The Diamond as Big as the Ritz
is a novella by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. First published in the June 1922 issue of Smart Set
magazine, it was included as part of Fitzgerald’s 1922 story collection Tales of the Jazz Age.
The story was adapted into a radio play by Orson Welles in 1945. Much of the story takes place in Montana, a setting that was inspired by Fitzgerald’s summer spent near White Sulphur Springs in 1915.
The story opens as John T. Unger, a teenager from the Mississippi River town of Hades, is sent to St. Midas’s School, a private boarding school near Boston. In the middle of his sophomore year, Percy Washington is placed in Unger's dorm. He rarely speaks, and when he does, it is only to Unger. John finds a new friend in Percy, who invites John to come to spend the summer on his family’s estate in the Montana Rockies. Along with his invitation, Percy brags that his father owns a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. John knows that Percy’s family is indeed very wealthy, which impresses him, and yet this claim still seems far-fetched. Nevertheless, accepting Percy’s invitation, John accompanies him to his family’s chalet. Upon arrival, he realizes that the property really does sit atop a five-cubic-mile flawless diamond.
The next morning, Percy takes John through his family history. His grandfather, Fitz-Norman, was a direct descendant of George Washington and Lord Baltimore. In 1866, he left the defeated Confederacy accompanied by a group of slaves that followed him to start a ranch out West. Within a month, this venture had failed. While out hunting for food one day, he sees a squirrel carrying something in its mouth. Upon further inspection, he discovers it to be a rather large, perfectly formed diamond, worth a hundred thousand dollars.
The next day, Fitz-Norman returned to the same spot with his employees and filled his saddlebags with diamonds. He sold the diamonds in New York, which started a wave of wild rumors surrounding their origin. Fitz-Norman realized he would have to operate underground in order to avoid the government seizing his diamond mine and establishing a monopoly to avert total pandemonium. At this point, Fitz-Norman packed all of his diamonds into two trunks and sold them throughout Europe and Asia. Later, his son Braddock (Percy’s father) sealed the mine and devoted himself to protecting the family’s incalculable fortune—and its secret.
To maintain his covert status, Fitz-Norman paid off several government officials and arranged for the omission of the estate from official maps. Braddock went to even greater lengths in creating an artificial magnetic field to disguise the estate. He also tampered with surveyor’s equipment and altered the area’s geographic features, all in an attempt to guard his family’s secrets. With the invention of the airplane, however, it became impossible to keep the Washington estate hidden any longer.
During John’s visit, he finds two dozen aviators who have been brought down by Washington antiaircraft fire, imprisoned in a glass-lined pit. However, one of the pilots has recently escaped; soon a squadron of American planes arrives and begins shelling the mountain in preparation for an invasion.
Braddock realizes that only divine intervention can preserve his family’s treasure and privilege, and so he tries to bribe God with a diamond so huge that it can only be lifted by two slaves. When the bribe is apparently refused and the planes land on the estate’s lawn, Braddock sets off an explosion, reducing the entire mountain to dust.
While all of this action is taking place, a secondary plot unfolds, including a romance between John and Percy’s sister, Kismine. Kismine is representative of physical perfection, but there is little inner beauty to be found in her. She dismisses the killing of the friends who were visiting as something she will get used to, and she makes a cringingly naïve comment about how many people exist with only two servants. Appalled by her simplicity, John is, for the time being, overcome by her physical beauty.
However, after falling in love with the girl, John suspects that the Washingtons will not risk allowing him to leave their secret estate alive. He learns that people who visit are killed, their parents told that they have succumbed to illness while staying there. While the mountain is collapsing around them, Kismine and John attempt to escape. In her haste, Kismine mistakes rhinestones for diamonds, filling her pockets with them before running off.
Even though the relationship between the young lovers seems insignificant compared to the action, F. Scott Fitzgerald treats it as the central element; whatever the story’s resolved meaning may be, its focus is certainly not on Braddock Washington’s failure to escape retribution for his hubris; rather, it is on John’s recognition that he has lost his illusions.