By Megan McKinney
They were Chicago’s famed Wartime “Big Four” socialite beauty quartet, the title TIME magazine would assign them at the beginning of the Jazz Age, when the newsweekly was the nation’s arbiter of fame and popular style. In an era when heiresses trumped actresses and pop stars for headlines, TIME editors had continuing cause to report on Ginevra King, Courtney Letts, Edith Cummings and Peg Carry.
Big Four member and champion golfer Edith Cummings learned the sport at Lake Forest’s Onwentsia Club.
According to Scott Donaldson, a scholar of the era’s literature, Big Four members were “so legendary for their beauty that they were known by that designation for the rest of their lives.” He recalled, “In the late 1970s, I met a fellow from Lake Forest at the Yale Club bar in New York City, and asked him if possibly he had heard of ‘the Big Four,’ who would have been at least a decade his senior. He had indeed . . . and he could tell me about their subsequent marriages and divorces as well.”
Ginevra King of the Big Four was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love and enduring muse.
Quartet members were in their mid-teens when they pronounced themselves the Big Four in 1914; they wore identical gold rings engraved with the title and each kept a formal document to authenticate their association. They apparently discovered, or intuitively knew, the spotlight follows pairs, trios, quartets or even sororities of beautiful young women, multiplying the impact of those who operate individually. Several members of these 20th century groupings who — after becoming society page stars, typically went on to marry extraordinarily well — were the Morgan and O’Connor twins, the Cryder triplets and the three Cushing sisters.
The identical Morgan twins married well: Gloria wed a Vanderbilt and Thelma became Viscountess Furness and favorite of the Prince of Wales.
A century ago this spring, the Lake Forest foursome had been official for only two years, but their legend had traveled to preparatory schools and colleges throughout New England. All four were students at the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut — as were the Cushing sisters — and each was the daughter of a rich father and a socially adept mother who entertained incessantly on behalf of herself, her prosperous husband and their children.
The late Chicago author David Grafton told us all about the legendary Cushing sisters.
Of the Lake Forest foursome, Ginevra King was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love and held an enduring fascination for him. Her impact on the author was so electrifying that he modeled one of the most famous heroines of his Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, on Ginevra. And her family’s Chicago house at the corner of Astor and Burton was one of the city’s most sumptuous showplaces, a luxurious Neo-Georgian mansion designed in 1915 by the distinguished residential architect David Adler.
The mansion’s grand entry hall featured a set of five prized Abram Poole frescoes, marble columns and a gracefully curved staircase — the definitive setting for an heiress in a smart Nöel Coward stage play or a Hollywood screwball comedy of a decade or two later.
The King money, made quickly on both sides of the family during Chicago’s Civil War boom, was expanded by Ginevra’s stockbroker father, Charles Garfield King, who established the brokerage firm King, Farnum & Co., with seats on exchanges in both Chicago and New York. As senior member of the firm, his presence extended to both cities, and he belonged to the prestigious men’s clubs of each.
The entry of the Garfield King town house featured a set of five prized Abram Poole frescoes, marble columns and a curved staircase.
Another of the four was Edith Cummings, daughter of Chicago socialites Mr. and Mrs. David Mark Cummings. Edith’s father, like Garfield King, was a Yale man. Mark Cummings was a successful broker who became an even more prosperous banker; and he saw that his daughter was carefully tutored in the arts, tennis and golf. The Cummings’ Lake Forest estate, Ioka, was dominated by a brick English-style manor on 600 feet of shoreline with commanding views of Lake Michigan. Designed by Frederick Wainwright Perkins in 1903, the main house was approached through a curving drive across spacious lawns and banked by romantic arbors and generous cutting gardens. By the time Edith made her debut at Ioka, the social pages had dubbed her “one of the most popular young members of society … with recognized abilities as a sportswoman.” This was an understatement; Edith’s skills as a golfer would catapult her to national fame as an athlete.
Courtney Letts, soon to be named one of the 12 most beautiful women in America, would — like the other Lake Forest debutantes —marry well, which she did four times. Daughter of prominent Chicago socialites Mr. and Mrs. Frank C. Letts, her father was president of the mammoth Booth Fisheries. Her national fame would come as the Washington femme fatale who devastated an early romantic scheme of Wallis Simpson, generating Courtney’s recurring appearance as a biographical figure in the frequent books published about the Duchess of Windsor. As an international socialite and quasi-diplomat, she would become a significant Washington presence before and during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The fourth of the group was Margaret “Peg” Carry; Peg’s parents, the Edward F. Carrys, were also prominent in local social and business circles. They maintained a Gold Coast residence on Chicago’s North State Parkway as well as a Lake Forest estate. Peg’s father, president of the Pullman Company, would hold high government position during World War I. Peg led the most subdued existence of the four. After making a spectacular marriage, she would escape public scrutiny until the tragedy of her early death.
During the innocent years leading up to America’s entry into World War I, the Big Four fashioned their Lake Forest summers from a string of days spent playing golf or tennis at Onwentsia, driving their “machines” to friends’ houses for lunch, returning to the club for tea, dancing and then back home to rest and change before being escorted to an evening party — with more of the same the next day. In Ginevra’s diary, she wrote of planning a dance for 84 friends on the lantern-lit lawn of the King house, rehearsing an act with ardent admirer Deering Davis for an amateur vaudeville show, receiving “a huge bunch of orchids” from the family greenhouse of an equally fervent Billy Mitchell, and going for a swim in the pool of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, wife of a Montgomery Ward heir, where she stayed on for a 30-guest luncheon, before attending “a small supper party” that night.
Ginevra was not yet 20 when her portrait appeared on the cover of the July 1918 issue of Town & Country magazine, coinciding with the announcement of her engagement to Ensign William Hamilton Mitchell II that month. The two families had been close for many years; Garfield King and John J. Mitchell were headquartered in the same Loop building and had invested in joint business ventures. Six years later, Ginevra’s sister Marjorie would marry Bill’s brother Clarence.
Within weeks of Ginevra’s wedding, Courtney made her debut in Washington, D.C., where her father was serving in the wartime government. Recognized as one of the capital’s loveliest and most popular debutantes, she had already begun to make a widely-known impact as a wealthy femme fatale on the Washington scene.
On December 28, 1919, Peg Carry married meatpacking heir Edward Cudahy Jr. in Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, following an 18-day engagement. The groom’s father had been a founder of the Cudahy Packing Company in 1890 and the younger Edward was in line to succeed him in its leadership.
With Ginevra as her matron of honor, Courtney soon married Chicago’s Wellesley H. Stillwell, a Yale graduate who had been an ensign in the U.S. Navy during WWI. Wellesley’s father, Homer A. Stillwell, was president of Butler Brothers and “one of the recognized leaders of Chicago’s business and financial circles.” The senior Stillwells maintained a Lake Shore Drive apartment designed by the great architect of apartment buildings Benjamin Marshall, and their weekend/summer place, Point Comfort, was virtually next door to the Mitchell family’s Ceylon Court at Lake Geneva.
The classic photograph of Edith with Alexa Stirling.
Meanwhile, the still single Edith Cummings was pursuing tournament golf and on her way to becoming one of the leading American woman golfers of her generation. On October 6, 1923, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. A photograph of Edith shaking hands with runner-up Alexa Stirling, with the Robert Cox trophy between the two wholesome beauties, has become a classic. The victory over three-time cup winner Stirling occurred at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, a few miles from the fictional East Egg and West Egg of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which two years later would raise Edith’s visibility from the national sports pages of the 1920s to lasting literary renown.
The combination of the Women’s Amateur Championship and her personal qualities brought Edith profiles in Vogue, Ladies’ Home Journal and newspapers throughout the country, with a focus on her short skirts, dashing hats and social life. Look magazine described her as having “far outshone the reigning stage and screen beauties and all other athletes except Babe Ruth.” She won the 1924 Women’s Western Amateur and on August 25, became the first woman athlete to appear on the cover of TIME magazine, a major step in women’s athletic history.
Courtney became the first divorcee of the Big Four when she terminated her marriage to Wellesley Stillwell, but she would not be single long. On March 23, she married 41-year-old “millionaire explorer” John Borden in Washington, D.C. Newspapers buzzed that with her marriage came “a house on Astor Street, a Rolls-Royce, magnificent jewelry and a trust fund for her children from a previous marriage.” After plunging into an ongoing program of hunting, shooting, fishing, exploring and other masculine pursuits, she began writing Adventures in a Man’s World, one of two books she would produce during this marriage. Years later, John Borden’s daughter, Ellen, would appear as the recalcitrant and exceedingly vocal ex-wife of Adlai Stevenson II during his two-time presidential quest.
Courtney’s second book about her life with Borden was published in 1933; yet, on June 11, TIME magazine printed the following item in its Milestones column: “Seeking Divorce. Courtney Letts Stillwell Borden, 36, member of Chicago’s famed Wartime ‘Big Four’ socialite beauty quartet, from John Borden, 49, explorer and stockbroker, whose divorced first wife married Composer John Alden Carpenter; in Reno.”
This was followed in TIME two months later with the report: “Married. Felipe A. Espil, 46, Argentine Ambassador to the U. S.; and Courtney Letts Stillwell Borden, 34, divorced wife of Oilman John Borden.” Espil, who had snubbed an infatuated Wallis Simpson when he fell in love with Courtney years before, had waited through her previous marriages for the woman with whom he would spend the remainder of his life and three ambassadorships.
While the influence of the Lake Forest Big Four was sustained, it would never be greater than it was 100 years ago this spring. They had begun their impact on one of the literary figures of the 20tht century during the previous summer and would complete their work in shaping his views and laying the foundation for the Jazz Age during his second visit in 1916.
Next Week: Megan McKinney’s The Very Rich Are Different: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Lake Forest Foursome Who Taught Him the Difference.
Robert F. Carl