Grace Potter Carroll, Part II: Bertha Honoré and Potter Palmer

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.

Bertha Palmer

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.

Palmer Castle, Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois. 1910 public domain photo.

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.)

Isabel quarter

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.

https://www.wbez.org/stories/the-palmer-mansion-a-home-that-topped-them-all/e6ea9b35-5a8d-47e2-930c-baad4212ad7e

http://www.sarasotahistoryalive.com/history/people/mrs.-bertha-palmer-s-vision/

http://planetgroupentertainment.squarespace.com/bertha-palmer/2010/5/9/the-fabulous-bertha-palmer.html











My Book Is Here!

Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.

Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:

How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.

Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.

David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)

As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.

DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed