Why Write About Chicago?

Judy AlterAn award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West. In The Gilded Cage she has turned her attention to the late nineteenth century in her home town, Chicago, to tell the story of the lives of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. She is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame. http://judyalter.com/

Blog URL: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com

Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/judy.alter

Skype: juju1938

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For years I wrote about women of the American West—Libbie Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Etta Place, cowgirl Lucille Mulhall, and a host of others. And then I took a detour to contemporary cozy mysteries—wrote ten in five years. So why now turn to a novel about a couple of privileged people in Chicago in the Gilded Age? A couple of reasons, but first let me say that various versions of The Gilded Cage were in process all during those years I wrote other things. The earliest version I find on my computer is dated 2002, and I think there were even earlier versions, now deleted or on disks no longer readable (one of the problems of the computer age).

I turned to Chicago because I was fascinated by Bertha Honoré (Cissy) Palmer. She was the first woman to equate great wealth with a responsibility for philanthropy, and she put her belief into action. I’m not sure where I first found out about Cissy, but I soon did a children’s book about her. Still, I wanted to know more…and more about her husband, Potter Palmer who established the famous Palmer House Hotel, still thriving in Chicago. Through research I gathered that though happily, even blissfully married, they had different approaches to life…and to charity. Palmer gave generous contributions to various established causes but he never descended to know the poor, know who he was helping. Cissy, on the other hand, invited factory girls into her home, volunteered at Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous community settlement house. For Cissy, philanthropy reached beyond monetary contributions to compassion for the less fortunate.

Not that I would put Cissy on a pedestal. She enjoyed the trappings of wealth and was positively enraptured when she thought her sister would become the daughter-in-law of President Ulysses S. Grant. Unfortunately, Grant left office before her sister and his son could be married, so Cissy never got her visit to the White House. Still, she enjoyed trips to Europe with her husband, and the acquisition of fine European art work for their home. (Their home was a different story and a delicate subject for Cissy—Potter had it designed and built without consulting her and in some ways it was a monstrosity). But Cissy was a social butterfly, and she enjoyed the life of the upper crust in Chicago, even when her older husband got so he wanted to stay at home at night.

But there’s more to the story of my fascination with Chicago and the Palmers. Cissy was the president of the board of lady managers at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a position that carried great responsibility and prestige. The exposition was not unfamiliar to me.

As a young child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the Hyde Park neighborhood, I wandered the land that once boasted the World’s Columbian Exposition. My mother took me out in rowboats around Wooded Island, and I learned to ice skate on the Midway, which still cuts a swath of green through the city for more than a mile west from the lakeshore. My friends and I made countless trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the only exposition building that survives. Much later I attended the University of Chicago, which sits almost on the exposition grounds. That part of the city was “my” Chicago.

The Gilded CageSo I wanted to tell those two intertwined stories—the Palmers and the Exposition. But I am a storyteller, not a historian, and as so often happens, my characters took over the story and dictated the direction it would take. Explanations are thus in order: there is no evidence of an attraction between Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, and Cissy Palmer. Indeed, evidence points to a long and very happy marriage between the Palmers. Harry Collins, the villain in these pages, is of whole fictional cloth: no such man existed. Other, smaller incidents and characters within the story are also of my own making—for instance, in preparation for the exposition, Mrs. Palmer made two trips to England; for simplicity in storytelling, I combined them into one trip. If readers enjoy the story, I hope they will forgive my slight tampering with history.

I have tried to be faithful to the era of this story and to the major events—the Civil War as it was experienced in Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riot, and the exposition. But I have allowed the characters to create a new—and, I hope, more compelling—story than is found in the factual accounts of the exposition and one lone biography of Cissy Palmer.

For me, the city of Chicago, with its colorful, robust history, is one of the major characters in this book.