Posts Tagged 'literature'

Renaissance Woman

Kellogg Fairbank was an honest, upright, somewhat dull lawyer who spent much of his time managing the estate of his late father, Chicago’s lard and soap king.  We’re not interested in him.  His wife is the one worth remembering.

In 1900, at the age of 21, Janet Ayer became Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank.  That was the name she preferred to use, and that’s what we will call her here.  Like her husband, she came from an old WASP family.  While raising three children Mrs. Fairbank took time to do some writing.

Writing was one of the few acceptable careers for a woman of her station.  She started with a few political articles and some drama criticism for local magazines.  In 1910 she published her first novel.

Seven novels, a play, and numerous short stories eventually flowed from her pen.  Mrs. Fairbank was a rich blue-blood, so her plots usually revolved around other rich blue-bloods.  Probably she’d had an English teacher who told her “Write about what you know!”

The lady did have talent.  Her 1925 novel The Smiths was about a couple growing up along with the city of Chicago.  It was runner-up that year for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Mrs. Fairbank performed all the Social Register duties.  She gave money to the arts, she organized benefits, she served as Board President of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital for over twenty years.  Her picture was always in the paper for some charitable cause.

Somewhere along the line, she became something more than a wealthy airhead.  Mrs. Fairbank became a political player.

In most states, voting was still limited to men.  Mrs. Fairbank never accepted that.  She was a champion of women’s rights, an ardent campaigner for the suffrage movement.  And she knew how to get publicity without being “unladylike.”  Once she advertised the cause by riding a white charger down Michigan Avenue.

Her social connections gave her entree to politics at the highest level.  Mrs. Fairbank didn’t stick with one party.  Over the years she jumped all over the political map.

In 1912 she was active in Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign for president.  Later she became a Democrat and served a term as National Committeewoman from Illinois.  By 1940 she was a Republican, national vice-chair of the isolationist America First Committee.

She knew her way around Chicago politics, too.  In 1923 Mrs. Fairbank put together a non-partisan committee of reformers for the coming mayoral election.  When the Democrats nominated Judge William E. Dever, the reformers threw their support behind him, and he was elected.  That gave Mrs. Fairbank the reputation of a political kingmaker.

Fairbank Row Houses

Throughout it all, Mrs. Fairbank and her husband remained pillars of Chicago society.  Each New Year’s Day they gave a reception at their home at 1244 North State Street.  An invitation to the Fairbank gala was highly-treasured.

From noon to midnight, hundreds of people passed through the doors.  The cloistered denizens of the Gold Coast were always there, mingling with writers, opera singers, social activists, and cigar-chewing politicians.  At most other places it would have been an unlikely gathering.  Here it was just a reflection of the many interests of the hostess.

Mrs. Kellogg Fairbank died on December 28, 1951.  A few days later, the final reception at 1244 North State Street became her memorial service.



Professor Moriarty Comes to Chicago (3-28-1901)

Adam Worth ran a criminal ring in England during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. A London detective once called him “The Napoleon of the Criminal World,” and Worth is thought to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty. And though Holmes never had any dealings in Chicago, the real-life Moriarty did.

Adam Worth

Adam Worth

Born in Germany in 1841, Worth grew up in Massachusetts. He eventually settled in London, posing as an American financier with social connections.  During the 1870s he put together an elaborate underworld organization, specializing in high-end burglaries of his unsuspecting society friends. Scotland Yard suspected him, but could prove nothing.

Then, in 1876, Worth’s brother was arrested on forgery charges and needed bail. At the time a famous Gainsborough painting, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was about to be offered at a London auction. So one night Worth simply got a ladder, climbed through a window at the auction house, cut the painting from its frame, and made off with it.

As it turned out, the charges against little brother were dropped. Rather than fence the stolen painting, Worth decided to keep it.

Georgiana became Worth’s constant companion. He usually kept it in the false bottom of a suitcase as he traveled. At some point he smuggled the painting out of England and put it in storage in the United States. That’s where Georgiana was in 1893, when Belgian authorities convicted Worth of a string of robberies and sent him to prison.

By 1899 Worth was out of prison. His crime ring was in shambles and his fortune was gone. Using the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a go-between, he began negotiating a “no-questions-asked” return of Georgiana to the auction house. After nearly two years haggling, a price of $25,000 was agreed upon. The transfer was to be made in Pinkerton’s headquarters city, Chicago.

"Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire"

“Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”

Morland Agnew of the auction house came over from London, arriving in Chicago on March 27, 1901. As instructed, he checked into the Auditorium Hotel. The next morning, accompanied by William Pinkerton of the detective agency, Agnew cashed a bank draft for the ransom. The money was put in the safe at the Pinkerton office. Then the two men went to the hotel to wait.

At 1 p.m. a messenger arrived at Agnew’s hotel room, carrying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. After Agnew identified himself, the messenger handed him the parcel and left. Inside the parcel was the long-lost Georgiana.

Within hours Agnew was on the train to New York, and from there the ship to England. Not until the painting was safely back in London was the news released to the world. Then the Chicago papers ran the story on the front page for a week.

Adam Worth in disguise had been the messenger returning the painting. Less than a year after collecting the ransom, he was dead of natural causes. But in a twist worthy of Conan Doyle himself, the real-life Moriarty’s son refused to take over the family business.  Instead, he found a new career—as a Pinkerton detective.


Bowling Time-Out

Today I was interviewed on “The Phantom Radio” podcast about my latest book, The Bowling Chronicles.

Here’s the link to the interview–


Tomorrow, I go back to Chicago History here!


Happy Birthday, Dear Sherlock! (1-6-1972)

Sherlock Holmes has been enjoying a revival lately.  Robert Downey Jr. has played him in a couple of films, and there are two different Holmes series running on TV.  While there’s no evidence Holmes ever visited Chicago, some local fans did throw him a birthday party here back in 1972.

"Watson, I've received an invitation from a place called Chicago . . ."

“Watson, I’ve received an invitation from a place called Chicago . . .”

The Hartford Plaza had recently opened at Wacker and Monroe.  The building had a Holmes-themed restaurant named the Baker Street Pub.  That led a local Sherlockian society called Hugo’s Companions to organize a celebration for January 6, 1972–-Holmes’s 118th birthday.

For some reason, Mayor Richard J. Daley did not declare the day an official city holiday.  Still, the Holmes party was featured on the TV news and on the front page of the Tribune.  A total of 120 people attended the dinner, at $13-a-plate.

Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson were present in the shape of two figures loaned by the Royal Wax Museum of London.  A surprise appearance was made by Colonel Sebastian Moran, one of the detective’s most dangerous foes.  The Tribune reported that after failing to assassinate Holmes, Moran escaped by jumping into the Chicago River.

Holmes's first encounter with Colonel Moran

Holmes’s first encounter with Colonel Moran

The dinner guests heard speeches on Holmes from various distinguished authorities.  Holmes himself did not attend the party.  According to most accounts, he was busy tending to his bees back in England.

That idea was disputed by golf writer Henry Longhurst, who was at the Chicago party.  “I live in Sussex Downs myself, as a matter of fact not far from where Holmes is supposed to be keeping bees,” Longhurst said.  “I’ve done a bit of looking around, and I’ve never found any sign of him.”

Henry Longhurst:  "Sherlock who???"

Henry Longhurst: “Sherlock who???”

Of course, that didn’t mean Holmes was dead.  “No one has ever seen a death notice of Holmes,” insisted Robert Hahn, president of Hugo’s Companions.  “No one as prominent as Holmes could die without a death notice in the papers.  He is still alive.”

And that was the story of Sherlock Holmes’s 118th birthday party.  In the years since, he has still not been heard from.  Perhaps he is awaiting a challenge worthy of his crime-fighting skills.

Come to think of it, maybe now is the time for Holmes to finally come to Chicago.


Jack London Commits Matrimony (11-19-1905)

Jack London was known for writing adventure stories.  He’d also led an adventurous life.  His 1905 Chicago adventure was particularly momentous.

Jack and Charmian in Hawaii, 1915

Jack and Charmian in Hawaii, 1915

In November of that year London was in the city on a lecture tour.  Back in San Francisco, his wife Bessie was divorcing him.  London was eager to marry Charmian Kittredge.

On the evening of November 18th, Jack received word that the divorce was final.  Charmian was in Newton, Iowa.  Jack telegraphed her that they could now get married.  Next morning, Charmian boarded the first train east.

While Charmian was racing to meet him, Jack scurried around Chicago, preparing the legal formalities for a quick wedding.  It would have to be on this day, November 19, because Jack was traveling on that lecture tour.  But it was now Sunday, and all the government offices were closed.

Somehow, Jack located the license clerk, and got him to City Hall to fill out the paper work.  Then Jack was off to North Western Station to meet Charmian when she arrived on the 5:15 train.  Meanwhile, the license clerk had talked Judge Grant into coming in to work on his own day off to perform the ceremony.

That evening, at 10 p.m., Jack and Charmian were married.  They were still married when Jack died in 1916.


When Nelson Met Simone (5-10-1947)

They always called May 10th their anniversary.  But let’s begin at the beginning.

Early in 1947, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir was traveling in America.  A friend suggested she look up Nelson Algren when she got to Chicago.  Algren was just starting to build a reputation as a writer of realistic fiction.


When she arrived in the city, de Beauvoir had trouble getting through to Algren on the phone–hearing her thick French accent, he thought she was one of the Polish people from his Wicker Park neighborhood. But they did arrange a meeting.

Algren took de Beauvoir to see the seamier side of town.  She liked it.  They hit it off.  When she left, he kissed her good-bye and asked her to stop in Chicago again.  “If you don’t, I will come to Paris one day after you,” he said.

By May de Beauvoir was in New York, preparing to go back to France, when her departure was delayed.  She had not forgotten Algren.  She phoned him and said she was coming to Chicago for a few days.  On the morning of May 10, he met her at the airport.

Once again, Algren showed her the city.  They went to a cafeteria and a Sox game and a bowling alley.  Then he dropped her off at her hotel.

Now de Beauvoir was wondering whether they were on the same wavelength.  Why didn’t he come up to her room?  For that matter, why was she staying in a hotel, and not back at his place?  Maybe she’d made a mistake coming to Chicago.


That evening Algren took her to a Polish restaurant.  They hit a couple of jazz bars.  In the taxi, he kissed her.  Before the night was over, they became lovers.
The next morning he gave her a silver ring.  When de Beauvoir flew back to New York a few days later, Algren went with her.  “It’s funny that we get along so well,” he told her.  “I’ve never been able to get along with anybody.”
They parted in New York, Simone returning to Paris, Nelson going back to Chicago.  For many years afterward, they carried on a trans-Atlantic love affair.  Algren wanted marriage, de Beauvoir did not.  The situation was also complicated by her longtime relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Nelson Algren died in 1981, Simone de Beauvoir five years later.  She was buried wearing the ring that Algren had given her.


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.