SWIFT: Tragedy and Joy


1550 North State Parkway




By Megan McKinney


“I suppose all children are inclined to feel that their parents have a favorite,” Helen Swift wrote as an adult. “I am sure I felt, when I was young, that my brother Edward was Father’s favorite.”

Edward, born in 1863, two years after Louis, was six years Helen’s senior. ”He was a perfect tease,”  Helen remembered more than three decades later,” and it was probably more fun teasing me, because I would lose my temper,” whereas her sister, Annie May, would not

Edward followed Louis in Swift & Company management and, while growing up, he was assigned to head the cattle division under the close supervision of  their father. Because the boys had been raised in the business and were infected with Gustavus’ enthusiasm the butchering of animals, they absorbed the fine points quickly.

In 1886, 23 year old Edward married Hortense Newcomer, who was then 21. Their first child, Annie May, was born in 1890, followed by Philip in 1891 and Edward Foster Jr. four years later.

Lake Geneva in a postcard of the era.

Edward began renting a summer place at Lake Geneva in 1902 and soon the family had become part of the community.

“The sight of the Irish Jaunting cart and horse, with the Edward F. Swift children gamely holding the reins and moving nimbly down the city street brought a smile to Lake Geneva citizens during the summer of 1907, “ wrote Ann Wolfmeyer and Mary Burns Gage in their book, Lake Geneva, Newport of the West.

Villa Hortensia, the Edward F. Swift Estate

Edward and Hortense rented various houses during their first five Lake Geneva summers, while planning an estate of their own by architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. Villa Hortensia, which rose on the lake’s north shore in 1906 was soon surrounded by grounds designed by the Chicago area’s favorite landscape architect, Jens Jenson.

Another view of Villa Hortensia

“Inside, Shaw’s design for Villa Hortensia included a large vaulted gallery, a guest suite, a spacious sunken living room, a reception hall with a fountain and ceramic pool,” according  to At The Lake magazine.”  The description continued with “a circular staircase to the second floor gallery and bedrooms, among many other elegant aspects.” 

The Edward Swifts’ Chicago apartment was also stunning. The family occupied the whole of the eighth level in one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, Benjamin Marshall’s glorious 1550 North State Parkway.

May 28, 1932 was a lovely spring morning in Chicago, maybe a bit warm, but otherwise a perfect day. There was no hint of tragedy in the air.

According to The New York Times, 68 year-old Edward rose at the usual time, 6:30, put a longing robe on over his pajamas and walked to a sunroom for breakfast, as he did every weekday morning. A maid came in to bring the meal, with a morning paper, and left.

A couple of hours later, Edward’s driver, Harry Dice, who was waiting in the driveway downstairs, saw “a white figure drop from the building, and a second later a body crashed on the pavement.” It was Edward.

By afternoon the Chicago Tribune was documenting the trajectory of the fall with this photo-diagram. The image also shows Lincoln Park in the background of the northwest corner of the building. 

It had been a rough two months for Swift & Company in the stock market.  This had happened periodically through the decades and, as those who have been following this series know, Gustavus Swift had faced the brutal panic of 1893 and other terrifying financial crises with great style and courage.  In the early New York Times report there was a statement that Charles H. Swift “said his brother had been in poor health for several weeks and had arranged to start Saturday for a vacation in Europe.” This information was soon rescinded and family members were declaring that Edward had been in “good health and spirits.”

Orangerie  “The Sun Room” Above

Edward and Hortense’s older son, Philip, a vice president of the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company, came to the apartment as soon as he was notified of the incident. After looking around the room, he told the Times reporter “The window was hard to open. He must have been compelled to give it a violent jerk and thus lost his balance. My father had been in good health. He was active and went to his office every day. He was a trifle nervous but was otherwise in good trim. I cannot imagine that it was anything but an accident.”  

Before the end of the day, a coroner’s jury gave an accidental death verdict. This has been the official version of the tragedy during the nearly nine decades since.

Next in line to head Swift & Company was 59 year-old Charles Henry Swift. As with the other Swift boys he had begun work in the Yards at an early age and—following Edward in succession–was made vice president of Swift & Company in 1909 and vice chairman in 1931.

A hard-working bachelor, Charles’ existence had been rather hum-drum until six years before the sudden drama that ended Edward’s life. He was well prepared to take over leadership of the great company in a time of crisis.

Readers may recall Arthur Meeker from a recent Swift segment; he was the mid-20th century writer who specialized in high-level gossip surrounding the tycoons and quasi-aristocrats of a generation or so earlier. This is what he wrote about Charles in his 1955 Chicago, With Love.

”The Swifts are a race apart in Chicago—hard-working, sober, devoted to duty, personally inconspicuous because they choose to beCharles was perhaps the least in the public eye; he literally lived for his work. I’m sure I never saw him before…”

That sums up Charles H. Swift in 1926. If Arthur Meeker–son of Arthur Meeker Sr., Armour & Company’s highest executive, after old P.D. himself–and a man who knew “everyone,” didn’t know Charles, no one did.

That was before Golden Claire appeared in Charles’ life.

Golden Claire

The famous Swiss soprano Claire Dux was a pretty, happy, golden-haired woman with bright, twinkling eyes. She had made her debut in Berlin with Caruso, sung at the Met in New York and in opera houses throughout Europe, where she was known as “Golden Claire.” And she had received a legendary twenty curtain calls for her Pamina in The Magic Flute in London. She and Charles met at a party while she was singing in Chicago. Although they saw a great deal of each other, their relationship was formal. On the night before she was to leave on a long concert tour—possibly never to return to the city–she was in her hotel packing when Charles arrived at her door with an armload of roses. “Miss Dux, will you marry me?” he asked. She answered, “Yes, Mr. Swift.” And that was that.

They enjoyed a happy marriage until his death twenty years later, but it wasn’t merely Charles to whom she brought joy; Claire was a delight to all who knew her in Chicago. And you can bet that from 1926 on “everyone” knew Charlie Swift, as Meeker began referring to him in print.

Golden Claire as seen by Salvador Dali.


Publisher Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties series on The Swift’s will continue next with a segment about  Helen Swift Morris Neilson and her daughter Muriel.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl