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.