second round, spectators whispered, “Too much dancing, too much bootleg liquor.”

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, worked on final edits of Gatsby and wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, from Rome. In a Dec. 20, 1924, letter he noted the creation of Gatsby, writing that “Jordan Baker of course was a great idea (perhaps you know it’s Edith Cummings)…”

The inspiration for the character of Daisy Buchanan was Cumming’s friend King, Fitzgerald’s first love.

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, said this about the Cummings character, Jordan Baker: "(She) wore all her dresses like sports clothes - there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings."

In the novel, Jordan Baker has a disturbing trait – there are whispers that she cheats at golf, but Cummings had a reputation as an honest player. One reporter wrote after Gatsby’s publication that “Edith Cummings was as honest as she was bewitching.”

Stirling later married Canadian doctor W.G. Fraser and moved to Canada. A trip to Atlanta in 1976 to watch the U.S. Open at East Lake was her last visit and she returned to Canada, where she died in 1977 at 79.

Cummings, at 35, married wealthy businessman Curtis B. Munson in 1934. Munson was an interesting personality. Just before World War II, he was asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to investigate the sympathies of Japanese-Americans living in the United States. He found very little hostility in the Japanese-American community, but the Munson Report was ignored and the president implemented a policy of Japanese-American internment.

Edith Cummings and Munson were childless and they avoided the spotlight except for forays into philanthropy. Cummings remained an avid golfer and the couple enjoyed the outdoors and traveled extensively to hunt and fish. Curtis Munson died in 1979.

Edith Cummings Munson, “The Fairway Flapper,” died in 1984. She was 85. Only Courtney Letts, the last of the Big Four, survived her.

The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation is today a thriving arm of philanthropy. Each year, the foundation donates $5,000 to a scholarship fund honoring the top female collegiate golfer excelling in academics.

But there was a time, so long ago, when Edith Cummings was an integral part of a magical era, when, as Fitzgerald wrote in Gatsby, “...The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.”

Rhonda Glenn is a Manager of Communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

 

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