From farm to fame to infamy


Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald won acclaim for two novels.

The first was “This Side of Paradise” in 1920. It was a semi-autobiographical novel about a Princeton student who chases fleshly pleasures like the rest of his Lost Generation.

The second was the 1925 classic, “The Great Gatsby.” It was about North Dakota ordinary guy Jay Gatz who changes his name, moves to a New York suburb, and hopes his newfound wealth will win him the heart of Daisy Buchanan, another man’s wife.

In his notebooks, Fitzgerald confessed to coveting a super car designed by Darke County native Harry Clayton Stutz.

The author wrote this: “When I was a boy, I dreamed that I sat always at the wheel of a magnificent Stutz, a Stutz as low as a snake and as red as an Indiana barn.”

That sexy dream car was the creation of Stutz, a farm boy who won and lost and won back fortunes, earned international fame for his prowess as a race car developer, and late-in-life was cast as villain in a scandalous love triangle.

Certainly, like Fitzgerald, untold Americans have cherished a breathtaking automobile as a symbol of the Great American Dream of success.

When my grandfather, an orphan, emigrated from Russia-enslaved Poland in 1913, he found a job on Great Arrow Drive in Buffalo as an assembly line worker at the Pierce-Arrow plant. He earned enough to parlay his savings into an 80-acre family farm.

Stutz’s dream was the opposite of my grandpa’s.

Stutz wanted to leave the farm of his father Henry. He dreamed of building fast cars with streamlined designs and enviable performance.

When Stutz was growing up, neighbors boasted that “the little Dutch boy” could repair any motor around.

In his teens, he took an old horse buggy from barn storage and installed a self-built gasoline motor. He delighted neighbors as this horseless carriage went putt-putting on the streets of Ansonia.

Stutz’s break for national acclaim came in 1911 when he entered the fledgling Indianapolis 500 with a prototype, which took him five weeks to build.

His driver finished the grueling race and reporters descended upon him with flash bulbs-a-popping.

Stutz’s Bearcat hit the auto market and won the hearts of flashy customers like F. Scott and his wife Zelda Fitzgerald.

His innovations as an auto designer and inventor made him a Gasoline Alley legend. He found a way to strengthen and improve rear axles. He created shatterproof windshield glass. He was the first to assemble a stock car to use for racing. He designed engines as powerful as one with 598-cubic-inch displacement. He even designed and developed fire engines.

Although he came close to having his fortune wiped out on occasion, when he was high rolling he could match Fitzgerald’s Gatsby in extravagance. His money came from autos but also from stocks, investments in Florida orchards, and Indiana real estate.

He particularly lavished gifts on his daughter Emma, outfitting her with a new Stutz every year and naming three yachts after her.

Unfortunately divorce records containing testimony from Mrs. Stutz exhibited anything but devotion on the entrepreneur’s part.

She was left always lonely and alone as he traveled the world, studying the great cars of Europe to find ways he could modify his own Stutz and H.C.S. cars for performance and profit.

The former Clara Marie Dietz, the daughter of German immigrants in Texas who gave her away to become the stepchild of a religious Indianapolis man named S.P. Secrest, worked side-by-side with her husband during his first years of struggle.

They married in 1898. For years, Stutz grew restless and jumped from job to job, taking positions that showed off his engineering and mechanical talents. Always she went with him and supported his sometime manic whims.

When Clara grew matronly in the 1920s, Stutz, in her words, accorded her “Inhuman treatment.” He grew verbally abusive.

The ink on the divorce papers had dried but three months when Stutz married a vivacious woman with flapper good looks in December 1925.

In true Gatsby-like fashion, he had begun courting Mrs. Herbert J. Miller in 1923. He charmed her in his omnipresent rakish fedoras and tailored suits.

Harry’ Stutz’s “Daisy” was an Indianapolis classic harpist many years younger than he. Her name was Blanche but everyone called her by the nickname of Jane.

When not in concert, her passion was trapshooting, and she won many trophies. Stutz, a big game hunter and skeet shooter, considered her his perfect mate.

Miller took Stutz to court charging alienation of affection. He demanded $50,000 if he won the lawsuit.

But Blanche told the court that Miller had destroyed her love early in the five-year marriage.

She charged that he had an incessant potty mouth and was unable to support her as he had promised while courting.

The couple won the case but the scandal gained them the contempt of Indianapolis’s social set. Undeterred, the Stutzes moved to Florida and became the darling couple of a more tolerant social circle there.

Newspaper and magazine writers portrayed them as the perfect couple.

In 1930, Stutz visited a Florida doctor to complain of stomach pain prior to a planned business trip in Indianapolis. Stutz had mastered building light plane engines for a ready market electrified by Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight to Paris.

The physician cleared the patient for travel, diagnosing the ailment as stomach flu.

He was dead wrong.

During the long agonizing car trip, Stutz’s appendix burst.

Gangrene set in, and although hospitalized, the flamboyant genius died of peritonitis. He was 53.

Mrs. Stutz remarried right away.

She chose a twice-widowed real estate market expert named Paul O. Meredith who needed help rearing his two-year-old daughter.

Meredith was a workaholic. One day when he experienced stomach pains at work, he chose to delay seeking medical help to finish his tasks.

He died the next day from a perforated appendix.

He and Blanche had been man and wife for only one year.

By Hank Nuwer

Near Darke

Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.

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