27 December, 2012

The Servants Speak

As we draw ever so closer to the 79th anniversary of what I refer to as "Edith's Auction," I find myself bringing out many of the old articles and photos that I've collected over the years. This is the first of two Chicago Tribune articles that are favorites and that I will post over the next two days. I feel are both surprising yet revealing of this stunning, enigmatic woman. They also clear up many of the rumors and myths surrounding Villa Turicum. What Edith Rockefeller McCormick herself said about Villa Turicum; "the beauty spot of the world," is word enough.

(This first article is titled "Servants Recall Grand Manner of Edith M'Cormick" by Virginia Gardner. It appeared in the Tribune on August 28th, 1932)



Praise Her as Perfect Mistress.

Following the funeral service in the gray stone mansion at 1000 Lake Shore drive yesterday, which for so many years has dominated the social scene in Chicago a group of old servants of the late Edith Rockefeller McCormick gathered in the first floor kitchen and reminisced.

Absently the stared into the somber dining room with its massive carved sideboard, now bare of silver, its paneled walls and heavy mantelpiece reaching to the ceiling, the room in which they had served so many meals in strict formality, now empty except for the draperies of silken damask at the windows.

Formality Approaches Ritual.

For awhile they sat silently. Then a laconic remark drew forth another, and little by little, as the persons who contributed to the smooth regulation of that household exchanged comments, a picture of the life led by its occupant was pieced together - a life bounded by formality approaching ritual, staid, dictated completely by a mid-Victorian code of manners and conventions.

A former footman, strange and unimpressive without his uniform of plum colored breeches and white stockings, glances out of a window on a garden where on spring afternoons his mistress methodically drank her tea, attended by as much ceremony as an empress ever commanded, and often watched by urchins peering through the wrought iron fence.

"She was easy to work for, never complained, never asked us to do anything extra," he said. "She never spoke to us. We never spoke to her. She never heard us if we did. Baxter (Fred Baxter, Mrs. McCormick's head butler ever since her return from Switzerland in 1921) gave us all our orders."

Never Any Disturbance.

"She knew how to run an establishment. Formal. That's what I like. No disturbances at all. Everything was just so. Everything had its proper time. At such and such a time we knew she's take a walk. One certain man always went with her. And so it went with everything."

(One of my favorite photos of Edith on one of her infamous walks)

For ten years "Capt." Edward McNamera went with Mrs. McCormick on this daily walk. She never left the house on foot that he did not follow, a few feet behind her. He was there in the kitchen yesterday, modestly smiling his gold-toothed smile as his former confreres showed deference to him.

Mrs. McCormick never addressed her chauffeurs as a rule, according to "the Captain." When she went for a ride, she communicated with her secretary, who in turn gave directions to the steward, who telephoned them to the garage. The destination was always given in these instructions, and it was only when Mrs. McCormick changed her mind that she spoke to the chauffeur through the speaking tube.

"Captain" Is Retired Now

It was "the Captain," a retired policeman, who for ten years sat on the cement driveway at the Bellevue place entrance in a rocking chair when he was not walking sedately behind his mistress. He left her employ a year ago, he said, and is now retired. Joseph McLaughlin took his place. He, too, was at the funeral.

Tom Denham, the butler who was retained at the house when Mrs. McCormick moved to the Drake hotel, was in charge yesterday.

Albert Sparks, one of the men employed in the house until Mrs. McCormick's removal to the hotel, said Mrs. McCormick's meals, even those for two persons only, were never served informally. Four men were required to serve the simplest luncheon for two.

She had breakfast on a tray in her room. Edwin Krenn invariably was her guest at luncheon and at dinner, and often at tea in the garden. Never, however, was there any suggestion of informality between the two, the servants agreed. One man, usually Baxter, hovered over the table, to which they sat down with definite punctuality. Three others assisted in the pantry. Downstairs, Mrs. Ethel Robert, Mrs. McCormick's head cook for the last ten years, presided in the kitchen over two sub-cooks.

The steward printed the menus in French on his typewriter. One of the little group described how Baxter planned the meals. "He did not." said Mrs. Robert. "I planned them. Always."

"What difference?" said the former in an aside. "I knew what we were going to have from one week to the next. Every Monday we had filet mignon with fresh mushrooms. Always, always - filet mignon and mushrooms on a Monday."

Mrs. McCormick kept regular hours and was never out later than 11 o'clock except on opera nights, the men agreed. Two of the footmen always waited to receive her. One opened the door. The other received her in the reception hall.

The "captain" recalled with a smile the days when careless lavishness prevailed in the kitchen. "Sometimes a hungry tramp from West of Clark street would come and ask for a handout," he said. "We would show him the food that was thrown out and often he would find a roast duck that had hardly been touched or a baked ham there."

All of the old servants referred to Mrs. McCormick as "she."

Nothing Served Twice.

"She would never have anything served twice." said Sparks. "If a roast turkey were prepared for her dinner only a piece of the breast might be eaten, but she would never have it the next day or any day in any form."

The ordinary staff consisted of one secretary, one personal maid, a butler, three footmen, three cooks, three chauffeurs, one houseman, a gardener, and, as it was explained, "a char lady." Among others who attended the funeral were Marie Pheffel, the Swedish personal maid; Miss Gertrude Bellenthal, secretary; Otto Swanson, for six years a houseman who quit and made a trip to Sweden three years ago, and John Dunford, superintendent of Villa Turicum, Mrs. McCormick's Lake Forest estate, and his wife and son John Jr.
 Edith taking a break during one of her walks on Lake Shore Drive. (The Eleanor Robinson Countiss residence can be seen in the background.)

At Villa Turicum, the house remains as it was when Mrs. McCormick last visited it two years ago last July, according to Dunford. All the furniture is in place and the grounds appear well kept, despite the fact that 12 of the 17 employees were dismissed last Jan. 1.

Never Criticized Work.

"I worked for Mrs. McCormick for 27 years," said Dunford. "She was a wonderful woman. In all those years she never criticized my work nor had anything but praise for me." Dunford said he worked for Marshall Field until his death 26 years ago, when he went to work for Harold McCormick. When Villa Turicum was built 23 years ago he went there. His son now has worked there 18 years, and is the foreman. The only employees remaining after last January were gardener No. 1, John Plantin, for 10 years an employee of Mrs. McCormick; Albert Rippon, gardener No. 2, and Adolph Zenotte, a watchman for the last 11 years.

"Mrs. McCormick has not slept at Villa Turicum nor eaten a meal there since she returned from Switzerland," Dunford said. "My wife and I did live there, but we moved to our own place. So this 75 room house has not been occupied overnight in all that time. Mrs. McCormick used to come out several times a week and stay an hour or two. She said it was the beauty spot of the world. Only twice was Mr. Krenn with her."

"She liked to come out just to look around. It seemed to give her great pleasure. This year, for the first time, we planted nothing new. But the old flowers are still blooming, and some are alongside her coffin."

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