“He was a very polarizing figure, notoriously cheap when it came to certain things and very cold with his children,” says writer Renee Rosen of the subject of her latest novel, the retailer Marshall Field. “He was the merchant prince, and he couldn’t stay away from it. He was a hard man to get my arms around.”
Rosen’s book, “What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age” (New American Library) concerns Field and his relationship with his second wife, Delia Caton Spencer. In the book, which, like her last novel, “Dollface,” is set in Chicago, Spencer and Field meet on the day of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and eventually become lovers, although each is married to someone else. Rosen says that their relationship, which lasted about 30 years, was an open secret in the society of the time. They lived near one another, and there were persistent rumors that they had had a luxurious underground passageway built between their two houses, although the writer says there is no historical basis for that story. Delia’s father had been a retailer, too, and he had left both her and her sister substantial amounts of money.
“Both [of them] were locked in these loveless marriages,” says Rosen. “When it was just clear that it was not going to work, it somehow justified their infidelity.” They finally married in September 1905, only five months before Field died.
His first wife, Nannie, is depicted as manipulative, cruel and a laudanum addict. (Laudanum was a tincture of opium, and perfectly legal in the years before the Safe Food and Drug Act.)
“You had an entire population of women who were basically drug addicts,” Rosen says. “She was very, very sickly, and we know that she was self-medicating.”
One of the changes Rosen made in the facts of the story was to make Delia’s husband, Arthur Caton, gay and in love with his best friend, Paxton Lowry, a fictional character. There is no evidence of this in the historical record; however, it is clear that Delia, Arthur and Marshall were very good friends and often traveled together.
Field’s motto as a retailer was “Give the lady what she wants.” He was an innovator. After the 1871 fire destroyed much of Chicago, he was the first to set up shop again, selling his remaining undamaged stock from a whitewashed barn. Field had differences of opinion with his original partner, Levi Leiter, who believed that the wholesale business was where the money was, and Field eventually bought him out. Department stores were among the few places women could go on their own or with their women friends without raising eyebrows. Field’s store was the first to have restrooms and a restaurant. The latter was created in response to the actions of one of his saleswomen, who had taken to bringing in meat pies so that her customers could continue shopping rather than going out to a restaurant to eat lunch and began recruiting her fellow saleswomen to provide more meat pies. “Field was actually pretty furious until he was convinced that they would stay and shop longer,” Rosen says, adding that the first tea room at the store evolved into the Walnut Room restaurant, which is still there although the old Field store is now a Macy’s, which bought the company in 2005.
Field also added a concierge service, where customers could book theater tickets and mail packages. Rosen acknowledges, however, that it’s not entirely clear that these developments were Field’s own ideas; some or all of them may have been initiated by his deputy, another great retailer, Harry Gordon Selfridge, who worked for Field for 25 years and who later founded his own store, Selfridges, in London.
In the novel, Field and Delia Caton become both lovers and close friends, and she frequently gives him advice about his store; after all, as a woman born into the upper class, with plenty of disposable income, she was part of the demographic he was most interested in as a retailer.
“[The city] was a trading post, and Chicagoans really longed to be seen as just as sophisticated as New Yorkers,” the writer says. “They really felt it was their responsibility to lift up the city’s image; they set the style.”
Arthur Caton eventually booked himself into the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and shot himself. In the novel, Rosen attributes this partly to the sudden death of Lowry. Field went through many business reverses and had his premises destroyed by fire twice, but he took all of these events in stride. When the crooked businessman Charles Yerkes was bringing his railroad cars into the city, Field paid to arrange that the cars would go by his store twice, creating the famous Chicago Loop. What he couldn’t shrug off, however, was the death of his oldest son, Marshall Field Jr., who was shot at Chicago’s most notorious — and luxurious — brothel, the Everleigh Club.
At the end of the novel, Delia and her friend Bertha Palmer climbed the Swiss Alps by car — which they also did in real life. Bertha was also president of the Board of Lady Managers of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the world’s fair, and in the book, Delia works for her during the preparation for big event. Palmer, who had married 44-year-old millionaire Potter Palmer when she was 21, played a prominent role in Chicago society. “She was a force to be reckoned with,” Rosen says. “She was really considered Chicago royalty. She would wear jewelry from head to toe and crinolines that weighed about 20 pounds. She was forever going to Paris and she had a very close relationship with Worth, and he designed for her. She was really very influential in bringing French Impressionism to the United States. She was friends with Renoir and Degas.” Palmer commissioned two women artists, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and Mary Cassatt, to paint murals for the exposition.