Monday, September 29, 2014

An Esperanto Socialite in Chicago?

Wealthy. Connected.
In the early days of Esperanto, the language had a certain level of appeal among the well-to-do. Consuelo Vanderbilt, later the Duchess of Marlborough, was part of this set of prominent New Yorkers, “The 400.”[1] When the Duchess was from her husband (they would eventually divorce) she was reported to be consoling herself with the study of Esperanto.

Although not a New Yorker, the Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer was linked to this exalted level of society, and although her husband had made his money (first in retail, then in real estate) instead of inheriting it, her sister was U.S. Grant’s daughter-in-law. But she did hobnob with European nobility. And she was terribly rich.

But did she know Esperanto?

The sole article linking Bertha Palmer to Esperanto appeared in the New York Sun on September 29, 1907. In a group of items under the head “What Women Are Doing,” the Sun reported the following:
It is said that Mrs. Potter Palmer has taken up the study of Esperanto with such zeal that, although her study dates back less than three months, she now reads and speaks it with ease. She is also credited with an intention to establish a magazine in which double columns of English and Esperanto will prove the beauty of the new language.
This magazine does not seem to have ever happened.

Who was this woman? The name was unfamiliar to me, even though I’ve read Erik Larson’s book on the World Columbian Exposition, The Devil in the White City. The Palmers were deeply involved in the World’s Fair, with Mrs. Palmer at the head of the Women’s Committee. She is also credited with creating an interest among wealthy Americans in Impressionist art. If Mrs. Potter Palmer was buying directly from Monet, then his stuff must be good.[2] I should also note that at the time that the Sun was writing about her, she had been widowed for five years.

A lot of nonsense printed was about her. A series of newspaper articles in 1907 linked her romantically to various titled men in succession. In once case, after it was widely reported that such a marriage was in the works, Mrs. Potter was quoted as saying she had never ever met the gentleman in question. She seemed to take all this with good humor. Earlier in her life, a Chicago brewery had used her picture in a calendar. Mr. Potter seemed incensed, but while not supporting the thing, Mrs. Potter comes off as bemused.

Back to the article: The Sun was not so good as to tell us who was saying that Mrs. Potter had taken up Esperanto. I also find myself wondering when she might have had the time. There are many stories about her in 1907; just for that year, there are 271 results in the Chronicling America website,[3] though many of those deal with her nephew’s wedding. Still, then there’s the matter of her offering her mansion for a labor conference. And the rehabilitation of convicts. And those supposed offers of marriage.

It’s not impossible that she learned Esperanto, but she just doesn’t seem to have been the sort of person who could have done so quietly.

  1. Although famously, Caroline Astor, who created the idea of the “The 400,” initially snubbed the Vanderbilts as they were newly wealthy at the time.  ↩
  2. Several sources note that her collection of Impressionist art is now in the Art Institute of Chicago.  ↩
  3. Which is a large, though not comprehensive, collection of American newspapers.  ↩

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