Gross Cyrano

Cyrano de Bergerac is the most famous work of the French playwright Edmond Rostand.  It tells the story of an adventurer who believes he’s too ugly to win the heart of a lady, so instead he helps his handsome friend court her.  First produced in 1897, the tale has also been filmed many times, notably with Jose Ferrer.

What’s less known is that Rostand may have stolen the play from a Chicago businessman.

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano

During the last years of the 19th Century, Samuel Eberly Gross was a major land-developer in and around Chicago.  He claimed to have built more than 10,000 homes.  Alta Vista Terrace, in Wrigleyville, is one of his smaller projects, but probably the most celebrated.

Gross had a literary streak.  In 1880 he wrote a play titled The Merchant Prince of Cornville.  While on a visit to Paris that year, he submitted the manuscript to a number of actors and theatrical producers, without success.  Then he laid the play aside for sixteen years.

In 1896 Gross finally got around to publishing The Merchant Prince.  The play also had a limited stage run in London.  Shortly afterward, he received a letter from a New York man, pointing out striking similarities between Gross’s play and the new Cyrano play by Rostand.

Gross investigated, and found several parallels.  He also discovered that the actor in the title role of Cyrano was one of the actors who’d read The Merchant Prince manuscript back in 1880.  That was too much of a coincidence for Gross.  When Cyrano opened in Chicago in 1899, he sued for plagiarism.

For three years, the case wound through the courts.  Questions were raised on whether the French actor had shared the plot of Gross’s play with Rostand.  Similarities in character names were noted.  Fully thirty different parallels between The Merchant Prince and Cyrano were enumerated, including a balcony scene where the main character stands in the shadows and whispers instructions to his friend.

Samuel Eberly Gross

Samuel Eberly Gross

“Gross Triumphs in Cyrano Suit” read the Tribune headline on May 22, 1902.  Judge C.C. Kohlstaad ruled that Rostand had indeed plagiarized Gross. American theater companies were banned from staging Cyrano.  Feeling vindicated, Gross settled for a nominal damage award of $1.00.

Rostand himself was not happy being labeled a literary thief.  He issued a sarcastic statement “admitting” to plagiarizing a number of other works, including “purloining from the house of a Louisiana ship owner a great piece on Joan of Arc.”

Samuel Eberly Gross died in 1913.  Over the course of a century, his name has been erased from a few places.  The village of Grossdale, which he founded, is now Brookfield.  Gross Avenue in Chicago is now McDowell Avenue.  Though there is a Gross Park in the city, it’s named for another man.

Then, a few years ago, the Brookfield school district tried to change the name of its S.E. Gross Middle School.  Students and parents protested, and the board dropped the matter.




2 Responses to “Gross Cyrano”

  1. 1 Garry March 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

    My house in Rogers Park is in a Gross developed subdivision.
    He wasn’t alive when the block was built out [1920 or so], but the entire area has earlier restrictive covenants detailing the required setbacks for all the lots, which I used to prevent a builder from building a condo building to close to the sidewalk. He still built it, but back to the setback. which cut his parking & thus he couldn’t sell them & ended up being foreclosed on.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt March 11, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      Considering all the bad ways that restrictive covenants were once used, it’s nice to hear about a restrictive covenant being used for a positive reason.

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