The Leiters: Skyrocketing Riches


Leiter Mary

Mary Victoria Leiter in a portrait by Franz von Lenbach.

Megan McKinney

By Megan McKinney

During their prosperous Field-Leiter years, Levi Leiter and Marshall Field were investing great sums of money — separately and together — usually in real estate; however, like many adventurers of their time, they were also caught up in the strike-it-rich romance of the Old West. In the late 1870s, the two bankrolled veteran Chicago real estate attorney John Borden and his mining engineer son, William, in an exploration of the abundant lode at Leadville, Colorado, in partnership with the Bonanza King, Horace “Silver Dollar” Tabor.

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Bonanza King Horace Tabor.

The silver vein they struck made the four Chicagoans more than $1 million each in the economy of nearly a century and a half ago. It was an immense fortune to the Bordens, who founded a dynasty on their combined cut. For both Leiter and Field, however, it was merely another venture that had paid handsomely, emphasizing the colossal wealth each was amassing.

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Architect W.W. Boyington designed this house for the Leiters at 2114 S. Calumet Ave.

Marshall and Levi built mansions on the city’s two most fashionable streets, Field on Prairie Avenue, and Leiter on neighboring Calumet Avenue. And Levi, already on his way to becoming a renowned bibliophile, had begun collecting a library of literature and books about early American history, which would become one of the most famous in the nation. Summers for the Leiters were spent at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 70 miles north of Chicago, a vacation colony of the very rich that had become fashionable in the 1870s. Levi joined this rarified club by commissioning Linden Lodge, a 37-room mansion on the banks of the lake, and, after its completion in the summer of 1880, he and his wife, the former Mary Theresa Carver, moved into the great house for the season with their four children, Joseph, then 12, Mary, 11, Nancy, eight, and the infant Marguerite, who would be known as “Daisy.”

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Linden Lodge, the Leiter Lake Geneva estate.

Levi’s cream-colored house, as startling as it was large, was decorated with pillars painted five shades of blue and highlighted with gold leaf. Yet the drama of the house was nearly upstaged by an authentic six-story Dutch windmill with 40-foot arms standing near it; the mammoth device was the terror of passing horses as well as the humans they transported. Not convinced the gyrations of his giant windmill were sufficient to dissuade trespassers, Levi spent $1,800 for a Jersey bull, which was allowed to run loose on the grounds. Nevertheless, the house was always bursting with houseguests and designed for hospitality with copious wine cellars, 19 fireplaces and countless outsized footed bathtubs, a “trademark” of Linden Lodge. Docked on the lake outside was Levi’s custom-built, 55-foot steam yacht, the Daisy.

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Levi’s six-story Dutch windmill was beyond the Linden Lodge barns, where presumably his frightening Jersey bull was housed.

Field, Leiter & Company continued to be the foundation of the fortunes of both partners, and the year and a half following their final return to State Street was the most lucrative time they had ever experienced. Profits in 1880 were $1.8 million on revenues of $23.7 million, and the State Street retailing arm was developing into a glamorous oasis — the vision of a retail facility conceived and begun by Potter Palmer — which Marshall was now striving to fully achieve. But Levi, always pushing, had other ideas, and he began pursuing them aggressively in discussions with his partner. Why continue with retailing when it had only contributed $3.6 million to the 1880 gross? But Field insisted that without the prestige and glamour of the retail presence, their inventory would be perceived as being no different from the goods of other wholesalers. Furthermore, the immense prosperity produced by the Civil War had created a large nouveau riche class in Chicago, one producing a continuing demand for the level of retail luxury Field, Leiter excelled in supplying.

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A lucrative argument with Marshall Field freed Levi to pursue other avenues to wealth.

But Levi’s persistence in emphasizing profits over image was annoying Marshall, who also believed Levi’s brusque personality was losing customers; the antagonism between the two finally became so great that Field decided to end the relationship when it came up for annual renewal in January 1881. Typically thorough, he first surveyed key executives to assess their loyalty, and then gave Leiter the choice of buying the Field interest or selling his own share, naming a temptingly low figure. The surprised Levi — realizing the figure was low and thinking that he would be the partner to buy — agreed to it. However, he became aware, almost immediately, that if Field departed, crucial executives would accompany him, leaving Leiter with a phantom operation. The following day, Levi informed Marshall he would sell and was forced to accept the figure they had agreed upon. Thus, for $2.7 million, the business became Marshall Field and Company.


Leiter’s real estate focus further increased after the dissolution of his partnership with Field. Before the Great Chicago Fire, he had invested in acres of properties that would one day become the core of Chicago’s Loop. Following the conflagration, his hefty insurance claims allowed him to purchase further parcels of charred ruins for, literally, fire sale prices. He had cleared away the rubble and erected stores of emporium size and other substantial buildings, including the magnificent Grand Pacific Hotel, while becoming one of the city’s largest property owners. Then, in 1881, he took the $2.7 million Field paid him and invested much of that too in real estate. The rents from these properties and other investments continued to provide a lavish life for his family, a personal style that also would soon expand.

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The Grand Pacific Hotel.

Levi’s wife, Mary Theresa, was a Christian Scientist and one-time schoolteacher who was notorious for her malapropisms. After stepping off an ocean liner, she was heard to announce, “At last, I am back on terra-cotta.” She told acquaintances that she had once been in “seduced circumstances,” and described her house as being filled with “statutes,” “spinal staircases,” and “sexual bookcases.” But, most of all, she was known for her amazing social ambitions, which — immediately after Levi’s separation from Marshall Field — took the family from the Calumet Avenue mansion to another and even more pretentious house on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. From there, she planned to launch an improbable campaign to marry the three Leiter daughters to members of the English aristocracy.


This sumptuous Dupont Circle house was to be the platform from which Mary Theresa would launch her grandiose plans for the Leiter daughters.

Levi went along with his wife’s wishes, but his Chicago ties were not forgotten, and he left the city with a legacy of generous support to such prestigious institutions as the Chicago Historical Society, which he participated in restoring financially following the Fire; the Chicago Public Library; the elite Chicago Club; the Art Institute of Chicago, as its second president; and The Commercial Club, for which he was the first. He was even asked to stay on to be mayor. Mrs. Leiter, however, never again mentioned Chicago, and she completed the family’s Midwestern withdrawal by trading its summer destination, Lake Geneva, for Bar Harbor, Maine. To those she met in Europe, the family was “from Washington.”

When Mary Theresa moved with the four Leiter children to Dupont Circle, she installed the family in a lavish showplace and began to create the prototype for a Washington social life that would be followed by other wealthy Midwestern women, including — eventually — the widow of Marshall Field. Obsessed with launching her three daughters into international society, Mary Theresa correctly believed that Chicago did not have the scope to properly display the girls for such an endeavor. But did Washington?

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 Mary Leiter in a  study for the Franz von Lenbach portrait.

Mrs. Leiter’s campaign might have been futile without the estimable charm of the eldest. Mary was a tall, stately brunette, gifted with striking good looks, a radiant smile and a lovely soft voice. She was soon valued by the most influential people in nation’s capital for her intelligence and thoughtfulness, and was enthusiastically embraced by two of the city’s most prominent women, Frances Cleveland, the nation’s young first lady, and Victoria Sackville-West, poised daughter of the British minister, as well as his official hostess.

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First Lady Frances Cleveland.

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Victoria Sackville-West, as sketched by John Singer Sargent.

Victoria would later marry a cousin and become mother of Vita Sackville-West, the eminent writer, horticulturist and lesbian lover of Virginia Woolf.

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Victoria’s daughter and more famous namesake, writer Victoria Sackville-West.

After Mary’s extraordinary grace and magnetism captivated Washington, her mother moved her on to conquer New York, which she did — including the city’s ultimate snob, Ward McAllister.

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Ward McAllister, who created New York’s “Four Hundred” for Mrs. Astor.

However Mary Theresa’s greatest challenges were yet to come.


The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.

Next Sunday: The British Conquest

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl