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The other Bertha Palmer

March 16, 2003


Bertha Honore Palmer was born rich, married richer, and in a day when women had few legal rights used the social clout that made her queen of Chicago to improve the lives of ordinary women and children.

Most accounts today dwell on her jewelry, her art collecting, her passion for French Empire decoration and her influence on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that made Chicago the center of international attention.

But peek through the cracks in the social facade, and you'll see another Bertha, a woman concerned with kindergartens, cheap milk for poor children, trade unions and sponsoring women in business.

This other Bertha Palmer was a shrewd businesswoman who in 16 years doubled the value of the estate left by her husband, and who was an early investor and developer in Sarasota, Fla.

In between business deals, she was proving herself a social power in the major capitals of Europe. And after her husband's death, newspapers were full of reports about European noblemen who wanted to marry a widow both wealthy and witty.

She was born Bertha Honore in Louisville, Ky., in 1849, the daughter of a successful businessman, Henry Honore. Her great-grandfather, French emigre Jean Antoine Honore, had settled in Louisville and set up the first steamboat line between that city and New Orleans.

Bertha Honore was 6 when her family moved to Chicago. Her father was a developer who was influential in establishing the city's park system. She was 13 when she met merchandising magnate Potter Palmer, 23 years her senior, at a party at her home. He was instantly smitten by the beautiful young girl.

Her parents sent her to a finishing school in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1870, when she was 21 and he was 44, she married Palmer, wearing a Paris gown of rose-point lace and white satin at her wedding.

"She was beautiful, dashing, quick and smart; and more than that, she was sure of herself," historian Ernest Poole wrote of the young woman.

Those characteristics were useful when, a year later, the Chicago Fire wiped out her husband's milelong real estate holdings along the plank road that was State Street. They included his first Palmer House hotel, which had opened only 13 days earlier.

It was Bertha who drove a buggy to the nearest town with telegraph wires still intact and wired New York businessmen seeking an extension of credit for her husband. An insurance company lent Potter Palmer $1.7 million in what was believed to be the largest individual loan ever recorded to that date. With his wife at his side, he was back in the black within a few years, and State Street was on its way to becoming That Great Street.

His business holdings in good shape, Palmer turned his attention in 1882 to building a mansion worthy of his wife. Turning his back on the former resort of the rich, Prairie Avenue, he built the first brownstone on Lake Shore Drive, at 1350 North. The million-dollar mansion--that translates to nearly $18 million in today's dollars--was described as an English Gothic imitation Rhine River castle.

The mansion had an octagonal entry hall three stories high with a marble mosaic floor and walls hung with Gobelin tapestries. Some of the public rooms included a French drawing room, a Spanish music room, an English dining room that seated 50, and Turkish, Greek and Japanese parlors. There were two private elevators to the upper level.

Bertha Palmer was an early member of the Chicago Woman's Club, a mix of wealthy and working women who met to study social problems. They supported kindergartens until the city made them part of the school system, and fought for penny milk for children and better care for children whose mothers were in jail.

She gained national and then worldwide fame when she was appointed president of the Board of Lady Managers of the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition. The board was supposed to be largely honorary, but the women promptly started managing in a big way. They saw to it that they had a large building, filled with examples of women's work, and Bertha Palmer as president saw to it that women's work was featured in every one of the state pavilions, too.

Shortly after her 1891 appointment, she took off for Europe, to drum up attention for the fair and to buy art to exhibit there. So began her passionate collecting of the new Impressionist artists' work. In two years, she came home with 29 Monets and 11 Renoirs, including her favorite, "Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando," which she liked so much that she carried it with her when she traveled.

Palmer hated the idea of putting women on pedestals--and out of the power structure. Speaking at the opening of the Women's Pavilion, she declared: "Freedom and justice for all are infinitely more to be desired than pedestals for a few."

On a visit to Rochester, N.Y., she had a beauty treatment from Martha Matilda Harper, who made her own lotions and creams and invented that staple of the hairdressing world, the sink with a cut-out for the neck to rest in. Palmer persuaded Harper to teach others her method and spread her business to Chicago in time to capitalize on Exposition business. At its peak, the Harper Method was franchised in 500 locations around the globe.

Palmer helped hat makers form a milliners union and invited business and labor leaders to a national conference at her home. She also used her palatial abode to host charity balls.

In 1910, she became interested in the winter climate of Florida and bought up tens of thousands of acres of land--the exact figure is a matter of dispute--in and around Sarasota, later donating miles of land for Myakka River State Park. Her friends followed her there, including John Ringling of the circus family, who became another major developer of Sarasota.

She maintained homes in London and Paris. After her husband's death in 1902, there were constant rumors that Palmer would marry some titled man. The alleged suitors included the earl of Munster, the duke of Atholl, the prince of Monaco and the king of Serbia. But she would have none of them.

Upon her death of pneumonia in Florida in May 1918, friends said the title she liked most was "Mrs. Potter Palmer--American."