Leiter: Lives of Extraordinary Luxury


Leiter Charlton Park House 2Megan Mosaics Picture



By Megan McKinney

Following their 1904 marriage, the former Nancy Leiter and her husband, Colin Campbell, returned to India where he reported to his regiment, the Central Indian Horse. After serving there, Afghanistan and Tsarist Russia, where he was military attaché, Campbell — by then a colonel — retired to England.

Although Nancy was unimpressed with titles, and had defied parental wishes in marrying a man without one, she was accustomed to an opulent style of life and had the means to live luxuriously. Therefore, when she and Colin were able to choose what they believed would be their permanent home, they selected an imposing seaside castle in Kent. In addition to being a stunning residence with ample space for entertaining in grand style, its grounds supplied the necessary amenity of a polo field for Colin and frequent house guests who were also addicted to the sport.

Leiter polo

Kent, however, would not be the permanent residence they had anticipated; by 1919, the couple had become so incensed with the added burden of exorbitant British taxes, they decided to move to America.

Nancy’s sister Daisy also had financial reasons for keeping close ties to the United States, but her concern was more immediate. Levi, annoyed that his youngest daughter had rarely returned to America to visit him, stipulated in his will that she would lose her inheritance if she did not spend a minimum of four months a year in the country of her birth. She complied, but with reluctance. Breaking away from the ritual of her English life as a countess, and chatelaine of a great estate — even for a time — would never be easy.

When she and Lord Suffolk arrived in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, soon after their wedding, they were greeted by cheering residents lining the high street of a picturesque village decorated in their honor. Shop fronts were hung with bunting and mottoes of welcome, and stirring regimental marches from a uniformed band intensified the cheerful pageantry of the occasion. Below are views of Malmesbury, the classic Wiltshire town over which Daisy would reign.
Leiter Malmesbury

Leiter Malmesbury 2

Leiter Malmesbury 3

According to The London Chronicle, “The Mayor, in presenting a massive silver salver and a handsome address on behalf of the town, offered hearty congratulations and expressed the hope that the intimate and honorable associations between the old borough and the House of Suffolk, which had existed for so many generations, would continue.” He, in turn, was assured by the couple that “her ladyship would take a very lively interest in local affairs and become devoted to Malmesbury” and its people.

Dominating the Wiltshire countryside near Malmesbury is Charlton Park House, owned by the Earls of Suffolk since the Reformation.

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Another view of Charlton Park House.

The great house, situated on 10,000 acres of grounds and completed in 1607, was built for Thomas Howard, second son of the 4th Duke of Norfolk and made 1st Earl of Suffolk by James I four years earlier.

Leiter Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk

The 4th Duke of Norfolk, father of the estate’s first owner.

leiter Thomas Howard, lst earl of Suffolk

Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk.

The Suffolk paintings at Charlton Park House, which constitute one of the finest private collections in England, include a famous group of old masters. The reputation of the collection is further heightened by the tradition that some of the pictures were removed from the royal household of James II during the king’s ouster by William of Orange, prompting James’ ghost to roam about Charlton Park House at night, haunting the galleries. A stunning picture that has eventually made its way into the Suffolk collection is the full length portrait John Singer Sargent painted of Daisy in 1898. She is portrayed swathed in a gown of ivory satin, accented with a draping of shimmering gold fabric that flows from a large pouf at her left shoulder, swirling dramatically about her body. It remains the quintessential image of a turn-of-the-last-century aristocratic Englishwoman.


The Countess of Suffolk and Berkshire by John Singer Sargent.

For the next decade, Daisy and Henry’s life together consisted of a delightful round of the classic rituals of Edwardian aristocracy, including house parties in country houses, as well as their own, which Leiter money was quick to restore to its former glory. Redoing Charlton Park House with an unlimited budget was a superb opportunity for Daisy to indulge in a lifelong interest in fine antiques and decorative finishes.


leiter Charlton Park

A great hall of Charlton Park House.

Although the Suffolks were often in London for shopping and social events, particularly during the season, Daisy preferred the country, where she was able to participate in her favorite pastime, riding. Every morning, she and Henry rode their mounts together across the fields of the estate, savoring the Wiltshire countryside. And they were regular participants in foxhunts throughout England.

As promised, her ladyship also engaged in the noblesse oblige activities expected of the Countess of Suffolk, aiding the sick of Malmesbury, distributing Christmas hampers, and participating in periodic bazaars and flower shows. Together the Suffolks indulged in exotic — and frequent — travel, often to India where they had met, Africa for safaris and, of course, America every year to fulfill the annual four-month stipulation in Levi’s will.

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African safaris were a favorite diversion of the Earl and Countess of Suffolk.

They also produced three sons, Charles, in 1906; Cecil, two years later; and Greville, within another year. The idyll would end — as it did for so many who experienced the golden Edwardian period — with the outbreak of World War I. Suffolk returned to India as a major commanding a battery of the Royal Field Artillery and subsequently served in the Mesopotamian campaign. On April 21, 1917, during the Battle of Istabulat, he was struck by flying shrapnel, which pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

Nancy and Colin Campbell, after their blissful situation on the Kentish coast, wished to duplicate its site as nearly as possible and bought acreage on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, California.

1-Leiter Colin Powys Campbell

Colonel Colin Powys Campbell.

Their dream was to build a manor house near an ancient lagoon, which they would convert into a picturesque lake with lotus blossoms, swans and canoes.

Leiter Colin's lagoon

Lagoon at Montecito.

They transported their young children, Colin and Mary, along with a domestic staff of 10 and “six train-car loads of furnishings,” to a nearby estate in Montecito, where they would live while their new home was being constructed. Again, their plans were thwarted; while they were returning to Santa Barbara from a trip to Chicago in 1923, 64-year-old Colonel Campbell suffered a heart attack and died.

leiter campbell ranch

A heavyhearted Nancy continued with construction of the main house, following her husband’s desire for a manor in the Spanish Colonial Revival design, with arched windows and doorways, 30 rooms and 18 bathrooms. Also on the grounds were tennis courts, a blacksmith shop, a beach house below the bluff and numerous other out buildings including a garage with five Rolls-Royces.


Joe Leiter.

Daisy and Nancy’s brother, Joe Leiter, once characterized by The New York Times as a “capitalist, sportsman, former grain trader and one of the most colorful figures in the history of Chicago,” was now most significantly manager of the vast holdings left by his father. Among the investments he controlled, aside from coal properties and the Leiter real estate, were rail lines and public utilities. While he approached management of the family fortune with seriousness and success, there was ample time for the sort of high jinks and careless behavior that create national headlines.

In March 1900, Joe was a participant in an epic six-man poker game, which began in a private railway car from Chicago to New York. Almost a half million dollars changed hands in the initial portion of the marathon, and Joe, who was in formidable company of legendary stature, reportedly lost $300,000 on the train alone.

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Luxury setting for a marathon poker game, but that was only the beginning.

The high roller winning the stake, as he usually did, was barbed wire and oil tycoon “Bet-a-Million Gates.” A famously compulsive gambler, John W. Gates earned his nickname when he wagered $1 million on which of two raindrops would win a race to the bottom of a window.

Leiter Bet-A-Million

The renowned John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates.

After the players arrived in New York, the legendary game continued for another week in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, where the gamblers played virtually around-the-clock, breaking only for meals brought to them by a “special corps of servants.”

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A vintage Waldorf Astoria suite: another luxe setting for continuing the marathon game.

Leiter reportedly recovered his losses during the Waldorf leg of the marathon, in which immense sums again changed hands. After one of the men mentioned the game to an outsider, gossip of the episode quickly circulated throughout New York’s clubs and dinner parties. But when a reporter picked up the story and approached Leiter for comment, Joe was quoted as saying that he “never played poker during Lent.”

Leiter Joe ugly

Joe Leiter’s high jinx were always news.

Another train episode making headlines in the nation’s big city newspapers occurred in 1909 when Joe was injured in a Pullman sleeping car altercation. The story ran for days, with frequent updates involving fellow passengers who either took credit for “whipping” Joe Leiter, or stepped forward to deny any participation in the incident. It had become that any story involving Joe Leiter was news and invited participation.

A year earlier his shenanigans had upstaged his own bride at their wedding when he knocked a photographer to the ground and smashed the man’s camera. And he received national attention when his 50-foot river yacht, Emmie, sank near the mouth of the Mississippi. Joe and a group of duck-hunting cronies were on their way back to New Orleans from the Leiter Louisiana hunting lodge when the vessel struck submerged piling, crushing its bow and abruptly immersing its passengers. Fortunately, Joe’s fellow sportsmen were as resilient as he, and all survived, ready to move on and continue the extended party in New Orleans.     

Alcohol played a prominent role in Joe’s public image during the period following ratification of the 18th amendment. During an era in which any alcohol was as valuable as cash, his houses in Virginia and Massachusetts were repeatedly robbed of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of wines and liquors; among the incidents was a $300,000 heist in 1921, which was said to be “the largest theft of a private stock of liquors since prohibition went into effect.”

leiter private liquor cellar

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During Prohibition, alcohol was like cash — and thieves knew it was plentiful in Joe Leiter’s houses.

But Joe’s life was also littered with tragic mishaps, two of them involving children. On Christmas Day in 1906, his chauffeur-driven, 60-horsepower touring car struck and killed a 14-year-old boy when it rounded a streetcar at a car stop in Washington. The victim, an African-American child out alone, was knocked down by the automobile and his head crushed by one of its wheels. And, in 1921, another catastrophic accident occurred at Leiter’s private game preserve in Louisiana. Joe had remained at his hunting lodge when his 10-year-old son, Joseph Jr., traveled out to a duck blind with a party of hunters. After firing at a duck, the boy reloaded the gun and set it down on the floor of the blind. When he picked it up again, the firearm exploded — how and why no one was ever able to determine — but the child was dead.

Joe’s wife was Juliette Williams, whom he married in 1908. Then 22, she was a Washington beauty who rivaled Joe’s mother in her voracious interest in scaling the ever-shifting crags of the capital’s society. And she succeeded Mary Theresa in operating from the mansion Levi had built in 1891 at 1500 New Hampshire Ave. on Dupont Circle. While Juliette and Joe entertained regularly and lavishly in Washington and at their suburban and summer homes, they were also were flamboyant hosts of prolonged yachting parties for groups of friends. One such cruise continued for a year —from September 1913 to September 1914 — while it leisurely circled the globe.


The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.

Next Sunday: Curzon after Mary

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl