John Taylor Pirie Sr.
By Megan McKinney
The first John Taylor Pirie was founder John Thomas and Sarah Pirie’s third son, born in 1871. He became president, and then chairman, of Carson’s. He has been characterized as “a straightlaced, even starchy, Presbyterian who neither smoked nor drank and worked with austere fervor in a tiny brown-stained office tucked away in the firm’s wholesale business.” However he was, in the Pirie tradition, fond of shooting, and once spent four months on safari in Africa bagging big game.
The Piries were historically great big game hunters. Above is John Taylor Pirie’s son, John Taylor Pirie Jr.
John Taylor Pirie enjoyed golf and belonged to Onwentsia, as well as the University and Chicago Clubs. He was Mayor of Lake Forest from 1911 to 1914, vice president of Brookfield Zoo and a director of the Northern Trust, First National Bank of Lake Forest and Lake Forest Hospital.
It has been pointed out that his domestic life was “far from Spartan, with a Lake Forest mansion” at 930 Rosemary Road, designed by Benjamin Marshall in 1904, surrounded by grounds landscaped by Rose Standish Nichols.
Credit: Classic Country Estates of Lake Forest.
A 1911 photograph of John Taylor Pirie’s Lake Forest house.
John Taylor Pirie married Sophie Skirving Hunter in 1897. In addition to producing John Taylor Pirie Jr., he and Sophie were parents of a daughter, Margaret, and another son, Robert S., who married a Borden—but more of that later.
The final son of founder John and Sarah Pirie was Gordon Lennox Pirie, born in 1880. After graduating from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, Gordon worked for various eastern retailers before going out to Chicago to join the family store, where he rose to become vice president and general manager. He was a member of the executive committee of the American Retail Federation, active in the State Street Council and director of the Association of Commerce. He died of heart disease in Chicago’s Presbyterian Hospital on February 16, 1944.
The great Louis Sullivan landmark on State Street, always to be associated with Carson Pirie Scott & Co.
After the turn of the century, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. moved to its landmark Louis Sullivan location on State Street, and the business kept growing, absorbing competing retailers, including H.G. Selfridge & Co. and, eventually, the venerable John V. Farwell & Co.
Although Carson Pirie Scott & Co. was, after Marshall Field and Company, Chicago’s second largest department store, the descendants of the early Scotsmen were still in control in the 1930s, with no published financial statement and only a handful of stockholders who knew how much the company sold or how much it made. In the firm during that decade were seven Piries, one Carson, four Scotts and two MacLeishes.
Although Piries—for all their prominence through the decades—have been notably low-key, the sons of the “straightlaced, even starchy” first John Taylor Pirie and Sophie were entirely visible. Robert S. Pirie married Elizabeth “Betty” Borden, daughter of John Borden and the former Ellen Waller. The adventurous young couple drove a trailer to Mexico City in 1936, where they bought 54 paintings, including five new Diego Rivera’s, and exhibited them at The Arts Club of Chicago with great flourish the following year.
The marriage lasted less than a decade after the Mexican trip, and, in 1947, Betty Borden Pirie married Chicago lumberman Ralph Hines. That marriage ended three years later with Ralph’s death from a fractured skull after a fall in their New York home. Betty was the sister of Ellen Borden, who married Adlai E. Stevenson II in 1928; the Stevensons were famously divorced in 1949, creating a significant disadvantage to Adlai’s 1952 and 1956 Presidential campaigns against Dwight D. Eisenhower.
John Taylor Pirie Jr. was, like his brother, Robert S., more visible than other prominent members of the dynasty.
Robert S. Pirie’s brother, John Taylor Pirie Jr., began working for Carson’s as a freight and auditing clerk in 1924, when he was 21. He was company president from 1952 to 1958, when he became chairman of the board, a post he held through 1969, and he was chairman of the executive committee until his 1978 retirement from the board. It was he who, in 1955, made the decision to retain the company’s landmark State Street location.
In 1928, he married Daisiana Smith in a sumptuous wedding in the elaborate Lake Forest gardens of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Franklin P. Smith. The newspaper Society pages gave extensive coverage to the event before and after the October 6 ceremony.
Daisiana Smith Pirie.
Pirie left Daisiana after less than 10 years of marriage and three children at about the same time another prominent Lake Forest marriage was disintegrating.
Scott Fitzgerald muse Ginevra King of Lake Forest.
The story of Ginevra King, legendary model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, has been told many times in these pages and elsewhere. In 1918, Ginevra, then emerging from her teens, had married William H. Mitchell, son of her father’s business associate. They, too, became parents of three children, and, William, an investment banker, co-founded Mitchell, Hutchins & Co., later acquired by Paine Webber.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the famous line, “There are no second acts in American lives,” for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, in 1939, he could not have known the curtain was rising on a stunning Act Two in the drama of Ginevra King Mitchell’s life. Nor could he have guessed that its romantic finale would surpass anything he had written.
On the surface, the Mitchell marriage had remained a smooth, proper alliance for almost 20 years. Then, suddenly, in a novelistic twist—a life-altering romantic moment that not even F. Scott Fitzgerald could have imagined—everything changed.
The John Taylor Pirie Jr. who was husband of both Daisiana Smith and Ginevra King Mitchell, model for The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan.
The following account is anecdotal, never verified in print; however, it is too charming to be left out of this version of the Pirie story. During a 1937 North Shore fox hunt, a horse balked at a fence, throwing its rider, John Taylor Pirie Jr., to the ground in an unconscious heap, and then bolted across a field. The errant horse that morning was not an ordinary runaway but an equestrian metaphor for a dramatic event that was in the process of revising the remainder of Ginevra’s life—and John’s. She had been following closely behind Pirie, and it took only the sight of him lying on the grass motionless for her to leap to the ground and prepare also to bolt. She hovered over him until the ambulance arrived, climbed into it after him, and remained with him not merely until he healed—but for the next 40 years.
In what appears to have been a genuine love match between two fully formed adults, both dissolved their respective marriages, and the couple wed quietly on April 7, 1942, continuing a quintessential storybook romance that had eluded even Fitzgerald’s pen.
When John Pirie left this life on November 10, 1980, Ginevra followed within little more than a month, on December 13.
This concludes Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, The Department Store Piries.
Robert F. Carl