Monday, July 15, 2013

When White Russians Invaded Florida


Bertha Palmer
A considerable area of western Florida was once owned by a Chicago woman, born Bertha Honoré in 1849. Married to a wealthy retailer and hotelier named Palmer Potter, twice her age, Bertha used her wealth to connect with some of the most powerful people in finance and politics. When in 1874 Bertha's sister Ida married Frederick Dent Grant, the son of President Ulysses S. Grant, she attempted to make Chicago an international center of influence, and her personal contacts ranged as far afield as London and Paris. 

Ida Grant's daughter, Julia, whom Bertha had taken under her wing, in 1899 was married in Beaulieu, the William Waldorf Astor cottage in Newport, R.I., which her aunt Bertha Palmer had leased for the summer season. In a small, private Russian Orthodox ceremony Julia was wed to Romanov Prince Michel Cantacuzene of Russia, a diplomat who became Chief of Staff to Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, according to a book Julia published called Revolutionary Days Including Passages from My Life Here and There 1876-1917.

Julia and her husband then settled in the Ukraine until Bertha's dream of royal fame was destroyed by the Bolshevik revolution. The Cantacuzenes fled from Russia to live in Sarasota, Florida. There they remained for some time following Bertha's death in 1918. Julia's mother, Ida Grant, lived in "The Acacias," a residence built by an uncle, not far from Bertha's home in Sarasota, "The Oaks." Although Julia divorced the Russian prince in 1934, her son still went by the title Prince Michel Cantacuzene, as he was engaged in selling real estate in Chicago in 1930.

The elder Prince Cantacuzene, whose kingdom was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917, would also work with his wife's cousins in their real estate company, even after he cheated on their sister with a Sarasota bank clerk Jeannette Draper, who got a job at the Palmer National Bank in 1929. He divorced Julia Grant and quickly married Jeannette in 1934. The Cantacuzenes' home at 870 S. Palm in Sarasota is now the museum building for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Cantacuzene was also involved in the Palmer brothers' bank. While his ex-wife moved back to Washington, D.C., her former husband continued working in the real estate development company with Bertha Palmer's sons, Potter Palmer, Jr. and Honoré Palmer, who inherited the personal estate of $1.6 million with the balance estimated at $20 million held in trust. Who managed all that money for the Palmers? A good guess would be an investment manager connected to Brown Brothers, related to Mrs. Grace Brown Palmer.

Grace Greenway Brown Palmer's Family

In 1903 Honoré had married Grace Greenway Brown, one of the daughters of George "Brook" Brown. Whether or not young Palmer knew about the shameful scandal brought to the Brown family by Grace's late grandfather, Alexander Davison Brown (known back in Maryland as Col. A. D. Brown), probably didn't really matter because of the banking importance of the family as a whole, which was written up in the Peerage and Baronetage of Great Britain and Ireland, compiled by Henry Colburn in 1880.

The Colonel, who stabled his racehorses on his Brookland Wood estate, about seven miles outside Baltimore, had been known to race against August Belmont and Pierre Lorillard at Pimlico and seemed to keep himself out of the limelight until, following his wife's death in 1879, he appalled the local Presbyterian congregation of which he was a member by making the notorious Laura Hobson his second wife in a ceremony held a block from the White House at the St. John Episcopal Church facing the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., no less. Laura, allegedly the daughter of his father's lodgekeeper, ran a house of ill repute in Baltimore. 

Grace Potter's father, George "Brook" Brown (click to enlarge)

Eight years later he filed a divorce suit against her, which also made headlines, and the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote on June 14, 1889 that A. D. Brown had himself been indicted on a charge of "keeping a disorderly house." That was not to say he was untidy; he was being called a pimp! A legal separation became final in 1891, only a year before her grandfather's death which occurred when Grace was ten years old. 

Grace was one of eight children born to George Brown, who married in 1866, more than a decade before the scandal erupted. They had remained at A.D.'s Brooklandwood estate , a historic mansion lost by Grace's brother, H. Carroll Brown. A broker who married the daughter of Marcus Daly, often referred to as "the copper king," of Anaconda mining fame, Carroll Brown was forced to convey it to his brother-in-law, Marcus Daly, Jr. because of debts he owed to his estranged wife and her family.

The Chicago Connection

Grace Brown's sister, Fannie, had earlier married Chicagoan Walter Woodruff Keith in 1896. Walter, whose name appeared in the Chicago Blue Book as a resident of the Prairie Avenue district, (George Pullman, Philip Armour, and Marshall Field--both Sr. and Jr.--also lived on the same street) was a grain merchant and member of the Chicago Board of Trade. 

Walter was a long-time friend of  Honoré Palmer and swore on a passport affidavit he had known Walter for more than 20 years, having grown up with him in Chicago, in the Winetka area, where they were members of the same clubs, such as the Baltimore Club. By 1906 both Palmer and Keith were also listed in the Baltimore Blue book, where their wives had lived. 

Walter Keith died before 1940, and his widow Fannie moved in with her sister, Grace, in Sarasota, where six live-in servants took care of the three adults. The home they had in Chicago was even more magnificent, having been created by Potter Senior years earlier after the Chicago fire, and it remained until 1950.

Palmer Castle in Chicago
Another Brown sister, Sara Carroll Brown,  married Stanley Field, nephew of Marshall Field of Chicago. According to one website:
Stanley was close to his uncle, often playing golf together. When Marshall Field died in 1906, Stanley assumed management of the company. He also served as President of the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago, created by a one million dollar endowment from Marshall Field. The museum, now known as the Chicago Museum of Natural History, has sponsored research and exploration, catalogued thousands of species, and continues to be a museum of world-class distinction.... [The Palmers'] Sarasota estate, known as “Immokalee,” took in the land that would become the Field Estate. Sister Fanny married Walter Keith and built a mansion south of Immokalee on Philippi Creek. A niece of the Browns, Harriet Wentworth, built a mansion on Sarasota Bay just south of the Field Estate called “Kimlira.” A niece of the Keiths, Katherine, was married to architect David Adler, who designed the Field Estate. Mrs. Potter Palmer’s estate (now demolished) was further south in Osprey, and is now the historical and archaeological research center Spanish Point at the Oaks.... Adler designs for wealthy Chicagoans included the homes of William McCormick Blair, Albert Lasker, Marshall and Stanley Field, Potter Palmer, and Cyrus McCormick.
In 1920 Stanley filed suit for divorce, but the couple reconciled. Newspapers claimed he filed again in 1923, charging her with desertion, but we read nothing further after that. Most likely Stanley was not happy having his wife living in England while the children were there for their educations. The eldest daughter left in 1920, followed by Daphne in 1921.

Stanley had been chosen in 1906 to run the department stores upon the death of his uncle. The dry goods business had originally been founded by Potter Palmer in 1852, but only 13 years later the tycoon sold shares to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. One of Potter Palmer's sons was given his mother's maiden name, Honoré Palmer, and married Grace Greenway Brown, a sister of Sara Carroll Brown (Mrs. Stanley) Field. Not only did the families live near each other in the gold coast section north of Chicago, but they socialized together and intermarried with their "class" of wealth.

But who would have thought there was so much wealth in mere retail? 

Maybe they were selling something that became illegal in 1920 with passage of the Volstead Act, the same act which gave birth to a national crime syndicate? Only more research will tell.

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