J. Ogden Armour.
The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
A Gentleman of the Yards
The remarkable Armour Dynasty narrative might have advanced seamlessly if Philip Jr. had not died. A near duplicate of his father and groomed to succeed him, the younger Philip would have maintained the patriarch’s comparatively austere lifestyle and his devotion to the continuing success of Armour & Co. Instead P.D.’s heir was now his elder son, Jonathan Ogden Armour, who had preceded his brother in truncated study at Yale, also followed by a year abroad with a tutor. While in Great Britain, he became entirely enamored with the life of an English country gentleman. His captivation with the British aristocratic style is best explained in his father’s comment to Stock Yards founder John B. Sherman, “Ogden was impressed with the fact that so many Englishmen had a leisurely life on a small income…something he would like to do instead of grubbing for money, when we already had more than enough. He thinks he should retire. I told him to be at the Yards in his working clothes at seven on Monday morning.”
But P.D.’s heir ignored his father’s childhood frugality lectures and spent extravagantly. He loved being rich and believed, that no matter what he did, he would be rich forever. Below is his town residence at 3724 South Michigan Avenue a fashionable address of the era.
Even more spectacular was Ogden’s thousand-acre summer domain, Mellody Farm, west of Lake Forest.
Two views of Mellody Farm .
The sumptuous Arthur Huen-designed North Shore estate, Mellody Farm, was the area’s most lavish. The pale marble and rosy pink plaster Italian villa sat amid fragrant rose gardens, formal cypress-lined terraces and soaring spray from decorative fountains. Its grounds, landscaped by Ossian Simmonds and Jens Jensen, featured twin lakes, stocked with perch and bass, and ornamented with swans that glided gracefully across their placid surfaces.
This grandeur extended to the villa’s interior, which was decorated by fabled interior designer Elsie de Wolfe.
Elsie de Wolfe’s famous Winter Garden at Mellody Farm.
Also contributing to the elegant ambience was the presence of Ogden’s wife, the former Lolita Sheldon. A brilliant and witty Connecticut beauty, whose social pretensions and need for antediluvian formality were as strong as her chronic discontent, she chiefly occupied herself with being the best-dressed woman in Chicago. Her extensive footwear wardrobe, which included a collection of 100 pair of white shoes, was alone remarkable.
Lolita Sheldon Armour.
In 1896, Lolita fulfilled her marital duty by producing a child. However, the family was devastated when they learned the baby girl, dangerously premature and weighing three pounds, would survive only if placed in a newly invented apparatus known as the incubator, and perhaps not then. The machine was produced, a pink linen layette put aside, and tiny Lolita Jr. was wrapped in a small piece of cotton and placed in the tin box. For days her doting grandfather, known for his extreme work ethic, ignored the Board of Trade and his meatpacking business to sit at the infant’s side. When doctors determined that she would live, Armour celebrated the child’s struggle for existence by rewarding her with a half million dollars.
Little Lolita’s fight was not over. It soon became apparent that she was hobbled by a hip misalignment and faced the possibility of permanent confinement to a wheel chair.
The “bloodless surgeon of Vienna” Prof. Adolf Lorenz.
But she was an Armour; therefore in October, 1902, the world famous orthopedic surgeon Prof. Adolf Lorenz was summoned from Vienna to perform a rare procedure on the six year-old. Assisted by five other doctors, including Dr. Frank Billings, who was Marshall Field’s personal physician, the famous “bloodless surgeon” manipulated the anesthetized child’s bones during a two hour “operation” and, after announcing that little Lolita “would be able to walk as well as the healthiest children when the plaster cast is removed next Spring,” presented the Armours with a $30,000 invoice, which they paid quite happily.
After the child’s recovery, Ogden and Lolita lived largely apart. Neighbor Arthur Meeker later commented, “When Mr. Armour came to Mellody Farm, Mrs. Armour left it—and vice versa…like the figures on one of those cottage barometers that appear and disappear as the weather dictates.” In the tradition of Chicago magnates Charles Swift and Harold McCormick, who were obsessed with—and married–opera stars, Ogden, in 1910, began a long affair with the greatest singing actress of the era, soprano Mary Garden.
P.D. Armour had left his son a $100 million business in 1901, and under Ogden’s watch it grew to an almost $1billion company by 1918. The early portion of World War I had been so profitable for Armour & Co. that there was public speculation about which family the devastating European conflict was making richer—Armour or Du Pont. Armour holdings were now in a conglomerate of related companies, and the family owned all of its common and voting stock—with 72 percent held by Ogden himself. During the closing year of World War I, Ogden was faced with the same wartime fluctuation in meat prices that had benefited the patriarch–but thinking the war would continue for the foreseeable future–bet too early, reversing his father’s gamble. The first visible hint he was in danger of losing his position as Chicago’s richest man occurred during the late autumn of 1919 when, during a session with a guest in his office, he suddenly interrupted one of his own sentences with, “…I wish I could go out and get roaring drunk!”
The toppling of the salt pork market.
Because Ogden had bought at the top of the market, when the war ended and prices plummeted, the meat company—caught with vast inflated inventories–lost millions. He followed this debacle with a disastrous investment in wheat, losing a reported $1 million a day, with losses eventually totaling as much as $150 million. Then the powerful Armour Grain Co. was investigated and suspended from the Board of Trade, and Armour Leather Co. lost $11 million in two years.
Among the Armour fiascos was the Sutter Basin Company, founded by Ogden in 1913. It was projected that irrigation would transform this 6,000-acre piece of arid California farmland into a veritable Garden of Eden with skillful inflow of water, but irrigation was never accomplished and Ogden lost $17 million with that investment alone.
Finally there was the severe recession of 1921-22. In January 1923, his personal humiliation became public when Ogden was forced to step down as president of Armour & Co., to be succeeded by a long-time employee, F. Edison White. A month later, Lolita Sr. was fielding rumors that Mellody Farm was on the market, with gossip circulating that 60 servants had been discharged within eight weeks.
Armour stock was finding its way into the coffers of Ogden’s creditors, and a significant number of shares were landing in the portfolio of a somewhat mysterious Boston financier with formidable meatpacking connections.
P.D.’s advice about always store-housing loose cash for emergency had gone unheeded. J. Ogden Armour was broke and in debt. However bankruptcy for Armours was not an option, and the two Lolitas, wife and daughter, met the emergency by donating $7 million toward Ogden’s debts.
The younger Lolita’s plucky spirit had prevailed over initial fragile health, an overly fretting mother, and the lonely home schooling of a governess, because her parents felt that it was “nicer” for girls not to be sent to school. Rather than becoming weak and self-involved she had grown into a sound young woman. Impending disaster also brought a new strength to Ogden’s wife, who dropped much of her narcissism and would stand by her husband with notable loyalty for the rest of his life.
Plucky Lolita Armour, Jr.
Ogden’s nephews, Philip D. III and Lester–now young men in their 20’s–also rose to meet the crisis by together putting in another $8 million. The family kept patching together this and that, including 400 shares in Universal Oil Products Co., which had come out of a random 1906 investment in the Standard Asphalt & Rubber Co., a petroleum refining process. When creditors rejected this stock, Ogden gave it to his wife in recognition of the portion of her inheritance she had given him. She put it away in a drawer. And, in a way, life went on as usual.
It was a perilous time throughout much of the world. While the Armours were approaching financial crisis, a family that would merge with theirs was facing devastation more than an ocean away.
House of Armour: The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties during an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Aleka
Robert F. Carl