Archive for the 'CHICAGO PEOPLE' Category

Cyrano’s Chicago Connection

There’s a new film making the rounds called Cyrano. The title role is played by Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones. The story, from the French writer Edmond Rostand (1868-1918), tells of an adventurer who believes he is too ugly to win the heart of a lady, so instead helps his handsome friend court her.

The Cyrano tale has been filmed many times before. The most famous version starred Jose Ferrer in 1950. What’s less well-known is that Rostand may have stolen the plot from a Chicago businessman.

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano—Academy Award for “Best Actor” in 1950

During the last years of the 19th century, Samuel Eberly Gross became 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 literary skills. He composed all the advertising copy for his developments and tinkered with verse. 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.

In 1895 Gross finally got around to publishing The Merchant Prince. The following year the play had a limited stage run in London. At that time Gross secured both British and American copyrights on his work.

Meanwhile, Cyrano de Bergerac debuted in Paris on December 28, 1897. Sometime later, Gross happened to read a review of Rostand’s play, and was struck by the similarities between Cyrano and The Merchant Prince. Then he received a letter from a New York friend pointing out the same thing. Gross decided to investigate the matter more fully.      

Samuel Eberly Gross

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

The lawsuit caused a sensation—Cyrano was one of the most popular plays of the day. “The whole thing is ridiculous,” the Chicago producer told reporters. “Mr. Rostand is a gentleman, a scholar, and a poet.” The claim that he had plagiarized another man’s work was “simply absurd.” 

Gross was known as an aggressive marketer. Cynics suggested that the lawsuit was nothing more than a stunt to publicize his real estate business. Though the two plays were similar, Rostand’s work clearly had greater literary merit. And as the Chicago Times noted, neither work was wholly original. “The handsome suitor as proxy for a deformed one is old at least as Boccaccio,” the paper said. 

The plagiarism suit wound through the courts for three years. 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.

Chicago Tribune ad for Gross’s play

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

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. By that time he was nearly broke, victim of the vicissitudes of the real estate market. 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.

In 2008 the Brookfield school district tried to change the name of its S.E. Gross Middle School. Someone had discovered that Gross had been involved in a messy divorce when he was sixty-six years old. But students and parents protested, and the board dropped the matter.

This is one of the stories in my latest book, UNKNOWN CHICAGO TALES.  Available at bookstores or on Amazon.