If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall that I regularly attend a challenging writing workshop, one feature of which is called the Random Word Challenge. When I saw the words listed below it reminded me of the writing style of my grandfather’s cousin, Albert Coates: early to mid-twentieth century lawyer, University of North Carolina professor, and founder of well-known and respected Institute of Government. This challenge is always demanding, but usually leads to entertaining results.
rebirth stillness (Parts of speech were allowed to be modified.)
Dearest Sister Gwendolyn,
Please allow me the honor of sharing this moment with you via this written communication. I wanted to let you know about the hours leading up to and following our precious youngest sister’s death. Of course, you are aware of the many contentious doctor and hospital visits where no one seemed to take Ida’s complaints seriously, so I do not need to elaborate on that episode other than to say that once Bryant was able to come on the scene he finally got through to them that her illness was indeed serious. Alas, it was far too late to be of much help other than to give her some degree of comfort in her last days. Had the situation not been so dire, it would have been risible.
Please be assured everyone understands why you could not make the long journey to Natchez. Caring for Warren must be your highest concern in these difficult days. Sometimes it is challenging to delineate between one’s duties and desires, but not in this case. You mourn Ida’s passing with the same sorrow and anguish as do we all, and that does not change based on physical proximity. The spirit is always nearby.
The days leading up to the service were filled with flowers and visits with friends who shared a lifetime of happy memories, which served as a much needed antidote to the otherwise dolorous atmosphere of the home that now belongs only to Stephen and the children. The reminiscences of friends and colleagues presented versions of Ida they would not otherwise have known and allowed them to begin the all-important work of celebrating a life well-lived. The week confirmed the deep love and affection Ida inspired in all those who had the good fortune of her acquaintance.
I offered and was graciously granted the privilege of sitting with the home so the rest could attend the service with no worries. It is indeed the better place for me as I need the solitude of the moment to properly revere our sister’s life.
It is fitting that Ida’s time on earth ends with the blossoming of spring, a time when we are so gloriously reminded of the rebirth of all life. The stillness of these hours gives me the opportunity to reflect and be filled with gratitude for the gift of being born as sweet Ida’s brother.
Life in this sphere must always end. It was never meant to be an eternity. We are only unsure of the timing.
My cousin David Rae Smith was only 15 or 16 years old when he met violinist, composer, conductor, and educator Sol B. Cohen, then in his mid-forties, who was teaching and performing in and around Rae’s hometown of Asheville at the time. Hailing from Urbana, Illinois, Cohen had studied with French violinist Emile Sauret in Chicago and Jeno Hubay (also known as Eugen Huber) in Budapest, Hungary. Sol also studied under renowned violinists in Prague and Paris.
In his time, Sol was well-known and highly respected in the music world, perhaps especially in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1920s. Silent films relied heavily on orchestral music to demonstrate on-screen emotions, and Sol wrote numerous film scores, including those of early filmmaking giants Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith. He was also a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and was concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, having been instrumental in the Bowl’s development. (Much of this information is courtesy of the Sol B. Cohen Papers, Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library.)
I have written about Sol and his equally musical brother Julius in David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. Since the book’s publication, however, I have discovered a few other bits of information about him, all of which demonstrate his stature and explain why his faith in Rae’s future as a professional vocalist was so significant.
It seems that Sol knew almost everybody, and he maintained voluminous correspondence with a number of those acquaintances, many of whom are noted in my book. Among his many friends and correspondents were William Maxwell and Max Frankel, both of whom had remarkable literary careers.
Fellow Illinoisian William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years, was one of Sol’s contemporaries at the MacDowell Colony the legendary artists’ residency and workshop program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which was founded by the husband-wife team composer Edward and pianist Marian MacDowell (and is now known simply as MacDowell). Sol participated in the program for ten years, which gave him a chance to meet many dozens of other artistic geniuses.
In the book Conversations with William Maxwell, the author tells this story. “I drove to Lake George with another colonist, the violinist Sol Cohen, from Urbana. He was an impulsive driver and did not read the road signs carefully, and we got lost and at dusk found that we had been driving north when we should have been driving south and east. All around us were mountains . . .” I can believe it. In Sol’s letters to his brother Julius he often mentioned that his car was inoperable for one reason or another. Perhaps the vehicle was a clunker, but his driving may have had something to do with its ongoing problems. Sol had his own story about getting lost. One foggy night he got so turned around he abandoned his car altogether and had to walk to the nearest house, which was not actually very near, to get straightened out.
Pulitzer Prize winner Max Frankel, former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, knew Sol from their shared years at High Valley Camp in Canton, North Carolina, in the 1940s when Frankel was a teen and Sol was a music teacher/counselor who also oversaw the camp’s entertainment programs. Soon after his arrival at the camp as a laborer, Frankel was promoted to camp counselor, making him the youngest staff member. His new role meant he could stay up late with other counselors, learning, as he said in a personal interview, “to smoke Luckies, to drawl out my speech, and to double-clutch to drive a truck full of campers on our weekly trips.” It also meant he got to know Sol better and “we soon collaborated on making music and listening to his record collection.” The two sang “whole albums of songs” and regularly performed at area churches and recitals during Frankel’s four summers there.
In The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, Frankel shared vivid memories of Sol. Before Frankel turned to journalism, he gave serious consideration to careers in both music and art. At High Valley Camp, Sol became enamored with Frankel’s vocal talent and each year cast him in the lead role of that year’s opera production. Sol corresponded with Julius, voice teacher to a number of future opera standouts, about the boy’s talent. Julius even showed up at camp one year to see for himself. According to Frankel, the two brothers “swore that I could make it to the Metropolitan Opera,” and Frankel became Sol’s “four-year project.” The brothers even made arrangements for further training from a famed New York City voice coach.
In a 1949 letter to Julius, Sol explained he was disinclined to teach at the camp that summer. “Another reason why I’d rather NOT be here is that good Max Frankel will definitely not be here. He writes me pathetically of his decision, and thinks he will, eventually go on with his singing.” Unfortunately for the music world (though not for the world of journalism), soon after Frankel began his formal New York training, he realized the cost and time commitments required for an opera career, including extensive language study in French and Italian, were too much for him and his parents and he “quit opera forever.”
Frankel also held Sol’s tutelage in high regard. The late camp evenings together were the reason the teenager developed a lifelong appreciation of opera and why he learned to value serious symphonic composers such as Stravinsky. In our recent electronic correspondence, Frankel said of Sol, “Though he was a violinist by profession, his piano playing was prodigious. He could recall whole scores of musicals and transpose at will into any key to accommodate singers.” Frankel was equally impressed with Sol’s dynamism. As he penned his memoir fifty years later, he wrote, “Perpetually bent at the sacroiliac, he could nonetheless leap from the piano stool, pluck his violin for a few bars of ‘Buttercup,’ then pound the keys again from a crouched position and, between chords, bare-handedly conduct the H.M.S. Pinafore finale.”
Sol’s letters home often mentioned his back troubles and his attempts to get relief from various practitioners. In 1951 he wrote Julius, “I suddenly wrenched my back again and the old spinal trouble came back with a bang. I felt like an old cripple for a few days. My boys were angelic. They made my bed for me, helped me with dressing, and did everything they could to make my life easier.” Frankel recalled, “Sol was a man of enormous enthusiasms, for music of every kind and for young people he could instruct. He was serious about music but endlessly generous to anyone he deemed responsive.”
However, as is probably true for all teachers, Sol had complaints about some of his charges, though more often those there for the school year than for the summer camp. Once he confided to Julius that the younger boys “have consistently gotten on my nerves all this year.” Another letter noted, “The kids leave me alone not a second.” Yet another grumbled, “I felt all year as if I were a therapist: a job that ill suits me.” Frankel told a different story. “Indefatigable and infinitely tolerant of children of every age, Sol supplied candy before dinner, even lunch, and he let lazy campers hide in his cabin during work period—if, that is, they’d sit still for a symphony.” Indeed, Sol’s overall attitude towards his young students must have been positive, for he continued teaching in boarding schools and camps in Canton, Asheville, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as spending twenty summers at Crystal Lake Camps in Pennsylvania where he led the camp orchestra.
There is far more to the Sol B. Cohen story than is noted in either my book or this blog post, and I anticipate sharing some of it in weeks to come. For now, I hope you, too, have found it fascinating to connect some of the dots between Sol’s own words and what others had to say about him.
I’ve been feeling a little down lately. I’m probably not alone in that with all that’s going on in the world, but a lovely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway always helps to brighten my mood, so that’s what the Gnome and I did a few days ago.
At 469 miles long, the Parkway is the nation’s longest linear park, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in far southwestern North Carolina through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Near Charlottesville, the Parkway turns into Skyline Drive which will take you another hundred miles or so to Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington, DC. Both drives are extraordinarily scenic.
But don’t expect to travel the full distance of the Parkway in a day. Or even two. With a 45-mph speed limit and winding roads along ridge tops, you couldn’t if you tried. But with breathtaking vistas all along the way who would want to? You don’t travel the Parkway to get somewhere fast—or necessarily to get anywhere at all. You travel it for relaxation and for the bucolic scenery. You travel it to stop at overlooks and take in spectacular views of valleys and mountains, of trees and wildflowers, of blue skies (sometimes) and clouds. You travel it to stop for a picnic alongside a mountain creek or to take a hike along one the many trails through the woods. The Parkway is a place to slow your pace and soak up Nature’s glory. Nary a billboard will mar the scenery. You’ll find no aggravating traffic lights, not even a stop sign. Just 469 miles of calm.
There’s a lot of history along the Parkway, not all of it particularly uplifting. Folks who lived in the way lost their homes for the most part, and long-standing communities vanished. Today, you will see remnants of those homes and communities in fascinating educational exhibits.
At the same time, Parkway construction created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression when no other jobs were to be had (as well as hundreds if not thousands more since.) All but the most specialized labor was local. Throughout its 86-year history, tourist dollars from Parkway travelers have filled coffers of nearby towns with untold dollars. And more than half a billion (that’s billion–with a B) have enjoyed its beauty ever since. A 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine noted that 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway the previous year, compared to about 3 million each for Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.
Some the Parkway’s history involves my family. My Uncle Bill had the contract to construct several of the historic stone tunnels as well as the original tower at Mount Mitchell. A portion of the Parkway sits along the ridge of the mountain behind the home where my mother and her siblings grew up in Jackson County, North Carolina—the very mountain they climbed to pick blackberries for their blackberry and biscuit breakfasts.
Begun in 1935 (when my mom was a teenager), the Parkway was not completed until 1987 (when my own children were teenagers) when the final segment was built around Grandfather Mountain in a stunning piece of engineering genius to protect the fragile ecology of the area.
I consider myself one of the most fortunate of souls to be no more than thirty minutes from a Parkway entrance. And when I get there, I realize I’m in a place that connects my present to my mother’s past, even though I’m maybe a couple of hundred miles, Parkway style, from her childhood home. It’s a special feeling.
Private land still borders the skinny ribbon of roadway, and astute travelers might notice inconspicuous roads going off to the left or right as they pass any number of pastures filled with cows. It’s hard to drive along the Parkway without sighting deer and wild turkey, too. Lucky folks will even come across a fox or a black bear.
On our recent trip, we headed north on one of my favorite sections of the scenic drive. No need to try to explain it. These photos tell the story.
We stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia, to listen to some good old-fashioned bluegrass music. You can catch live performances every day of the week from noon until four June through October. What a treat! (All the musicians volunteer their time, too.) We spent about an hour in the museum learning about the history of old-time and bluegrass, whose home is in these hills.
As we made the return trip, we stopped by Jeffress Park and hiked the sometimes-treacherous trail through the woods and along the streambed of Falls Creek on its way to The Cascades, an amazingly powerful waterfall. I wish you could hear the roar and see the frothy lace. But I was as impressed by the shallow stream that made its way to the noisy cascade. It was such a restful place where I felt the cool air swirl around my ankles and envelop body and soul as I caught scents of damp earth and mushrooms and leaf litter. It was, as it always is, magical. And I came home uplifted.
In my last post I wrote about Bertha Palmer, influential Chicago socialite and aunt of Grace Potter Carroll (advanced piano teacher to David Rae Smith, subject of my latest book—check it out on Amazon). At that time I promised more information on the Chicago Woman’s Club, one of Bertha’s passions. In fact, the Palmer House, an upscale hotel built by Bertha’s husband and where the Palmers lived at the time, was one of the club’s early meeting places.
In my time I’ve encountered a few women’s clubs—from a distance. They were usually fancy, two-story, white-painted brick affairs in fancy neighborhoods, usually with a magnolia tree or two in the front yard. I always thought of them as hoity-toity organizations to which I would likely not be considered for membership.
All that may (or may not) have been the truth of the matter. I suspect membership in such clubs today is wide open—as long as a person can afford the annual dues, a factor which effectively still keeps a lot of people out. However, in the case of the Chicago Woman’s Club, founded in 1876, six years after Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, the image I had of such groups was pretty accurate.
Except for one thing: I had no idea of their impact on society. As it turns out, the woman’s club movement, which started about the time the Chicago Woman’s Club was established, quickly grew to become a social welfare and reform movement based on the philosophy that women had a moral responsibility to effect public policy for the betterment of society.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes the Chicago Woman’s Club, the oldest woman’s club in the city and one of the first in the country, stood out as one of the most active of all the nation’s women’s clubs. Originally, its uniformly well-to-do members focused on personal and social improvement. They studied classical literature and art while simultaneously establishing the first kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago. (The kindergarten movement was still a pretty new thing in the United States and the Woman’s Club endeavor led the Chicago Board of Education to formally incorporate kindergartens into the school system. Also, under Bertha Palmer’s leadership of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a demonstration kindergarten was set up in the Children’s Building, one of the projects of the ‘Lady Managers.’)
By the late 1880s, the club’s efforts focused on “the improvement of state facilities for dependent children, orphans, and female prisoners, as well as legislation for compulsory education and against child labor,” according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago. The club largely ushered in the Illinois Juvenile Court Law of 1899 and created the first juvenile court in the United States.
A decade after Bertha Palmer’s 1918 death, the Chicago Woman’s Club began construction of its own facility, a six-story building plus basement at 72 East Eleventh Street. What began as a twenty-one member club had grown to about 1500 by this time. The clubwomen raised every penny necessary for the building and its furnishings.
As quoted on the website Chicagology, Kathleen McLaughlin of The Chicagoan wrote of the new facility, “The only fault I can find with the building is that it offers no detail with which I can find fault.” She described the rooms as beautiful, comfortable, and modern, though club members preferred the term contemporary. The ladies of the club thought through every detail, much as the Board of Lady Managers had when designing the Woman’s Building for the Chicago World’s Fair. Every element of architectural and interior design was synchronized. According to McLaughlin, “Not more than three pieces of furniture in the club were not designed especially for it.”
For instance, the large rug in the first floor reception room was designed by one if the building’s architects and was woven specifically to fit the room, carrying out the color of the room’s soft blue furnishings and matching the contemporary interior design.
Color schemes were coordinated throughout, including the stairways. Everywhere was a note of silver—silver against blue in the reception room, silver upholstered furniture against green in the main dining room on the floor above. The third floor featured the library filled with leather-bound books, the building’s main lounge—walnut paneled with violet and gold divans and two marble fireplaces, and the board room “with only its amethyst carpet to relieve the silver sheen of its walls.”
The building also featured a card room decorated in black and gold patterned paper and matching black and gold tables and chairs, “contrasting with woodwork and carpet of a tomato tint.” In addition, the club’s new home included numerous meeting rooms as well as bedrooms and “three kinds of dining rooms.”
Of course, the club was about far more than its building. McLaughlin wrote, “To catalogue the club’s activities would be to compile something comparable in size to the Chicago telephone directory. The pies in which it has had all its fingers and both thumbs have ranged from the first legislation on compulsory education and the establishment of the Juvenile Court to the genesis of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Art Institute and in 1915 the furtherance of typhoid relief work in Belgium. . . . One of the club’s proud recent achievements was the establishment of the first nursery school to be operated within a public school in the United States.” She noted that as government caught up “with one or another of the club’s modem ideas,” it took over some of the club’s projects including, in addition to kindergartens, “night schools, vacation schools, and the work for the blind, which are only a few of the enterprises which long had the support of the club.”
The club still supported personal development of its members, hosting a curriculum of no fewer than fifty classes taught by “professional teachers, lecturers, and leaders in every field of human endeavor,” putting the club “in competition with the colleges.” According to McLaughlin, members could easily spend six full days each week in educational endeavors, even if they did not immerse themselves in the club’s important civic work.
The club’s early membership read like a Who’s Who. Notable members included the following women who have left a significant legacy.
Jane Addams was a settlement activist, social reformer, author, and pacifist. A leader in the history of social work, she was co-founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago’s Hull House, one of the country’s most famous settlement houses. Addams was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.
The first Black woman to gain membership (in 1894, it took more than a year of debate) was Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams, educator, political and women’s rights advocate, musician, and portraitist. Williams became well known for her efforts to have Black people officially represented on the Board of Control of the 1893 World’s Fair. She helped found the League of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known today by its acronym NAACP. She was both the first woman and the first Black American to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She was associated with both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and was the only Black American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony and the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1907.
Ada Celeste Sweet was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be United States agent for paying pensions in Chicago, the first such position ever offered to a woman by the federal government. In that role she established a strict system of civil service reform. Having raised money among friends to build and equip an ambulance, she gave the first police ambulance to the city of Chicago, thus becoming the founder of the Chicago police ambulance system. In addition to her philanthropic and governmental reform work, Sweet was literary editor of the Chicago Tribune.
Publisher and political activist Myra Colby Bradwell founded and published Chicago Legal News. Sheattempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar (1869), but was denied admission by both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts. (They upheld “a separate women’s sphere.”) Meanwhile, influenced by her case, the state legislature passed a law making gender discrimination illegal in admission to any occupation or profession, excepting the military. The state Supreme Court finally granted her admission to the Illinois bar in 1890 and the US Supreme Court soon followed in its footsteps. Bradwell was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
Education, children’s welfare, and social policy reformer Julia Clifford Lathrop, who directed the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1922, was the first woman ever to head a federal bureau. Lathrop was largely responsible for the Chicago Woman’s Club’s efforts to establish a juvenile court system.
One of the staunchest supporters for Frances Barrier Williams’ admission to the Chicago Woman’s Club, Sarah Ann Hackett Stevenson was the first female member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Stevenson was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at Cook County Hospital. She co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses together with Lucy Flower, another notable member of the club. It was Stevenson who proposed to the club creating a safe home for women and children in need of shelter, and with the help of private donations and other clubs, the Woman’s Model Lodging House was opened to the public.
Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. She was also an educator and suffragist whose influence continued as the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments (prohibition and women’s suffrage respectively) were adopted. Among Willard’s accomplishments was raising the age of consent from fourteen to eighteen in many states as well as passing labor laws including the eight-hour work day. In her 700-page autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years (1889), Willard wrote, “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere. . . . In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”
Novelist, Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and social reformer Celia Parker Woolley was founder of the Frederick Douglass Woman’s Club, one of Chicago’s few interracial women’s clubs. As president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, she opened its membership to Black women with the help of fellow Unitarian Fannie Barrier Williams.
The Chicago Woman’s Club met until 1999 when the group voted itself out of existence. As then vice-president Louise Pavelka told the Chicago Tribune’s Barbara Brotman, “The glory of this club was philanthropy,” but that time had passed as membership, and therefore funds, declined. Another member said the club had moved away from social justice issues “because so many other organizations had taken them up.” Member Ruth Wiener said. “We used to do those things when no one else did. . . . We served a purpose.” She laughed as she told Brotman, “We did our jobs too well.”
As one would expect, the club’s remaining assets went to support scholarships and other philanthropic endeavors.
After writing about Grace Potter Carroll, I expected my next post to be about her patron, Hattie Pullman. But researching Grace’s early life led me to information about the wealthy, socialite aunt, Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of Grace’s maternal uncle, Potter Palmer. The newspaper headline announcing Grace’s multi-day disappearance from Asheville’s Highland Hospital said she was the niece of the Chicago socialite, suggesting that even western North Carolinians knew about Bertha. With a teaser like that, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to learn more and share what I discovered, even though the Palmers have no direct bearing on my original subject, David Rae Smith—no known bearing, at least.
Normally, lives of the rich and famous hold no interest for me, but Bertha Palmer is a special case. Read on and I think you’ll see why, though we have to get through a bit of background first.
Now, Potter was the one with the social and financial cachet—at first, anyway—though Bertha’s birth family was quite well-off too. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Bertha moved with her family to Chicago when she was six, where her father made a fortune in real estate. He was, in fact, responsible for creating the commercial district along Dearborn Street, a high-profile street in Chicago’s central business district, the Loop. The Honoré Building at the corner of Adams and Dearborn was destroyed during the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which played a big role in fate of the Palmers, as well.
Bertha was 21 when she married the more-than-twice-her-age multi-millionaire Potter Palmer (Grace’s maternal uncle) in late July 1870. Their relative social standings were made perfectly clear in the 14-paragraph Chicago Tribune article reporting on their marriage. Only three short sentences near the end of the article were dedicated to Bertha and only two paragraphs referenced the wedding itself. Everything else was about Potter, who had already made a name for himself in both retail and real estate. Several years earlier he had sold his popular retail store to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, and it soon became the retail icon we know today: Marshall Field and Company.
Meanwhile, Potter Palmer put his efforts into his real estate interests, which were substantial. He is considered responsible for the development of much of both Chicago’s downtown district. Thus he was viewed as one of Chicago’s founding fathers. One of his buildings was a luxury hotel, The Palmer House, located in the Loop. He built it as as a wedding present to Bertha. Opened September 26, 1871, it was the city’s first hotel with elevators, and the first hotel with electric light bulbs and telephones in the guest rooms.
But the hotel and all the rest of Palmer’s (and Honoré’s) real estate efforts went up in smoke—and flames—only 13 days later when the Great Chicago Fire broke out. And just like that Potter Palmer’s legacy was in ruins.
That’s when young Bertha went to work. The self-confident woman contacted financial institutions in the east and singlehandedly arranged financing so her husband could re-establish credit and borrow money to rebuild his holdings. The couple joined forces to reestablish their fortune. Thus began Bertha Palmer’s rapid rise “to the top of Chicago society,” according to her Wikipedia biography.
Incidentally, both Marshall Field and the Palmer House hotel were immediately rebuilt. The Palmers lived in a suite in the hotel for almost 15 years, after which they built a 42-room mansion known as the Palmer Castle on Lake Shore Drive, then considered a wasteland. Unsurprisingly, the house was built to be fireproof. With Palmer Castle as its cornerstone, Lake Shore Drive quickly became the most desirable address in Chicago, and Chicago’s Gold Coast was born.
The Palmer Castle is the largest home ever built in Chicago, Even though it was razed in 1950, glessnerhouse.org reports it is still well-known to Chicagoans where it is remembered as one of the most legendary homes ever built in the area. The website notes that even though Potter died in 1902 and Bertha in 1918, their a names “remain well-known to anyone with even a passing interest in Chicago history.”
Aside from its sheer size and elegance, part of what made the Palmer Castle so memorable was that it was intentionally built with no knobs or locks on any of its exterior doors; the only way to get in was be admitted from the inside, most certainly by a servant. The place could never be left empty.
For those who did gain admittance, a major feature of the home was its three-story Italianate central hall under a glass dome. Rooms were built in a variety of historic styles. There was an Ottoman parlor, a Spanish music room, and a Renaissance library. The dining room could seat 50. The ballroom, where Bertha held court, was 75 feet long. There was even an elevator. The home was the hub of Chicago’s social life, even more so after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
With that background, we get to the heart of this post: Bertha herself. While her husband and father had been part of a delegation to the St. Louis Word’s Fair to determine the feasibility of bringing such an event to Chicago, it was a group of activist women, including Bertha, who lobbied to bring the fair to the city. They also petitioned for an official place for women in the planning and exhibitions at the fair and suggested forming a “Women’s Department for the Fair,” which literally took an act of Congress to initiate. Bertha was named President of the Board of Lady Managers, a plum of a position which oversaw the construction of the Woman’s Building and everything that went inside it. Bertha approached Congress about producing a commemorative coin for the Exposition. The result was the Isabella quarter. (In addition to serving as a celebration of the city’s comeback from its disastrous fire, the fair was designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.)
The Woman’s Building featured women’s accomplishments exclusively. Beyond that, the Lady Managers selected women to produce all aspects of the building’s design, ornamentation, and content, including paintings, sculptures, and exhibits. They were an extraordinarily hands-on oversight board consisting of 117 members representing every state (only nine members were from Chicago)—the first women to serve in any capacity at a world’s fair. The work of the so-called Lady Managers was a big deal, so big that it warranted a 611-page 1981book titled The Fair Women. Bertha, who had never held any position of this sort, managed the organization, the men who held its purse strings, Congress, contractors, artists, and heads of state around the globe with a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. There were all kinds of infighting, machinations, egos, and time and budget constraints–and she kept all of it under control. The Lady Managers, particularly Bertha, also ensured two additional buildings at the fair–a Children’s Building and a dormitory for female visitors without touching any part of the fair budget. All three projects were run in the black, in part because of the many aspects funded at Bertha’s personal expense and in part due to fundraising conducted by the Lady Managers.
In spite of the glamour and luxury, Bertha Palmer was obviously much more than a well-connected socialite interested in fashion, jewelry, and entertainment.
She was an astute businesswoman, quickly more than doubling the $8,000,000 her husband left to her in his will, despite being widely known as the “the only American woman who knows how to spend a fortune.” That moniker came from the many European cities where she retained multiple residences (surrounded by royalty) and maintained full-time servants in each of them even though she was in one place for only a few weeks of the year. And from things like her penchant for completely remodeling rooms in her home for her lavish parties. But there was more to those parties than social extravagance. Her son reported that only after her death did he learn those elaborate social gatherings were really fundraising events for the important causes she supported.
She was a staunch social activist and reformer. The Palmer Palace was home to organizing meetings with and parties and classes for impoverished working class women. Her rousing speech to all the muckety-mucks at the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair socked it to ’em as she berated wealthy industrialists for the paltry wages paid to working women and children. (You can read her speech in its entirety in The History of the World’s Fair Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition. See Part VI, Chapter III (https://archive.org/details/historyofworldsf01trum/page/8/mode/2up?q=Mrs.+Potter+Palmer%27s+address)
Though Bertha claimed not to be a suffragist (she was more concerned about equal rights than votes), as Erica Gunderson noted in a 2017 piece for PBS station WTTW, “That didn’t mean she kept her mouth shut.” Regarding the Chicago Exposition and the Board of Lady Managers, she said, “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus is the fact that the government has just discovered women.” And she might well have objected to being called a feminist if that word had been around in her time, but she was definitely the latter and accomplished worlds for the former.
Consider this: following the close of the fair, the Illinois governor wrote Bertha to say the cause of women’s rights had been advanced a century by her work. None other than Susan B Anthony herself said the fair had done more for the cause of women’s suffrage than twenty-five years of agitation, according to an article in encyclopedia.com, and had given the movement “unprecedented prestige in the world of thought.”
Oh, Bertha Honoré Palmer was a feminist all right. As she advised the women who submitted work for exhibit in the Woman’s Building, “Keep up with the procession, and head it if you can.”
Bertha was a mover and shaker in the Chicago Woman’s Club, which not only advocated but was responsible for advancing workers’ rights, juvenile court reform, the first public kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago, and the first protective agency in the country that dealt with assault and rape of women. (Look for more on the work of the Chicago Woman’s Club in a later post.)
Then there’s Sarasota, Florida. Look on any website featuring the history of the city or county and you are likely to find mention of Bertha Palmer as critical to the region’s development. As a widow, she tired of Chicago’s cold winters. She moved to Sarasota, then only an eight-year-old entity. At the time, it was mostly considered uninhabitable because of the mosquitoes and swampy land. But Bertha bought up nearly a third of the county’s property. She became interested in developing new agricultural techniques, cattle-raising, experimental farming, and new citrus marketing initiatives. She created a subdivision of farms and advertised them to northern farmers. She opened her Bee Ridge Hotel for farming community and networking meetings, and she was instrumental in developing the region’s first farmers’ market. She got the railroad extended farther south to help the local farming economy, and she paid the highest farm wages in the region. Instead of the fancy gowns she used to wear, she walked the fields in plain cotton dresses. Visitsarasota.com says she “introduced ranching techniques that would revolutionize Florida’s cattle and hog industries” and notes that “in 8 years of living in Florida, she molded the city into a flourishing and popular destination for the elite.” With her elevated social position, she started the trend of winter homes in Florida.
This all took place in her sixties, the last eight years of her life, at a time when women’s rights were sorely limited. One hundred years after her arrival, the city declared 2010 the Year of Bertha Palmer with loads of events to honor the woman who, as one resident said, in Sarasota’s history, “is rivaled only by John Ringling [of circus fame] as a leading figure.”
Bertha Honoré Palmer’s legacy lives on in Sarasota in any number of ways, including the names of streets, parks, and subdivisions. Historic Spanish Point, where she ultimately made her home, now houses a campus of the Selby Gardens, which, among other things, features some of the gardens Bertha established. In 1976, Historic Spanish Point became the first site in Sarasota County to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, the Palmer heirs donated the site to the Gulf Coast Heritage Association. Former Mayor A. B. Edwards was instrumental in the state’s purchase of more than 17,000 acres from the Palmer Estate. Shortly after, Bertha’s sons, Honoré and Potter, donated more than 1,900 additional acres to the state in her memory. Soon, the Myakka River State Park was born on the site.
Grace Potter Carroll simply had to be influenced by her aunt. How could she not? And though we will never know just what or how much, I suspect that influence reached the life of David Rae Smith, too.
Interested in more?
Look for Frank A. Cassell’s book, Suncoast Empire: Bertha Honoré Palmer, Her Family, and the Rise of Sarasota, 1910-1982.