Potter Palmer Mansion
From Chicago And Its Makers, 1929
MRS. POTTER PALMER—the name calls op a host of brilliant memories; elegant carriages brisk procession down shady boulev.ards; perfectly appointed tables, glittering with silver, gold and crystal and white linen; the Windy City; the great “Castle” on Lake Shore Drive and the famous New Year’s ball, with its hosts and its laughter. And over all, ruling supreme as charming a queen as Chicago could have, the social dictator. Bertha Honoré Palmer. And even then the picture is not complete. For Mrs. Potter Palmer, after her husband’s death, assumed control of his affairs and managed them so that her fortune was doubled. The title of business woman must be added to the long list of her accomplishments.
Bertha Honoré was born in Kentucky, the daughter of Henry H. Honoré and Eliza Forsey (Carr) Honoré. She “was bred in old Kentucky,” and her southern charm won Chicago a warm spot in the hearts of the princes, the presidents, the great writers, artists, politicians of the day, who sat at her table.
Educated in a convent at Georgetown, the charming Miss Honoré arrived in Chicago as the period of its niceties was setting in as a reaction to the hardships of pioneer days.
The year of the great fire, 1871, was one of momentous events in Miss Honoré’s life, for in that year she became Mrs. Potter Palmer, and, through her own grace and distinction and the position of her husband, became the social dictator of almost absolute power.
Potter Palmer had written his name in large letters across the Chicago of pre-fire days. But that great tragedy had wiped his accomplishments entirely off the slate—had left him for his labors an extensive heap of ashes. Perhaps it was the tenacity with Which he refused to give up that won his bride and perhaps it was her vital energy, her keen interest in his rebuilding program that touching off her charm, drew him to her. At any rate, the newlyweds set to work with remarkable energy. Palmer, who had lost thirty-two new buildings in the fire—buildings that had moved the city’s business district from Lake Street to State Street—Potter Palmer with the help of his young wife, borrowed money and began all over again. In the year of his marriage, the Palmer House began.
The “castle” at 1350 Lake Shore Dnve, the imposing Palmer residence that stood in an entire posing Palmer residence that stood in an entire block of its own, was built. The mere fact of its being built “made” the Gold Coast. Affairs progressed financially and socially. The famous New Year’s party became a tradition. Recipients of invitations to that affair were the receivers of the equivalent of a “ticket” to society. They were made. Other doors were open to them.
Mrs. Palmer was elected president of the board of lady managers of the Columbian Exposition. She traversed Europe interesting foreign governments in the fair. She succeeded. She was appointed by the president of the United States the only woman member of the national committee for the Paris Exposition of 1900. She was decorated by the French government, elected to the Legion of Honor.
Potter Palmer died in 1902. She carried on the burden of his many affairs so successfully that a fortune of $8,000,000 grew to more than $16,000,000 in her hands while she carried on her social obligations at the same time. She was active in War Work and gave her Paris home, where she had received the royalty of every nation, to the United States Army for its chaplains.
Mrs. Palmer was a member of the Fortnightly, Onwentsia, Saddle and Cycle, and the Women’s clubs of Chicago and the Colony Club of New York.
She died at her winter home in Sarasota, Florida, on May 5, 1918, with her sons Honoré and Potter Palmer at her bed side. Her castle is making way for skyscrapers, but her vivid\ personality will live always in Chicago’s story.
Portrait titled “Mrs. Potter Palmer” by Anders Zorn, 1893
Chicago Sunday Tribune, September 22, 1907
THE only American woman who knows how to spend her money”—that is the way London describes Mrs. Potter Palmer; it’s, the way Paris speaks of her, and Berlin, and St. Petersburg, and even Carlsbad, and Spa, and Nice. In the courts and on the Riviera—everywhere—Mrs. Palmer is “the American woman who knows how to spend ner money.” And for ten months in the year she spends it-spends it entertaining dukes and counts and all sorts of titled folk from kings and queens down to ordinary knights and pawns, spends it traveling from London to Paris, from Paris to Berlin, from Berlin to St. Petersburg, and stopping long enough in each capital to reclaim the social scepter. Everywhere she goes she Is the widow with $500,000 a year, the royal entertainer—” the only American woman who knows how to spend her money!”
When she is in London Invitations to he: London residence-the historic home of the Hamiltons—are as anxiously sought as are the invitations to the castel- lated mansion at 100 Lake Shore drive when Mrs. Palmer is in Chicago. All London society waits as breathlessly for cards from ‘Mrs. Palmer as they await the invitations to the houses of royalty bearing the arms of the king or of Wales.
Nomad Queen Rules Many Capitals.
When Mrs. Palmer crosses the channel and opens her Paris residence the royalty of the old empire gathers around her, and her invitations are as eagerly sought as the invitations to the mansion of the president. So it is wherever she goes, whether it be to Paris! Berlin, or St. Petersburg. Mrs. Palmer is the wandering society queen. In Chicago, in London, in Paris she is a leader.
For ten months she occupies herself with the task of spending the Palmer fortune in Europe; for the remaining two months she takes up the same occupation in Chicago. It Is the same story wherever she goes. Money is spent with a free hand; one entertainment after another is given. Expense Is not considered. Celebrated Parisian bands and world famous divas are brought from Paris and from Berlin to entertain the guests of Mrs. Palmer in London. Entire interiors are reconstructed to give fitting environment for her gorgeous receptions. Parisian are paid fabulous prices for the best creations of their brains. Houses are rented in London at $15,000 for the season and $200,000 is spent in entertaining; a house is maintained at Cowes. a residence at Goodwood. Then there is the imposing castle on the Lake Shoze drive, to say nothing of, the summer homes which Mrs. Palmer rents at enormous cost wherever whim and fancy take her for the summer season.
Center of Social Life Everywhere.
Mrs. Palmer has had villas at Newport, where she was as greatly sought after as abroad; she has spent June at Monte Carlo, gone over to Nice for July. and to Carlsbad for August. entertaining lavishly wherever she went. Everywhere she has ruled over society and everywhere her invitations are as much sought for as the invitations of royalty. The winters are reserved for Mrs. Palmer’s return to Chicago. And, although she never has spent a summer at Lake Forest, her place never seems to be filled during her absence. When she comes back to Chicago in October, or November. or December, according to her fancy, she steps into her old place as society s leader and society does her bidding. Last year she returned in time to arrange for the big Newv Year’s eve charity ball, and after Mrs. Palmer had given the last directions for the decoration of the First Regiment armory and the decorators had put on the last touches. not a vestige of the commonplace interior was left-the whole place had been transformed Into a fairyland of color and lights. Mrs. Palmer has been the moving spirit In the Chicago charity balls every winter since the world s fair, with the single exception of the winter she wore mourning for her husband. Perhaps it was the world s fair that gave Mrs. Palmer the highest social place abroad that any American without a title to help her ever attained. Perhaps it is only her personality, her beauty, her talent for entertaining. Perhaps it really is because she is the only American woman who knows how to spend her money. Whatever the reason, it is true that whether she Is at Hamllton house or at Cowes, at Paris, Berlin. or Newport, or at any of the other places where she has residences, she Is the center of the social life.
Standing Army of Servants Retained.
At all these palatial residences a retinue of servants is kept, whether they are occupied or not. They are always In readiness to receive the only American woman who “knows how to spend her money.” And always there are dukes, and counts, and princes, and
duchesses, and countesses, and princesses waiting for an invitation to share her roof with Mrs. Palmer.
The famous question once asked of King Edward was propounded the other day to a London woman whose birth and beauty are as high as her monetary resources are low—”If not yourself, who would you be?”
Without a moment s hesitation the woman of title replied: “Why, Mrs. Palmer, of course!” And nearly every other woman in the throng gathered about the dinner table nodded assent.
Asked the same question, nearly every woman In London of noble birth would make the same reply; so would nearly every social leader in the other capitals of Europe.
In London today only two things are necessary to insure universal right of entry and entire social success when entered. They are money and the ability of knowing how to spend it. Mrs. Palmer has both. The leader of Chicago society for fourteen years has the art of entertaining at her fingers’ ends. Perfect dinners, superb concerts—these are her specialties. A month ago, Mrs. Palmer gave a great dinner in Hamilton house which royalty was asked to attend.
Excels All Others as Hostess.
When the guests were assembled around the tables Olive Fremstad suddenly appeared from behind a mass of palms and began to sing. Airs. Palmer had wired to the great prima donna to come over from Paris to sing for her guests, and how much she paid to Fremstad never will be known. The song that Fremstad sang for Mrs. Palmer’s guests was the censor tabooed “Salome” of Oscar Wilde and Strauss. The next morning, her fame having spread, she repeated the performance, this time for a more exalted audience. Unhappy people, other than Mrs. Palmer’s friends, have to live without such treats. Wherefore Mrs. Palmer’s invitations are sought as are a queen’s. A few days later Mrs. Palmer again opened her historic London house to titled guests and this time she had called from Paris one of its most celebrated bands. It is entertainments such as these, given at Hamilton house, at Cowes, at the handsome residence in Paris, and last season at Hampden house, the residence of the duke of Abercorn, that have given Mrs. Palmer the name of being the “only American woman who knows how to spend her money.”
It- Is popularly supposed that Mrs. Palmer takes a proposal of marriage with her morning tea just as ordinary folk take, their bread and butter. According to reports that have drifted over from London from time to time princes and kings have asked for the hand of Mrs. Palmer, and a short time ago, according to these same reports, the king of Servia was the suppliant. But Mrs. Palmer seems to prefer to reign a social queen in London’s Mayfair than a queen over twenty unsociable and unstable kingdoms.
Anyhow the Londoners are of one opinion, that it would be deliciously exciting to be Mrs. Potter Palmer. While queens and princesses are compelled to follow the customs of their lands and are not free to travel as they please, Mrs. Palmer has no ties; she may go and come at will—in London today, in Paris the day after, and in Berlin the next day—and wherever she goes she is sought by the great entertainers of the courts. She is a leader among them.
Lavishness Keeps London Guessing.
Everywhere Mrs. Palmer’s residences are magnets to the nobility, to the great men and women of Europe, and what her lavish entertaining costs the Palmer estate can only be estimated. For her residences at Cowes and at Goodwood she pays enormous rents. Ard the Londoners, who ought to know, pretend to state positively that Mrs. Palmer paid S15,000 for the duke of Abercorn’s historic town house last season and that the season’s entertainment cost her $200,000. In return for her money she had the extreme satisfaction of possessing one of the most historic mansions in Mayfair—and one of the ugliest! But the house was particularly suited to extensive entertaining and Mrs. Palmer made the most of the opportunity. It was thought last year that she had outdone herself in the lavishness of her dinners, but this season London has been overawed and dumfounded by the entertainments that Mrs. Palmer has given. Londoners are asking one another, What has It cost her? And If she entertained more lavishly this year than last what are we to expect next year? With the present season almost over London is waiting breathlessly for the next, waiting breathlessly to see how the only American woman who knows how to spend her money will spend it next year—what new ways of entertaining her guests she will devise and what nota- bles she will Import to sing at her dinners.
And by all the titled women of Europe Mrs. Palmer is envied. Beauty, wit, freedom to go and come as you please, recognized social position, not a care or a worry, unlimited wealth, the historic house of the Hamiltons for her London residence, a palace in Chicago, a lovely house in Paris, at GoodWood, and Cowes, the best there 1s going, and a proposal per diem—what more could the heart of woman desire?
Cowes, Isle of Wight, England.
Chicago Tribune,September 16,1906
MRS. POTTER PALMER and Mrs. Marshall Field, two of Chicago’s most popular representatives in the social great world of Eurone this season, astounded the American colony abroad by their recent attempt to ascend Mount St. Moritz in Switzerland, in an automobile. They nearly succeeded. too. Entire success might have crowned their effort had their machine not broken down under the tremendous strain of the constant climb up steep grades on which the humble but sure footed donkey is the only means of transit.
No motorist has succeeded yet in driving a machine up the roads leading to the summit of St. Moritz. and only a few of the daring have even ventured to try it. So far as known Mrs. Field and Mrs. Palmer are the only two women who have essayed the difficult journey up into the lands or clouds and almost\ perpetual snow.
Noted People Gather at St. Moritz Everp Summer.
St. Moritz Is Switzerland’s ultrafashionable resort. Its season is brief—only three months in midsummer. For the rest of the time the mountain is by furious storms of snow. But during those brief three months of summer the village of St. Moritz, nestling beside the lake, which, like the town, takes its name from the mountain which rises both in majestic, snow topped bulk to a height of 6,700 feet, is filled with ithe most brilliant cosmopolitan society of Europe. Here the nobility of England, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany meet on common ground. To walk in the Kurhaus garden any sunny morning means to rub elbows with scions of royalty, with literary celebrities of every nation, artists from Paris and Rome, singers from Milan, gilded princes and grand dukes from Russia, haughty boyars from Budapest, famous savants from Berlin—and, in fact. with all the world.
Mrs. Potter Palmer and Mrs. Marshall Field arrived at St. Moritz while the brilliant social season was at its height, and it was early In their stay that they decided to ascend the mountain in a motor car—or at least to go as far toward the top as they could.
Dangerous Winding Roadwagv up the Mountain.
Motoring on an Alpine way is not motoring on Michigan avenue, in Chicago. On the mountain of St. Moritz it is uphill all the way. The roadway winds, turns, and twists in its upward course around jagged corners where on one side it is hundreds of feet up and on the other hundreds of feet straight down. Again, there are stretches of road along a dizzy “hogback,” and again through precipitous walls of rock. Sometimes the bleak pine forests grow down to the edge of the roadways.
It was over such a roadway that the two Chicago women drove their motor, a powerful machine, built especially for heavy work. The grade was not always too steep. Then there would come stretches of road up which the heavy machine was put to the test of every atom of its power. A single slip backwards, an instant’s loss of control of the brakes, the snap of a piece of machinery at a critical instant—any of these little things so common to the experience of motorists—might have led to a disaster not pleasant to contemplate.
Automobile at Last Succumbed to the Strain.
Happily none of these mishaps befell the machine at its critical moment, when an accident might mean something serious. But at last the machine succumbed to the tremendous strain and gave out. Mrs. Palmer and Mrs. Field were compelled to leave their auto at Ragatz for repairs and return to St. Moritz, where they were congratulated warmly for their venturesome attempt.
At the close of the St. Moritz season the two Chicago women joined the American millionaire colony in Paris, where they have been the center of a series of brilliant social functions, At the recent ball at the Palace Elysdes, given by President and Mme. Fallleres, they shared with Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt the honors of being the most brilliant and most eagerly sought for among the throngs at that most splendid spectacle of Paris.
At the living picture show in Paris Mrs. Palmer upon this occasion wore a costume of black tulle, her only jewels being a magnificent dog collar of pearls. Mrs. Field wore a white pompadour costume, trimmed with bouquets of live roses, while festoons of deep red blossoms drooped from the broad brim of a big picture hat.
American Women Are Leading European Society.
American women at St. Moritz, at Lucerne, at Trouville, In fact, at every fashionable resort on the continent are taking the lead in social entertainments and naturally have introduced many new, charming, and novel features. At Lucerne, for instance, a number of American women gave a cotillon which closed with something entirely new by way of divertissement. At a given signal the lights were lowered and through a balcony window an airship 12 feet long glided gracefully into the ballroom. Before the excited exclamations of delight had ceased the airship broke open and a great shower of roses fell to the floor, forming a thick crimson, fragrant. Again the airship opened and a second shower, this time of unique cotillon favors, fell upon the carpet of roses.
Mrs. Vanderbilt Conspicuous at the Racing Meets.
Again, an American girl, Mrs. R. L. E1aton, won first prize in the international auto boat race. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt, true to her principles of following French rather than American modes when she is in France, has made Trouville her summer abiding place, where the notabilities of the theatrical, musical, sporting world assemble at this season of the year. Mrs. Vanderbilt has been steady in her allegiance to the racetrack and received many congratulations at the Trouville grand prix and again at the Deauville meet later, on both of which occasions the Vanderbilt horses carried the day. At both these events Mrs. Vanderbilt shared social honors with the Baroness Henri de Rothschild.
Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1907
LIVERPOOL, Sept. 7—The Cunard steamship Lusitania, the largest steamship ever built, sailed this evening on a 3,000 mile race against time across the Atlantic, and there is no one in England tonight but is convinced that by next Friday the greatest turbine steamer ever constructed will have won back for the Cunard line the laurels wrested from it ten years ago by the North Germaan Lloyd. The Lucania, a sister ship, sailed four hours ahead of the Lucitania. It also will be sent at top speed.
Fully 1000,000 persons witnessed the departure of the two liners. It was not an event merely for Liverpoolians, but for the entire nation. Special trains, motors, wagonettes, and every mode of conveyance brought thousands from the utmost corners of the kingdom. From early morning until the Lucania sailed, shortly before 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the throng was immense, but when, shortly after 9 o’clock tonight, a blast from the Lusitania’s whistle announced that the great vessel finally had started, the crowd of sightseers was simply enormous. Hundreds of thousands covered every vantage point from the Princess landing stage to Seafort.
Among the passengers who sailed on the Lusitania are:
Mrs. Potter Palmer, Robert P. Porter, George Peabody, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet, Richard Croker Jr.; Mrs. Croker, Miss Croker, W. P. Thompson, Robert Balfour, and Charles W. Clark of Chicago.
Railroad Gazette, Vol. XLIII, No. 15, October 11, 1907
Mrs. Potter Palmer, who came over from Liverpool on the Cunard steamship Lusitania, September 13, made the trip from Liverpool to Chicago in 6 days, 11 hours, 45 minutes, apparent time—or 6 days, 16 hours, 45 minutes, actual time. Mrs. Potter left Liverpool September 7, 9:10 p.m.; arrived New York, September 13, at noon; left by Pennsylvania special at 3:55 p.m.