By Megan McKinney
James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya.
A signature of the property was the stone breakwater barge, set in the water out from the front of the bay side of the villa. It was a frequent mooring point for Deering’s yacht, Nepenthe, and other vessels.
The second Deering-McCormick merger occurred on July 6, 1914, when William Deering’s granddaughter, Marion, wed Cyrus McCormick’s grandnephew, Chauncey. This was 12 years after the celebrated corporate union of the two dynasties, creating International Harvester; the second generation company was headed by Deering’s elder son, Charles, board chairman, and Cyrus McCormick Jr., president.
The senior Cyrus had died in 1884, and Deering patriarch, William, began easing up six years later, abandoning the brutal chill of Evanston winters for south Florida. Both Deering’s sons—Charles and his younger half brother, James—often visited their father and became attracted to the Miami area. Although William lived in Coconut Grove until his 1913 death, he continued to be a loyal supporter of Northwestern University, with donations totaling $1 million; however, the bulk of his sizable estate was left to his children.
The Charles Deering Estate.
Charles, a gifted amateur artist, was passionate about art and studied painting in Paris for a year. He was a friend of the prominent artists of his time and a collector of their works, including more than a dozen by John Singer Sargent.
He was also a devotee of the natural sciences and soon acquired nearly 450 acres of property along the edge of Biscayne Bay at Cutler, forming what is today known as the Charles Deering Estate, a popular tourist destination. Visitors continue to be attracted to the property’s acres of mangrove forests, salt marshes, and the offshore island of Chicken Key. The acreage includes vast virgin coastal tropical hardwood hammock, believed to be the largest in the continental United States.
Charles lived on the estate during the final five years of his life. When he died at 74 in 1927, he followed his father’s example and left more than $1 million to Northwestern University.
Charles Deering in 1917, painted by his friend John Singer Sargent.
When Marion married Chauncey, it was without her father’s blessing. The simple civil ceremony took place in Paris, followed by a religious ritual at the Neuilly-sur-Seine estate of her uncle, James.
Charles’ reason for objecting to the marriage was that the groom did “not take life seriously enough,” which seems an odd assessment of a graduate of Groton and Yale, who, during one Yale summer break, rolled up his sleeves and joined other “common laborers” in the McCormick factory in Chicago. After his 1907 Yale graduation, Chauncey worked in the Paris office of International Harvester, this time presumably at a desk.
Marion was then in her late 20s, deep in the spinster territory of 1914, but she was also heiress to $120 million. It was indeed a “beautiful marriage,” during which the couple divided their time between a cooperative at 2450 Lakeview Ave.; St. James Farm, just south of the Wheaton estate of Chauncey’s cousin Colonel Robert McCormick; a vacation home at Seal Harbor, Maine; and another in Miami.
They quickly became Chicago’s upper crust “It couple.” Chauncey was to hold the ultimate prestige position in pro bono Chicago: chairman of The Art Institute Board, and Marion, also “a patron of art” was known for superb dinner parties, which were served on gold plates and fine Lowestoft porcelain, as well as her collections of magnificent emeralds, pearls and old masters.
In 1953, Chicago Daily News society columnist Athlyn Deshais sent ballots to 2,000 Chicago socialites, to elect a “Queen of Society.” Approximately 1,000 ballots were returned, and the winner was Mrs. Chauncey McCormick. Chauncey died in September 1954 at the Seal Harbor estate, and Marion lived until 1965.
James Deering was another friend of John Singer Sargent.
James, also drawn to the Miami area, built one of the 20th century’s great American showplaces in Coconut Grove. In 1912, he bought 130 acres of hammock from Mary Brickell, who with her then deceased husband, William, owned huge tracts of land in the Miami area.
Ground was soon broken for a lavish estate, for which Deering commissioned young architect, F. Burrall Hoffman Jr., in collaboration with the more seasoned non-architect Paul Chalfin. Together, they designed Villa Vizcaya, a 72-room Italian Baroque palace and farm village on this bayfront property, which Deering would begin occupying four years later.
Even Deering’s designers were top drawer. Burrall Hoffman was from an affluent and socially impeccable New York family, and Diego Suarez, who designed the villa’s elaborate grounds, was a future husband of Evelyn Marshall Field, the first wife of Marshall Field III and sister-in-law of the future Brooke Astor. Suarez lived at River House in New York and at an estate of his own design on Long Island.
The aerial drawing of Villa Vizcaya below is more comprehensible than almost any of the hundreds of photographs of the estate. The waterside entrance to the villa, at top of the drawing is shown facing the “stone barge.” The Casino, the smaller building at lower right, sits on a mound which, during Prohibition, housed a $500,000 stash of fine spirits purchased by Deering before passage of the Volstead Act.
A bird’s eye view of the spectacular estate. Note the Casino at image bottom, innocently sheltering a fortune in fine spirits throughout the Prohibition era.
The village included a dairy, poultry house, barns, garage and staff housing, enabling Vizcaya to be entirely self-sufficient. James moved into the expanse on Christmas Day, 1916, arriving by yacht. He enjoyed nine winters at the villa—from Thanksgiving through May—until his death in 1925. June was annually spent on Lake Shore Drive, July through October at his Neuilly-Sur-Seine estate outside Paris, and November at a Fifth Avenue address.
A water’s edge teahouse by Diego Suarez.
The closest most of today’s Americans have come to experiencing life at Villa Vizcaya is in viewing Downton Abbey. Every day began with the energetic attack of dozens of servants on the villa’s many public rooms—plumping, buffing and dusting—in the ritual of bringing Deering’s precious artifacts and stunning rooms to their morning optimum.
Cut flowers were everywhere, in public rooms, bedrooms, hallways, patios and terraces. Orchids and other flowers were raised in greenhouses, with teams of men regularly cutting blooms and storing them in a “cold room” for a complete change of flowers daily, sometimes twice a day.
Six miles away from Vizcaya, in Allapattah, five acres of the finest soil were devoted to growing annuals. Rose blooms were never cut in the rose garden; necessitating 18-inch stems, roses were always brought from the Allapattah grounds.
James Deering’s yacht, Nepenthe—like the private railroad cars of the day—was always kept in the ready. Sometimes James would summon the vessel for an afternoon’s outing, but on occasion, Nepenthe would be called forth for a cruise up to 10 days long, Deering’s limit. The elegant yacht was equipped with the same exquisite china and monogrammed French linens and the other superb accessories as the villa.
During the six months Deering was living at his other properties, as many as 18 staff members remained to maintain the house, with at least 26 gardeners and other workers staying to manage the rest of the estate.
For an entertaining glimpse of life at Villa Vizcaya, one need merely peek into a fascinating book by Althea McDowell Altemus, Deering’s secretary from 1917. Big Bosses, published by the University of Chicago Press only a few months ago, captures the spirit of life at James Deering’s opulent estate, or at least segments of it.
A courtyard’s edge.
Altemus is at her best in describing James’ annual winter house party. To be invited, she writes, “it was essential to be a WHO—(or) a relative, friend, mistress, gigolo, daughter or son of a WHO.” She neglects to mention wives, at least not yet.
A sampling of the glorious gardens of Diego Suarez.
Dozens of guests would arrive on a Wednesday, mainly by yacht or private railway car, accompanied by maids and valets, prepared to stay for 10 days. If we are to believe Altemus, the principal activity during the week and a half was the copious consumption of alcohol, facilitating the second—incessant illicit sex.
A closer view of the Casino, this time from the garden side.
Prohibition was looming and within two years the passage of the Volstead Act would make acquisition of the best alcoholic beverages very difficult, but happily Deering had anticipated the situation in ordering the Casino built at the edge of Diego Suarez’s gardens and sending for $500,000 of the finest “rare brandies, wines, liquors and cordials” to stock its underground vaults. The suites and bedrooms of his guests, as well as the common spaces of the villa and its grounds, were well supplied from this store during the days preceding the extended annual party.
The grotto pool.
Altemus writes that wives and girlfriends, carefully assigned different parts of the villa, would meet only at the 9 p.m. dinner—by then, the ladies “would be in splendid spirits and not worried over affairs à la coeur.”
A reason for gravitating to Florida initially was that James had been diagnosed with pernicious anemia and his health was slowly deteriorating. He died in September 1925 on the SS City of Paris en route from France to the United States.
Although he spent most of his inheritance on the estate and the art collection filling it, bachelor James gave $1 million to Wesley Memorial Hospital, later absorbed by Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
He left Villa Vizcaya to Charles, who, two years later, willed it to his daughters, Marion McCormick and Barbara Danielson. In November 1952, following hurricane damage and escalating maintenance obligations, the sisters conveyed the property to Dade County (now Miami-Dade County) to be operated as a public museum. Today, the house and gardens are designated a National Historic Landmark.
Deering generosity has spanned the generations, notably to Northwestern University, but also to The Art Institute of Chicago, which opens a major reinstallation of its Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor this weekend.
This concludes Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, Deerings and McCormicks.
Robert F. Carl