From his ascent from store clerk to one of the richest men in Chicago, Marshall Field chose as his first wife Nannie Douglas Scott, the bright, vivacious daughter of a prosperous Ohio iron master. She was visiting Chicago when, through friends, she became acquainted with the ambitious yet shy young merchant. She charmed the quiet, methodical man, who eventually went out of his exacting routine to court her during her stay. As Nannie boarded the train back to Ohio, the normally reticent Field, who approached every aspect of his life with succinct trepidation, impetuously jumped aboard the rail car. As the train puffed, lurched and chugged into life on the iron rails, Field stumbled out a proposal of marriage to Nannie. Although shocked by her beau’s impulsive act, particularly in front of the other passengers, she immediately accepted. His bravado then extinguished, Field disembarked at the train’s next stop, and walked back to work.
Marshall and Nannie Field bore three children. Their first, Louis, died in infancy. Marshall, Jr. and Ethel were raised with the trappings of Gilded Age wealth, living in a Richard Morris Hunt-designed mansion at 1905 Prairie Avenue. The residence, the first in Chicago to be completely wired for electricity, set Marshall Field back some $2 million in 1876. In 2017 dollars, constructing the home would have cost nearly $44 million.
Nannie Field with children
Marshall, Jr. and Ethel.
Over the years, Marshall and Nannie Field became social luminaries. Philanthropists. Legendary entertainers. Models of propriety. One problem, however. They just did not get along with each other. It is not known when or why the marriage began its descent from the 28 Shop to the Bargain Basement (neither of which were technically part of the store during those times). However, according to the juicy book, Chicago by Stephen Longstreet, it soon became common knowledge that “Mrs. Field led Marshall Field a hell-on-earth life.” Longstreet wrote, “Their loud, excruciatingly shrill battling scenes (even before the servants) were really something no good society would expect of them; so violent, such malice. The Fields began to spend increasing amounts of time away from each other. Nannie developed a fondness for the South of France. Apart from occasional buying trips abroad, Marshall spent most of his time in Chicago, running his store and tending to his charities.” A divorce would have been unthinkable, especially for one of Chicago’s most stellar couples. A separation, necessitated by social obligations and propelled by wanderlust? Much more acceptable.
While Nannie was figuratively or literally away, Marshall began to enjoy the company of his neighbors. One neighbor in particular caught his eye: Mrs. Delia Spencer Caton, a beautiful, statuesque woman whose kind, outgoing nature made her a favorite society hostess. The daughter of one of the founders of the Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett hardware firm, Delia was married to Arthur J. Caton, whose father, John Dean Caton, who was one of Illinois’ first chief justices of the state Supreme Court.
Delia Spencer Caton Field.
The Catons were one of Chicago’s most distinguished pioneering families. In 1833, early in his legal career, John Caton opened Chicago’s first law office. He is said to have been the trier of the new Cook County’s first-ever jury matter. As a Supreme Court justice, Judge Caton heard many cases presented by a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. Of Lincoln, Judge Caton said, “The most punctilious honor ever marked his professional life. His frankness and candor were two great elements in his character, which contributed to his professional success.”
Judge Caton eventually purchased several hundred acres in Ottawa, Illinois and his three children spent many of their early years at the family’s farm. Judge and Mrs. Caton built a 29-room Queen Anne home on the property. The home served as a place of enjoyment to the extended Caton family, as well as the prominent Sherill family, of which Mrs. Caton was a member. The beloved home passed to his only son, Arthur, when the judge died in 1895.
The Caton house, Ottawa, Illinois.
A fascinating 2005 book entitled The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge includes diary entries from Catherine, the niece of Delia Caton Field. The entries which range from 1902 through 1908, include many references to Delia and her husband. Catherine wrote, “Aunt Dell kept up the traditions of the house, even to the lavish Caton breakfasts, and the Ottawa potatoes — sliced fried potatoes in rich cream. We drove through the parks in an old buckboard or a buggy, the deer scattering before us. In Judge Caton’s time there had been three parks, the first devoted to domestic deer, the second to another species, and the third to elk. I remember as a little girl peeping though a small opening in the high stockade fence to see the elk leap a deep ravine. Long before these happy days in the Ottawa of 1903 the elk had been sold by Uncle Arthur to the zoo in Hamburg, Germany.”
Arthur Caton was educated in the law, but spent a considerable amount of time engaging in his interests, which included golf, polo and horse racing. He bred horses and dogs in his Ottawa farm.
It is not known when Marshall and Delia became more than friends. There were rumors that they were lovers for nearly 30 years. According to The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge, “They traveled together, socialized together, and moved in the same social circles … Field’s relationship with Delia was so intimate that the existence of a subterranean tunnel connecting their homes was rumored.” Delia sometimes traveled to Europe with Marshall Field without Arthur accompanying them. Per The Chronicle, “So often a haven for Americans seeking greater sexual freedom and privacy, Europe spared Delia, Mr. Field, and Arthur invasive scrutiny.” Chicago author Longstreet sought information about the liaison from many sources. One described the liaison as “lechery without levity.”
Delia Caton as part of an exotic tableau.
When Nannie Field died in France in 1900, Marshall was finally freed from his tempestuous marriage. Delia was still wed, but that was apparently a small impediment to the affair. There was also talk that Arthur Caton was aware of his wife’s infidelity and he too may have sought company outside of the marriage. Sadly, his health began to decline when he was in his early 50s. He died November 18, 1904, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The cause of death was inexact. Some said he succumbed to liver failure. Others ascribed the demise to peritonitis. However, according to an Ottawa, Illinois Times story, Arthur may have committed suicide after having played second fiddle to Marshall Field for much too long.
Arthur Caton’s death, as announced by the Chicago Tribune:
November 19, 1904.
More about Delia, and her remarkable life after Marshall Field, in next month’s edition of Melissa Ehret’s Prairie Avenue in Classic Chicago.