Marshall Field, the Legacy

Marshall Field III, “the richest boy in the world”





By Megan McKinney


Marshall Field II and Albertine’s son, Marshall III, was born in 1893, followed by Henry and then Gwendolyn. Marshall I had been preoccupied with business when his own children were young, but—like P. D. Armour—he became a doting grandfather, visiting the new generation of Fields in England and entertaining them often in Chicago. Marshall III told Wayne Andrews in the 1940’s, “I know my grandfather had the reputation of being very stern, but with us children he was very indulgent. He was delightful. He would laugh and joke with us.”  He also told Andrews they would play “horsey,” with the stuffy merchant crawling around on all fours.

Delia Caton, here in exotic “fancy dress,” would soon become the second Mrs. Marshall Field.

In early autumn 1905, Marshall I married the exquisite Mrs. Delia Spencer Caton, daughter of a founder of the venerable Chicago hardware firm, Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett and Company. She was widow of Arthur Caton, whose father, the eminent Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court John Dean Caton, had become rich through an antecedent of Western Union. The 71-year-old Field was some 20 years his bride’s senior, but the wedding was a surprise to no one; there had been rumors of an affair for almost 30 years. Furthermore, for a number of years, Field and the Catons had been a threesome, going to parties together and even vacationing as a trio.

The childless Delia Caton was one of the most admired women in Chicago. She was extraordinarily attractive, charming and socially adept, playing such a significant role in Chicago Society that only Bertha Palmer surpassed her. As remarkable as Mrs. Palmer was, she lacked the light, kind-hearted sense of humor that was central to Delia Caton’s character. An anecdote that has circulated through the years is of a very grand dinner party given by the Catons. Marshall Field was a guest and everyone was rising to deliver short speeches. When Field demurred, Mrs. Caton leapt up and announced, “Mr. Field just wants me to remind you that the White Sale starts next Monday.” Delia’s parties were spectacular, always unusual and she had the gift of mixing people without being thought Bohemian. For decades, she was universally considered the best hostess in Chicago.

Ambassador Whitelaw Reid.

In September 1905, Delia and Marshall traveled to England to be married in London’s Saint Margaret’s Church, where American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s Whitelaw Reid attended both the ceremony and the wedding breakfast for 20 guests that followed at Claridge’s.

Today we think of Whitelaw Reid as the man who bought the hugely influential New York Tribune from the estate of Horace Greeley and nurtured the newspaper that would become the great mid-century New York Herald Tribune under the direction of his grandson and namesake. In his own day, the senior Reid was more famous as an ambassador; he had preceded his post in England by serving as United States Ambassador to France.

Marshall Field II shortly before his sudden death.

Marshall I was happily married at last, but his joy was short-lived. While Marshall II, Albertine and their children were visiting Chicago in late November 1905—not in their own Prairie Avenue house but at his father’s—an enigmatic event occurred that has provided Chicago with one of its most enduring mysteries. Thirty-seven-year-old Marshall II was shot in the abdomen, officially the wound was accidentally self-inflicted while he was cleaning a gun. However, intriguing rumors have persisted through the past century, including one of suicide. Another is that he was murdered by a Spanish temptress, or perhaps a gambler, in the Everleigh sisters’ house of ill repute, and secretly transported to his father’s house. He died five days later in Mercy Hospital.

The Chicago Golf Club, founded by golfing pioneer Charles Blair MacDonald in 1892.

In his final years, Marshall became an ardent golfer. On New Year’s Day, 1906—almost exactly five years after his friend P. D. Armour caught a fatal cold while playing in the snow with his grandchildren—Field also caught cold. He was playing golf at the Chicago Golf Club near Wheaton with his nephew, Stanley Field; attorney Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s son; and James Simpson, who would become a president of Marshall Field & Co. As it had with Armour, the cold Field caught that day developed into pneumonia, a virtual death sentence in the elderly. Nevertheless, the Fields kept a scheduled trip to New York, where Marshall I died two weeks later.

The Field Museum.

The hill farmer’s son from Conway Massachusetts left an enduring legacy. The Field Museum of Natural History was founded with gifts that eventually totaled nearly $10,000,000, and the University of Chicago received land valued at $300,000 from him as well as significant cash. Following the Fire, he had given generously toward the revival of the city; he was a founder of The Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a major supporter of many of the city’s prestigious institutions including the Chicago Historical Society. Marshall Field & Co., which became the largest department store in the world, was credited with making more millionaires than any concern in America.

Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Among those who benefited greatly from their association with the man and his store were Harlow N. Higinbotham, John G. Shedd and Henry Gordon Selfridge, who took his money back to England and founded the prominent chain of stores that bears his name. In 1917, the Field family sold all but 10 percent of the stock in the company, which they held until 1965. In his intricate will—engineered by the brilliant trusts and estate lawyer William G. Beale of the firm Isham, Lincoln & Beale—Marshall left many bequests, but the substance of his immense estate, through a modified form of primogeniture, was put in trust for his two grandsons in the male line, Marshall III and Henry. Each was to inherit the principal of his share on his 50th birthday (three-fifths to Marshall III and two-fifths to Henry).  

 Delia as a handsome much older woman.

Marshall, who did not believe that women should be left large amounts of money, was less generous with his bride. As Arthur Meeker’s mother put it, “Poor Delia was cut off with a million.” However, she also had money that had been settled on her at the time of her marriage to Field, as well as income from other inheritances, and continued to live well.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl


This segment of Megan McKinney’s Great Chicago Fortunes, Marshall Field, The Legacy concludes a three-part series on Marshall Field.