Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin
By Megan McKinney
Paul, the Hedonistic Perfectionist
On Wednesday evening, June 24, 1981, a day after his 89th birthday, Paul Butler stepped from his white clapboard farmhouse for a stroll in the fresh night air, camera in hand. It was shortly after twilight when he walked across the several hundred yard expanse of his lawn to a seldom traveled road in front of the house and began snapping pictures of the night sky. He had just moved into the center of the road to capture a clearer image of the heavens when an automobile careened erratically down a hill west of where he was standing, striking him, and then crashing into Salt Creek Bridge beyond. By the time an ambulance arrived, Paul was dead.
There was irony in the accidental end to this man’s life. Paul Butler had tenaciously controlled the environment around him, as he had his body. At almost 90, he had the appearance and activity of a man at least 30 years younger. His Oak Brook farm, which had been as large as 5,800 acres, was a pristine expanse of green, punctuated by fields for foxhunting, winding brooks and a great oak forest with 36 miles of bridle paths. To ensure maintenance of the forest’s natural beauty, Paul ordered 1,200 trees planted every year. Everything within the property’s boundaries was there on purpose, and at one time, it included 14 polo grounds, three airfields and assorted golf courses, archery ranges and tennis courts. Even the artless white farmhouses making the family compound followed the style of Paul’s ancestors and were exactly what he wished them to be. Paul had been raised on the property, which he inherited from his father, and, throughout the years, he had substantially added to the grounds while nurturing them and raising his children there.
Initially, Paul appeared to have inherited his mother, Fanny’s fondness for revelry, and, during a few years while he was in his 20s, Paul’s biography read like a serialization of the era’s love nest newspaper stories, usually with episodes that involved adolescent girls. In 1918, he married his mother’s pretty 18-year-old traveling companion, Josephine Roonely of County Mayo, Ireland. And, though the idyll itself was fleeting, a son, Norman Frank Butler, was born in December that year.
The pattern continued. A short time after the end of the marriage, Paul was named in a divorce suit by a Gifford Stratford, who charged that his bride of a fortnight had deserted him in favor of Butler. This entanglement, too, was merely a phase in Paul’s life; however, the ghost of his marriage to Josephine would return 36 years later when she contested their 1924 divorce. Nevertheless, she and her son lived comfortably in Europe and were well provided for through $1,000 monthly payments from Paul’s father, in addition to a $200,000 trust established in the boy’s name. Four months after the divorce from Josephine appeared to be final, Paul wed another adolescent, one who would further enrich the genetic legacy in ways Fanny could not have imagined.
Marjorie von Stresenreuter was a 15-year-old schoolgirl at Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut and a DuPage County neighbor when she and Paul married in December 1924. The newlyweds settled in a “penthouse cottage” on Chicago’s Gold Coast, a building owned by Marjorie’s remarried mother, Countess Laurietta Ford Filoppini. But they continued to spend time in the environs of Hinsdale, where Marjorie’s father, Frank Maximillian von Stresenreuter, built the area’s first summer quadrangle stable, with accommodations for 48 polo ponies.
After nine years of marriage and three children — Paul Jr., Frank Osgood II and little Marjorie, known as “Jorie” — the couple divorced. Marjorie charged extreme and repeated cruelty, citing three incidents in which Paul either slapped her, twisted her wrists or struck her. The battling couple managed however to establish a civilized form of joint custody, with the children living together permanently in a Hinsdale household and each parent residing with them for six months a year.
During her divorce hearing, Marjorie commented to the judge, “I’ll never marry a polo player again.” She kept her word, but did wed another six non-polo players: Count Johann von Knox, Rudolph Noble, General Harold Childe Bickford, Captain Albert Ruggles Mathias, Dr. William Dailey Dunaway, a surgeon to whom she was married for almost 30 years, and finally Clifford Conrad Childress. While married to her fifth husband during World War II, she joined the Women’s Army Corps so she could follow him to Cuba. Then, because of her thorough knowledge of Berlin, where she had spent summers as a child, the Office of Strategic Services recruited her. Soon after the war, their house in suburban New York exploded, killing her husband and a servant. Marjorie, pregnant at the time, survived almost another six decades and two more husbands.
The civilized Butler post-divorce arrangement lasted 10 years. In October 1943, Paul petitioned for full guardianship of Jorie, charging that Marjorie was morally unfit to have custody of a 12-year-old girl. The charge was based on an automobile trip made by Marjorie —then married to her fourth husband — from the West Coast to Chicago, accompanied by Jorie, Frank, and a prizefighter named “Tony.” When the foursome stopped at tourist camps along the route, Jorie and Frank were bunked in one room, while Marjorie and Tony shared another. Less than three months later both boys, 17-year-old Paul Jr. and Frank, 15, testified in court that their mother was “unfit” to have custody of children and that they “preferred to live with their father.”
Adult shenanigans aside, the Butler offspring experienced what appeared to be an idyllic childhood at Oak Brook Farm. There were occasions when they accompanied Paul in a basket saddle while he inspected the fields, and others when he towed them on a toboggan attached to his Duesenberg to the top of a hill to slide back down again. They also played ice hockey with him and the stable hands when the creek froze over. And each had a pony. After grooming the animals so they could pass the stable head’s inspection, they would gallop out for an entire day, which they could do without leaving family property. And pranks were tolerated. A favorite was to remove the bridgeboards over Salt Creek and claim tribute from Chicago Tribune editor Colonel Robert McCormick’s 16-cylinder Cadillac when he was en route to the polo grounds. Another was to cover themselves with horse sheets and become “invisible” as they ran across International Polo Field during a major match, thus halting it.
While continuing to nurture Butler Paper, Paul acquired more Illinois land and added aviation to polo as an avocation. Piloting his small collection of planes made him aware of the need for a company to provide services for private and corporate aircraft, a niche he filled with 11 bases at airports in major American cities, making Butler Aviation, Inc. the nation’s largest general aviation company.
Although those who knew Paul describe him as quiet, icy and somewhat distant, he was nevertheless immensely attractive to women and a perennial name on any “most eligible bachelors” list. After his marriages to Josephine and Marjorie, he went on to a third, also of short duration, and many romances and affairs. His final merger was to Jeanne Buckley, an art student and notable beauty from Battle Creek, Michigan. The 1940 marriage lasted until1948, four years before Jeanne’s death in an Arizona automobile accident.
Paul inherited his father’s devotion to polo, as well as his practice of acquiring land. Over a 30-year period, he purchased additional DuPage County farmland and wooded property, parcel by parcel, until he owned nearly 5,800 acres, making the Butlers the largest landowners in the county. And he developed a 500-acre area of 14 polo fields, a golf course and an airstrip. He also nurtured Butler Paper Company, before selling it in the 1960s to Nekoosa-Edwards Paper — to his great financial advantage. Although he was then in his 70s, Paul Butler’s story was far from over.
The Butlers of Oak Brook: Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin, Megan McKinney’s series of eight articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday Paul Jr aka Michael
Robert F. Carl