THORNS AMONG ROSES
Presented March 16, 2009
To the Chicago Literary Club, Chicago, Illinois
Florence D. McMillan
THORNS AMONG ROSES
The subject is roses – dramatic, vibrant, intriguing. Thorny.
Five strong women, rising from fertile beginnings, of different stock. Dangerous when provoked.
Bertha Honore Palmer: 1850-1918
Medora, Marquise de Mores: 1856-1921
Alice Roosevelt Longworth: 1884-1980
Dorothy Parker: 1893-1967
Gloria Steinem: 1934-
These women were known, however briefly, to one another.
They had much in common.
They were all women of means.
They all smoked in public.
All but one had lovers.
And each had descended the grand staircase of the Plaza Hotel in New York at least once.
Bertha Honore Palmer, the first to be born, came up from Kentucky with her parents and was married at twenty-two to a successful merchant twice her age, Mr. Potter Palmer. Mr. Palmer was a partner with Marshall Field in a thriving and innovative retail venture which had made him wealthy and more than able to provide for Bertha. He presented to her as a wedding gift the Palmer House, the largest and most extravagantly appointed hotel in the Midwest, if not the country. Rudyard Kipling, never one to mince words, called it “a gilded and mirrored rabbit warren.”
More than once Potter Palmer called Bertha “his favorite extravagance.” Thirteen days after its completion the Palmer House burned to the ground. In a gesture which astonished Chicagoans, Palmer began immediately to rebuild it. The new, even grander, edifice was completed in just a year after the fire.
The palmers gave large, fancy dress balls for the local merchants and meat packers. Viewing his wife, receiving at the foot of the staircase, Palmer turned to a friend and said proudly, “There she stands … with two million on her!”
Even in jewels Bertha Palmer looked less like the Statue of Liberty than a ship under full sail. She was shortly to embark on the first, and probably most outstanding achievement, the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s World’s Fair, in 1893.
It was Bertha’s idea to build a large and impressive pavilion “for women and of women’s work.” She could have engineered this herself, or even given the necessary funds, but as a financially shrewd and socially adept woman, she chose to encourage “determined women everywhere” to demand that the United States Congress allocate $200,000 to assure the pavilion and create a Board of Lady Managers to undertake the completion of the Woman’s Building.
And the chairman was … The envelope, please, Mrs. Potter Palmer! One member of the all –male Board of Commissioners said that when he heard news of the appropriation and Bertha’s election, he felt a “dread chill.”
The first thorn was pressed in gently by Mrs. Palmer, who, in acknowledging the government’s funding of the Board of Lady Managers said,
“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus is the fact that the federal government has just discovered women.”
The Exposition was opened by the Infanta Eulalia, royal princess of Spain, whom Bertha referred to as “this bibulous representative of a degenerate monarchy.”
Her sharp tongue notwithstanding, Bertha Palmer made an impressive success of the Woman’s Building. For every person who entered an exhibit, ten visited the Woman’s Building. Huge tanks of water were placed on the island to provide water and toilet facilities. The Woman’s Building had lavatories, facilities for child care and breast feeding, and lounges so that mothers and families could rest. The visitors to the pavilion were entranced with the exhibits of crafts and handwork done by hundreds of women.
One of Bertha’s most prescient, if regretful, decisions was to display all of the offerings from each contributing country. Though some were, like the cucumbers at the county fair, humble; national pride was well served.
Mrs. Palmer’s closing address to Fairgoers, a treasure trove of thorny remarks, beside which all such reports will forever pale, told it like she thought it was. She said:
If we consider it an unwritten law that it is the duty of the husband and father to maintain his wife and children, then we must face the fact that the majority of men must be failures, for they are certainly today unable to accomplish this result with any comfort to themselves or families.
Bertha Palmer had used her energy, wealth, and prodigious talent to make the Woman’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition a success. And then, it must be noted that she wrote her OWN “Tribute to the Chairman!”
One obvious and well documented thorn in Bertha’s side was her neighbor, Mother Jones, a tough, well-spoken champion of the working class, who, upon reading in the newspaper that Mrs. Palmer would host a conference for 500 labor leaders and employers at her residence, was moved to write to her:
“I credit you with perfect sincerity in this matter, being fully aware that your environment and whole life has prevented you from seeing and understanding the TRUE RELATIONSHIP of the working class and the capitalist class, and the nature of the conflict.”
She goes on to say:
“Capitalists dragged me out of bed in Colorado and marched me at point of fixed bayonets to the border line of Kansas in the nighttime. The class whose representatives you will entertain did this to me. Other lawless acts have and are being committed every hour and will continue till the working class send representatives into the legislative halls of this nation. The workers are coming to understand this and, while respecting you, understand the uselessness of such conferences as will assemble in your mansion.”
For over 100 years attention has been drawn to Bertha Palmer through photographs of her mansion, her hotel, her costumes and jewelry. She was, in fact a shrewd investor and accountant, buying Impressionist paintings in France which now make up the bulk of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. She owned, at the time of her death, one-third of Sarasota County in the state of Florida. Called The Oaks, it was a 30,000 acre cattle farm, now the Myakha River State Park.
Her greatest and surely proudest accomplishment was to advance feminist causes and encourage women to find work. She is the earliest of these five women to consider the role of women in society.
If Bertha Palmer was an elegant long-stemmed beauty, Medora, the Marquise de Mores, is a contemporary more that her equal. Perhaps “Prairie Rose” is a more apt description of her place in the emerging West. Born in 1856, she was the daughter of Louis von Hoffman, a lesser, though wealthy, German baron, who was a founder of The Knickerbocker Club in New York City. It was always the intent of her parents to place her in a situation which allowed her to “marry up.” To that end they rented a grand chateau near Cannes, France in the hope that her beauty would present her with a suitably noble prospect.
Opportunity struck soon. Medora was married the next winter, 1884, to a dashing, St. Cyr –educated lieutenant; charming, handsome, and destitute. Her mother had selected a trousseau to fit her for New York society, and her father had purchased a medium-sized mansion on 5th Avenue for the young couple. To their great horror and ignored pleas, the Marquis plucked his bride from the bouquet of roses which surrounded her and placed her in the midst of the brambles of western North Dakota. The Marquis de Mores’ vision lay in the mauvais terres, the Dakota badlands, which glowed with burning lines of coal night and day, promising riches to the hardy, which Medora turned out to be.
After a transcontinental railway trip of more than a week, they descended onto the empty prairie and waited for the Marquis’ valet to install the tent in which they lived together for two months. Like bertha Palmer, the Marquise slept in satin sheets, which were made up for her on top of North Dakota’s thorny grasses. Accustomed to both wealth and staff, Medora took the bull by the horns and managed to finish the construction of a 17 room (as large as bertha’s) wood home, which she immediately christened “The Chateau.” It houses and slept her 15 servants on the top floor and accommodated her baby grand piano easily. Shortly thereafter she sent for her New York furnishings and installed the first bathroom com commode in North Dakota.
The natives, nearly all men, considered her to be royalty, and she acted that way. She ordered all the supplies and food, kept all the household accounts, and made the payroll. She both rode and hunted with the rough and ready cowboys who surrounded her. Her father, lacking a son, had trained her as a sharpshooter from his lodge on Staten Island. She killed partridge, pheasant, and bison. It has been historically substantiated that she shot three bears on one of these expeditions!
The Marquis had embarked upon his bold dream to build an abattoir, a slaughterhouse, and acquired immense herds of cattle in the middle of nowhere. He hired any and all men from his lawless settlement to fulfill his plan: to slaughter livestock, dress it on site, and load it onto refrigerated rail cars (a fairly new invention) to be shipped direct to markets on the east Coast. The cattle, coming off the range, would be fatter and he could cut out the middlemen.
The Marquis’ operation was at first successful, yet doomed to fail, as Bertha Palmer could have told him. Those middlemen were her husband’s formidable business associates. Philip Armour had already garnered two million on the broken back of the Confederacy by selling pork short. Gustavus Swift had already had the idea, joining with his friend Hormel to fill refrigerator cars directly from the Chicago stockyards. These men had turned meat into money, sows ears into silk, and linguistics into legislation. Their fortuned had already blossomed like the roses in their serge lapels. De Mores had grossly mis-estimated the depth and power of his enemies.
These titans of Chicago industry were fascinated by de Mores’ imagination and early success, but he was to them no more than a fly in the soup. When they called in their chips in New York and Boston , all the orders dried up and the Marquis was left without a market. Dozens of refrigerated rail cars were mysteriously unhitched and left on railroad tracks, loaded with rotting carcasses, leading to nowhere. De Mores had long since lost his fortune and could not pay his debts. He was a pariah in the eyes of both eastern and Midwest businessmen.
Medora herself had left a thorny trail in North Dakota. Her husband shot regularly with Theodore Roosevelt on the plains and along the Missouri River. But in the end he welched on the price of some beef he’d agreed to sell to the future President. Roosevelt’s sister, Bamie, who acted as his hostess after his wife’s death, informed him that although she “felt sorry for his poor wife”, she would not seat the Marquis at her table anywhere.
And then there was the matter of Riley Luffsey, Medora’s hunting guide.
More than one historical source suggests that both the Marquis and his wife had engaged in at least one love affair, leading to the supposition that Riley Luffsey, who was shot to death in a saloon by the Marquis, may have been that lover. Mores was acquitted at trial, but this shooting and the stain on his daughter’s reputation were, for von Hoffman, the last straw.
Quietly, but definitely, he paid the Marquis’ debts, settled a generous livelihood on Medora and her husband, and forbade them ever to return to the United States again.
Mores and Medora lived in Paris for many years until again, the Marquis embroiled himself in a duel, and Medora separated from him for good. In 1892 he embarked on a safari destined for Libya. He was never seen again. Reports in Paris suggested that he was killed by a tribe of Bedouins who surrounded him in the desert.
Medora, intrepid and insistent, as always, hired a pacquet boat in Marseille and set off for the Sahara, armed with these accounts, and assembled a party of adventurers and Moroccans to help her search for the body of the Marquis. At the end the others decamped, and she marked a spot at which she became convinced that he had been killed. Returning to France, she arranged for a life-sized bronze statue to be cast and installed in the desert.
Medora, Marquise de Mores, returned to Cannes, where she turned her home into a hospital for soldiers injured during World War One. Her accounts remained impeccable until the day of her death in 1921.Her chateau in North Dakota remained. The Marquis’ statue has disappeared. And the Palmers are entombed in Graceland Cemetery.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, 1884-1980 was the oldest of the six children of Theodore Roosevelt. She was born at the same time her father, teddy, was shooting buffalo with the Marquis de Mores . She won an Olympic medal in 1904, shortly after Medora and her disgraced husband left for Paris. Her “Auntie Bye”, who raised her until her father remarried, was none other than Roosevelt’s sister, Bamie, who had banned the Marquis from her dinner table. Alice was, for all intents and purposes turned over to her Aunt Bye because, it was said, she was “intractable.”
A gentler word for it was, of course, “thorny.” She loudly spurned Christianity, she placed bets with bookies – IN the White House, she jumped into pools and ran away to the Sumo matches while her father was ironing out the final touches of the Treaty of Portsmouth. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, she was invited to a White House dinner only once and nevermore for telling an off-color joke at Wilson’s expense.
She was her father’s favorite, though. He called her “my sweet little Alice Blue Gown”, a nickname made famous by the song. He is purported to have said to a colleague, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
Among other indiscretions, Alice was a political activist. She was a republican, but campaigned against her own husband when he ran for the U.S. Congress. He lost. One historian, a master of understatement, has said that “It caused a permanent chill in the marriage.” The ice thickened later when she admitted publicly that Senator William Borch was the father of her daughter, Pauline. Alice was against her husband, against the League of Nations, against President Taft (She set a voodoo doll on the White House lawn the day he moved in.) and against her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When the political columnist, Joseph Alsop, claimed that Wendell Willkie had grass-roots support, Alice replied, “Yes, the grass-roots of ten thousand country clubs!” Many years later, hearing that Alsop’s brother, Stewart, a political pundit, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Alice sent him roses with a personal note: “Dear Stew, What a nuisance.”
Alice had roses for few others. She had a pillow on her sofa which said,”If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.” Commenting on a Senator’s affair with a woman half his age, she said, “You can’t make a soufflé rise twice.”
Perhaps influenced by the social upheavals of the ‘60’s, she proclaimed herself “an honorary homosexual.” A lifelong Republican, she voted for John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 because she thought Goldwater was “too mean.” Surely that was the thorn calling the rose black!
Alice Longworth as political activist may not have had a heart of gold, but she certainly could provide a chuckle. Her most famous – and superb – masculine put-down was when she christened Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘the little man on the wedding cake.”
Because she lived to the age of 96, Alice Longworth spanned the lifetimes of all of these five women. In the cases of Parker and Steinem she interacted with them. Sharing their causes, protesting as they did, she said to Joseph McCarthy during his Senate Investigations of Communism in America:
The truck man, the trash man, and the policeman on the
Block may call me Alice, but you may not.”
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), the poet and critic, was arrested in 1916 for protesting the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti and charged with “loitering and sauntering.” Thought of as an ironic and cynical commentator (She invented the expressions “behind the 8 ball” and “grass widow”) Parker’s wisecracks and wit are poignant in the French sense, whose word for it is “fist”. Her social comments and protests were more that barbed. Her role as organizer of the Screenwriters Guild was responsible in part for her inclusion on Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “Black List”, which destroyed dozens of Hollywood careers. In 1948 she smashed signs on Sunset Boulevard in protest of his investigations. She was made to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
Her entire estate was left to Martin Luther King,Jr. shortly before his assassination. Her ashes, gone missing for 17 years, were claimed by the NAACP, which buried them with her chosen epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”
Gloria Steinem, the pre-eminent leader of women’s rights in the late twentieth century, knew Dorothy Parker during her last years and appreciated her as both thorn and catalyst. Steinem described her as a precursor of the new feminism, saying that she understood the double standards that stood in the way of equality.
Steinem, through her active involvement in this generation’s social justice agendas, many of them initiated by her, has been largely credited for the success of the women’s liberation movement. Her platform of respect, rewarding work, and equal treatment has made her the champion of class, gender, and race. She is now – tempus fugit – seventy-five years old.
Steinem’s parents divorced when she was eight years old. She lived, mostly with her older sister, in Washington, D.C.until she attended Smith College, a single-sex school. At Smith she was a vocal proponent of feminist issues, continuing the debate over women’s enfranchisement begun by suffragettes (her grandmother among them) fifty years earlier. She pointed out that women had not been “given the vote”; they had won it.
Shortly after her graduation from Smith in 1956, she went to England to have an abortion. This experience led her to join the Redstockings, a group of women working to change the abortion laws in New York State, and began a lifetime championing of a woman’s right to reproductive choice.
In spite of a plethora of notable accomplishments, Steinem is, even today, solely identified by many for a classic of investigative journalism which she wrote for Show Magazine in the Fifties. She applied for a job as a Playboy Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s club. She was hired and worked “undercover”, writing an article to expose the poor working conditions and meager wages of these women.
Steinem says today that the article, for which she was derided and patronized by the media, damaged her credibility as a serious feminist more than anything she wrote. Her career was journalism; her cause was women’s rights. She was prolific, writing for New York Magazine, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and often for The Washington Post and the New York Times.
In 1972 she launched MS Magazine, as Editor-in-Chief. Within a year the magazine had half a million subscribers and continues today as an influential and financial success. It is significant to note that in 1907 Mother Jones wrote her letter to Bertha Palmer. In 1995 Gloria Steinem wrote an article in Mother Jones, a national magazine known as a forum for race and class issues.
Most people are aware of Gloria Steinem as a social and political activist. She sat-in in Selma for racial equality. The Viet Nam war protests galvanized her efforts and gave her a larger purpose – to mobilize the feminist movement, which had lain dormant until the mid- sixties. Her issues were political office for women and equal pay for equal work. “Years of being ‘chicks, dogs, and cows’” she said, “have led to the desire to label men as male chauvinist pigs.” She allied herself with the New Left and the Kennedy administration, but when Richard Daley was at the 1968 Democratic Convention, Steinem was in Chicago – in Lincoln Park. Politics make strange bed-persons!
If Gloria Steinem is the face of feminism, three events in which she played an important role have permanently changed the social climate of the United States. The first is her formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. Growing out of the Women’s action alliance, which battled race and class-based discrimination, the National Women’s Political caucus, initiated by Steinem, gave women a significant and powerful voice in legislative and judicial processes.
During this period, Steinem and millions of her “sisters” lobbied for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment referendum, which failed to pass. At the time Alice Longworth said:
Woman suffrage has made little difference beyond doubling the number of voters. There is no Woman’s Vote as such. They divide up just about as men do.” The National Women’s Political Caucus didn’t agree, but Alice’s father probably did.
The most stunning development, one Steinem had worked for long and hard, was the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, in which the Court ruled that the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy protects a woman’s right to choose abortion.
Steinem’s detractors describe her as “a tough broad” or a “Bunny Tale “. She is a difficult thorn in the sides of many. The even-handed might say that she has been an outspoken leader who took a vague notion of “Woman’s Lib” and forged it into a new possibility for women.
I wish to conclude with the voices of two women a century apart:
Bertha Honore Palmer - in 1893
“Should men discover at any time in the future that they are capable of assuming the entire maintenance of the home, women can undoubtedly be persuaded to give up the tedious and wearing grind of the factory, the shop, and the office, to turn to higher service.”
Gloria Steinem – in 1995
“The goal now is to complete ourselves. Progress for women lies in becoming more assertive and ambitious. Progress for men will lie in becoming more compassionate, more comfortable working inside the home.”
Bertha Palmer, Medora von Hoffman, Dorothy Parker, Alice Longworth, Gloria Steinem:
Born into advantaged circumstances
Challenged by difficulty.
These are women of confidence and action who continue to give us food for thought. They present a continuum of purpose and vision, and a partial answer to Sigmund Freud’s agonized question:
“What does woman want? Dear God, what does she want!”
Perhaps, sometimes, a rose is not enough.
“Closing Address by Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer,”Oldham, ed., The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, Word’s Columbian exposition, Chicago, U.S.A.,Chicago, U.S.A., 1893. Pub. Eagle: Monarch Book Co., Chicago, Illinois, 1894, pp.820-824
Http://www.chicagohistoryjournal.com:Labor and the Lady: An Unusual Pairing. October, 2008.
Letter of Mother Jones to Bertha Honore Palmer, January 12, 1907. Published in Miners Magazine, January 24, 1907.
“Financier to the World”: Pub. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, updated 10/16/72. Passim pp10-72.
“Medora Vallombrosa, The Marquise de Mores”:State Historical Society of North Dakota, original mss: Boxes 176-182
Parker, Dorothy. Collected poems, 1904-1964: Pub. Knopf, 1966.
Http://www.Smithsonian Museum Archives: Biography: Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Ed. 2005
Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, second edition: Pub. Henry Holt and Co., New York. Op.cit.p. 171.