- 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
Like others flocking to Chicago, Field thought the end of the rainbow was somewhere near those bursting, brawling lakeside docks.
Field could perform small acts of kindness, like outfitting shivering clerks with gloves and overcoats, free of charge, and simultaneously have union officials—any union officials, according to legend—thrown out of the store. His gifts to the city, however, were unencumbered by contradictions. He provided the University of Chicago with ten acres of prime land, not to mention some $350,000 in other donations. He also endowed the natural history museum that bears his name and is one of those proud structures that make the downtown Chicago lakefront as handsome a stretch of promenade as any European capital can offer.
Marshall Field III inherited the social conscience that his grandfather lacked and would not have comprehended. In 1940 he founded the New York newspaper PM, a handsome, ad-free, illustrated daily that gave a star cast of left-leaning journalists ample scope to muckrake. The next year, as noted earlier, he took on Colonel McCormick in Chicago. In the long run he was the loser; he was forced to abandon PM after punishing losses, and he could keep the Chicago Sun alive only by merging it with the afternoon Times in 1948. He continued to be a heavy benefactor of Chicago institutions, including the University of Chicago and Roosevelt College (now University), which aimed at becoming a working-class avenue to higher education.
Colonel McCormick died in 1955, and Marshall Field III in the next year. The battle between the grandson and the grandnephew of the grandees was over. So, in a sense, was a Chicago era.
No history of Chicago’s wealth should end without at least a nod to Potter Palmer and his wife. Both of them radiate an enviable and refreshing vitality. Palmer left the department store business, as we saw, in 1867, to concentrate on the improvement of downtown real estate. In 1871 workmen finished a splendid new hotel, the Palmer House, into which he had poured three and a half million dollars. He was forty-five years old, and he had just married the daughter of another Chicago developer, the beautiful Bertha Honoré, twenty-three years younger than he. With a courtier’s gesture, Palmer presented the Palmer House to her as a bridal gift.
Thirteen days from the day it opened, it was incinerated in the Great Fire. So was most of Palmer’s other property. Like many other ruined Chicagoans in what was the city’s finest hour, he dismissed the mourners, thumbed his nose at the odds, borrowed, and finagled—and quickly built another Palmer House finer than the first. A “gilded and mirrored rabbit warren,” scoffed Rudyard Kipling when he visited the hotel, which had silver dollars ostentatiously embedded in the barbershop floor. But clients came to stay and to pay. The Palmer House became one of the country’s most famous hostelries, and Palmer’s other ventures prospered, too, allowing him to indulge his favorite extravagance—Bertha Palmer. He indulged her—happily, handsomely, unabashedly. At their Lake Shore Drive mansion, for instance, the outside doors had no knobs. One had to be let in by one of the ever-ready servants. Palmer also liked to see his wife lavishly bejeweled. A diamond and pearl necklace she wore contained 2,268 pearls and 7 diamonds.
“There she stands,” he boasted on one occasion, “with two million on her.” Another time, his lawyer reminded him that Bertha would get eight million dollars if he died. Did he wish to take steps to prevent a second husband from laying hands on it? “No,” was Palmer’s answer. “He will need it.”
But Mrs. Potter Palmer was no mindless clothes horse. She stocked her palatial house with French impressionist paintings that ultimately were worth far more than she paid for them. (The paintings now hang in the Art Institute of Chicago, among others that she helped inspire her peers to buy and that together make up an outstanding collection.) She ran her staff of twenty-six servants with such celebrated efficiency that she was appointed in 1891 to chair a “Board of Lady Managers” of the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. Then she went and talked Congress into appropriating two hundred thousand dollars for exhibits relating to women and women’s work.
The exposition also gave occasion for one of Chicago’s most celebrated snubs and retorts. Invited to open the exposition was the Infanta Eulalia, the royal princess of Spain, whose ancestors had sent Columbus on his journey. She was known to enjoy a cigarette and a drink when ceremonial duties did not interfere.
Her Highness was put up elegantly at the Palmer House. Then she learned that a grand reception in her honor was to be held at Mrs. Palmer’s home. “An inn-keeper’s wife!” she burst out. She would not condescend to go. The Spanish ambassador was called on to explain the ground rules of American life to the princess. She relented just enough for a cool, token appearance. Bertha Palmer told reporters afterward that she was not hurt. She could not be offended by any gesture of “this bibulous representative of a degenerate monarchy.”