By Megan McKinney
The Armours: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
Although members of Aleka’s set in Chicago and Lake Bluff may have noted an attraction developing between the former Russian princess and Lester Armour, news of a romance linking the two would be a surprise to casual observers. It was therefore an amazing disclosure during the first week of April 1949 when announcement was published of their marriage in New York’s Christ Methodist Church. There were no attendants, and the tiny congregation consisted only of Aleka’s brother, Nick Galitzine; her 11 year-old son, Rostislav Romanoff; and Lester’s mother, May Valentine, hostess of a bridal luncheon at the Plaza Hotel that followed the ceremony.
With Aleka’s star quality, the name Armour was again much in evidence. After her fashionable boutique moved to its prominent Oak Street location, Chez Nous had risen from an insider’s well-kept secret to a widely recognized institution without losing its cachet. However, retailing was merely another phase in Aleka’s eventful life, and, after their marriage, she left Chez Nous to devote full attention to her new husband.
She was now mistress of one of the nation’s loveliest country houses, designed by David Adler in 1932. Even its approach was magnificent; the architect placed the Georgian manor at the end of a spectacular half-mile, elm-lined allée, where it sat on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. And, although the 73-acre property and Frances Elkins-designed interiors of its mansion have been the subject of repeated coffee-table book layouts, including two by Stephen Salny, it is best known to the public as the setting for Robert Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding. While both the grounds and interior were superb, it was the boudoir, completely surfaced — four walls and ceiling — in French Directoire mirrored paneling that made the house unforgettable. Aside from a marble-lined bath alcove, the room appeared simply to be a glamorous, sparely furnished Art Deco sitting room, with shimmering images echoing its elegantly precise Adler detailing; closer inspection revealed that each reflecting panel opened to expose a wardrobe, bathroom fixture or storage closet.
The Lester Armours spent the next two decades living and entertaining at the exquisite estate with frequent travel and a great deal of time golfing, interspersed with philanthropic activities and events to which Aleka added her enduring glamour. Armour was again an awesome presence from Palm Beach to Pebble Beach and throughout much of the nation in between.
The Lester Armours at a vintage Boys and Girls Clubs’ Summer Ball.
When Armour & Company was foundering in 1957, 43-year-old Billy Wood-Prince was made president of the $46.3 million company. He reacted by increasing the research budget, installing computers to replace the traditional hand ledgers, orchestrating management shifts and awarding greater autonomy to division managers. Following a plan to decentralize, modernize and diversify, he put more than 40 percent of the company’s assets in more profitable lines, often products that had originally been meat by-products, usually chemicals, oils and soaps.
The model was Dial, the immensely successful antibacterial soap Armour & Company had introduced nationally in 1949 and which had become America’s leading deodorant soap. Within four years, Wood-Prince raised Armour & Company’s earnings fivefold, to $16 million on sales of $1.7 billion.
Under the Wood-Prince watch, Armour & Company was becoming an attractive candidate for acquisition by corporations wishing to diversify. As the decade of the 1960s was ending, General Host Corporation — an old line baked goods company best known for producing Bond Bread — began buying Armour stock.
By April 1969, General Host owned 57 percent interest in Armour & Company, and Host’s president, now an Armour director, demanded that Wood-Prince resign.
Billy, who had accomplished his job of maximizing P.D. Armour’s brand into its second century, stepped down with grace, moving on to oversee F.H. Prince & Company, headquarters of his family’s corporate and real estate holdings.
Billy Wood-Prince and his wife, Eleanor, continued to be intense Francophiles, art collectors, philanthropists and society leaders in Chicago and Newport, where they lived part of the year at Marble House after the death of Fred Prince.
Their generosity is exemplified by a devotion to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Eleanor, above right, was a hands-on member of the Woman’s Board for many decades, with the board’s substantial Eleanor Wood Prince Grants Initiative made possible through the continuing generous support of the Wood-Prince family.
Marc Chagall and William Wood-Prince at the home of Vivian and Ralph Jacobson, September 29, 1974
The couple’s close friendship with artist Marc Chagall resulted in the gift to Chicago of Four Seasons, a 70-foot long four-sided mosaic by the artist, which is prominently displayed in a plaza in the city’s Loop.
Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons is one of Chicago’s most beloved public art treasures.
The acquisition and diversification craze was moving swiftly though the late 20th century corporate world, and General Host was not the only American company wishing to acquire Billy’s prize. Greyhound Corporation, determined to expand beyond its bus interests, had also been purchasing massive quantities of Armour stock, and the contest between the two culminated in June 1969 when Greyhound forcefully thrust General Host aside. But what no one anticipated was that, once the bus company claimed Armour & Company, it would transfer the combined company to Arizona. And the surprises had just begun; very soon Phoenix-based Greyhound was experiencing dramatic changes, which succeeded in scattering Armour products throughout the country, and sometimes the world, to such entities as Pinnacle, Smithfield, ConAgra and Germany’s Henkel AG.
Armour & Company had become a memory. The iconic company —constructed by P.D. Armour and diminished by his son until its dramatic resurrection by the Princes — no longer existed. Like so many of the creations of America’s 19th century tycoons, it was a ghost.
What was left was the image of a dynasty, with the dazzling individuals who personified it. Through the years, House of Armour had consisted of a heterogeneous cluster of energetic personalities, among them the adventurers turned patriarchs P.D. and Shanghai; a gallant survivor in the glamorous Aleka; the two Lolitas, who surprised even themselves by drawing upon adversity to expand their lives; and the Princes, each of whom applied his unschooled genius for business to save and expand a great company.
Yet, even more compelling today is the collective memory of — and almost a nostalgia for — the virtually unlimited raw possibilities that existed for designing a life in the American epoch that began in the 1850s and continued into the mid-20th century.
Placerville, California, 1854.
Robert F. Carl