Edith Cummings, 'The Fairway Flapper'

golfer Edith Cummings in the early 1920s
Edith Cummings was a Jazz Age golfer who acquired the nickname "The Fairway Flapper" because of her love of parties, dancing and drinking. She got famous as a golfer — winning a U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in the 1920s — only after she was already famous as a socialite. She inspired a character in The Great Gatsby and was the first golfer ever to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Date of birth: March 26, 1899

Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois

Date and place of death: November 20, 1984 in Washington, D.C.

Nickname: The Fairway Flapper

Also known as: After marriage, Edith Munson (sometimes Edith Cummings Munson in print).

Her Tournament Wins

  • 1922 Belleair Tournament
  • 1922 Buffalo Invitation
  • 1922 Shennecossett Tournament
  • 1923 U.S. Women's Amateur
  • 1924 Women's Western Amateur
(This list is probably incomplete.)

Cummings' U.S. Women's Amateur Finishes

Cummings first qualified for U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in 1919, and in 1920 reached the quarterfinals before being knocked out by eventual champ Alexa Stirling. In 1922, Cummings went one round farther before running into another eventual champ, Glenna Collett, and falling in the semifinals. (Collett later called that match "one of the hardest I've ever had in championship play.")

But 1923 was Cummings' year to be champion. Her run almost ended in the semifinals when Florence Vanderbeck took Cummings to the second extra hole before Cummings was able to win the match. At 20 holes, it tied the then-tournament record for longest semifinal. Then, in the championship match against Stirling, Cummings finished the morning 18 1-down after missing a 20-inch putt on the 18th hole. But Cummings started the afternoon 18 going 1-over through the first seven holes, great scoring for the era that allowed her to open a lead. She wound up beating Stirling 3 and 2.

She was knocked out in the second round in her title defense the next year, but in 1925 advanced to the semifinals again. There, Collett again had Cummings' number. Her final appearance in the tournament was in 1926, and her last match a 1-down loss in the second round to Bernice Wall.

Cummings and 'The Great Gatsby'

Perhaps its appropriate that Cummings' 1923 U.S. Women's Amateur win happened in Rye, New York (at Westchester-Biltmore Country Club), a site that the USGA once noted is "just a few miles from Fitzgerald’s fictional sites of East Egg and West Egg."

That's Fitzgerald as in F. Scott Fitzgerald, and East Egg/West Egg as in The Great Gatsby (affiliate link). What's the connection? Ginevra King was Fitzgerald's first love and the inspiration for the character of Daisy Buchanan in the novel. Cummings was a close friend of King and first met Fitzgerald in 1915.

And when Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby (first published in 1925), he based the character of Jordan Baker, Daisy Buchanan's best friend, on Cummings. Baker was an amateur golfer who, Fitzgerald wrote, "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."

Baker also had a shady reputation in the book due to rumors of cheating in golf tournaments — that was pure invention, however: Cummings definitely did not have that reputation in real life. Reporters at the time of the book's publication noted that difference between character and inspiration, too, one writing that "Edith Cummings was as honest as she was bewitching."

More About Edith Cummings

Edith Cummings was famous for reasons having nothing to do with golf, but don't let that demean the quality of her golf. Her driving distance was on par with contemporaries Glenna Collett and Alexa Stirling, as Cummings was part of a new generation of women golfers who really went after distance (230 yards was a long drive in the women's game at the time). Collett, in her 1929 book Ladies In the Rough (affiliate link), wrote about building the ideal golfer by taking parts of the games of her competitors. For iron play, she chose Cummings. Collett called Cummings "my most-respected rival."

But sports reporters of the day couldn't help comment on Cummings' looks, the word "bewitching" often being used. As the USGA wrote, Cummings was "an heiress whose bubbling hijinks captured the imagination of the press." In an article about the Cummings-Collett semifinal match in the 1922 U.S. Women's Amateur, one reporter wrote that Cummings "swaggered along as jauntily as a bull-fighter, ready to pounce on any mistakes her opponent made. She was a striking, up-and-coming figure. No handsomer girl ever graced an athletic contest... She looked like a bewitching blonde."

Cummings was born into wealth and privilege in Chicago (her father was a prominent banker), and attended an exclusive boarding school in Connecticut, where she first met F. Scott Fitzgerald. She graduated from that school in 1917, and her classmates included Ginevra King, a Rockefeller, and two Bushes, the aunts to two future United States presidents.

Her family belonged to Onwentsia Club in Chicago (both her parents had won club championships), and that is where Edith and her brother Dexter learned to golf. Dexter became an accomplished amateur golfer himself, winning the 1923 and 1924 college golf championships (the equivalent of today's NCAA) and the 1925 Western Amateur.

Before Edith began playing top amateur golf tournaments, she was already famous as a debutante and socialite. Her looks and bubbly personality endeared her to the media. She ran in a circle with Ginevra King, Courtney Letts and Peg Carry, four socialites whose doings kept the press, and newspaper readers, in Chicago amused for years. Collectively, they were known as "The Big Four," or "the Big Four Debutantes." They partied together and played sports together. They even had rings made for each to wear, bearing the inscription, "The Big Four."

Cummings' golf tournament wins started in 1918, when she followed both her mother and father by winning the club championship at Onwentsia. She reached the finals of the 1920 Women's Western Amateur before losing.

But 1922 was the year she really began turning heads in golf circles. She took Collett to the limit in the semifinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur and was medalist at the North and South Amateur. And Cummings was runner-up to Collett in the Eastern Amateur (she later was runner-up to Collett in the 1923 Shennecossett Tournament and 1924 Buffalo Invitation). And Cummings won three times in 1922: the Belleair Tournament, Buffalo Invitation and Shennecossett Tournament.

In 1923 Cummings won her U.S. Women's Amateur title. The next year, before her title defense, Cummings was featured on the cover of Time magazine. She was the first golfer, male or female, and the first woman athlete of any kind to grace the cover of Time.

Edith Cummings on Time magazine cover

Cummings wasn't able to repeat as USWA champ, but she did win the 1924 Women's Western Amateur. It was also common in the early to mid-1920s for the new stars of women's golf to take on their male counterparts in exhibition matches, always receiving handicap strokes from their opponents. Cummings defeated top male amateur Max Marston three years running.

Cummings played for two more years, but at the end of 1926 she was done with competitive golf at the age of 27.

When Cummings got engaged in 1934, Time magazine described her as "one-time (1923) women's national golf champion, equestrienne and big game hunter, last spinster of Chicago's famed Wartime 'Big Four' socialite beauty quartet." Later that year, at age 35, Cummings was married to Curtis Munson, a wealthy Detroit businessman.

Munson has his own place in history as the author of the Munson Report, which he was asked to compile by President Franklin Roosevelt: Munson's task was to determine the loyalties of Japanese-Americans with the USA and Japan about to go to war. Munson toured the West Coast conducting interviews, then reported that Japanese-Americans, on the whole, displayed "a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty" to their adopted home. Unfortunately, the report was mostly ignored by those in the government, and in 1942 Japanese Americans were confined to internment camps for the duration of World War II.

Curtis Munson lived until 1979, Edith Cummings until 1984. They mostly stayed out of the spotlight in their later years, but Edith continued playing golf recreationally for decades after her heyday. They had various philanthropic efforts, some of which remain ongoing today through the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation.

One of the things the foundation does is award the Edith Cummings Munson Golf Award annually to a female college golfer who excels in academics as well as on the golf course.

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