Editor’s Note-Alegre

Editor’s Note-Alegre

The perilous illusions of prohibition-free zones.

In the summer of 1981, I was shopping for a house, my task made easier after a real-estate agent loaned me his phone-book-like Multiple Listing Service book. Of the thousands of residential properties listed for sale throughout Minnesota late that summer, the most expensive had an asking price of $1.2 million.

It had been built on several acres of Kandiyohi County lakefront, surrounded by improbably tall lilac bushes, on the bluffs on Spicer’s Green Lake. Local residents called the property “the Rice estate.” When it had been occupied in the 1920s by Cushman Albert Rice, it had been named Villa Alegre, alegre being Spanish for happy, lively, or racy.

Rice’s biographer, St. Paul attorney Dan Hardy, says that it was known as a “Prohibition-free zone,” the frequent site of alcohol-fueled, celebrity-attended festivals organized by Rice, who Hardy describes as a fortune hunter, gambler, gun runner, and socialite—and “the most colorful, romantic, dashing Minnesotan of his day.” As we note in this month’s “Best of Business” feature, Hardy has compiled compelling reasons to believe that Rice was the model for Jay Gatsby, the fictional protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s best-read work, is about the pursuit of a dream that is both empty and unobtainable—a dream of being able to engineer the requital of a youthful infatuation. Much less read but nearly as engaging is his The Beautiful and Damned, a tale of moral and financial dissipation. 

The protagonists are young Anthony and Gloria Patch. Anthony, who intends to be a scholarly writer, believes that “traits which we call fine—courage and honor and beauty and all that sort of thing—can best be developed in a favorable environment.” He is therefore unwilling to take employment—but also unwilling to write.

Instead, accompanied by Gloria, he bounds from one drunken fiasco to another, expending their inherited wealth: “Every other month they sold a bond, yet when the bills were paid it left only enough to be gulped down hungrily by their current expenses. Anthony’s calculations showed that their capital would last about seven years longer.” The Patches are dismayed to witness their “opalescent dreams of future pleasure” dissipating with their fortune.

At one point, they allow their inability to afford a gray squirrel coat for Gloria to stand as a symbol of their financial anxieties. To allay those anxieties, they accelerate their social activities. Soon, Gloria’s “heart was very bitter [after] a prolonged hysterical party” in which the couple spent “twice what the gray squirrel coat would have cost.”

Each summer, as we begin to prepare the “Best of Business” feature, we think of those entities and individuals who might have been included if only things had somehow been different. If only the marketing plan had worked, or the stock offering executed at a more propitious time. If only the CEO had not pilfered from other shareholders by backdating his stock options; the political-operative-turned-marketing-adviser had not fabricated loan documentation; or the publisher had recognized that propriety information has value, and that taking it is theft.

Countless individuals have felt the wind hit the sails—experienced the exhilaration of increasing possibility—just before the hull hit the rocks. Among them, none are more pathogenic than those whose downfall has been derived from delusions of living in a prohibition-free zone.

Psychologists say that when we are faced with a disagreeable situation of our own making, we seek ways to demonstrate that the situation is inevitable, desirable, or the fault of someone else. To Fitzgerald’s bewildered Gloria, “the shrinkage of their income was a remarkable phenomenon, without explanation or precedent—that it could happen at all within the space of five years seemed almost intended cruelty, conceived and executed by a sardonic God.”

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested that the surest way to recognize that one has a soul is to feel oneself losing it. The same might be said of reputation, the prospect of future success, and other forms of wealth.

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