Mrs Potter Palmer of Chicago
By Caroline Kirkland
|Mrs. Potter Palmer|
It is difficult to say with whom the idea originated that women should be officially recognized in the Columbian Exposition. When the National Commission was organized, each of the commissioners (there were two from each state in the Union) was empowered to appoint a woman from his state to the Board of Women Managers. In addition, President Thomas B. Palmer, of the National Commission, appointed nine women from Chicago, among whom was Mrs. Potter Palmer. The only powers Congress had granted this Board of Women Managers was to be represented on the juries of awards. They met first in Chicago.
At this initial meeting the first of the dangers which were to beset the new undertaking hove in sight. A rather loud-voiced minority, champions of the Woman's Rights cause—Equal Suffrage is, I believe, the more acceptable term—saw an opportunity to advance their cause, and sought with might and main to take advantage of it. But the energetic minority succeeded only in uniting the majority into one way of thinking. They did not want the board to fall under the sway of the equal suffragists. So they promptly selected as presidential candidate a woman of whom they knew little except that she was of charming address and was not a woman's suffragist. Excellent politicians as women are, and seeing that they were outnumbered, the undaunted minority wheeled around and supported the same candidate. They knew nothing of her except that she was inexperienced in public life. Therefore they hoped for great things from the union of her inexperience with their experience. It was a leap in the dark that soon landed them on the hard pavement of disappointment.
When Mrs. Potter Palmer was unanimously elected president of the board, she had never presided at a meeting of any kind in her life. She was utterly inexperienced in managing bodies of women. The Board of Women Managers was a new departure—a collection of untried women in a fresh field without either precedent definite direction or object, and further, it was a gathering of many different kinds of women with widely varying aims and views. To weld this chaotic mass into a harmonious whole, to turn it along a path of credit to the board and to the country at large, was a task to try a woman of the widest executive experience.
What manner of woman was this who at a bound emerged from private life and secured recognition of woman's part in the industrial world, who attracted a new dignity to women workers? She was, in the first place, a woman of remarkable beauty, of great charm, of domestic and refined tastes, and whose life had hitherto been devoted to her family to the exclusion of many claims. Before her marriage Mrs. Palmer was Bertha Honore, of a very well-known Kentucky family. Her father, H. H. Honore, moved to Chicago from Louisville in 1854. As one may judge from the name, the family is of French origin. Mr. Honore's grandfather, a younger son of a distinguished French family, came over from France in t h e latter part of the last century, and settled eventually in Louisville, where he made what was considered in those days a large fortune—something between four and five hundred thousand dollars. Mrs. Honore was a Miss Carr, of Kentucky, the Kentucky Carrs being a branch of the well-known family of that name in Maryland. A woman of great beauty, gentleness and force, Mrs. Honore is the center of her home circle.
|Mr. Potter Palmer|
Bertha Honore, the second born in the family, with her sister Ida (afterwards Mrs. Fred Grant) went to the convent school at Georgetown, where, in 1869, Bertha graduated at the head of her class. She then returned to her home in Chicago. A large and pleasant home it was of the kind now almost disappeared from the great modern metropolis; a square, hospitable-looking, red brick mansion with broad verandas. When housing the Honores, it was a home full of the life and gayety that a family of four sons and two daughters naturally attracts.
In 1870 Miss Honore married Potter Palmer, who was many years older than she. Potter Palmer was a rich and prominent merchant of Chicago. Miss Honore was a beautiful, dark-eyed, dark haired girl, with, those who knew her at that time say, the slimmest waist in town. To this day Mrs. Palmer's slender, graceful figure is one of her attractions. In 1871 the Chicago fire swept away a large part of Mr. Palmer's wealth, leaving him a comparatively poor man. At once he set out to retrieve his fortune, while his young wife devoted herself to her home and to the bringing up of her two sons, Honore and Potter Palmer, Jr.
Meanwhile, her sister Ida, who had married Col. Frederick Grant, eldest son of the great general, had gone to New York to live. She also had two children, Julia and Ulysses. Occupied with domestic cares, probably neither of these young mothers had time for visions of the important part each was to play in her circle. In 1888, Col. Grant was appointed American Minister to Austria. There Mrs. Grant made for herself in that most exclusive of courts an especial place. She was received in many a circle that had hitherto been closed even to diplomatic representatives. The charming grace and manner which distinguishes Mrs. Grant, as well as Mrs. Palmer, is probably due to the union of the courtly French and the genial Kentucky ancestry. Nothing so distinguishes these two sisters as the simple, unconscious way in which they have accepted the honors that have befallen them. Neither has been spoiled by her fame and prominence, nor has either allowed the demand of the world to affect her home life. This is a striking quality, and one worthy of note in this day and generation, when blood-ties seem loosening and the old family feelings dying out.
In the months succeeding the first gathering of the Board of Women Managers Mrs. Palmer thought out for the board a policy to be pursued and an objective point to be reached. On the one hand, the suffragists, the temperance advocates and every woman or body of women with a hobby were clamoring for recognition and help. On the other hand, the large mass of indigent female workers yearned to fill the Woman's Building with crazy quilts and statues made out of butter. With delicate firmness Mrs. Palmer put all these offers of assistance and contributions on one side and steered her ship and crew through shoals and past reefs to the safe harbor. She organized her great, unwieldy board into a splendid working body, which, scattered over the land to north, south, east and west, carried its work and mission into the farthermost corners of this great country and interested every woman in every community in the aims and objects of the board. Each commissioner who crossed the seas to tell the rest of the world what we were preparing here took with him a special commission from Mrs. Palmer.
Residence of Mr. Potter Palmer on the Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
On one occasion, Mrs. Palmer, by appointment, met at dinner eight or ten of these commissioners to foreign parts. To each she gave an especial task, instructing each one clearly how to go about it and showing herself entirely familiar with the subject. Each found that his commission necessitated close and exhaustive study to arrive at Mrs. Palmer's knowledge of it and to accomplish what she desired. Day and night she toiled to enable herself to direct intelligently the good-sized army of workers which looked to her for leadership. Mr. Palmer says that frequently in those times he would wake in the late hours of the night and find his wife sitting up and making notes or writing letters by the light beside her bed. And this was the woman who a few months before had never known any other life than that of a society woman in a luxurious home, a life that gave little scope to her ambition, will power and executive ability. But the ambition was not for herself, but for that which she had undertaken. Never did the leader of a great enterprise direct it so unostentatiously, or with so evident a desire for self-subordination. Now here you will say that I am wrong, that all the acclaim and fame which have come to Mrs. Palmer would be incense to any nostrils. True; and Mrs. Palmer appreciates well-earned recognition and praise as much as anyone. Yet the notoriety that is the breath of life to many a woman - and to many a man, also - in public life, and which is manifested in published pictures and articles in newspapers and periodicals, and in a minute journalistic record of daily comings and goings, is not only not sought by her, but is so distasteful that it is exceedingly difficult for a would-be biographer of hers to find even the barest outline of her life in print.
This brings me to what I think might be called her most salient and noteworthy characteristic. When it was said that the Columbian Exposition had discovered women, it must be admitted that this was only partly true. If the discovery had not been previously made it was simply because the search had never before been organized. Woman has not hid her light under a bushel, but has been industriously discovering herself for the past half century. There have been some excellent results and a few regrettable ones. Among the latter is the public woman of to-day, the one marked with a large P. W.; the one who never lets you forget her prominence or her mission; whose oratorical voice and enunciation can be heard at peaceable, well-ordered dinner tables and over the tranquilizing tea cups, and whose husband walks a few feet behind her in the streets, and is spoken of as Mrs. So-and-So's husband. So far is Mrs. Palmer removed from this species that you might talk with her for hours, you might know her well, and yet never learn from her that she had played one of the most conspicuous roles in the annals of her time. Her public and private life are completely divorced, and she resembles in this the best type of statesman who, fresh from crises of national moment, can give himself up to the discussion of the latest novel or the newest rose. This shows a mind under complete control and a thoroughly subordinated egoism, given mental powers of such caliber, clothed with a manner which, that while most gentle and cordial, yet has a superstructure of dignity and self-respect, and you have a very notable personality. To put the glow of life into this personality one must have seen Mrs. Palmer in her family relations. Then o n e realizes her devoted and affectionate nature, which she hides under the impersonal reserve with which she meets the world.
Owing either to discretion, tact or kindliness—probably to a mingling of the three, Mrs. Palmer is never known to speak unkindly or with severe criticism of any one. Yet she is an excellent judge of human nature; but her attitude might be described as one of gentle friendliness and genial tolerance. That she is not one to be imposed easily upon, however, was evidenced on one occasion when she was giving a large cotillion. At the eleventh hour the caterer and waiters who had been engaged struck for higher pay, thinking that the wealthy Mrs. Palmer, under the pressure of circumstances, would be at their mercy. The guests were about to arrive, the hour was late, and the city sources of supply presumably closed. Yet Mrs. Palmer resolutely turned the faithless caterer and his flunkies out and in a few hours had secured other waiters and another supper.
Mrs. Palmer and her sister,
Mrs. Frederick Dent Grant
When Chicago spread a feast for the world in 1893 such as had never before been seen and probably never will be seen again, and invited the nations to come and celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, Mrs. Potter Palmer, President of the Board of Women Managers, was one of the hosts of the occasion. Under her direction, the huge, unwieldy board had developed into a fine, orderly, hard-working, harmonious band of women, having definite aims and already a sense of achievement. The Woman's Building was among the first buildings ready, and already justified itself by the crowds that visited it for rest, refreshment and recreation. Mrs. Palmer's practical turn of mind was shown by the policy she had mapped out for the board. Her aim was to present for recognition the important part played by women in the industrial world. To quote roughly her own words: Hitherto women had never achieved pre-eminence in art, in literature or in science. It was time to recognize that their forte lay in the industrial and economic world. For centuries women had been called upon to make one dollar, or its equivalent, do the work of two. This had trained them in practical ways to an extent unrecognized hitherto. Now was the time to emphasize this fact and to have it appreciated. Emphasized and appreciated it was by statistics, exhibits, and in every possible way. The work and exhibition of the Board of Women Managers was one of the features of the fair, and was due largely to the great common sense and clear head of this one woman.
All that summer she entertained both in her own home and in the Woman's Building, and thousands carried away with them bright visions and memories of her lavish hospitality and gracious personality. The infinite tact, unwearied patience and universal considerateness which she unfailingly showed during those arduous six months won for her a world-wide fame, so that to-day her name is known from the jungles of Africa to the Arctic regions. In fact, among the icebergs of the North there is a little Esquimaux boy born at the World's Fair and called by his fond parents, with an Esquimaux regardlessness of sex, "Mrs. Potter Palmer."
|Ulysses S. Grant, Cadet at West Point|
The year after the World's Fair, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer made an extended tour in Europe and Egypt. She received a distinguished and universal welcome, equaling that accorded a half a century before to George William Curtis and later to General Grant. In every country, at every court, Mrs. Palmer was entertained with special honors. Everywhere she gave the same impression of beauty and charm. The Queen of Belgium was particularly attracted by this representative of a young country and of Western civilization. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer visited the queen at her famous chateau at Spa. Yet when Mrs. Palmer returned to her native land after these certainly unusual social triumphs one never learned of them from her.
Having accomplished her World's Fair mission, Mrs. Palmer returned to private life, firmly declining any further public honors such as our social institutions offer to women. She seemed to be definitely settled in the conventional position of a society leader, for which both nature and circumstances had well fitted her. Then arose the question of appointing a woman to the Board of Commissioners to represent this country at the Paris Exposition. Mrs. Palmer was pre-eminently the woman for the place. She knew this and also she knew that she had more work to do to round off properly that which she had sought to accomplish at the Chicago Exposition. But there was an element at Washington that did not realize this. Opposition, instead of disheartening her, only strengthened her determination. Bringing all her ability and tact to bear, she again successfully achieved her aim. She was appointed as the one woman commissioner on the board. She is now acting in this capacity in Paris. Her special purpose there, and one which she has gained, was to have women included on the juries of award. She was unwilling that the work so well begun in this country seven years ago should Mrs. Potter Palmer be allowed to drop. Her desire is that it shall henceforth be a matter of course for women to work with men in judging and making awards. It is due entirely to her that this innovation has been adopted at Paris, and this done, she feels that she has fulfilled her special mission.
|Potter Palmer, Jr.|
Lest you should begin to feel that this is no woman, but merely an impossible union of desirable but unattainable traits, let me describe Mrs. Palmer. Mrs. Palmer is of medium height and of noticeably graceful carriage. She has dark eyes, and a clear, olive complexion. When she smiles she shows two rows of perfect teeth. Her voice, which is not full, and has a languorous quality, has nevertheless great carrying power, and, with apparently little effort, she can make herself easily heard in a large hall. The years, instead of taking from her beauty, have really added to it by crowning her with a silvery coiffure that a French marquise might envy. She is one of the few women who can wear jewels becomingly. She is very fond of them, and has a collection of pearls rivaled only by those of Queen Margherita of Italy. Indeed, there is a story that when the Infanta Eulalie came in all her jewels to the splendid ball Mrs. Palmer gave for her during the summer of the World's Fair, and found her hostess radiant in gems which far surpassed her own, the Infanta became so sulky and cross that it was almost impossible to induce her to stand up beside Mrs. Palmer to receive the guests.
Mrs. Palmer has many friends, but few—very few—are admitted to that close intimacy which too many women is a necessary element in life. She has a cheerful, even temperament which is not at all subject to moods or changes. This is either the result or the source of the perfect physical health which has enabled her to accomplish so much real, wearing work, work which would have undermined the physique and nerves of nine out of ten men of affairs. Despite all that she undertakes, she is one of those remarkable characters that are never hurried and never tired. Fate has been kind to this gifted woman, and as far as possible material considerations of the sort which vex the ordinary mortal have been eliminated from her life. People may sigh under the responsibilities of great wealth, but they are in the end easier to bear than the daily struggle of buttering a large slice of bread with a small dab of butter.
Mrs. Palmer in her own home in Chicago is a jewel in its right setting. The great house has been the scene of many princely festivities. It is of very stately dimensions and well adapted to entertaining. Entering at the front door, one finds oneself in a good-sized circular hall, with marble floors, carved columns, and adorned with fine statues and spreading palms. Opening off this hall to the left is the splendid library, a large, lofty room fitted up in dark oak, elaborately carved, and further decorated with a brilliantly painted frieze by John Elliott. The adjoining room is a very richly ornamented little Moorish reception-room, beyond which is the dining-room, an apartment of fine proportions and rather heavy decorations. Outside of these three rooms, and opening into all of them, is a large and very beautiful conservatory. Through its palms, tropical shrubbery and vines one can look out on winter days across vast tracts of wind-swept, ice-bound lake, which from the snow-clad Lake Shore Drive, stretch away to the horizon, recalling Arctic scenes. In marked contrast to the bleak and dreary wastes without are the light, luxury and warmth within.
To the right of the front door is another little reception-room, a sort of ante-chamber, in which hang some fine works of art, and adjoining this room is the great, beautiful, brilliant Louis XVI salon, where Mrs. Palmer usually receives her guests. The decorations are white and gold, and the lighting is at once soft and dazzling, shedding an equally becoming glow on the splendid jade ornaments adorning the exquisite white marble chimney-piece, the art treasures in the cabinets, the fine pictures on the walls, and the guests who are gathered to enjoy it all.
Beyond this salon is the art gallery, a vast, princely hall in which hangs one of the finest collections of modern pictures in this country. At one end broad, low steps lead up to a smaller gallery which opens with a great archway into the large one. In this smaller hall hang the gems of the collection, among them being Zorn's famous portrait of Mrs. Palmer. Here Mrs. Palmer often entertains at dinner, and the scene is one of unforgettable magnificence, recalling some of Veronese's famous pictures. The huge table, laid for twenty-four guests, is set with something of the same simple splendor of those old Venetian days. At each end will be a great gold candelabrum holding a dozen candles. At the four corners stand tall, slender, gold pitchers. In the center of the table and at the ends will be a mass of white flowers and green leaves. A few smaller gold dishes, together with the Venetian goblets at each place, complete the adornments. This table is spread at the head of the broad stairs leading to the larger gallery, and so overlooks the latter, and forms a brilliant picture.
Mrs. Palmer is very fond of her attractive niece, whose picture is included in this article. It was while traveling with her aunt that Miss Julia Grant met in Rome Prince Cantacuzene, whom she married a year ago. He is of a well-known Russian family. Her young brother, Ulysses S. Grant, is following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps in choosing a military career.
In all her rather difficult and certainly unusual public career Mrs. Palmer has found in her husband a most able counselor and helper. Even her infinite tact, unless aided by his excellent judgment, would hardly have enabled her to pass successfully through many of the difficult situations she has met.
|Mrs. Potter Palmer|
To introduce such a large element of Mrs. Palmer's surroundings, so many of the details of the lives of members of her own family, I have been impelled by the fact that Mrs. Palmer identifies herself so completely in her daily life with her home and her family connections. She would shun anything that drew her outside of this intimate family relationship. She is intensely dependent on it for her own strength and peace of mind. She is deeply concerned and interested in every event and condition in the careers of her brothers and sisters, and if she is a source of pride to them they are an equal source of satisfaction to her. It is very rare to find such a union of warm heart and genial nature with such remarkable mental gifts. That these last were demonstrated on such a large and conspicuous scale is undoubtedly due to circumstances. The Mrs. Palmer of world-wide fame is a product of opportunity. Had it not been for the Columbian Exposition it is probable that her talents would have been confined to her personal sphere of influence where they would have been appreciated, but never fully realized.
From Ainslee’s Magazine, October 1900.