Credit: Courtesy Southern Illinois University Press

It’s common knowledge, though not commonly admitted, that biographers tend to identify with their subjects. Local author Andrea Friederici Ross, who’s written a deeply researched, briskly readable account of the life of Chicago grande dame Edith Rockefeller McCormick, admits this to her readers right up front. During the decade of research and writing that went into Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick (Southern Illinois University Press), Ross says in her preface, Edith became an obsession, in part because her story “mirrored my own (minus the jewels, the collections, the millions).”

The common ground Ross found—with a character who’d be a great fit for Donald Trump’s cabinet—is a personal evolution from the self-effacing supporting role of wife and mother to, in effect, becoming the star of one’s own show. Edith, born to Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller and his wife, Cettie, in 1872, made this transition at a time when the demand for women to conform to their inequitable existence was rigid, and Ross admires her for it. “Her gradual awareness of the boundaries imposed upon her is a case study in women’s rights,” she writes.

The result is an unsparing but sympathetic take on a woman previously best known for her extravagant wardrobe, palatial homes, imperial manner, and philanthropy, including support for James Joyce while he wrote Ulysses, and donation of the land on which Brookfield Zoo was built (to avoid paying taxes on it, but still).

Also, an eight-year sojourn with Carl Jung, and the widely publicized monkey-gland virility implant undergone by her (then-former) husband.

Edith was John D. Rockefeller’s fourth daughter. (The son he was hoping for arrived two years later.) In spite of her father’s enormous wealth, the children were raised—first in Cleveland, later in New York—in a strict, sober, and frugal Baptist environment. Edith, the smartest and most studious of her siblings, rejected both the religion as practiced and the frugality.

When she wed Harold McCormick in 1895, newspapers across the country trumpeted the merger between the “Prince of McCormick Reaper” (soon to become International Harvester) and the “Princess of Standard Oil.” Harold, never her intellectual equal, was a happy-go-lucky extrovert to Edith’s deep thinker. Ross speculates that, for the bride, a major upside of the wedding was, at last, the freedom to spend.

And spend they did, buying a no-longer-extant 41-room mansion at 1000 Lake Shore Drive, close to the homes of Harold’s mother and other family members. (You can still visit the mansion of a cousin if you hurry—it houses the soon-to-close Lawry’s restaurant.) They also built and furnished an even bigger summer home in Lake Forest, opting for an Italian-style villa after Edith literally turned her back on a plan submitted by Frank Lloyd Wright. Meanwhile Edith adorned herself with jewels that included Catherine the Great’s emeralds and a $2 million string of pearls, rationalizing her lifelong spending orgy as “the woman of wealth . . . only doing her duty” by putting her money into circulation. Ross, sympathies notwithstanding, nails this as “trickle-down economics at its finest.”  

Edith promptly produced two sons, followed by three daughters. But two of the children died in childhood: firstborn son Jack at the age of three, and infant middle daughter, Editha. Ross writes that after these losses, Edith, “uncomfortable with emotion by nature,” drew “further back into her shell,” eventually suffering panic attacks in addition to an increasingly severe chronic agoraphobia. Harold, with two siblings diagnosed as schizophrenic (T. C. Boyle’s Riven Rock is a fictional version of the life of Harold’s younger brother, Stanley), checked himself into the Swiss psychiatric hospital that would soon be the home base for Carl Jung.  

On April 1,1913, Edith— two of her children, assorted staff members, and Jung himself in tow—sailed to Europe where she would embark on a lengthy course of treatment at his clinic. She would also pay for the translation of his work into other languages, underwrite the Zurich facility that’s still a hub for his followers, and, eventually, be “anointed” (Ross’s word) by Jung as an analyst herself.

When she returned to Chicago in 1921, she was in the midst of a divorce that turned out to be very expensive for her, in spite of the fact that it was her husband who wanted it, having abandoned her for an aspiring opera singer. (Did I mention that, in happier days, they’d given Chicago its first opera company?) His legal team included Clarence Darrow. She was accompanied on this return trip by a young male friend whom she would soon bankroll in a real estate development company that boomed and then went bust in the Great Depression, taking thousands of small investors down with it.

Edith died of cancer in the Drake Hotel in 1932, so broke and indebted her body laid in the vault at Graceland Cemetery for years before her surviving son arranged for her to be buried near the lake there—where she can still be found, flanked by her two dead babies.

This is fascinating, stranger-than-fiction Chicago history, and a page-turner. Can’t wait for the miniseries it’s sure to inspire.  v