Gangsters, Gable and Gatsby- Four Historic and Fun Minnesota Side Trips

Looking for some great diversions while the vaccines rollout? Follow me as we track the haunts of gangsters and Gable; and the writing domains of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.  Here are four side trips that will immerse you in history without forgetting the food and fun.  

Breezy Point’s 100th Anniversary- Hideaway of the Stars

Few destinations capture the confluence of past and present better than Breezy Point Resort near Nisswa. Its founder Billy Fawcett built the lodge as a hobby to provide a getaway for his Hollywood celebrity chums and “The Captain” never did anything halfway. You can still rent his original log cabin, the Fawcett House, comprised of 11 bedrooms, 9 baths and beds for 19 of your closest friends. When Clark Gable and Carole Lombard joined him there, Gable was bigger than Hanks or Cruise and Lombard was the highest paid actress in Hollywood.  They were in the midst of a sizzling affair at the time and Breezy Point was a perfect, rustic hideaway.

At the same time, the lodge offered plenty of entertainment options. According to George Rasmusson, long-time editor of the Breezy Pointer, President Harry Truman hit a jackpot in the resort’s slot machines in 1932. And don’t forget the booze. Breezy Point served liquor as a speakeasy during Prohibition and also offered a billiards room and bowling alley. At the lakeshore, the beauty of Pelican Lake proved to be the ideal creative setting for Sinclair Lewis to work on Elmer Gantry.

Word of mouth accolades carried swiftly and a crowd of other stars including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford trekked to Billy Fawcett’s north woods gem.

And 2021 couldn’t be better timing for you to follow in their footsteps—this is the 100th anniversary of Breezy Point. The resort is celebrating the anniversary with a number of fun events:

·         Fireworks displays on May 30th and July 4th

·         A special discounted anniversary stay package for Memorial Day weekend

·         A museum display and walking tour guide

·         1921 speakeasy cocktail and wine offerings

·         Golf tourney and live entertainment

·         Golf cart and boat parades

For the full list of anniversary activities, check out:

Follow the Fitzgerald Walking Trail

F. Scott Fitzgerald and St. Paul were linked like feuding step brothers. The city helped to shape him as a young man and as a writer, yet he always yearned for greener pastures. While The Great Gatsby is his legendary work, don’t overlook Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, a beautifully-written short story which zigzags from White Bear Lake to Summit Avenue to the University Club.

And in the spirit of tracing Fitzgerald’s footsteps, I charted an invigorating walking (22 minutes each way) or biking tour to absorb his St. Paul routines and environment. The posh horse-drawn carriages may be gone, but we’ll take in the soaring mansions and the timeless cobblestones of Cathedral Hill and Summit Avenue.

Let’s start at W.A. Frost and Company at Selby and Western. This Romanesque monolith of brick and sandstone was built like Fort Knox and was W.A. Frost’s Pharmacy during Fitzgerald’s era—one of his favorite hangouts as a teenager. Follow the trail to 294 Laurel, the classic row house where he lived with his grandparents and then on to one of my favorite Fitzgerald reminiscences- the Commodore Bar and Restaurant. To say that F. Scott and Zelda cut loose there might be an understatement. Indeed, they were booted from the hotel twice for rowdy drunkenness. The business sits in uneasy COVID-19 hibernation but when it reopens, its dazzling art deco bars and dining room are must for a Roaring 20s inspired cocktail or meal.

Follow Western Avenue south, taking in the spectacular river valley vistas of Summit Overlook Park with the University Club looming just a block down the road. F. Scott and Zelda were regulars at this upscale country club during the Roaring 20s. Back to the map, and veer back to Summit Avenue and stroll past 5 blocks of spectacular Victorian mansions to the F. Scott Fitzgerald House. This is where Fitzgerald was born and later rewrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise.  

Roll By the Dillinger Shootout

In the spring of 1934, the local newspapers were focused on a St. Paul grand jury investigation about police corruption and the city’s role as a sanctuary for gangsters.  On the morning of March 31, 1934, two FBI agents investigating a lead at the Lincoln Court apartments (95 Lexington Parkway S) stumbled into John Dillinger and two associates in the hallway. A gun fight broke out and when Dillinger sprayed the scene with Thompson machine gun fire, the agents scrambled for cover-- and the gang was able to escape. A few hours later, the grand jury released their verdict finding no evidence of corruption, generating this St. Paul Daily News headline: MACHINES GUNS BLAZE AS JURY WHITEWASHES POLICE. I have to chuckle as I can’t get the Casablanca scene out of mind. Louis: “I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here."

To be honest, a visit to the apartment complex might not hold your interest for long but while you’re there, take in the revamped, iconic The Lexington restaurant/bar which is a block away. Their new rooftop is a big hit in mild weather and the remodel of the main bar and the Williamsburg Room are stunning. When I was there, I expected Frank Sinatra to come around the corner at any moment. If you’re dining, I recommend the Steak Diane, salmon and the heavenly carrot cake. Bon appetit.  

Kid Cann - Minneapolis Godfather

The FBI called Kid Cann (given name Isadore Blumenfeld) the Godfather of the Minneapolis underworld. He made millions bootlegging moonshine from Cuba and Canada during Prohibition and parlayed that into a network of as many as ten family-controlled liquor stores across Minneapolis. On the way, he dodged three murder charges and was arrested 25 times, yet served only one prison sentence of three years for jury tampering and extortion.  While living at the corner of Oakland Avenue South and 59th Street in south Minneapolis, it’s easy to follow his routine to the 5-8 Club nine blocks down the road. The 5-8 traces its origin as a speakeasy during Prohibition and a likely recipient of some of that moonshine. You can recapture some of that gangster atmosphere today. Stop in for their famous Juicy Lucy which is in a ferocious competition with Matt’s as the state’s original and best cheese-infused delight.    

Kid Cann grew up dirt poor in Northeast Minneapolis but never forgot his roots. He liked to hang out at the old East Hennepin Café on the 700 block. When you’re in the neighborhood, pop in to Whiteys Old Town Café on the 400 block. Although a later iteration, I think it gives you a great sense of what the neighborhood bar was like in Cann’s heyday.

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