- Historic Sites
The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires
While New York families were spending fortunes inherited from fathers and grandfathers, the Chicago rich had to start from scratch, both making and lavishly spending money within one generation
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
This was ironic because McCormick was notably unenthusiastic about the great conflict. Although he had moved into Republican heartland, the Virginia-born McCormick remained unshakable in his loyalty to the Democratic party and the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church. In his adopted city he bought a Democratic paper, the Chicago Times, and sponsored editorials denouncing Lincoln’s “abolitionist” war and urging peace with the South. He even ran for Congress in 1864—something rare for businessmen then—and lost. He bought a Presbyterian newspaper, too, and endowed professorships at a school for ministers that later became the McCormick Theological Seminary.
Like so many of his ilk, McCormick was a conservative in politics and religion and an innovator and modernist in his business. He sowed a network of agencies and warehouses throughout the Midwest, so that no farmer was ever far from a source of spare parts for McCormick machines or from a salesman to sell replacements. He organized “demonstration days,” which were basically outdoor parties at which farm families were stuffed with food and entertained with plowing and threshing contests—all at McCormick’s expense. He began to sell machines on the installment plan as early as 1851 and was patient when hard times held up payments. It was his boast that he never sued a farmer.
These were policies that made him rich—two hundred million dollars rich when he died, in 1884. The next generation of McCormicks was ready to take over. Like all children of the super-wealthy, they were beset by conflicting impulses toward their inherited treasure. One was to conserve and enlarge it. Another was to employ it in good works. And a third was to blow it gloriously. Within this single clan there were heirs who followed all three courses.
Cyrus Junior inherited his father’s business talents and ambitions. Eighteen years after the patriarch’s death, he led the company into the J. P. Morgan—financed merger that created the gigantic International Harvester Company. But the other son, Harold Fowler McCormick, was the stereotype of a playboy, though he held the customary honorific titles in the family business. First came a dynastic wedding in 1895. He married Edith Rockefeller, and after a lavish honeymoon they moved into a turreted mansion, reputedly a gift of the bride’s father, on Lake Shore Drive.
Edith McCormick filled the house with artworks, silver, porcelain, rare books, precious rugs, and antique furniture. Its gigantic reception hall was called the “Empire Room.” Even for family meals, menus in French were prepared, and four servants were considered necessary to serve lunch for two people. At parties described by society reporters down to the last Paris gown and floral centerpiece, the guests dined off gold plate—but sipped no drop of wine, because true to John D. Rockefeller’s teetotaling principles, his daughter banned alcohol from her home.
The Harold McCormicks never stinted themselves personally—she even had a diamond collar made for her dog—but they were also generous to Chicago’s institutions. They were cofounders of the Chicago Opera Company, which Harold twice bailed out of million-dollar deficits. She gave land for the John McCormick Institution for Infectious Diseases (named for a son who had died of scarlet fever) and for Chicago’s marvelous Brookfield Zoo.
As early as 1851 McCormick sold reapers on the installment plan. It was his boast that he had never sued a farmer.
The story saddens after 1913. The marriage was moribund by then. Edith suffered a nervous breakdown, went off to Switzerland to find psychic healing, and became a convert to Jungian therapy. She returned after World War I, bringing a young Swiss companion—an architect named Edwin Krenn—divorced her husband, and resumed the throne of Chicago society. Harold married a Polish opera singer of debatable talent named Ganna Walska. (She was once pelted with eggs by a disappointed Havana audience.) Before their wedding he underwent a controversial operation popularized by a Vienna doctor, Eugen Steinach, to rejuvenate his sex glands. This marriage lasted only nine years. Edith died in 1932, leaving a fortune of disputed size, but which was at least three million dollars. Harold lived until 1941 and bequeathed a “mere” seven and a half million dollars.