Made by Bordens—and Wallers
Glenwild, John Borden’s Mississippi cotton plantation and quail preserve.
By Megan McKinney
After John and Ellen Waller Borden divorced in 1924, both made interesting second marriages. She would marry Chicago composer John Alden Carpenter, a 56- year-old Harvard-educated composer, whom some considered one of the foremost “modern” composers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was also among the earliest to use jazz rhythms in orchestral music.
John Alden Carpenter.
Carpenter was widower of Arts Club of Chicago co-founder Rue Winterbotham, whose genius for interior design was as visually advanced as his was musically. Nearly a century later, guests entering one of several Chicago clubs decorated by Rue often gasp in wonder and admiration when first viewing her awesome taste.
Portrait of Rue Winterbotham Carpenter by Constantine Brâncusi.
John Borden’s next wife was Courtney Letts, who was one of Chicago’s famed Wartime “Big Four” socialite beauty quartet, the title TIME magazine would assign them at the beginning of the Jazz Age, when the newsweekly was the nation’s arbiter of fame and popular style. In an era when heiresses trumped actresses and pop stars for headlines, TIME editors had continuing cause to report on Courtney and the other three. Ginevra King was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, Edith Cummings became one of the premier amateur golfers of her generation nationally, and Peg Carry would marry meatpacking tycoon Edward A. Cudahy Jr.
According to Scott Donaldson, a scholar of the era’s literature, Big Four members were “so legendary for their beauty that they were known by that designation for the rest of their lives.”
Courtney Letts, soon to be named one of the 12 most beautiful women in America, would — like the other three Lake Forest debutantes —marry well, which she did four times. Daughter of prominent Chicago socialites Mr. and Mrs. Frank C. Letts, Courtney’s father was president of the mammoth Booth Fisheries. Her lingering fame would come as the Washington femme fatale who devastated an early romantic scheme of Wallis Simpson. And, as an international socialite and quasi-diplomat, she would be a significant Washington presence before and during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1918, Courtney married Chicago’s Wellesley H. Stillwell, a Yale graduate who had been an ensign in the U.S. Navy during WWI. Wellesley’s father, Homer A. Stillwell, was president of Butler Brothers and “one of the recognized leaders of Chicago’s business and financial circles.”
In March 1925, when Courtney married 41-year-old “millionaire explorer” John Borden, newspapers buzzed that with her marriage came “a house on Astor Street, a Rolls-Royce, magnificent jewelry and a trust fund for her children from a previous marriage.”
Courtney Letts Borden at John Borden’s Mississippi plantation, Glenwild.
After plunging into an ongoing program of hunting, shooting, fishing, exploring and other masculine pursuits, Courtney began writing Adventures in a Man’s World, one of two books she would produce during this marriage.
Among the many books Courtney would write during her life.
Courtney with her first great brown bear.
In addition to being an avid adventurer and sportsman, John Borden was a trustee of the Field Museum. In 1927, he was appointed to head a scientific expedition on behalf of the museum, and his bride was eager to accompany him.
Mr. and Mrs. John Borden on the expedition.
The party cruised north via the Inside Passage to Alaska, westward to Dutch Harbor, north through the Bering Strait to Point Hope, Wrangel Island, and then Cape Serdze- Kamen before returning to San Francisco.
According to Courtney, “One must always wear white in stalking Arctic game.”
They hunted grizzly and polar bears, walrus, and seals, and collected birds and arctic plants. Mrs. Borden kept a daily diary of the trip, which she turned into another lively book that includes details of expedition planning and preparation, tales of hunting and peril on the seas, and also nice detail about the tiny Alaskan towns they passed through and the people they encountered.
Publication of Courtney’s book about the Field Museum expedition headed by her second husband was barely squeezed in before an announcement of their divorce from him.
Courtney’s second book about her life with Borden was published in 1933; yet, on June 11, TIME magazine printed the following item in its Milestones column: “Seeking Divorce. Courtney Letts Stillwell Borden, 36, member of Chicago’s famed Wartime ‘Big Four’ socialite beauty quartet, from John Borden, 49, explorer and stockbroker, whose divorced first wife married Composer John Alden Carpenter; in Reno.”
This was followed in TIME two months later with the report: “Married. Felipe A. Espil, 46, Argentine Ambassador to the U. S.; and Courtney Letts Stillwell Borden, 34, divorced wife of Oilman John Borden.” Espil, who had snubbed an infatuated Wallis Simpson when he fell in love with Courtney years before, had waited through her previous marriages for the woman with whom he would spend the remainder of his life and three ambassadorships.
Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on The Bordens will continue next week with Renaissance Woman May Borden.
Robert F. Carl