John J. Mitchell
By Megan McKinney
Boy wonder John J. Mitchell was for many years “considered the dean of Chicago banking.” It was his financial genius that made several generations of Mitchells the extraordinarily substantial family they were to become, but he and his wife, Louise, were completely unassuming and merely focused on enjoying their lives together in a pleasant routine. Each year, when the drab bitter days of winter finally merged with a reluctant Chicago spring, they left the area.
After two months in warm, sunny Pasadena, they returned. Summers and weekends were spent at Lake Geneva in their exotic vacation home, Ceylon Court, which had been sent to Chicago from the island of Ceylon for display at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Following the White City year, this reproduction of an ancient Buddhist temple was dismantled, by previous owners—the F. R. Chandlers—and transported in 26 boxcars to Lake Geneva, where it was meticulously reassembled—and in 1901 the somewhat astonishing house became the Mitchells’ warm weather getaway. There were also such unseen luxury features as an underground tunnel that ran from an elevator beneath the house to the edge of the lake.
Another view of the celebrated site.
A watercolor of the Mitchell yacht Louise on Lake Geneva.
The Mitchell’s steam yacht, Louise, was usually moored at the Ceylon Court dock, often with its uniformed captain and steward standing by for pleasure trips around the lake.
And living in the John J. Mitchell stable was the blue ribbon horse Dan Patch. This is what Wikipedia tells us about the then world-famous horse. Dan Patch was a noted American Standardbred pacer. At a time when harness racing was one of the largest sports in the nation, Dan Patch was a major celebrity.
On to the Mitchell’s children. Their eldest son, William Hamilton II—his grandfather’s namesake — married F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love, Ginevra King, below in her Town & Country engagement picture.
And William II himself was model for the Lake Forest-style brute Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband in The Great Gatsby.
Another of John and Louise’s sons, Jack, married Lolita Armour, daughter of the J. Ogden Armours.
In a third such event, September 1913 saw the wedding of a Mitchell daughter, Gwendolyn, to Robert Hunter.
By 1926, the extended Mitchell family had amassed in excess of $120 million, in the economy of nearly a century ago. Behind it all was John J. However, as Hollis W. Field wrote of him in the August 1907 issue of Worker’s Magazine , “Mitchell neither looks, speaks nor acts the part of the millionaire whose captaincy of industry might be guessed. His simple life is little indication of the measure of his means.
“A chance companionable fellow traveler,” Field continued, “would ride a thousand miles with him across a stretch of dessert west, delighted with his newfound acquaintance, Mr. Mitchell, and experience a sense of shock, perhaps, if a week or a month later a reference to this Mr. Mitchell, of Chicago, should bring him knowledge that he had formed such a simple, democratic companionship in the person of a man controlling millions.”
If it all seems too idyllic to continue indefinitely, it was. Come back next week to learn about that dreadful day in 1927.
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl