Chicago’s British Aristocracy
By Megan McKinney
When Mary Leiter and George Curzon married in Washington in 1895, her dowry was said to be $1 million; this was in addition to an annual income of 600 pounds her father, Levi Leiter, settled on the couple. Following the wedding, the Curzons returned to London and No. 1 Carlton House Terrace, a sumptuous Regency house, designed by architect John Nash, near St. James’s Palace. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Mary’s brother, Joe, would soon begin activities guaranteed to redirect the international spotlight in his direction.
Carlton House Terrace. No. 1, the Curzon portion of the great Nash landmark, is the house at the right..
In August 1897, the brash 28-year-old Joseph Leiter launched a campaign to corner the world wheat market when he began purchasing September wheat; in December, he convinced his father to back him, and, on January 28, 1898, Joe’s agent, George French, made a claim on his behalf that the market had been cornered, stating, “Basing our estimates on the government figures, we think we now own every bushel of surplus wheat in this country.” Joe continued to hold the corner, but then in April sold five million bushels, immediately before the price went up to $1.85 with the beginning of the Spanish-American War. In keeping with a lifelong pattern of excessive behavior, Joe might have sold all his wheat that spring, making a tidy net of almost $3 million. But he did not.
A characteristic view of Joe Leiter.
His buying binge had begun with a large cash gift from his father. After graduating from St. Paul’s School and then Harvard, he returned to Chicago to manage family real estate properties, which he did very ably for more than six years. But Joe was getting itchy, and he had several ideas for expanding the $1 million college graduation present his father had given him to invest as he wished. Finally, it came down to two possibilities: a stake in the then troubled Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway or the wheat market. He flipped a silver dollar and wheat won.
What young Leiter had not counted on was that his buying spree would arouse the interest of the seasoned commodities gambler Philip Danforth Armour — a man who knew wheat as well as he knew pork and beef —and P.D. also began buying. Soon Armour agents were quietly acquiring wheat in Canada and the American Northwest and shipping it to Chicago. Armour wheat, in hundreds of thousands of bushels, was coming in by lake, canal and rail to cover futures he had sold.
And P.D., who already had immense storage facilities, added to his existing capacity by building the world’s largest grain elevator on Goose Island in the North Branch of the Chicago River. During the winter of 1897–98, he contracted tugboats and icebreakers to plow and dynamite ice that was forming in the upper Great Lakes to keep the water open for gigantic grain vessels that transported millions of bushels of wheat to make good his gamble. Armour let his golden crop sit for a while, giving his rival a sense of invincibility. And then, on June 13, 1898, he broke Joe Leiter’s corner.
The following day, a mammoth story spreading across the entire front page of the Chicago Tribune reported, “The Leiter wheat deal, an instance in grain merchandising on a scale which the world has never before seen, came to an inglorious end.” When wheat prices plunged, Joe lost $9.75 million of the fortune his father had amassed — which Levi was forced to cover by selling some of his precious downtown Chicago real estate.
But there were those who would benefit from the drama of Joe Leiter’s corner and his subsequent crash, raising the episode to legendary heights and spawning a lucrative sub-industry in which the narrative was played and replayed in various forms.
First was Frank Norris’ immensely successful 1903 novel, The Pit. In his book, the chronicle of Curtis Jadwin’s wheat corner mirrors the Leiter story so closely that the Jadwin corner is also broken on June 13.
The novel was followed in 1904 by a popular card game, Pit, which Parker Brothers continued to produce through the 1920s. And in 1909, Hollywood director D.W. Griffith used Joe’s story as the basis for his melodramatic film, A Corner in Wheat, the tale of a greedy tycoon who destroys the lives of hungry throngs that can no longer afford to buy bread.
June 13, 1898 was a fateful date for the Leiter family. While Joe and Levi were crashing in the wheat debacle, another family member was rising to almost unimaginable heights, a pinnacle not merely without precedence but never again to be equaled.
At almost the moment the corner was broken, Joe’s sister Mary Curzon learned she was to become Vicereine of India, which today remains the most august position ever held in the British Empire by any American — either male or female.
When 36-year-old George Curzon became Viceroy of India, with Mary his vicereine, they moved from the enviable existence of Edwardian nobility to a life of astonishing pomp and splendor in which they were treated as royalty, and the vicereine adored from a distance by millions of subjects.
Curzon entering Delhi on an elephant, in the role he was born to play.
The viceroy and vicereine at play.
The high point of their reign was the 1903 Coronation Durbar in Delhi, held to celebrate Edward VII’s accession to the throne. Among the 60 English aristocrats who traveled together to the elaborate pageant on a P&O steamship were the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his wife, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt.
The Giovanni Boldini Portrait of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, with her son Ivor Spencer-Churchill.
The duchess later wrote, “Lady Curzon was a vision of beauty in a marvelous dress embroidered in a design of peacock feathers emblazoned with semiprecious stones, but I heard ominous whispers of the bad luck associated with those feathers.” They were whispers that would prove tragically prophetic for the lovely vicereine.
Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India, in her famous peacock dress.
As devoted as she was to Curzon and as thrilling as her new life had become, it pained Mary to be so far away from Levi, the father she adored. She wrote to him, “My life here is lived with you ever before me as an example.” She admired Levi’s moral and intellectual base, his integrity, conscientiousness, firmness and reserve. Although his brusque manner terrified many of the strong, competitive men he dealt with in business, Levi had always been tranquil and loving at home, whereas the socially competitive Mary Theresa was nervous and irritable much of the time. When Mary last saw her father, he appeared to have aged and she sensed, correctly, that she might never see him again. She would, however, continue to spend time with her mother and sisters — with disastrous results.
Mary Theresa Leiter painted by Alexandre Cabanel, 1887.
Encouraged by Mary’s success, Mary Theresa was grooming both younger daughters for fine marriages, showcasing each in a spectacular Washington coming out party and annually thereafter at the elaborate Christmas balls for which she became known. These gala evenings followed a formula, the spacious marble-lined entrance hall and ballroom of the Dupont Circle mansion were decorated in holiday greens, with a bank of orchids arranged in front of a painting of her eldest daughter, reminding guests of the brilliant matchmaking of their hostess. Dancing to music furnished by a portion of the Marine Band began at 10 p.m.; this was interrupted only for a midnight supper for guests who included contemporaries of the girls as well as the young married set and older friends from Washington’s diplomatic and social circles.
The girls were belles in Washington; however, it was British society that interested their mother, who had placed them in a boarding school near London, where, like their sister, they quickly became very English. Almost immediately, they adopted the accents, attitudes and mannerisms of the British upper class and nobility. Both became so enamored with England, they soon virtually dropped out of the society of Washington and Bar Harbor, preferring to spend time with new friends in London and the English countryside, which did not disturb their mother.
Daisy, who was as lovely looking as Mary and similar to her in appearance, was described by a Washington friend, Countess Marguerite Cassini, as “unimaginably beautiful, distant and cool. A snob, some said, but so lovely that once you saw her, her shining black hair parted in the middle and swept into a huge chignon of the back of her neck, you had to forgive that she seldom opened her mouth.” Another commented on Daisy’s “abundance of dark, glossy hair” and her “Irish blue eyes,” so heavily fringed they appeared to be black. Although disarmingly feminine, Daisy was a natural athlete and an accomplished equestrienne.
The third Leiter daughter, Nancy, pictured above right with Mary, was the only one of the Leiter children who resembled their father physically. She was also without the insatiable ambition that drove others in the family. In January 1903, Nancy and Daisy traveled with their mother on the final of three visits to India during the viceroy’s reign; it was a journey that would have far reaching consequences for everyone involved.
The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Comeuppance
Robert F. Carl