The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires

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In the third generation the family name came back into politics and journalism. By one of history’s more amiable jokes, a nephew of Cyrus the founder—a diplomat by profession—married the daughter of Joseph Medill, the editor and major owner of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, who had been McCormick’s stormiest enemy in wartime days. Two sons were born of this Chicago-style Capulet and Montague coupling. One, Joseph Medill McCormick, became a representative and finally a senator from Illinois from 1919 until his death in 1925. The other was the redoubtable Colonel (from service in World War I) Robert R. McCormick. “The Colonel,” as he was always referred to, took over the Tribune and made it a nationally known organ of Midwestern conservativism and isolationism. Loud in his insistence that the Republic was doomed so long as Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, he was a favorite butt of satirists. What they often overlooked was that he had inherited the business acumen of both his grandfathers and, at the time of his death, had made the Tribune corporation a forty-million-dollar empire of newspapers, radio and television outlets, paper mills, steamships, and real estate.

In 1941 there was a new development that a fiction editor might have dismissed as too unlikely. A paper specifically intended to challenge the politics of the Tribune hit Chicago’s streets. Its name was the Chicago Sun, and its owner, Marshall Field III, was the grandson of another titanic contemporary of Cyrus H. McCormick. Now two descendants of Chicago’s millionaires were battling it out for the civic conscience of the city. It was almost too pat. But in Chicago the remarkable was often ordinary, and such rivalry probably wouldn’t have surprised the first Marshall Field at all.

The Great Shopkeeper

Field, a bashful twenty-one-year-old store clerk from Conway, Massachusetts, came to Chicago in 1856. Like others flocking to the town, he thought the end of the rainbow was somewhere near those bursting, brawling lakeside docks. He began the hard way, working for a local storekeeper for four hundred dollars a year. “Thank God,” he said later, “there is no disgrace in being a clerk.” But he did not intend to stay one. He denied himself everything and slept on a cot in the back room of the store. After nine years of carefully investing his pittances, he had amassed thirty thousand dollars and was ready to move up.

He went into partnership in 1865 with two other Easterners, Levi Leiter and Potter Palmer. Leiter was a Maryland Dutchman; Palmer, still another upstate New Yorker. The three of them understood what was happening to merchandising. In frontier days goods were always in short supply. When a pack-train or a schooner-load arrived, customers uncomplainingly scrambled to get what they could, oblivious of surroundings, careless about price. Now it was different. Customers had to be wooed. And more of them were women. So at Field, Palmer, and Leiter’s dry goods store, an owner, dressed in a frock coat, greeted newcomers at the door. Clerks took the trouble to learn the names and tastes of repeat customers. Attractive window displays tempted middle-class wives, and money-back guarantees won over doubting husbands. Bargains, variety, service—all were part of a new, big-town, democratic marketing strategy.

Palmer moved on to real estate operations in 1867. Fourteen years later Leiter, too, was persuaded to sell out his interest. He went on to other speculations, to the presidency of the Chicago Commercial Club, and to a patron’s role in the Art Institute and the Historical Society. Eventually Leiter became the father-in-law of Lord Curzon, viceroy of India—a long way up for a tradesman.

Field stayed, metaphorically speaking, behind the counter. He moved to new quarters in the bustling heart of downtown Chicago, another expensive concession to shopper convenience. He advertised boldly and roamed the world to stock his shelves. He is credited with originating the slogan “The customer is always right.” And as he helped bring civilization to rowdy Chicago, his wisely managed personal fortune climbed to $120 million.

Yet the most hackneyed, dubious, and envious cliché uttered about the rich—“Money can’t buy happiness”—seems to have been true in Field’s case. His wife, daughter, and son chose to live abroad, out of his presence. The son, Marshall Field II, shot himself in what was described by the family as an accident but was rumored to be suicide. “Marshall,” said a truthful old friend to the father, “you have no home, no family...nothing but money.”