And Her Daughter Muriel
“The Swift Mansion”
By Megan McKinney
Gustavus and Ann Swift’s daughter, Helen, lived a rich life. Aside from the early loss of the sibling to whom she was closest and premature widowhood, it was a supremely pleasant existence. In addition, she left a gift for us to enjoy, a little book with day-to-day memories of growing up a member of the second-generation Chicago Swifts. Although her book rambles and omits much we would want to know, it is a personal view of the family in its early years in the city—a view we would not have without Helen.
“The world needs no introduction to my Father…” she writes at the beginning of MY FATHER AND MY MOTHER, “almost nothing has been written about my Mother…very few people realize how much they depended upon each other and how greatly she contributed to his success.”
The immense meatpacking industry, which existed in Chicago during the 19th century and into the 20th, was led by three men, Gustavus Swift, Philip Armour and Nelson Morris; Morris preceded the stockyards arrival of the other two by almost 20 years. The three men were friends, especially Swift and Morris, who were so close that Nelson jovially addressed Gustavus as “Uncle Swift.”
On October 1, 1890, Helen Swift embarked on what was once known as a “beautiful marriage.” The bridegroom was Edward Morris, son of stockyards tycoon Nelson. Was it an arranged marriage? Perhaps. This is one of the many areas Helen does not discuss in her book; although we would not expect that she would. But somehow it does not appear to have been a love match; she was so distanced from the man she married that when she wrote of him at all, it was as Mr. Edward Morris. Yet, the marriage was definitely in the “beautiful” category. At Edward Morris’ 1913 death, even the good, gray New York Times announced the millions he left Helen–added to her Swift inheritance–would make her “one of the world’s wealthiest women.”
This is the South Michigan mansion Helen’s father, Gustavus—who was never one to indulge in glamorous properties—ordered built for the couple soon after their marriage. It has always been known as “The Swift Mansion.”
In 1904, Edward Morris bought a spacious corner lot on Drexel Boulevard and 48th Street. Howard Van Doren designed the immense mansion built on the property to house the little family of six, Helen, Edward and their children, Edward Jr., Nelson II, Ruth and Muriel–plus a multitude of servants.
Possibly it is from years of wandering around in the great halls of this urban version of Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley that Muriel Morris, the little girl on the left in the above photograph, grew to hate the wealth surrounding her. In 1983, when she was 82, Muriel told an interviewer “From the age of eight or nine, I thought the world was full of injustices. I was somehow repelled by our luxury at home. All these dozens of servants waiting on two or three people.”
In the 1930’s, as Europe was heading toward war, Muriel left Oxford University, where she had been a graduate student, and traveled to Vienna to study medicine. It was then she began vigorous anti-Nazi activity–smuggling Jews out of the country or hiding them in her apartment, providing cash for false passports and exit visas, giving persons she scarcely knew money sent by family members, who were clueless about her underground activities.
When Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento: A Book of Portraits was published in 1973, Muriel’s contemporaries who had known her during the committed anti-Nazi years were certain that one of the Pentimento portraits was of their Swift/Morris friend. The gossip became more intense in 1977 when a film version, Julia, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, was released.
Vanessa and Jane.
Although Ms. Hellman denied that Muriel was the model for Julia, others believed it could have been no one else. Even Muriel felt it was possible. In any case, there was a happy outcome for Vanessa Redgrave, who received the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Julia.
In November 1913, 47-year-old Edward Morris died of kidney disease, leaving Helen the immensely “wealthy” woman The New York Times predicted she would be.
Four years later, she married British politician and writer Francis Neilson, who was also an accomplished actor, playwright, stage director, lecturer and author of more than 60 books, plays and opera librettos–probably requiring the 94 years he lived in order accomplish all the activity. Did we say he was also a Member of the British House of Commons?
Together the Neilsons founded the weekly paper The Freeman in 1920.
When 76-year-old Helen died in Chicago in 1945, she bequeathed several notable paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, a 1633 portrait painting by Rembrandt was among Helen’s bequests to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A bequest to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston was this A Capriote by John Singer Sargent.
Publisher Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties series on the Swift family will continue next with the stories of other second-generation members of this historic Chicago family
Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien
Author Photo by Robert F. Carl