. . . Along With Thomas Edison
By Megan McKinney
This is a special segment of the Samuel Insull story, tucked into an otherwise straightforward account of an extraordinary life. Until now, we have focused on the meteoric rise of one of Chicago’s legendary tycoons and next week we will study his tragic plummet back to earth.
But today, we have something unique, possibly unlike anything you ever will view again in these pages—so, for the next few minutes, lean back, relax and suspend disbelief while we explore a possible alternate life for the 20th century’s two great giants of electric power in a plotline that reads like the scenario for a Kay Francis Warner Brothers film of the Pre-Code era..
Last fall, an intriguing book, Big Bosses, A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America, emerged. The author, Althea McDowell Altemus, was born in 1885 and has been dead for more than a half century. However, the book was edited and annotated by the very much alive University of Miami history professor Dr. Robin F. Bachin.
Mrs. Altemus, a single mother who worked as a private secretary following her divorce in 1917, was apparently very good at her job, because the bosses for whom she worked in Miami, Chicago and New York were indeed “big”. They included real estate developer Fred F. French and banker S.W. Straus of New York, as well as Chicago’s James Deering.
Villa Vizcaya, where Althea was private secretary to International Harvester’s James Deering.
While working for these men and others, Althea kept notes about her experiences, giving nicknames to her employers, playing with details and somewhat obscuring identities; however, in essence the material is factual. Her manuscript was found in 2012 by her grandchildren and published in 2016 by none other than the hallowed University of Chicago Press.
According to Big Bosses, Althea answered a Chicago Tribune classified advertisement for a private secretary in the early 1920s and was summoned to meet a prospective employer at 9 p.m. on a Monday in a posh Lake Shore Drive apartment, in itself a questionable beginning.
The nervous, chain-smoking interviewer was, according to the book’s editor, “most likely” Mrs. Samuel Insull.
The job, Althea soon learned, would be more private eye than private secretary—no shorthand, no typing. She would simply be charged with learning what Sam Insull did between 8 p.m. and midnight every evening, throughout the week. A tearful Gladys told her soon-to-be employee that for the past year her husband had eaten almost nothing at dinner, leaving the table, and the apartment, before 8 p.m. and not returning for four hours, although when Gladys called his office during this time, he was always there.
Althea’s assignment would be to gain entry to her husband’s office and learn what so occupied him during those evening hours.
The job interview was conducted in the Insull apartment, which stretched across the sixth floor of 1100 N. Lake Shore Dr.
As soon as she left the interview, Althea began working on a plan. She had learned from Gladys that Sam’s current secretary, Miss Stevens, was an old-maidish woman of about 35, who lived with her aged mother, and that both Miss Stevens and her younger assistant, also a plain spinster, were well-entrenched in their jobs. There would be no ordinary employment as a secretary in the office for Althea.
She was to meet Gladys again the following morning at 11 in Mrs. Insull’s secret downtown office in the Auditorium Hotel Annex to discuss the position further. The office was a suite of rooms leased by Mrs. Insull’s personal maid on her behalf under an assumed name.
The Holabird & Roche designed Auditorium Annex, 504 S. Michigan Ave., now part of the Congress Hotel.
When Althea arrived for their appointment the following morning, she had formulated the plan, which would probably take five weeks to achieve. She explained the idea to Gladys and asked for $100 a week in advance. Mrs. Insull happily wrote a check for $500.
Daniel Burnham’s Edison Building at 72 W. Adams St.
Althea began work immediately. It was almost lunch hour when she left the Annex, having received a specific description of Miss Stevens’ appearance. She walked the few blocks to the Edison Building, where the Insull suite of offices was located on the top floor and stationed herself in the downstairs lobby. There was no Miss Stevens walking through on her way to lunch that day or for several days after, but when she eventually did, Althea followed her to a nearby tea room. She waited until the little restaurant was almost full and seated herself at the table where Miss Stevens sat alone.
After repeating this pattern for almost a week, one day they spoke. Eventually Althea learned of her new friend’s great desire for two weeks’ respite from her job, and Miss Stevens was told of Althea’s wish for a secretarial position. It was only a short time before the suggestion was made that Althea might fill in for Miss Stevens while the secretary enjoyed a long-desired vacation. Miss Stevens was more than happy to ask Mr. Insull for a holiday and recommend Althea as her short-term replacement.
Another “Big Boss” for Althea.
After stepping in as Samuel Insull’s interim secretary, the mystery of his “working late” four hours each night only deepened. Althea spent a non-eventful week and a half in the top floor office suite learning nothing; she only ascertained that there was little there that could interest a man from 8 p.m. until midnight every night. There were no books to speak of, or cards for solitaire, and this was decades before computers, cell phones—or even television.
There was only a door that seemed to have no reason for being, except possibly as entry to a private washroom. When she asked Miss Stevens’ assistant about the door, she was told it was never used except occasionally by Mr. Insull or, during his frequent visits, Thomas Edison.
One afternoon, when Althea was alone in the office, she dared open the door a crack but only saw a long passageway leading to another door.
Her employment was almost over when, on the second Thursday morning, Thomas Edison strolled into the office while she and Mr. Insull were answering the day’s mail. While he waited for them to finish, the great inventor sat in a nearby chair and stared at Althea as though he remembered her from a previous meeting.
When Insull left the room briefly, she and Edison were able to chat, and it was quickly determined that they had met at a James Deering house party while she was his private secretary. Before Insull returned to the room, Thomas Edison invited her to him join him for lunch that day. They were to meet back in this office at 1 p.m.
The man with Althea in the illustration on the book’s cover is identified as a much younger version of Thomas Edison, who would have been in his mid-70s when these events occurred.
At 1 p.m., Althea entered the Insull office and was surprised to see three cocktails on the desk. She was further amazed when, after a pleasant pre-lunch chat over drinks with the two men, she was led to the mystery door, down the passageway, through the doorway at its end, and up a circular stairway. When they reached the top, she “emerged from secretary to Alice in Wonderland.”
There, on the roof of the Edison Building was a luxurious penthouse, with an Art Deco flavor living room like the one above, and greeting them was their hostess for lunch, a lovely young woman, whose name was Florence. The mystery began to fall away.
Following a pleasant lunch in the penthouse dining room , the men left to visit a power plant, suggesting that both women stay on. After they left, Florence mentioned that now that Althea and Edison knew each other, the four of them might have delightful times together when he was in Chicago—double dates, as it were.
A maid brought in apricot brandy and Althea learned the two were neighbors; Florence lived with her mother in a North Side apartment near her own. She also learned that Florence and Sam Insull had become friends a few years earlier, and, in order to protect his wife from embarrassment, he ordered this apartment to be constructed on top of the building and connected by a stairway with his office. He also saw to the installation of a private elevator, enabling Florence to travel down from her rooftop quarters to a garage where her roadster was kept, making it possible to move discreetly from her apartment and out of the building without traveling through either the executive office suite or the lobby.
Florence and Insull lunched and dined together in the penthouse every day and evening, which explained the four hours “in his office” each night and so much else. When evening telephone calls came into the executive suite, they were routed up to this apartment. At midnight, Florence would take her private elevator down to where her car was garaged and Mr. Insull would leave through the stairs and hallway to his office and down within the public elevator to the lobby below.
When Althea asked Florence why Mr. Insull didn’t simply divorce his wife and marry her, her new friend replied she had declined that option. She had been married briefly to an older man and much preferred “the anticipation of meetings and the au revoirs of courtship to the possession of matrimony.”
For the complete story of this Insull segment—and so much more—Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America is available for purchase at a bookstore near you.
Coming Up: Megan McKinney’s Insull series will conclude in next week’s Classic Chicago with the final segment, Samuel Insull on the Lam — Or How Not to Do the Grand Tour.
Robert F. Carl