BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
At 16, she slipped off from Sarah Lawrence with a boyfriend to see the Lunts on Broadway in 1929. At 20, she stole the applause as Nana the dog at the Junior League’s performances of Peter Pan at the Century of Progress World’s Fair spanning from 1933 to 1934. Two weeks ago, she fell in love with Hamilton on stage in Chicago.
Just four days after her 103rd birthday on November 8, Peggy Wiley Carr died peacefully at home, leaving a place forever vacated at all the occasions across the city that she made the more interesting by her compelling questions, all the more engaging by her wit and candor, and all the more lively by her passion for life.
Adrian Foster, who accompanied her to Hamilton and hosted a small 103rd birthday dinner, praised Peggy:
“At 103 she was totally engaged in life. She attended two or three events each day; played the horses; sat in the front row at the Goodman, inspecting the cast through binoculars; ordered the menu for her last birthday party (plenty of hollandaise); embraced new ideas; cheered on Jefferson, Washington, and the rest of the gang from Hamilton; and provided merriment and solace for all her friends. Hail and farewell to this exceptional women with her own favorite sign-off: ‘love and kisses, Peggy Carr’!”
Peggy was a hands-on volunteer who created new programs with gusto, from her student days volunteering at a settlement house in a gritty part of New York and her work with Planned Parenthood (when it still was called the American Birth Control League, the name given it by Margaret Sanger) to planting therapy gardens at Children’s Memorial Hospital and—just last year—at a new Chicago Childcare facility in Englewood, where the Peggy Carr Garden thrives. She served for 75 years on the Childcare Society, called the Chicago Orphan Asylum when her mother was its president, and rarely missed a meeting.
Just for fun, she taught dancing at Arthur Murray, trooped with Burr Tilstrom (of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie fame) to inner city schools in Chicago, and mastered horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Morton Arboretum. Along with husband, Bob Carr, she rode a surfboard in Hawaii and flew in non-pressurized planes over the Andes.
In a conversation nine months ago, Peggy reminisced about her early days in Chicago. She described Kenwood, where she grew up, as “very quiet at that time,” saying they “often sat on the front porch and drank lemonade.” She added, chuckling, “My grandfather Benedict lived in the house next to the one where the Obamas lived. Boys from the Harvard School would come over for cake because we had a very good cook. I imagined they had come to see me.”
Known for always asking the right questions at every meeting she attended, Peggy credited her University of Chicago Laboratory School education for her lifelong curiosity, as well as her extraordinary memory, which allowed her to recite verse upon verse of “Dangerous Dan McGrew” until the end of her life.
“You were never thought to have been in class that day unless you asked a question. You were expected to pay attention and look interested. I also became a ham early on there, and I wanted to be in all their plays. They were casting a production of a French play when I was in the fourth grade. I didn’t speak French at all, but I decided to memorize all the parts even the stage directions and got the role.”
It was that remarkable memory that so many of her friends are, in turn, remembering about Peggy this week. Another common theme in the remembrance of this extraordinary woman is her always-present passion, particularly for people. She was able to connect to people of all ages, whether it was building friendships with the children and grandchildren of her friends by bonding over Legos, or through her great generosity—she lent her mother’s delicate lace veil, purchased in the early 1900s in Belgium, to two very grateful brides in recent years.
Her longtime friend John Craib-Cox noted:
“Her friendship spanned the years. She was wonderful with my granddaughter, Minka, who enjoyed chewing on her diamond ring as a baby. At the time, Peggy dryly observed that she was developing a taste for the finer things in life.
“When both my daughter Susanna married—and Alice York, as well—she insisted that they wear her wedding veil. It came from Brussels and had first been worn by her mother.
“Peggy frequently came up with the best, often totally unexpected, presents. She frequently visited me at the Clare where I was recovering from knee surgery. At the end of my stay, I told her I would miss her visits almost as much as I would miss having bacon at every breakfast.
“On May 5th, at her son Terry Carr’s most recent birthday, she told me that was a package waiting for me. Peggy’s present was sugared bacon from the Casino. The joy of the present was quadrupled by Peggy’s obvious pleasure in being able to orchestrate the gift.”
John added, “And whatever you wanted to know about Chicago history, she knew the answer.”
Surviving Peggy are her sons Terry and Tom Carr; Terry’s wife, Mary, who was always Peggy’s best friend; as well as talented grandchildren, Lucy and Ben Carr, who share their grandmother’s love of the theater.
Close friend Trip Driscoll said it all: “Peggy was always the very best company anyone could keep, a first-rate companion, and a loving friend.”