Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin
By Megan McKinney
Part Eight, But What Friends They Were!
Yes, Paul Butler would have been proud of his older son’s success in creating a major sports and social event on the calendar internationally; however, Michael had abandoned his roots decades earlier, as had both his brothers. None of Paul’s children grasped that area residents perceived them very differently than they had their father. Michael was viewed as a famous foreigner, who had recently moved into the area with an attitude of entitlement — in contrast to his father, a lifelong participant in the community who nevertheless continued to earn his place among his fellow citizens. Whereas Paul had welcomed Oak Brook residents to the Western Open golf tournament with complimentary passes, for example, they were now required to line up and pay the same admission fees expected of the general public.
Although Jorie was president of the Butler Company, her primary focus had shifted to nurturing of her own business, Abercrombie & Kent, which required frequent travel with her husband. Thus, Michael, as the Butler Company’s vice president and treasurer, was managing the family’s day-to-day real estate dealings, with major adjustments in Paul’s overall plan. In place of the familiar good-natured nudging, schmoozing and cajoling, there was legal action. In 1983, the village board denied access to a road leading to land the family wished to subdivide; while Paul Butler would have negotiated and gently persuaded, Michael sued. Later the same year, he engaged in an ugly squabble with the Oak Brook Park District over a proposed land swap.
With the dawn of 1986, the Butlers were juggling three lawsuits. McDonald’s Corporation, whose world headquarters is Oak Brook’s largest corporate entity, was suing the Butler estate over repurchase rights to 14 prime acres of land; the park district was engaged in another litigation regarding Butler property; and Michael was suing to oust Jorie and Frank as estate co-administrators, charging they had taken illegal payments. His siblings then countersued, accusing Michael of wasting money. “It was litigation hell,” remembers Michael, and the fees were accumulating.
To Michael’s credit, it was he who was on the scene, while Frank — whose asthma kept him safely away from the temptation of polo fields — serenely looked after personal investments from his Palm Beach estate. Jorie, the business brains of her generation, was not only husbanding her share of the Butler money, but she and Geoffrey Kent were systematically building their own company into a world-class giant. In mid-July 1986, the three Butler children stepped out of the Chicago offices of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, announcing a final settlement, but without details.
The polo club — the details of which Michael managed with meticulous detail worthy of his father — was costing $250,000 a year, much of which was being underwritten by Michael as cavalierly as though it were still the “Age of Aquarius” when his coffers were consistently replenished by box office receipts. There was also the development of Old Oak Brook, a $20 million subdivision, and participation, with a Chicago department store, in the construction of a $100 million hotel and golf course, to which the estate had agreed the year before. Additionally, there were the now-massive legal fees.
In 1988, Michael stepped away from his Oak Brook concerns to produce a flashy revival of Hair at The Vic, a theater on the North Side of Chicago. He presided over the opening wearing a flowing, ground-sweeping robe, with local dowager Pussy Paepcke on his arm. The elegant Mrs. Paepcke stayed calmly by Michael’s side throughout the nude scene but vanished during intermission. The show was well received critically, but ticket sales were sluggish and it soon closed, which did little to soothe Michael’s financial woes.
The following year, Paul Butler’s farmhouse, around which Michael’s Old Oak Brook subdivision was being developed, was detracting from its sleek nouveau surroundings and would have to be razed or moved. Constructed for his grandfather Frank Osgood Butler in 1898, the homestead had become Michael’s residence. Now the man who once owned five homes on two continents would solve homelessness by becoming a tenant of former servants’ quarters on the old estate. It was only the first of a series of unsettling diminishments.
In September 1990, Michael filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. His unsecured debts were approximately $3 million and his personal attorney had had the foresight to receive transfer of his client’s polo ponies and equipment in lieu of fees. In December, the Oak Brook Polo Club lost its lease on Paul’s former polo fields and it too was facing bankruptcy.
The following June, Michael’s possessions, ranging from a 17th century Van Dyke portrait of Charles I to a beloved teddy bear, were auctioned. His estranged brother Frank, among a crowd of 800 bidders and onlookers, arrived at the auction in a Rolls-Royce with the announcement, “Our mother is very unhappy,” before joining Marjorie under an auctioneer’s tent. Michael, never losing his good humor and stately bearing, graciously autographed albums of the Hair score with “Peace & Love.” But it wasn’t until October 1993 that Michael had his “Leaving Oak Brook” garage sale, in which sweatshirts, books and various other personal items were lumped on tables in the backyard of the bungalow in which he had been living. The 15-year agreement with the village of Oak Brook giving the family a right to lease former servants quarters at the nominal monthly rate of $400 had expired, and Michael Butler was leaving the family’s historic home forever, saying that when he dies, “I want an Indian burial. It won’t be in Oak Brook.”
The rich and colorful Oak Brook Butlers had at last been subdued. In fact, they were no longer the Oak Brook Butlers. The children’s mother, Marjorie, died in 2003 at 95.
Frank, a private investor and Palm Beach resident, died there in August 2014; he was 85. Half-brother Norman F. P. Butler, who soon after Paul’s death was “paid off the quarter million that father left him . . . to have our hands washed of him,” died at his Beverly Hills home in October 2011. He was 91.
Michael’s son, Adam, and Jorie’s daughter, Reute, live quietly and with dignity; Adam with his wife, Michelle, and their son, Liam. Reute is unmarried.
As for the last of the heroic generation of the Oak Brook Butlers, Jorie, an avid supporter of conservation causes, resides in Palm Beach and is a vice chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, the company she grew so brilliantly with her former husband.
Michael lives in Los Angeles, where his primary interest is Tribe Entertainment Group, a development and production company. Of his astonishing reversal he only says, “I learned how many really good friends I had.”
But what friends they were! When expressions of sympathy came in after his bankruptcy, among the first was from Prince Charles, heir to the crown of England.
Robert F. Carl