Deerings/McCormicks: The Richest Couple in Chicago

   

 

 

 By Megan McKinney

 

Edith Rockefeller McCormick.

 

Cyrus and Nettie McCormick’s second son, Princeton-educated Harold, hit the matrimonial jackpot in 1895 when he married John D. Rockefeller’s daughter, Edith, uniting two of America’s great dynasties.

Harold and Edith McCormick.

Edith Rockefeller McCormick, we are told, was basically a kind woman who was misunderstood by Chicago because of her imperious style. Before she realized how rich and potentially powerful she was, she had been a sweet, studious girl and a Sunday school teacher who loved the simple pleasure of riding her bicycle.

The young Edith Rockefeller.

Whether it was a wedding gift from her father or not, the young couple lived in a 40-room Bedford limestone mansion at 1000 Lake Shore Dr. on grounds that extended the full block from Oak Street to Bellevue Place.

 

1000 Lake Shore Dr. Chicago residence for Edith Rockefeller McCormick—and for a time–Harold.

By the time Edith had finished doing up the already imposing house, it resembled a grand palace set in a French-style park. Today, several hundred people, living in two high-rises, occupy the space.

 

Harold and Edith with Jack and Fowler in 1900.

Edith and Harold had five children. The eldest, named John after his Rockefeller grandfather but called “Jack,” was an enchanting child who captivated all who knew him. Tragically, little Jackie contracted scarlet fever at four and died.

Next was Harold Jr., known as “Fowler,” who was followed by daughters, Muriel and Mathilde, for whom Edith established a French kindergarten in her mother-in-law’s ballroom at 675 Rush St.  A staff of French teachers led all conversation and games in French; pupils included Bertha Honoré, Helen Isham, Janet Fairbank and Cissy Patterson’s daughter, Countess Felicia Gizycka.

 

Villa Turicum.

The Harold McCormicks’ country house was the ornate—but little used—Villa Turicum, a Lake Forest estate designed by Charles Adams Platt, a scholar of formal Italian Renaissance gardens and greatly esteemed New York architect.

 

Charles Adams Platt.

Edith is thought to have slept in the lavish estate one night; Harold probably not at all. The extravagant spread encompassed 300 acres of lakefront property featuring a bowling green and polo field, as well as the formal gardens its architect understood so well. A prominent element of the grounds was an elaborate Villa d’Este-inspired water stairway that cascaded down the bluff to a pool overlooking the lake.

A highlight of the Villa Turicum grounds.

The couple was devoted to the opera; Harold was one of the founders of the Chicago Grand Opera Company and its president. Both McCormicks were committed to making up a major share of the company’s annual deficit.

When the company resumed operation after World War I as the Chicago Opera Association, the patronage of the McCormicks continued to be crucial to its existence. As it turned out, Harold was devoted to more than opera; he became besotted with the Polish diva, Ganna Walska (not the unfortunate birth name one might have assumed; she had changed it from Hanna Puacz.) After being divorced by Edith in 1921, he wed the already much married femme fatale the following year.

  The spectacular Ganna, whose motto was “Enemy of the average”.

 

The marriage lasted no longer than any of La Walska’s unions, but during the years they were together, Harold not only provided her with an abundance of jewels and cash, but also subsidized her career. This was essential because—like the fictional second Mrs. Charles Foster Kane, whose creation she inspired—Ganna had no voice. Following their 1931 divorce, she took a lavish house in Santa Barbara.

 

Lotusland, Ganna’s Montecito Estate.

The newspapers of the day regaled readers with sensational stories of Harold’s activities, including a “gland transplant,” the surgical forerunner of Viagra. The operation appears to have been effective because Harold’s adventures included numerous romantic dalliances. One of these resulted in a well-publicized breach of promise suit and a large settlement for a nubile New Yorker. His dignity was restored, however, by a third, sensible, marriage in 1938.

 

Salvador Dalí’s conception of the third Mrs. Harold F. McCormick.

Although she had the above portrait painted by Salvador Dalí, the bride, Adah Wilson, was quite proper and a trained nurse. The union lasted three years, until the 69 year-old Harold’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1941.

As for Edith, she and Harold had separated well before the appearance of Ganna Walska, and she began traveling abroad, spending great stretches of time away from Chicago with her daughters. They lived mainly in Zurich, where she was an enthusiastic pupil of Carl Jung and became a psychotherapist herself, taking on 100 patients. She was her own star patient, claiming to have thrice cured herself of tuberculosis.

Following the divorce, Edith returned to Chicago, where her style became increasingly grand and antediluvian. The household was staffed with an array of plum-liveried servants in knee breeches and Madam required two chauffeurs, each with a plum-colored Rolls Royce.

Edith stepping from a plum-colored Rolls Royce. 

Although she was driven to cross Bellevue Place to attend meetings at the Fortnightly, Edith walked the length of Lake Shore Drive every morning followed at 10 paces by a detective, one of six such protectors on her staff.

Edith’s morning Lake Shore Drive constitutional.

Following the walk, her mornings were spent reading books in various foreign languages, writing poetry, or studying philosophy and psychiatry. In the afternoons and evenings, she was joined by a paid companion, Edwin Krenn, who lived across the Drive at The Drake Hotel in a suite of rooms surrounded by a treasured collection of Buddhas. He would arrive each afternoon at 1 p.m., and they would ride in one of the Rolls-Royces, escorted by detectives, to the cinema where they viewed as many as three films a day.

Edith and Edwin Krenn at the opera shortly before her 1932 death.

Every night during the season, Edith entertained guests in her opera box wearing jewels that included a $1 million necklace, a $2 million rope of pearls and a necklace containing a portion of the Russian crown jewels.

The “million-dollar necklace” was worth every penny considering the multiple possibilities it offered. Its 40-inch length, containing 1,801 stones, could be disassembled to be worn as several bracelets and brooches.

Opera was preceded by a formal dinner chez Edith, where a gilt-edged menu in French was at every place and behind each chair stood a footman in her signature plum-colored livery. No liquor, not even wine, was served by this daughter of the world-famous abstainer.

Edith’s surviving children all made bizarre choices in marriage partners.  When she was 17, Mathilde made the most conventional choice in Max Oser, a Swiss riding master in his mid-40s.  

Mathilde and Max were parents of Anita and Peter Max. Mathilde died tragically young following surgery in 1947. She was 41.

Peter Max and Anita Oser with their parents Mathilde and Max and great grandfather, John D. Rockefeller.

Young Fowler wed Anne “Fifi” Stillman, a much older woman with a past. During a headlined divorce, Fifi accused her previous husband of an affair with a Follies girl, while he counter-charged that she was having one of her own with a Canadian Indian guide.

Fifi Stillman and Fowler.

In 1926, Muriel embarked upon a “spiritual” marriage to the ghost of the dead son of one of her mother’s friends, George Alexander “Mac” McKinlock Jr., who had died in France during World War I. The Palm Beach wedding is said to have occurred between lunch at the Bath & Tennis and dinner in the Everglades Club.

Her only marriage to a living groom was Muriel’s short-lived union in 1931 to a man named Elisha Dyer Hubbard, 24 years her senior, who was dead in five years.

Muriel McCormick Hubbard.

She launched a theatrical career, and acted in plays in Chicago under an assumed name, before establishing the Palm Beach Playhouse in the 1930’s. During World War II, Muriel left the theater to become a WAC, and rose to the rank of technical sergeant.

Muriel.

Muriel’s scattered addresses, besides Palm Beach, included Bar Harbor, Maine; Middletown, Connecticut; St. Regis Lake, New York and Reno, Nevada. Possibly to populate these properties, she adopted an assortment of “children,” who appear to have included two individuals in 1943, a pair of twins in 1954, and, along the way, a nine month-old girl and a grown man. These privileged “offspring” were heirs to the surviving granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller and Cyrus McCormick when she died in 1959 at the age of 56.

Coming up:

Life at Villa Vizcaya.

Megan McKinney’s series, The Deerings and McCormicks, will conclude in Classic Chicago magazine next week with The Death of Frugality.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl