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Lake Forest Country Places: Countess Gizycki’s Little Cottage

Lake Forest Country Places XXVII:

The Countess Gizycki’s “Little Cottage,”
90 North Ahwahnee Road

One of a series of articles by Arthur Miller, Archivist and Librarian for Special Collections at Lake Forest College, originally published in the Lake Forest Journal, 1994-1997; some have been replaced or updated.

Two new books relating to Cissy have appeared in the fall of 2011: Megan McKinney’s very readable the Magnificent Medills… (HarperCollins) and Amanda Smith’s engrossing and comprehensive biography, Newspaper Titan… (Knopf; a C-Span interview with Smith about Newspaper Titan… is available online). Both books draw on archival sources and illustrations in Special Collections’ J. M. Patterson collections to add to the story laid out here now many years ago….

Eleanor Medill Patterson (1881-1948), known as Cissy, was the granddaughter both of Lake Forest founder Rev. Robert W. Patterson and of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill. She was one of only fifteen Chicago women to marry prominent titled Europeans before 1915, according to Frederick C. Jaher in his 1982 U. of Illinois Press book entitled The Urban Establishment. In Cissy’s case the noble alliance in 1904 was with Count Joseph Gizycki of pre-Revolutionary Russia, a striking figure with a distinguished noble pedigre. By 1909, though, this particular coming together of prairie pockets and patrician panache had failed quite sensationally and Cissy returned to her native Chicago area with her tiny nobly-born daughter, Felicia, in tow. For about three years this remarkable scion both of proper old Presbyterian Lake Forest and also of the newly-rich power elite of the prairie-empire capital city thirty miles south caught this town’s attention and, indeed, put it on the map. What her daugther later called a “little cottage,” 90 North Ahwahnee Road, was her ample rented country place — designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw and built in 1907 apparently by Louis Swift on land of his directly west of and facing the Onwentsia club house for his daughter, Bessie Ethel, and her new husband, Charles Fernald. (See Emma Lee Walton, “First Families of Chicago” series article on the Swift family, Chicago Herald-Examiner, Sunday, November 13, 1932; a copy of a scrapbook of these columns is in the Lake Forest College library’s Special Collections.)

For gaining an insight into an era which could have termed this comfortably-scaled house a “little cottage” Cissy’s story provides a good example. Understanding the power of Chicago’s elite Republican paper in the those days — when the city was at its imperial zenith and before air travel, radio, television, or the Internet — is difficult now. But then the Chicago Tribune had unprecedented economic and political clout, known around the world. In 1997 the daily that Cissy’s cousin Robert R. McCormick would label “The World’s Greatest Newspaper” celebrates its Sesquicentennial, one-hundred and fifty years of business in Chicago and the nation. In the days of Chicago’s railroad hegemony in the heart of a newly continental United States and before radio the Tribune’s grip on the midwestern economy and upper middle class mind was great indeed. Joseph Medill, from his arrival in Chicago in 1855 until his death in 1899, rose from editing to publishing and owning much of the paper he made powerful. Through his two daughters, Elinor (Patterson) and Kate (McCormick), he founded a media dynasty which would reach its height in the 1930s with papers in Chicago, New York and Washington plus a mighty radio station (WGN for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”), vast timber holdings in Canada, and a powerful national news syndicate. Elinor married Robert W. Patterson, Jr., who attended Lake Forest Academy as a youth and after Joseph Medill’s death edited and published the Chicago Tribune until his own death in 1910. Kate married Robert S. McCormick, a relation of the powerful reaper family, who was ambassador to the pre-Revolutionary Russian court early in this century. Cissy, born on November 7, 1881, grew up with Chicago’s elite and into the full flower of the city’s golden age.

Of course, this elite cringed a little under the eastern and European image of being the biggest in “Porkopolis’s” mud-puddle — benefiting from the success of men like Philip Armour and his son, J. Ogden, and Gustavus Swift and his able son, Louis. These — along with Cudahys, Wilsons and others — adapted the methods of the industrial revolution to meatpacking and distribution by rail from Chicago. That this incredible efficiency was not without some human cost had been pointed out by Upton Sinclair in his socialist novel, The Jungle, in 1906 and by muckraker journalists like young Ernest Poole whose family place was on the site of the house of Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed (later Mrs. Stanley Keith) at 1315 North Lake Road. But generally the marvel of Chicago meatpacking fed and spellbound the world. The southside Chicago Stockyards was perhaps the biggest tourist attraction for foreign visitors in that day. Louis Swift’s substantial Lake Forest estate, “Westleigh,” centered on his house — part of which survives, designed in 1916 by Howard Shaw, at 255 East Foster Place: even this one wing still extant is like a compact, handsome palace of brick and stone. The Swift estate wrapped around the new Onwentsia Club and to the west, with riding stables and a ring west of the club. It was near this, just to the north, that Louis had Shaw build a house for his daughter Bessie and her new husband. This writer has been informed by Howard Shaw researcher Virginia Greene that this match didn’t flourish; soon the house was for rent.

Ralph G. Martin, in his biography Cissy: The Extraordinary Life of Eleanor Medill Patterson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), covers his subject’s Lake Forest interlude — from about 1909 to 1913 — in some detail. This year, too, both Megan McKinney in The Magnificent Medills… and Amanda Smith in her thorough and fast-paced biography of Cissy (Newspaper Titan…) drawing on much new material including from the Patterson collections here have advanced this story mightily. For the years of Cissy’s marriage to the dashing Count Gizycki Martin appears to have drawn on Cissy’s own fictionalized account in her 1920s novel, Fall Flight (cataloged under “Gizycka”). This still is a thrilling account or version of this then-innocent midwestern young woman’s experience. She begins by falling in love (“I thought of him every hour of every day… and all night too,” Martin quotes Cissy or her fictional alter ego saying on p. 69) while in imperial St. Petersburg and Vienna, where Cissy’s Aunt Kate and uncle Robert S. McCormick were serving in the diplomatic corps. Then follows her stormy courtship and marriage in 1904 against family wishes, and finally her ultimate disillusionment at the raggedy ancestral “seat” of the Gizyckas on the steppes half-way between Warsaw and Kiev. Amanda Smith’s new biography expands greatly on the dynamics of this complex story of cissy’s first marriage and the aftermath. The eventual divorce documents, in the Joseph Medill Patterson papers in the Lake Forest College library’s Special Collections, corroborate Fall Flight’s tale of physical abuse and ultimate escape, though as Smith shows from a southern French villa not the remote Gysicka estate house. As the Count sought unsuccessfully the funds he thought he was due from the marriage to the “Porkopolis” heiress to recoup his estate’s fortunes, little Felicia became a pawn in an international chess game reported breathlessly in the world press. Cissy’s brother, Joe (whose estate was on the north side of Route 60 just east and west of Milwaukee Road) “called the Count ‘a blackmailer, baby snatcher, a drunk and an adulterer’” for which the Count sued him for $1 million in damages. Only an appeal by President William Howard Taft to the Czar finally got Felicia released to her mother. Says Martin “The scandal made Cissy a celebrity.” Smith’s book puts this episode into a much richer background of national and global politics along with sometimes poisonous family rivalries.

So in 1909 Cissy and little Felicia arrived in Lake Forest, settling down in what hardly would have been a low-profile location: regally looking eastward toward the Onwentsia Club and in sight of everybody moving across the fashionable golf links. Indeed, the house at 90 North Ahwahnee Road is pictured from a postcard of the day in the plates following p. 128 in Martin’s biography: “Residence of Countess Gizycka, Lake Forest, Illinois.”* Smith’s new biography draws both on views of Onwentsia horse shows and also of Cissy onstage at the local Aldis playhouse on Deerpath (from this collection) to characterize the heiress/countess living here. Felicia’s social life is chronicled in a scrapbook of the late Bertha Browne’s in the College library’s special collections: parties she attended with little girls were written up in the Society pages. She was shadowed by a detective, which girlfriend Jane (Warner, Mrs. Edison) Dick recalled later. With the detective nearby little Felicia played with Elinor and Alicia, uncle Joe’s daughters, in the cornfields around the site where Westfield-Hawthorne Shopping Center spreads itself today, west of Lake Forest. As Martin quotes Mrs. Dick, “I always thought how fabulous it was to have [the detective] around. It made everything fascinating and scary” (p. 130).

Cissy, though, showed the stress of her time abroad. But she set about recovering in her own way. She apparently had not-totally-discrete affairs with both polo-playing Freddie McLaughlin who lived on North Green Bay Road and also with the German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, with evidence of the latter brought forward by Smith and its relation to Chicago Tribune and U.S. national neutrality from 1914 to early 1917.

But Interestingly Cissy’s colorful moment in Lake Forest coincided with the Chicago Literary Renaissance’s high-point and the success of the Lake Forest Players, the amateurs who acted in Mary Aldis’s Playhouse on her estate, about where Open Lands Park sits today. Cissy’s brother, Joe, pursuaded her to act in a one-act play he’d written, “Dope,” and Cissy found her metier. This crowd-pleaser which focussed on a social-elite hypocracy about the benefits of illegal activities was the centerpiece of a group of one-acts the Aldis troupe took into Chicago and then to Boston, according to scrapbooks in the Patterson collections, drawing favorable reviews and gaining attention for the new vogue in amateur theatricals. This amateur-created theater movement was an antimodern response to mass-produced Victorian-era roadshows and the new nickelodeons, early movies; also it was the immediate precursor of the new drama of Eugene O’Neill and others. Cissy was a sensation in this and many other one-acts and only recently has researcher Edet Belsky found the explanation for her not pursuing a theatrical career: a letter from her purse-strings-controling mother, in the Patterson Papers, ordering her to quit the stage. It would take many more men, two novels, and a string of towns and cities before Cissy again would find her voice — as editor of Hearst’s Washington Herald in the 1930s (which she bought by 1939, as the Washington Times-Herald). But in Lake Forest for a brief time around 1912 her opportunity to channel her abilities, charisma, and deep emotions into stage roles gave her life balance and, relatively, order.

Martin reports that Joe Patterson had written about such unfocussed privileged women as Cissy in his 1908 novel, Little Brother of the Rich — a decade before women won the right to vote. But it was Lake Forest’s Mary Aldis herself who wrote a similarly episodic novel most likely inspired by Cissy’s story, Drift, published by Duffield in 1918. Martin says that Cissy “very much felt herself one of the rudderless, inconsequential, drifting women her brother had written about.” Today we can’t know what she felt. But Mary Aldis’ still very readable Drift, written by Cissy’s sympathetic drama mentor not long after the Countess’s tumultuous Lake Forest sojourn, amplifies and brings to life the women of this class and pre-Women’s-Suffrage time as found in the better-known Little Brother of the Rich.

The Patterson saga played out over four generations in Lake Forest — from the town’s founding by Rev. Robert W. Patterson in the mid 1850s and his serving as the first president of Lake Forest College in 1875-77 and from Robert Jr.’s attendance at Lake Forest Academy to Joe and Cissy’s dramatic lives here before World War I and to little Felicia’s detective dogged round of parties. In 1985 a very gracious Felicia Magruder visited Lake Forest again when the Patterson Papers first were made available to researchers. She visited the home of this writer and his family, bringing with her echoes of imperial Russia, of turn-of-the-century Vienna, and of Lake Forest’s golden age. Felicia had married columnist Drew Pearson and others too, but in 1985 she seemed nostalgic and at peace in a world far different than she’d known when she lived here before World War I.

The white-shingled house at 90 North Ahwahnee Road remains today unchanged from its street-scape appearance around 1912, at the crest of an expansive lawn. Though more sequestered behind a tall fence and with evergreens even blocking somewhat the facade view from the driveway entrance, still the noble simplicity of Shaw’s signature English traditional hipped-roof design and Georgian detailing show through in outline from the opening in the fence. This was a summer place and the south-facing porches remain, though enclosed, integrated into the simple mass of the house itself as in other Shaw places like the Barrell place at 855 East Rosemary. Nearby, also, the oval drive at 1 North Ahwahnee Road used to be a training ring for the Swift horses, adjacent to the old stables.

Passers-by today can’t see the house’s center-hall stairway but can imagine it, from a passage in Martin’s biography. Mrs. Prentice Coonley recalled, for biographer Martin, arriving once at Cissy’s for dinner. The Coonleys were let in by a servant, but the hostess didn’t appear. After an hour Mrs. Coonley went upstairs to find Cissy trying unsuccessfully to fit into a new dress. In exasperation Cissy “‘threw the dress aside,… picked up a piece of green silk, wrapped it around her and nicked it under her shoulder, walking down the staircase looking like a character in a Greek play’” (p. 141). Here in one image is the struggle to function in one little daughter of the rich, a minor impasse expanded into a crisis and then transformed into memorable dramatic action. Felicia’s “little cottage,” as Martin has her calling it relative to other and grander Old World places of her childhood, for passers-by is a Countess’s palace where a nobly-born child played on the lawn and a detective stood watch nearby. One even feels she or he had better move along, to avoid any misunderstanding with the body-guard. Like the countess who was destined to her episodic life, one must drift on to gaze at other houses with other stories.

*Long Island-based architectural historian Virginia Greene’s 1998-published book The Architecture of Howard Van Doren Shaw (Chicago Review Press) includes a photo of 90 North Ahwahnee Road from an article that appeared soon after the house was built. This photo made it possible in 1997 to identify Cissy’s “little Cottage” from the postcard image reproduced by Martin. A follow-up inquiry to the current owner of the 90 North Ahwahnee Road property confirmed the identification.

Arthur Miller

March 14, 1997; rev. October 20, 2011