Sam Insull’s Turbulent Home Life

                            .  .  .  And Escalating Empire





By Megan McKinney


Gladys Insull with Samuel Jr. in about 1905.


The Samuel Insulls’ only child, Samuel Jr., was born in 1900, and, like his father, he would be short, stocky, spirited and extremely bright, with the same perpetual half-smile. But he was also fortunate in receiving his mother’s good looks.

By the early years of the 20th century, the Insulls were living grandly in both town and country. Their city resident was an apartment in 1100 N. Lake Shore Dr., then an eight-story Marshall & Fox building at Cedar Street.

In 1906, Sam also began buying acreage near Libertyville and eventually amassed almost 4,500 acres for his estate, Hawthorne Farms, which neighbored that of Joseph Medill Patterson. The main house, also designed by Benjamin Marshall’s firm, was a grand Italian villa with a glass-roofed central court and an open loggia along one side that could be glassed-in during the winter.


  The Libertyville estate.

There was an experimental stock farm on the property, where Insull bred Suffolk Punch horses and Brown Swiss cattle. He also raised pheasants, which Medill family bad boy Joe Patterson amused himself by lying behind a fence and picking off with a shotgun when the birds flew over his property. Landscaping duties for the estate’s immense grounds were shared by Marshall & Fox, Jens Jensen and New York’s James L. Greenleaf.

A watershed in the lives of the three Insulls occurred in January 1912, when 11-year-old Sam Jr. developed scarlet fever, a deadly and highly contagious disease, necessitating strict quarantine. Although Sam Sr. observed the quarantine, Gladys did not.

While a team of courageous nurses cared for the child, whose life hung perilously between two realms, Gladys launched a frenzied three-month scrubbing of the entire interior of the pink Benjamin Marshall mansion with formaldehyde every day, all day long “from wall to wall, downstairs and up.”         

During the 90 days, their son was suspended in limbo—his condition not improving, yet not worsening—the only contact between the two elder Insulls was through an open window, Sam standing on the back terrace below and Gladys on second-story parquet inside, her hands raw and bleeding.


This went on until early April, when–as his 12th birthday neared—the child’s fever shot up and his heart stopped beating. He was clinically dead.

The head nurse grabbed little Sam, pounding him until his heart began again to beat. His fever then began to decline. And he would live.

However, the emotional damage was done. Gladys, who had found intimacy repugnant from the outset, had attempted to end her physical relationship with Sam three years earlier. However, he managed, through a second honeymoon, to pull her back into a full marriage. It wouldn’t work now, and what personal rejection would do to the ego of a 52-year-old man was something about which she knew little and cared less.

The three Insulls, probably around 1930.

A graduate of St. Paul’s School and the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, Sam Jr. was rarely without his glasses—in fact, when he wanted to be incognito, he simply removed them.

Sam Jr. in 1925, the year before his marriage to Adelaide Pierce.

The younger Sam was his father’s assistant and an executive in several of his companies. His 1926 marriage to Adelaide Pierce would produce Samuel Insull III in June 1931. 


Three generations of Samuel Insulls.

In 1925, Gladys had announced her desire to make a theatrical comeback because of a sudden need for “self-expression.” With Sam’s backing, a production of The School for Scandal was mounted starring 56-year-old Gladys as the teenaged Lady Teazle. 


Gladys Insull in high middle age.

A limited engagement of two weeks, with proceeds going to St. Luke’s Hospital, encouraged all of social Chicago, including the Fields, Armours, Drakes and Pullmans, to turn out for a hugely successful opening night.

The triumph of the run encouraged Gladys to take the production to Broadway, where the play’s Chicago success was not repeated. This didn’t discourage Gladys. Again with Sam’s funding, she established a theatrical company and took a five-year lease on the Studebaker Theater. The project was soon losing $1,000 a day of Sam’s wealth.  


Gladys as Lady Teazle.

It was a period of performance arts focus for the Insulls; Sam exploited the wealthy Chicagoans’ passion for opera by developing a 45-story office tower on Wacker Drive around the core of a 3,500-seat opera house. After financing the $7.5 million project by selling shares of preferred stock to ardent opera lovers, he accompanied architects from Graham, Anderson, Probst & White—successor to Daniel Burnham’s firm—to Europe to study opera houses in Paris, Milan, Vienna and Prague to ensure that Chicago’s great opera house would be like none other. It wasn’t.






Unlike virtually all other opera houses and theaters with their sometimes nearly circular sweep of boxes, Insull determined that all Civic Opera boxes should be in the back and high up, where their occupants would not see each other throughout a production. As a poor child growing up in and near London, he had hoarded lunch money to buy six-penny gallery seats, and he fervently believed opera was for lovers of the art form and not just another social occasion. Even the word “Civic” implied that opera in this house was for those who loved the form, not merely people with money. The opening performance was November 4, 1929, six days after the stock market crash.

Tyrone Power.

Also in the building was the jewel-like Civic Theatre, originally designed to house the Chicago Civic Shakespeare Society, a special interest of Harley L. Clarke, one of Insull’s utilities colleagues. The 900-seat theater opened one week after the opera house with a production of Hamlet, starring the Society’s artistic director, Fritz Leiber, thought to be the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Acting in a small role in the same production was future Hollywood matinee idol Tyrone Power.

Harley Clarke guaranteed the company against financial loss for five seasons, spending $200,000 of his own Depression era funds. 


Chicago’s great Civic Opera Building, an Insull legacy that has prevailed.

Sam had also been developing other rich-man projects. Although he was a member of Onwentsia, he was an organizer of Lake Forest’s Knollwood Club in 1926, and he became part of a group of wealthy Chicagoans who put together a syndicate to purchase Ogden Armour’s Mellody Farm; they would turn the bankrupt Armour heir’s great estate into what they envisioned as an aviation golf club, with an airfield to accommodate private planes. This dream would not survive the stock market crash of 1929.

In the 1920s, Insull also bought 2,200 acres of farmland west of the city and incorporated the spread as Westchester. His vision of the property as a model English city too would be lost with the nation’s economic collapse. And the Libertyville estate would be sold off to Chicagoans who remained solvent, including Adlai E. Stevenson II and John F. Cuneo. The latter was able to buy the villa and its furniture at bargain price.


Coming Up: Megan McKinney’s Insull series will continue next week in Classic Chicago with Samuel Insull into Mischief . . . Along with Thomas Edison, with a plotline that reads like the scenario for a Kay Francis Warner Brothers film of the Pre-Code era.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl