Riven Rock is a tragic and frightening story that finally explains McCormick’s splintered mind, paralyzing sexual obsession, and long isolation behind bars on the second floor of his luxurious California mansion. It tells stories that are too gruesome and sexual to have been repeated outside the offices of McCormick family lawyers and doctors in the prim era when they occurred, and that were only hinted at for years afterward.
For the first time, it describes the terror an unsuspecting woman from Cincinnati must have felt when, on a cross-country train ride in 1908, she was suddenly attacked in the dining car by this tall, handsome man who ripped open her dress and shoved his fingers into her vagina.
It shares the physical and spiritual anguish that forced McCormick to sleep in a leather harness he had made that kept his hands next to his ankles all night so he couldn’t touch his penis.
And it reveals the explosive desperation that propelled McCormick through the steel shutters on a bathroom window and out onto the manicured grounds of his 87-acre estate, where he wound up with his physician’s pet orangutan, each masturbating the other.
Or maybe it doesn’t do any of those things, really.
Maybe it just inserts freakish fictional episodes into the blanks in the understandably incomplete historical record on Stanley McCormick, the unstable youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, who in 1831 in Virginia invented the machine that revolutionized agriculture and after moving to Chicago in 1847 built a mammoth industrial company around his breakthrough.
Because Riven Rock is a piece of fiction, it’s not ruled by any particular obligation to tell the truth. Which means that some details are made up and some aren’t. The person who knows is Boyle, also the author of The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and eight other novels and short story collections. But most readers don’t have Boyle in the room with them to answer the questions about truth and fiction that his book inevitably brings up.
Knowing that Riven Rock is based on actual people–not just Stanley McCormick but his wife, parents, brothers and sisters, in-laws, and doctors and nurses–makes reading it both more intriguing and more frustrating. Intriguing not only because it’s a well-written and absorbing story, but because there’s always the question about which parts of the story come from real lives and which from Boyle’s imagination. And frustrating because the question never gets answered.
Did McCormick really break out of his private rail car and attack a woman while being transported by train from a Boston asylum to California? Did his sister Mary Virginia, who also suffered from mental illness, strip naked in front of Stanley in the bathroom of their Rush Street mansion while their father’s body lay in state in the parlor? Was the only woman he ever had sex with a Paris hooker he picked up hours after seeing off his domineering mother on her voyage home to Chicago? Did he sleep in a harness? Did his wife have a long-term lesbian relationship while trying to find a cure for him? When he looked in the mirror, did Stanley sometimes see a dog’s face instead of his own?
And what about that orangutan?
“I’m billing this as fiction. I’m not saying it’s a biography,” says Boyle, who lives less than a mile from the site of Riven Rock, the lavish estate where McCormick was confined from 1908, when he was 34 years old, until he died at 72.
“It’s a true story, but I’m telling my version, the way Shakespeare told his version of English history in the Henry plays,” Boyle says. “Only I know where the blend is, what’s true and what’s not, and I think that should be interesting for the reader. Some of the most ridiculous things in the story are true.”
Boyle is, of course, not the first writer to swirl together fact and fiction. From Homer forward to Dominick Dunne, storytellers have rehashed actual events and real lives within imagined tales. The same technique floats a movie like Titanic. Then there are the best-selling books Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Primary Colors, both of which keep readers speculating about exactly where the line is between reality and fiction.
A recent New York Times story observed that “with the growing popularity of personal memoirs, political confessionals and ‘nonfiction novels,’ truth is coming under increasing pressure in the publishing industry’s quest for entertaining, vividly written stories that are easier to market with the stamp of authenticity.”
Boyle, for his part, says he doesn’t mix history and fiction to make marketing easier–although it certainly made things easier for his publishers, who put a picture of a good-looking couple in turn-of-the-century formal wear on the cover and then identify it in the opening lines of the jacket copy as an authentic newlywed shot of Stanley, “reluctant heir to a fortune built on the Reaper,” and Katherine Dexter McCormick, “the first female graduate in the sciences of M.I.T. and a leader in the budding Women’s Movement.”
Boyle says, “My interest is purely in creating a work of art. But a work of art has to have at its root a great story that gets you by the nose and doesn’t let you go. I think the true story of Stanley and Katherine is utterly fascinating.”
Unfortunately, what’s known of the couple’s 43-year marriage, which they may never have consummated, is really only the bones of a story. Even though many of the details of Stanley’s strange life were documented by his doctors and during a venomous court battle between his wife and his siblings, a lot of the historical record is, like real life, sloppy and inconclusive.
That’s where Boyle comes in. He’s not writing about real life, so when the facts don’t point the story along the trajectory he envisions, he can change them. He takes those bones of a story and hangs flesh on them, along the way creating human characters that look and feel real, regardless of whether they are identical to the originals.
“I like the story of Stanley and Katherine because there was trouble between them that hooked up to questions about who we are, what is normal, and what fidelity means in a marriage,” Boyle says. “In our heterosexual lives, some people can do it and some people can’t. They can’t cross the barrier of letting their animal nature come through, of shutting down their conscious mind for a while. Stanley is an extreme case of that.”
Stanley McCormick was born November 2, 1874, in a house on the near west side at Fulton and Sheldon (now Loomis) streets where his parents, Cyrus and Nettie Fowler McCormick, had lived since the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed their home and the McCormick Reaper Works. The youngest of seven children (two of whom died as infants), Stanley arrived when his father had already built an enormous fortune and just a few months before the family moved into its new mansion at Superior and Rush streets.
Cyrus McCormick was 65 years old and world famous–Nettie was 39–when Stanley was born. After inventing a horse-drawn device for harvesting wheat mechanically in 1831 (or, as some stories put it, patenting a machine his father had invented 15 years before), Cyrus had put it aside for a few years while trying to perfect other inventions and get various businesses going. Eventually he returned to the reaper, selling seven in 1842.
Word quickly spread far beyond Cyrus’s home turf, Rockbridge County, Virginia, that someone had at last developed a machine that farmers had wanted for centuries. According to Seed-Time, 1809-1856, the first of two volumes in a biography of Cyrus written by University of Chicago history professor William Hutchinson in 1930, horsepower had been applied years before to other labor-intensive farm tasks such as plowing, seeding, and hay raking, but harvesting grain was still being done the way it had been for 6,000 years–by hand. “There were few tasks of the farmer less idyllic or more back-breaking and exhausting,” Hutchinson wrote.
So when McCormick’s machine, and a few competitors, came along, temperate, grain-growing regions all over the globe were potentially hot markets for it. In 1847 he picked Chicago as a strategic location from which to capture the American farm territory, which was spreading west. He moved his headquarters here and brought along two of his brothers to help run the company. It was a good choice for McCormick and for Chicago, says Ted Karamanski, a Loyola University history professor. “When Cyrus put his factory here, there was nothing on the industrial scene like it,” Karamanski says. “The reaper works showed that Chicago would become an industrial center of the west.”
In 1848 McCormick sold 800 reapers, and the business kept booming. By 1864 he was said to have a personal income of $2,000 a day. With his brothers overseeing things in Chicago, he traveled around the world touting his machine, defending his patent against all competitors, and befriending Napoleon III and other world figures.
In January 1858 Cyrus married Nettie Fowler, like him a conservative Presbyterian, whom he had met while she was in Chicago from New York visiting cousins. Accounts of her–a biography of her and another of her daughter Anita McCormick Blaine–make her sound like a fiercely devoted mother.
One crucial episode in their lives shows just how seriously Cyrus and Nettie took her role as mother of the next generation of McCormicks. In 1871, a year that McCormick sold 10,000 reapers, the fire devastated his factory on the north bank of the Chicago River east of Michigan Avenue, where the Equitable Building is now. Cyrus, who was 62 and fabulously rich, considered retiring. But according to Nettie Fowler McCormick, a fawning biography written in 1956, he left the decision to his wife. Because she was just 36 years old, he told her, “You will outlive me and have the children to care for. You must decide.” At her direction, the company built a new factory on the south branch of the Chicago River along Blue Island Avenue.
She did outlive him; Cyrus died in May 1884, when Stanley was not yet ten years old. That’s when Riven Rock starts.
Boyle writes that Stanley hardly knew his old, sick, and busy father and didn’t like the little he knew. While the patriarch lay in state and nine-year-old Stanley was being led to view the body, the boy “felt nothing but guilt. Not sorrow, not loss, but guilt…. When his mother had convened the family nightly to pray for his father’s recovery, Stanley had bowed his head and pleaded with God to take the old Reaper King away forever. And God had listened, because Stanley didn’t love his progenitor and provider the way a son should–he feared him, feared and loathed him, and shrank away from his booming wheeze and his twisted shellacked hands….It was a terrible thing not to love your father, a sin that reverberated through all the chasms of hell and howled in the very ears of the Devil himself. Stanley was a patricide, an ingrate, a worm. And he was only nine years old.”
Another take on Cyrus’s impact on Stanley shows up in an article published 25 years ago in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ruth Roberts of Lake Forest, a grandniece of Cyrus McCormick, was still bitter over the way Cyrus is said to have cut the family out of proceeds of a machine his father either invented or paved the way for. Roberts spared nothing in dredging up old family lore about what a bully and a tyrant Cyrus was.
Insisting that his sons would follow him into the business, Cyrus ordered tutors to drill Stanley and his brother Harold in math and mechanical science, Roberts wrote. (The oldest son, Cyrus Jr., was already working for his dad at the time she was writing about.) Under the harsh regimen, she wrote, Harold “became a bon vivant who took studies lightly….Stanley wilted.” By the time his father died, “frail, serious Stanley had become a lonely recluse.”
Whatever Cyrus did to or for Stanley, Boyle believes his impact on his son’s mental health was nothing compared to Nettie’s. “Nettie is the one to blame for what happened to Stanley,” he says. “She warped Stanley sexually. She was the ultimate castrating and domineering mother. She had lost two children to disease, she had lost her husband, and now she was looking ahead at living alone in this big house and wanted to baby her youngest. This is a relatively common problem.”
Boyle’s Nettie is a rich, influential, powerfully religious woman who wants to be sure her youngest son trots along the path she has laid out for him. Nettie’s biography, while vastly less critical of her than Boyle is, gives roughly the same impression.
When, as a handsome and athletic Princeton alum in his 20s, Stanley determined that the family business made him too tense, he tried ranching in New Mexico. His mother, according to her biographer, “approved sufficiently; but no doubt his [later] entry into the family business gave her the deepest gratification. The clear destiny of her husband’s sons was the great business that he had created. There Stanley as well as Cyrus and Harold belonged and there Stanley’s own conscientiousness put him.”
If ever a writer found a way to put a nice spin on a subject’s obvious control issues, it’s Nettie’s biographer, Stella Virginia Roderick.
Another student of McCormick family history says Boyle may have gone too easy on Nettie. “He tries to make the connection with Nettie’s controlling behavior toward Stanley, but he doesn’t even tell the half of it,” says Cindy Knight, the archivist for the McCormick International Harvester Company Collection housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison.
Although her position is funded by a McCormick trust, she takes an objective view of the family. Her extensive readings in the voluminous McCormick family papers, which were transferred to Madison in the 1940s from a McCormick family museum and library in the old Rush Street mansion, tell her that Nettie was “obsessive and controlling. She was quite vigilant about what they ate and when they ate, and inquired obsessively about their health even long after they were grown up. She definitely had the means to be controlling about her children’s welfare. And remember, she had lost two children in infancy, which would have shaped her outlook about her children, probably. That puts an extra twist on Stanley being her youngest and being ill as a child”–with a severe and near-fatal fever.
Nettie had two living daughters; one of them, Mary Virginia, was, like Stanley, schizophrenic and sent away to a series of hospitals and estates (she was the first resident of Riven Rock, which Stanley helped design while he was still lucid). The other daughter, Anita, appears to have managed to remain close to her mother even though she could see clearly the older woman’s damaging ways. Anita’s biographer (and grandson-in-law), Gilbert Harrison, wrote about her girlhood: “So that Anita would be reminded of her slowness in reaching the breakfast table, the child was obliged to record how long it took to brush her teeth and to dress each morning.”
Harrison dutifully recorded this and many other observations in his book A Timeless Affair: The Life of Anita McCormick Blaine. Published in 1979, it’s as open an account of the family’s inner workings, and of Stanley’s life, as had come along before Boyle’s book. Anita recounts that when bringing up her son Emmons, she “wanted to give Em a sense of modesty, but without the tormenting guilt which had darkened Stanley’s childhood.”
Stanley moved into the Rush Street mansion to live with his mother after graduating from Princeton with honors in 1895. (His playboy brother Harold, who graduated alongside him, got married that summer.) A battle of wills that had been raging inside him turned into a struggle between him and his mother. “Having been taught not to reveal his body to anyone, he associated sex with a wracking conviction of his depravity, and in college he had begun to masturbate,” Anita’s biographer wrote. “No one knew of the harness he had invented for his ankles and wrists, so that he could not touch himself in his sleep.”
After Harold’s wedding to Edith Rockefeller, Nettie took Stanley on a tour of Egypt, then to Paris. They stayed in Paris for about ten weeks while Stanley studied voice. Eventually Nettie was ready to head back to Chicago, but Stanley said he wanted to stay in Paris, continue his voice lessons, and take up painting.
And that’s where Nettie’s account veers away from Anita’s, and is worlds apart from Boyle’s.
Nettie’s biography reports that mother and son argued but “the outcome…was that Stanley sailed for home with his mother.”
Anita’s biography says Nettie gave in, but “only after Stanley had agreed to take rooms at a Mrs. van Pele’s where they sang hymns on Sunday evenings.” It goes on to say that “within a week of Mama’s departure, he had been seduced…and six months later he was back in Chicago in the reaper company.”
Boyle’s version has Stanley picking up a hooker named Mirielle Sancerre on his way back to Mrs. van Pele’s after seeing his mother off, and going to her squalid room with her. He hesitates, she asks if he’d rather watch her masturbate, he feels faint and tells her to turn off the light–and in the morning she, his wallet, his watch, and his sapphire stickpin are all gone. Stanley prowls the streets of Paris looking for Mirielle, whom he believes he should marry. But eventually he returns to Mrs. van Pele’s, where he spends two weeks in a feverish state, his ankles and wrists tightly clamped together even without the harness, his guilt evidently as restrictive as leather straps. Finally honeymooning Harold drops by, and Stanley announces he has to locate and marry Mirielle.
Nettie didn’t let on that there was anything sexual to Stanley’s troubles. She told her biographer that “a conflict continued between [Stanley’s] urge to be an artist and his sense of responsibility to the family business.”
Anita’s coy version of the Parisian interlude falls short of the no-holds-barred honesty on display elsewhere in her biography. But even Boyle’s account, based on the later legal and psychiatric files on Stanley, isn’t entirely true, he acknowledges. “Where I have fudged the facts is that he did not meet the hooker on the day Nettie left,” he says. “But there are at least three accounts I used that say he stayed on in Paris and met a prostitute–which is the only time he ever had sex in his life.”
When he returned to Chicago, Stanley enrolled in Northwestern University’s law school, helped Anita launch a new school with an innovative curriculum that would eventually become the Francis W. Parker School, and managed McCormick family real estate holdings and nonreaper business. By 1901, at age 27, he was comptroller of the reaper company but still living in his mother’s mansion.
As Anita described it, “He was allowed no privacy. The door to his room had to be left open at all times. When he was out late, Nettie instructed a maid to telephone and order him home.” Anita eventually started lending Stanley her own mansion so he could entertain in a setting that his mother would approve.
Into the center of all this oedipal tension came Katherine Dexter, bringing her own Electra issues.
The only daughter of Wirt and Josephine Dexter, Katherine was born on August 27, 1875. Her father, a prominent corporate attorney in Chicago, headed the relief committee after the Chicago fire. He died when Katherine was 15 and her only brother died four years later. Josephine moved with her daughter to Boston and evidently groomed her to claim the place in the world that the two deceased Dexter men had vacated.
The family was conscious of its legacy, tracing the line back 20 generations through Michigan pioneers and a member of President John Adams’s cabinet to tenth-century England. (The McCormicks claim to have traced their line back to Con of the Hundred Battles, king of Ireland around 148 AD. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune from 1914 to 1955 and namesake of McCormick Place, was the grandson of Cyrus McCormick’s younger brother William.)
Clearly driven, Katherine made her way through MIT despite a male establishment that had only let one woman through before, graduating in 1904. Boyle’s book says she was the school’s first female graduate, but Margery Resnick, an associate professor of Hispanic studies and women’s studies at MIT who has studied Dexter’s life, points out that this spring the school is commemorating the 125th anniversary of its first woman alum’s graduation–two years before Katherine was even born.
“Katherine was uncompromising,” says Boyle. “She went through a lot of shit at MIT– it took her eight years to get a BS degree because girls weren’t given science training.” She studied at a women’s college and worked in a laboratory in Germany to learn what she needed to make her way at MIT. And along the way she crusaded for the rights of women students. “Women had to wear hats in those days, so the professors insisted she wear a hat for lab work,” Boyle says. “She protested to the dean and won. Of course she was ostracized by the male students.”
In one of those epic twists of fate, Stanley, who was being smothered by a powerful mother, fell in love with Katherine, an equally powerful woman. The stage was set for a fiery battle for control of charming but loopy Stanley.
“Some idiot critic has called it too neatly Freudian, and Freud is so politically incorrect these days,” Boyle says. “But Freud said a lot that was very intelligent. And if you look at Stanley in Freudian terms, he was making the leap from one mother to another. He transferred his feelings from one to the other and it became oedipal and you see why he could never have sexual relations with his wife.”
Always guilty Stanley spends quite a few pages of Boyle’s account trying to shoo Katherine away from him–he confesses that he’s a masturbator and frets that his ability to sire a McCormick and Dexter heir may have been damaged by his habit–but Katherine stays with him. He courts her with lots of talk about socialism and other unromantic stuff, goes off on insane jags all over Boston, trailing stunned bystanders behind him, and when she sticks by him figures out that she’s the woman for him.
Boyle’s Katherine is rich, beautiful, smart, athletic, and a reservoir of personal strength, apparently not far off the real Katherine. Why does she stick with a guy who, though rich, handsome, smart, and athletic, is obviously slipping further and further into insanity? “I think Katherine had some antipathy toward men because they controlled MIT and the world,” Boyle says. “So she found a man whom she could control, as many women do. He was a sweet and good man, but I don’t think she realized what life with Stanley would entail.”
She must have thought she had won a priceless prize if she actually went through anything like the final battle Boyle stages between her and Nettie. In their carriage in the streets of Chicago, Nettie and Stanley argue about whether he should escort Katherine home or let the driver deliver her home alone. Stanley finally goes inside the mansion with Nettie, leaving Katherine to watch through the windows as he finally breaks loose from his mother, sending her crashing to the floor. He goes back out to the carriage and escorts Katherine home–just about the only scene of real romance between them.
In both real life and Boyle’s account, the couple got married in 1904 at the Dexter family chateau in Switzerland. Because of the moral climate of the time, that’s when the real struggle for Stanley began. Katherine may have won his mind, but his mother’s cold, severe view of sexuality still held him tight.
Night after night of the honeymoon goes by with Katherine waiting for her husband to join her in bed. But he stays away, furiously writing something he won’t show her for several days. It turns out to be his will, in which he leaves his entire estate to her. Evidently he found it easier to give up his father, in the form of money, than his mother, in the form of sex.
(By 1909, five years after giving Katherine his will, Stanley was worth $10 million but living behind bars at Riven Rock.)
Katherine waited, but as far as anyone knows Stanley never managed to have sex with her. Anita’s biography reported that when the couple arrived in Chicago ten months after the wedding, the marriage was still unconsummated. Boyle says the family learned this in the course of Stanley’s treatment.
Marriage didn’t cool Stanley’s inner flames of sexual torment; it seems to have made them burn hotter. In the first few years of their marriage, Katherine saw him disintegrate into a bizarre and frightening person. “Katherine was endlessly patient with Stanley,” Boyle says, “but she wanted to have a sexual relationship, to have children, to have an heir. The more she expressed that, the more he shrank into himself and couldn’t do it. I’m sure she felt that once she got him away from his mother she could straighten him out, but she didn’t know the scale of his problems. They weren’t manifested until the sexual demands of marriage were placed on him.”
Archivist Cindy Knight believes Nettie had unwittingly programmed Stanley to self-destruct over sex. “One thing that always comes through about Nettie is her constant self-criticism and general repression of any kind of pleasure. I’d imagine sexual pleasure wouldn’t fit into that worldview. So if Stanley was feeling sexual desire he would have to feel guilt about those feelings, because they were so contrary to the worldview of his family–his mother. More and more guilt, and he would fall apart.”
Eventually Stanley was turned over to doctors’ care at a Massachusetts asylum, where the plan was worked out to set him up with his own medical staff at Riven Rock, in a seaside enclave outside Santa Barbara called Montecito. Nettie’s brother had bought the first 34 acres in 1896 and sold it to her a year and a half later; subsequent purchases made it one of the largest estates in the area. Extensive landscaping–including stone bridges designed by Stanley, a nine-hole golf course, and a lavish art collection–made it a Xanadu.
The grounds included a landmark that gave the estate its name and Boyle one of his subtlest symbols. The riven rock was a boulder about 30 feet across that had been split in two by an oak tree as it grew. The two mounds of boulder with a tall tree standing between them make an obvious sexual symbol, but they also represent, in Boyle’s hands, Stanley split in two by a force he can’t control, and a marriage similarly divided.
With its elaborate gardens and citrus groves and, later, a private movie theater, Riven Rock was grand even by the standards of turn-of-the-century Santa Barbara, a sunny landscape of coastal mountains and rocky beaches where America’s industrial barons built their winter palaces. “The typical estate had maybe 10 or 15 acres, and certainly didn’t have a golf course or a movie theater,” says David Myrick, a Santa Barbara historian. “In a way it was a boondoggle, because it had all these wonderful things that never did Stanley McCormick any good.”
Some of Riven Rock’s amenities had nothing to do with grandeur. Sprinklers in the trees were there to douse Stanley if he got wild on his outdoor walks; a series of monkey cages was the laboratory of Stanley’s first resident physician, who thought studying the behavior of related species would provide clues to human behavior problems. It was the first primate lab in the United States.
And the site of that startling scene between Stanley and the orangutan. Boyle acknowledges it’s imagined, but notes that Stanley was notoriously friendly with one of his doctor’s monkeys. “They’d ride around in the Rolls-Royce together, or they’d sit next to each other at the table for mealtimes,” he says.
(Stanley’s brother Harold had his own notorious encounter with a monkey. A well-known philanderer, he divorced Edith Rockefeller McCormick in 1921 and a year later married Polish diva-wannabe Ganna Walska. Harold was in his 50s and “became obsessed with his ability to perform sexually,” says Loyola’s Ted Karamanski. “Word got out in Chicago society that he was undergoing experimental procedures in which he was somehow being given the sex glands of monkeys.” Anita’s biography states that the New York Times reported at the time that a transplant from a donor monkey was performed by V.P. Lespinasse, a Chicago urologist quoted as saying, “A man is as old as his glands.” The public scorn prompted Harold to resign the presidency of International Harvester.
Harold and Stanley had grown up side by side all the way through Princeton, after which their lives took very different routes. Yet each man would get his own kind of satisfaction from a monkey later on.
Considering the fate of ordinary people with mental illnesses in the early years of this century, Stanley was lucky to get such rich treatment. “What the family did with Stanley and Virginia was probably quite humane by the standards of the day,” says Cindy Knight. “To deposit a person in an asylum and never see them again was the more typical reaction. But instead the McCormicks lined up the best doctors and built the best kind of environment for Stanley and Virginia.”
A six-page chapter on Riven Rock in David Myrick’s book Montecito and Santa Barbara: Volume II–The Days of the Great Estates was Boyle’s first encounter with Stanley and Katherine McCormick. Digging further into their story, he came to think of them as representing an ancient, and now seemingly lost, ideal of faithfulness. “We all say the same vows Stanley and Katherine said, but they don’t mean anything to us anymore. We say them five or six times and we don’t give a damn about it,” Boyle says. “Through Stanley and Katherine I could get at the question, ‘What is a marriage?’ How much is a marriage only sex? Here’s a marriage that never had any sex in it–it’s one of the great dysfunctional marriages of all time. But it lasted.”
The McCormicks, according to Anita’s biography, “tried to persuade Katherine to have the marriage annulled, take a generous settlement, and go away. She couldn’t be bribed, she shot back, and she wouldn’t take orders from the McCormicks.”
Katherine wrestled for years with the McCormicks over the details of Stanley’s care, and she stood by her man. At least she stood as close as she was allowed. For the first two decades she wasn’t allowed in a room with her husband, but could sit on the first floor of his mansion and telephone him on the second or crouch in the bushes outside and use binoculars to observe him on a balcony.
“I see Katherine as a sort of Penelope waiting for Odysseus to come home,” Boyle says. “She could have divorced Stanley and gone off to be a socialite, but she remained married. She loved him deeply. She spent most of her life looking for a cure for him.
“That, to me, is fidelity.”
Trouble is, maybe she wasn’t as faithful as all that. While looking for a cure, she may or may not have found a lover, widowed socialite Jane Roessing of Philadelphia. In a 1929 newspaper photo taken during the court battle between Katherine and the McCormicks, Roessing is seen standing next to Katherine. She is described as “her friend and constant companion.” Boyle’s version doesn’t push the idea of the relationship, but he does have Jane at Katherine’s side during assorted visits to Riven Rock, and one of the (fictitious) male nurses on the estate is made to speculate that the women are “cunt-lappers.”
Boyle says he included Roessing in order to be faithful to the true story. The McCormick family, he says, accused Katherine during the court battle of having an affair with Roessing. His conversations with a Los Angeles writer who is researching a biography of Katherine led him to believe she did have the relationship, as well as one with Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer whose work Katherine supported (not only financially and politically but by smuggling diaphragms into this country for distribution by Sanger’s clinics). “I felt that since it was part of the real story I should mention it,” he says, “but I didn’t want to go into it very far.”
If Katherine had a sexual relationship going on with somebody else, does she really qualify as a paragon of fidelity? “A lesbian relationship lies outside what I was talking about, which is heterosexual marriage and fidelity in marriage. So if she had some sexual relationship with another woman, that doesn’t factor in.”
In the later years of his confinement, when Stanley seemed calmer and more able to handle human interactions, he was often driven by Rolls-Royce to a beach house in nearby Sandyland. But he remained under close watch. David Myrick, whose family had the beach house next door, recalls that “there were always guards posted in boats out in the water. We were all told they were there in case Mr. McCormick decided to make a break for it and swim out to the islands 29 miles off the coast.”
The rules on interaction with women were also loosened. Katherine (and Jane) were able to dine with him, he visited his sister Mary Virginia at her home in Los Angeles, and woman guests occasionally watched movies in the private theater at Riven Rock.
Joan McCormick’s husband, Alister, was a descendant of one of Cyrus’s brothers. They lived in Santa Barbara in the years when Katherine kept a mansion in town and Stanley, of course, stayed at Riven Rock. Now 93 years old, she says she knew Katherine somewhat well–“very charming and lovely, but somebody was always after her for something, so she retreated into her cocoon”–but went to Riven Rock and met Stanley only one time. “Once was enough for me,” she says. “He was this very tall man who sort of loomed over us. It was very frightening, and then I looked around and here was another man standing behind a potted palm–to grab him if anything went wrong, I supposed. I didn’t like the atmosphere, wondering what might happen next.”
Even to relatives like her husband Stanley’s condition wasn’t specified. “I don’t remember exactly what we were told about him, but we all knew he lived there isolated and she lived a few miles away in town. Of course you wondered why they didn’t live together.”
When Stanley McCormick died at Riven Rock, Chicago newspapers reported that his income from 31,900 shares of International Harvester–the descendant of his father’s company–and Chicago real estate had been $1.5 to $2 million a year, the annual cost of staffing his mansion and caring for him about $400,000, and his wife’s allowance $300,000. He had been banking over a million dollars–1940s dollars–a year. By 1947, the year he died, the estate had bloomed to $35 million, all of it except inheritance taxes going to Katherine. In contrast, when the other schizophrenic member of the family, Mary Virginia, died in 1941, her $21.5 million was divvied up among her four siblings, including Stanley.
While Stanley still lived, the McCormicks fought Katherine in court for more than a decade over his estate. They lost. Surely they were infuriated to see such a big chunk of the family fortune disappearing from their control to a woman who simply had to survive some guy she didn’t live with in order to collect it.
But Katherine did not simply wait for Stanley to die. She was one of the unsung heroes of the women’s movement in this century, someone Boyle believes “belongs in the pantheon of feminist pioneers” for her lifelong dedication to women’s causes. She was a leading funder of drives to get women the vote and to develop safe and available birth control. “One of the crowning ironies of the true story is that out of the most dysfunctional marriage in history we got our short-lived sexual revolution,” Boyle says.
She also did her part to improve circumstances for young women studying the sciences. At MIT, she funded a taxi service for women students to get them back and forth to the only women’s residences, which were several miles from campus, Margery Resnick says. In the 1960s she gave funds to build two women’s dorms on campus. The unit they form is called Stanley McCormick Hall–which means over 300 young women live together in a complex named for a man who was locked away from women for almost 20 years.
There’s also a memorial to Stanley in Chicago; the garden on the northwest corner of the Art Institute is the Stanley McCormick Memorial Court.
But a more moving monument to him, and to his wife, is at Graceland Cemetery. The two are buried together on a low grassy slope at the edge of the Dexter family plot. The graves stand apart from any others, the closest neighbors being the graves of Katherine’s parents and brothers, about 15 feet away. Nettie McCormick is buried a full two-tenths of a mile away, in the McCormick family plot. Her other four children–Cyrus, Mary Virginia, Anita, and Harold–are buried either next to their parents or in adjacent plots with their own spouses and children.
Only Stanley, the one who destroyed himself trying to get away from his mother, is buried apart from her. He lies with his wife beneath a chunk of stone three feet high.
And this rock is not riven. It’s whole.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stanley McCormick and his mother, Nettie Fowler McCormick, circa 1900; Cyrus McCormick with Harold and Stanley/ Nettie and Cyrus McCormick phtoto courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin, ID WH(X3)5797; Staneley and Katherine Dexter McCormick photo courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin, ID M96-145; Emmons Blaine Jr, Nettie Fowler McCormick, Anita McCormick Blaine photo courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin, ID WH(X3)25691; Harold and Edith Rockefeller McCormick photo courtesy State Historical Society of Wisconsin, ID WH(X3)25702;.