A Family of Superstars
The exquisite Edward Tyler Blair house is first left in the glamorous row of the three blond mansions on the1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive.
By Megan McKinney
After the 1887 sale of his father’s hardware business, William Blair & Co., Edward Tyler Blair became a historian and writer, one of the few who have ever been rich. Among his works are Henry of Navarre and the Religious Wars of France and An Early History of the Chicago Club. The latter, published in 1898, still seems to be everywhere.
In the 1880s, Edward made a dynastic marriage by wedding Anna Reubenia McCormick, or Ruby, daughter of the reaper king’s brother William Sanderson McCormick. And she gained the money she needed—but that’s another story.
Ruby, dark-haired, dark-eyed and blessed with a perfect oval face, also brought authentic beauty to the merger.
Ruby McCormick Blair.
Following their marriage, the couple lived first in the Ontario Apartments at State Street, “a fashionable quarters for newlyweds.” They next bought a house on the northwest corner of Superior Street and Wabash Avenue (then still Cass) and, along the way, they lived at 110 Rush St.
However, in the second decade of the 20th century, Edward and Ruby made a giant leap by acquiring a parcel of land on a prime stretch of Lake Shore Drive and engaging William Kendall of the great New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design a house.
Although the date of the structure has become garbled in the past century—now generally published as 1916—it was more than complete in time for the May 9, 1914 wedding reception of the Blair’s daughter Lucy, as verified by Chicago Tribune coverage of the event.
Edward and Ruby’s four-story residence at 1516 Lake Shore Dr. was a handsome but lonely structure on completion, and of a size to fully occupy the four Swedish servants employed to run it. Now owned by the International College of Surgeons, the stunning mansion is one of only seven remaining houses on the Drive.
In an intriguing sidebar, interim owners in the 1940s were Joel and Louis Goldblatt, dashing bachelor brothers who had been living at The Drake. Joel was then president of Goldblatt Brothers, the family’s chain of Chicago department stores, and Louis would follow him in the post. They also had in common later marriages to lovely women, both winners of an identical beauty queen title. Louis’ wife, who was to become the popular late 20th century Society columnist Bobbie Goldblatt, was Miss Photoflash 1951. And Joel’s wife, Lynne, earned the same title in 1953; Lynne went on to marry baseball bad boy and one-time Chicago Cubs manager Leo “the Lip” Durocher.
Bobbie and Louis Goldblatt.
Photographer Bob Carl snapped the marvelous above shot of Louis Goldblatt on one of the rare occasions during which he accompanied his columnist wife, Bobbie, while she covered a party.This event was the glittering 1988 opening of Bloomingdale’s and all else commercial that replaced the grand old residential 900 N. Michigan Ave.
Back to the Edward T. Blairs: Two of their children were enduring Chicago stars. William McCormick Blair was a graduate of Groton and Yale, class of 1907. At Yale, he was a member of Skull and Bones, whose members, according to one of his sons, “were most eager to have him among their ranks.”
Blair House from its north side.
Five years later, William, like his father, made a dynastic union by marrying Helen Hadduck Bowen, daughter of real estate heiress Louise De Koven Bowen. The merger of these two historic, and very rich, Chicago houses ensured that William and Helen Blair would reign—even during relatively difficult times—as a Chicago golden couple. Their stately home, Blair House on Astor Street—a wedding gift from Helen’s parents—was discussed at length earlier in this series. And Port of Call, their David Adler country house—as well as other facets of their reign—will be the focus of a later segment.
Port of Call, David Adler’s Lake Bluff house for the William McCormick Blairs.
In their early years, both William and his brother, Edward Seymour Blair, were known by their middle names—perhaps to fully distinguish them from their father and grandfather. Seymour’s profile then, and throughout his life, was as low as McCormick’s was high, partially because he spent little of his adult life in Chicago.
After Yale graduation, it was off to Japan, where he was connected with the United States Embassy, then on to Europe. As World War I approached, Seymour caused great anxiety at home by refusing to leave Munich, where he was studying music composition. During March 1916, he sent word back to his frantic parents that it was not safe to be heard speaking English on the streets or in public places. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of July that he left his adopted home and returned to the safety of Lake Shore Drive.
But not for long. He returned to Europe after the Armistice and remained there—more or less—throughout the ’20s and ’30s. He continued to be known as Seymour and was “definitely the free spirit of the family,” as reporter Patricia Moore noted in the Chicago Daily News after his death. She pointed out that he “set up booth at the Century of Progress exposition in 1934 and ran cockroach races for a few days.” His death came in 1975, as result of an Acapulco, Mexico automobile accident. He was 85.
Lucy McCormick Blair.
McCormick and Seymour’s sisters, Lucy and Edith, were educated in European convents and known in Chicago as “the incomparable Blair sisters.” After that, the lives of the two young women became very different. Lucy was a legendary fixture in Chicago social circles for many decades. Before her 1914 marriage and throughout the rest of her life, she was always entirely visible, a vivacious and original delight to her many friends and admirers.
Edith, who did not marry, would make Paris her home. Following her mother’s death in 1917, she sporadically returned to spend a few months in Chicago with her father, or he would visit her for a season in France. It was a pattern that ended with Edward’s 1939 death.
Then, in January 1946, when she was 62, Edith suffered a freak accident in her Paris apartment; she brushed against an electric heater and the bathrobe she was wearing caught fire. She died three days later of second degree burns and bronchial pneumonia in the American Hospital at Neuilly. Her remains were cremated in France and the ashes returned for burial in the family plot at Graceland.
In contrast to her shadow sibling, the vibrant Lucy was a dazzling figure whose influence continues to reverberate in many lives four decades after her death. The story of the 1912 founding of the Junior League of Chicago has been told many times—however, here it is once again—briefly.
1447 Astor, built in 1908, would become Chicago’s Junior League headquarters.
In 1911, a Boston friend approached Lucy with a plan to establish a Junior League in Chicago. Lucy had belonged for a short time to the League in New York—founded by Mary Harriman, sister of politician and diplomat Averell Harriman—so she knew what was involved. She jumped right in, and, as she later wrote, “broached the proposition at a luncheon of 12 girls. In those days it was unheard of for society girls to leave their sheltered homes to try to help better conditions for those less privileged people.”
The young women responded eagerly to the suggestion and soon the Junior League of Chicago was founded, with Lucy its first president—and a longtime major participant. However, that was just the beginning of the continuing impact Lucy McCormick Blair—soon Linn—would have on Chicago. Much of this will be detailed in a future segment of our Classic Chicago Dynasties series on The Blairs.
Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties series on The Blairs will continue soon with Lucy McCormick Blair Linn.
Previous articles on The Blairs and other Classic Chicago Dynasties may be found at https://classicchicagomagazine.com/category/vintage/classic-chicago-dynasties/
Robert F. Carl