04 May, 2014

Gertrude Helenthal

As with any person of note, there is usually a particular person behind the scenes who coordinates, supports, and plays gatekeeper. In the last eight years of her life, Edith Rockefeller McCormick found such attributes in her loyal secretary, Gertrude Helenthal.

I've been revisiting many of the newspapers and magazines that Edwin Krenn collected after Edith's death, in order to determine which I might donate for a new museum project at the Drake Hotel. Edwin kept almost everything published in the years following 1932, and the other day I happened upon a 1934 Chicago Tribune article profiling the loyal secretary.

Please read on to learn how Gertrude Helenthal was an extraordinary individual in her own right:

IF prospective buyers and curiosity seekers thronging the home of the late Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick wonder as to the identity of the tall, blonde, quiet mannered, and efficient who seems to know more about the place than any one else, she is Gertrude Helenthal, secretary to Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick during the last eight years of her life. Miss Helenthal still lives in the gray stone mansion on Lake Shore drive, occupying the book-lined room off Mrs. McCormick's bedroom she always has occupied. So unspectacular has been her handling of a spectacular post -- secretary to the woman once called the richest in the world -- and so helpful has she been since her employer's death that the Chicago Title and Trust company has retained her to assist in the administration of the estate.

DURING the years Miss Helenthal was standing as a buffer between Mrs. McCormick and a world eager to invade her privacy she was also studying law. Her late employer was interested in her legal career and arranged her work so that it would not interfere with her studies. During Mrs. McCormick's illness Miss Helenthal was her constant companion and read aloud to her every day; then she would retire to her law books. Recently she was admitted to the bar.

IT was Miss Helenthal who rearranged the furniture for the auction sale into some semblance of the manner in which it was arranged during the lifetime of Mrs. McCormick. It was Miss Helenthal who sat beside Muriel McCormick Hubbard at the recent auction of her mother's effects in New York and supported her in the ordeal she obviously felt it to be. It is Miss Helenthal who daily straightens out the innumerable problems in connection with the pending auction in Chicago. And when the newly fledged lawyer leaves the mansion on the drive to embark on her new career, two possessions of both sentimental and intrinsic value will accompany her. They are a pair of magnificently embroidered linen sheets and a great gold ladle from the famous Borghese dinner service. These the former secretary purchased at auction in New York. And these, surely, symbolize fittingly the era of her secretaryship to the woman she loved and mourns."

Of course I could not find a picture of Miss Helenthal's ladle, but here is a picture of some Borghese gilt silver pieces that Edith Rockefeller McCormick once owned. Periodically pieces show up at auction:

A PAIR OF FRENCH SILVER-GILT WINE COASTERS FROM THE BORGHESE SERVICE
MARK OF MARTIN-GUILLAUME BIENNAIS, PARIS, 1798-1809
Each circular, the borders pierced with anthemia and hippocamps, each engraved with a coat of arms, each marked on body and base
4 7/8 in. (12.4 cm.) diameter; 16 oz. (507 gr.) 
The arms are those of Borghese, as borne by Prince Camillo Borghese

"PERHAPS you know it all along, but we just learned why the Lake Forest estate of Mrs. McCormick was called Villa Turicum. Turicum was the name of the old Latin settlement on the site of the city if Zurich, in Switzerland, where Mrs. McCormick lived during the years of her self-imposed exile from America." 
(Front Views and Profiles
By June Provine
Chicago Daily Tribube; January 13, 1934)

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