When Sinclair Lewis met Floyd B. Olson at northern Minnesota’s Breezy Point Lodge

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Interior of Breezy Point Lodge, ca. 1926.

Overlooking Minnesota’s Big Pelican Lake is a lodge, a large one, renowned for the visitors it’s attracted in its long history. Everyone from actors to governors have stayed there, planting themselves on Breezy Point Resort’s long, lumber decks overlooking the lake. It’s some of the state’s best fishing and also the spot where the author Sinclair Lewis met future-governor Floyd B. Olson for the first, and only, time.

Sinclair Lewis

It was 1926 and, spending the first half of the year in Kansas City gathering material for his next book, in June Lewis headed to Breezy Point to write. His choice of the northern woods was twofold as it “offered a sophisticated inn where he could get a good meal and drink with Minneapolis’ business elite, as well as rustic isolation” (Lingeman 282). When he wasn’t writing, Lewis could be found in the lodge doing impressions (as he was known for) or leading guests “in hymn singing around the piano” (Lingeman 285). Many of these he knew by heart since childhood but some came from his time shadowing ministers for what would become Elmer Gantry.

It was during this same period that Lewis’ alcoholism consumed him, worrying his wife and publisher that the famed author of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith would quite writing all together. His alcoholism was such a problem, in fact, that when the Breezy Point bar closed an employee was assigned to take him home. Still, Lewis persevered and by the time he left in August to attend his father’s funeral half of the manuscript for Elmer Gantry was finished.

Floyd B. Olson

While Lewis stayed in Breezy Point, one of the Minneapolis elite he met was a young Hennepin County Attorney named Floyd B. Olson. Having lost his first bid for governor two years before, in his head were plans for another campaign that within four years would make him the state’s first Farmer-Labor Governor. Regarded as a organizational mastermind for his capacity to build coalitions of competing (and opposing) parties, his success came as much from his natural political genius as his charisma. Yet, according to his biographer, in Olson were “strands of energy and sloth, ambition and carefree gaiety, … woven together to create a complex, contradictory personality” (Mayer 5). To illustrate this complexity his biographer cites a 1926 trip to Breezy Point.

Riding with his friend George Leonard to a meeting of the Minnesota State Bar Association in Duluth, Olson suggested that since the two had left a day early they could afford a detour west. As Breezy Point was one of Olson’s favorite relaxation spots, Leonard, who was an officer in the association, acquiesced. While there

he and Leonard encountered a noisy crowd centering around Sinclair Lewis, then at the height of his fame. Leonard’s weak protests failed to dissuade Olson from introducing himself and joining the party. Eventually it moved to Sinclair Lewis’ cabin, where Olson exchanged yarns with the novelist for some hours. Lewis was working on Elmer Gantry at the time, and the convivial evening ended with the singing of hymns (Mayer 6).

Planning to leave for Duluth the next morning to make the first sessions of the meeting, Olson further convinced his friend “that the opening sessions at conventions [are] always dull” and suggested one more detour. The next day this happened again while Leonard was “slowly driv[en] to the realization [Olson] had never intended to reach Duluth” (Mayer 7).  They didn’t.

Yet not all of Lewis’ evenings were so jovial. As Lewis’ biographer records, on one occasion

A man from a nearby small town began drunkenly hectoring Lewis, accusing him of having a swelled head. Lewis ignored him. Finally, in frustration, the man yelled he was as good as Lewis and unleashed a left hook that sent Lewis sprawling. Lewis quickly sprang up and went at the man with flying fists (Lingeman 285).

It is unknown whether Lewis remembered this early encounter with Olson, but he was surely aware of Olson’s stature in American politics when in his novel It Can’t Happen Here the Minnesota governor makes an appearance. In it, after the demagogue Senator Buzz Windrip (a stand-in for Huey Long) takes the 1936 Democratic Party nomination away from FDR, several radical politicians join Roosevelt’s Jeffersonian Party including Olson. Unfortunately, this hypothetical party was destined for failure as “it represented integrity and reason in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions … all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming Buzz Windrip” (Lewis 85).

Sources:
Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Signet Classics, 2005.
Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.
Mayer, George H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

This post was written by Joshua P. Preston and originally published on A Prairie Populist. Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JPPreston.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/03/2014 - 11:24 am.

    Amazing, that nowhere in this article is it mentioned that all the players–major novelist, prominent MN legal official and to-be governor, and their Breezy Point acquaintances–were breaking the law by drinking alcohol. Prohibition in full swing, and a couple of alcoholics (Olson was one, not just Lewis) spent a few days drinking up a storm.

    We often gloss over how the elite got away with lawbreaking back then; it’s part of the Minnesota mythmaking machine (where all the rich and powerful did no wrong).

  2. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 01/03/2014 - 01:22 pm.

    Breezy Point Lodge

    Unfortunately the Breezy Point Lodge shown in the picture burned down, as did its replacement. There was also a casino at Breezy Point in those days (and up at Leech Lake as well). Purportedly Governor Luther Youngdahl campaigned against the evils of gambling and alcohol and upon election made enforcement of the laws against those vices a priority. At least that is what I was told…

    The whole history of Breezy Point Resort and Captain Billy Fawcett, publisher of the racy (for its time) Whiz Bang Comics and the many celebrities who vacationed there makes for interesting reading.
    Remember in 1926 this was wilderness. Roads were very poor consisting of sand and mud for most of the year. Most people arrived by train in Pequot Lakes and made there way to the resort by horse drawn wagon.

  3. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 01/03/2014 - 02:41 pm.

    Correction to the previous post

    According to the Breezy Pointer Newsletter, Gambling continued at the resort until 1947 when Governor Youngdahl took office. Obviously prohibition has long since ended. Local lore has it that there was a thriving backyard distilling industry in the surrounding area during prohibition that suppled many of the Resorts and Supper Clubs along with local residents with a steady supply of whiskey. Or so I am told…

    It seems that Minnesotans, for all of our public piousness, have always loved to drink and gamble.

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