Bertha Honoré Palmer.
By Megan McKinney
The first time he saw her she was entering his Lake Street store with her mother in 1862. Her name was Bertha Honoré and she was 13 years old; Potter Palmer was 36. Before Bertha and her mother left that morning, Potter decided that one day he would marry the beautiful, graceful girl, and he set about making preparations immediately.
231 S. Ashland Blvd., the house in which Bertha Honoré was raised .
That evening, he called on her father, Henry Hamilton Honoré, a patrician real estate developer, in his pillared white Ashland Blvd. villa. The gracious Honoré house, backed by a classic smokehouse, stables and other outbuildings, was in the genteel Kentucky colony of Chicago’s West Side. In the district’s hospitable southern tradition, a lantern was lit in the rooftop cupola and the front gate open.
Henry Hamilton Honoré.
Potter’s was a social call, but one with a mission, and following pleasantries, he told Honoré that when Bertha had reached the appropriate age, he would like to call on her. Not only had Potter been struck by Bertha’s beauty, poise and grace, but he also saw in the teenager extraordinary qualities that would mature into making her a superb wife, mother, hostess and companion. And he knew that as the Honorés’ daughter she would receive the upbringing and education to reinforce these traits. H.H. Honoré did not know Palmer well; however, he listened to him that night while saying little himself.
In 1867, Bertha, now a strikingly beautiful, self-possessed young woman of 18, graduated from the Convent of the Visitation in Georgetown and was of suitable age for courtship. During the intervening years, Palmer and her father had been partners in various ventures, and Honoré felt Potter would make a fine son-in-law, but his wife was not in favor of the marriage. Bertha, who was being courted by virtually all of the city’s eligible young men, paid scant attention to the flowers, gifts and other attentions sent by her much older suitor over the next three years; however, she too had a vision of what was possible for the two of them to achieve together. Therefore, it was Bertha, not her parents, who decided in favor of Potter.
Mrs. Potter Palmer.
As dissimilar as they appeared on the surface, each brought qualities to a merger that would blend two extraordinary individuals into the most powerful force in the city. He was a visionary who contributed great wealth and business leverage, and she, a handsome woman with exceptional intelligence, regal bearing and superb taste. She possessed breeding, discipline and a gift for leadership, along with an extraordinary sense of herself. But, more than that, within the young woman were seeds of a progressive, open-minded outlook and a wide range of interests that would include politics, social concerns and women’s issues. She also exhibited an amazing flair for grandeur and would be able to make appropriate use of the great fortune Palmer was accumulating. On July 29, 1870, to the amazement of many, the two married. Fittingly, Potter’s wedding gift to Bertha was the new $500,000 Palmer House.
The first Palmer House.
During the evening of October 8, 1871, 13 days after the Palmer House opened, a catastrophic fire broke out in the dry autumn air of Chicago’s West Side. Energetic winds whipped the flames eastward, and within hours, the center of the city was burning along with Bertha’s wedding gift. Also in ruins was all of the Palmer property lining both sides of State Street, including the magnificent marble-clad Field, Leiter store.
Potter’s fortune was devastated, with the loss of 92 buildings and annual rents of $200,000. Without money to rebuild and a liability for property taxes, he overcame his Quaker reluctance to borrow money, believing the magnitude of the disaster created an exception. Fortunately, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company agreed. Palmer’s fiscal reputation was impeccable; therefore, the insurance company lent him, without collateral, an unprecedented $1.75 million to rebuild. With an expansion of architect John Van Osdel’s original plans, Bertha’s Palmer House soon emerged grander than before.
Potter Palmer’s next tour de force was to redefine the residential parameters of social Chicago in the 1880s as dramatically as he had the city’s commercial axis in the 1860s. He bought acres of North Side marshland along the shore and pumped sand up from the lake’s floor to fill in the property. In the same way that he had anchored State Street with his Palmer House, he commissioned Henry Ives Cobb in 1882 to design a showplace for himself and his regal wife on Lake Shore Drive.
The paved order and planting of the area surrounding the Drive effectively transformed the marshy Near North Side, making an appropriate environment for the Palmer Castle.
Appropriately dubbed the Castle, the 42-room mansion took three years to build and required a staff of 26 servants to manage.
The extraordinary collection of art Bertha had been assembling with her taste and Potter’s money was now large enough to pave the red velvet-paneled walls of the top floor ballroom. The dining room seated 50 guests, and there was a library, a billiard room and an authentic Louis XVI salon with furniture that had come from the Palace of Versailles. The house boasted two elevators but was without exterior locks or outside doorknobs; one could only enter a door opened by a servant within.
Bertha, by then universally known as the “Queen of Chicago Society,” entertained frequently and lavishly in her Castle, with Potter often remaining in his private rooms during her extravagant parties. The guest list for her New Year’s Day reception was Chicago’s answer to Ward McAllister’s 400 for Mrs. Astor; it was a list carefully scrutinized by aspiring social figures throughout the city, because it predicted who would be invited to social Chicago’s other great annual event, the Charity Ball at the Auditorium, over which Bertha also presided.
The excitement created by the building of the Castle, and subsequent glittering activities within it, created immense cachet for Palmer’s development of the North Side. He was selective in those to whom he sold property, with the implication that purchase would create entrée to Mrs. Palmer’s world. And it worked. Just as the rich and powerful had migrated to Prairie Avenue a few years before, they now moved to Palmer’s Gold Coast, where they have remained for well over a century.
Palmer houses continue to dominate Chicago’s Near North Side.
Palmer pampered and indulged his beautiful and extraordinary young wife. He was genuinely devoted to her, but also aware that her exceptional qualities reflected favorably upon him and worked to his business advantage. However, the cost was exorbitant. There was, of course, the great assemblage of Impressionist paintings, which hang today in Chicago’s Art Institute.
Potter also paid dearly for a world famous collection of furs, gowns and jewels. The ropes of pearls, jeweled dog collars, necklaces, brooches, and diamond tiaras, stomachers and bracelets she wore, often massed together in the style of the era’s genuine royalty, were awesome in any company, wherever she went. And Bertha went everywhere, maintaining homes in both London and Paris, moving with royalty and government heads, and forming strong friendships with the aristocracy throughout Europe.
Bertha Palmer’s sphere was far greater than that of an ornamental socialite, and her pioneering style of participation in the world around her redefined the role of an upper class woman. Because her reign as “Queen of Chicago Society” coincided with the emergence of the woman’s movement, she became an energetic advocate for the improvement of education for women, as well as the rights of the working woman. She held cooking classes for wealthy young gentlewomen in her Castle, but she also brought in factory girls and aided millinery workers in organizing a strike. After encouraging her son, Honoré, to run for alderman, she became manager of his successful campaign.
Bertha’s greatest personal triumph was as president of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She declined the $5,000 annual salary, and the success of the Woman’s Building was largely a result of the support and exhibits she solicited from nobility and royalty while touring Europe at her own expense.
Bertha Palmer was a towering figure in the sweep of Chicago history. Hers was a life that could fill a book—several books—and it has. There is also a museum devoted to her at the Palmer House Hilton, 17 East Monroe St.
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo by Robert F. Carl
Megan McKinney’s series on Great Chicago Fortunes will continue next with The Richest Man in Chicago.