Philip Danforth Armour.
The Rise of Four Dazzling Dynasties
During an American Epoch When Everything Was Possible
With the single act of betting correctly on an early end to the Civil War, meatpacker Philip Danforth Armour became a multimillionaire and founded one of America’s great fortunes. The most diligent of Chicago’s fabled 19th century buccaneers, he amassed as much as $50 million over the next 36 years, believing he would leave leadership of Armour & Company to his second son, namesake and virtual clone.
Philip D. Armour, Jr.
Exactly one year before the patriarch’s 1901 death, his heir apparent, Philip D. Armour Jr., died suddenly — and mysteriously — in California, leaving an older brother, J. Ogden Armour, to inherit the company their father built. Ogden — a self-styled gentleman rather than the natural speculator his father and brother had been — managed the stockyards company with sufficient competence for 17 years while living like the dynast he was, presiding over a 1,000-acre country estate, the most opulent of Chicago’s Gilded Age. His downfall began when it came to gambling on the end of World War I. Ogden reversed his father’s Civil War wager, and Armour & Company lost millions — beginning a run of appallingly bad luck for its inheritor and the family company.
J. Odgen Armour.
As the Armours careened toward bankruptcy, personal honor was preserved by the gallant conduct of Ogden’s socially obsessed wife and their pampered daughter. However, the generosity of the Armour women was not enough to save the company, in spite of an astonishing eleventh hour twist that salvaged a portion of their fortune. By then, Armour & Company had slipped from the control of one great line and into that of another, introducing an intriguing group of new participants.
Frederick H. Prince.
Armour’s second reign was led by Boston capitalist Frederick H. Prince, who brought both funds and stability to the company, as well as an astute cousin, William Henry Wood. Fred Prince legally adopted Wood to preside over the resuscitated company as his corporate heir, with the proviso that he attach the Prince surname to his own. Not only did Billy Wood-Prince, a junior bank officer and World War II Army captain with no knowledge of meatpacking, prove to be a brilliant leader of the salvaged Armour & Company, but he and his wife, Eleanor, surfaced as prominent American philanthropists, eminent art collectors and leaders of Newport and Chicago society.
Meanwhile, emerging from Czarist Russia to mirror the Armour riches-to-ruin-to-personal recovery scenario was a third house represented by Princess Alexandra Galitzine Romanoff, who survived the revolution to marry first the czar’s nephew and then P.D.’s grandson Lester Armour. She remained in America for another 70 years — into the 21st century — while rivaling Eleanor Wood-Prince as one of the nation’s reigning grandes dames.
Princess Alexandra Galitzine.
The intriguing mix of vibrant personalities making up House of Armour was further enriched through its merger with a dynasty founded by the outrageous Texas cattle baron Abel Head “Shanghai” Pierce. A self-invented, murdering swashbuckler of the Old West, Shanghai personified the virtually boundless prospects available for an authentic 19th century American adventurer, introducing new dimensions to both the Armour bloodline and its wealth.
The injection of the colorful Shanghai and his Texas branch introduced such popular mid-20th century figures as the warring sisters Mary Runnells and Lacy Armour to the Chicago social scene.
House of Armour is the dramatic account of an erratic corporate ride, tracing the rise, decline, renaissance and dissolution of a renowned American company, but it is even more the story of individuals closely associated with the name, grouped within four remarkable dynasties which exemplify the almost unlimited potential existing in the American epoch that began in the 1850s and continued into the mid-20th century.
While the celebrity of Armour & Company endures today, its history has never been reported through the interweaving lives of the intriguing personalities who were responsible for the company’s creation, loss, recovery and lasting fame. The only previous account focusing at length on the Armour dynasty is Harper Leech’s 1938 Armour and His Times, in which the disastrous misread of the World War I Armistice timing by second generation heir Ogden Armour is introduced on page 355 of the 357-page volume. Amazingly, no subsequent book has followed with a comprehensive account of the Ogden Armours, their family dynamics, opulent lifestyle, the drama surrounding Ogden’s remarkable losing spree (“a million dollars a day for 130 days”) and the implausible reversal of his survivors.
And, although the oral legend of Shanghai Pierce has been a Texas staple for well over a century, the only book about the flamboyant 19th century adventurer is Christ Emmett’s Shanghai Pierce: A Fair Likeness, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1953.
Armour & Co.’s savior, Frederick H. Prince, a man almost as skillful at obscuring details of his corporate life as he was in amassing riches, has succeeded in confounding potential biographers. And no writer has yet tackled the task of chronicling the full and extraordinary lives of William Wood-Prince or Princess Alexandra Galitzine Romanoff Armour, who respectively lived until 1998 and 2006. Every one of the players in the House of Armour drama is individually remarkable and each of the dynasties carries its own powerful sweep; as a group they compose a formidable ensemble.
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 assemblage of remarkable individuals, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Philip Danforth Armour and the Brothers
Robert F. Carl