The MacLeishes of Chicago

The great 20th century American poet Archibald MacLeish.




 By Megan McKinney

Following a harrowing winter and spring that included eye surgery, hospitalization and a broken knee cap, I am delighted  to be back in the Publisher’s box of Classic Chicago on Sunday morning.  From this spot, over the next several weeks, we will explore the lives of various members of Chicago’s MacLeish Dynasty.

Among those included in the extended clan are a pair of  intimates of the Scott Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingways during their 1920’s heyday in France and three of today’s luminous Hollywood film stars.

But let’s begin with the glamorous poet Archibald MacLeish.

Archie MacLeish at The Hotchkiss School.

“God, how I did not like Hotchkiss!” Archibald MacLeish was 89 y ears old—in the final six months of his long life—when he spewed out those words to an interviewer. He truly hated the school at which he was one of its leaders in both athletics and scholarship.

The Athlete Archie

He was the best swimmer in his class and center on the varsity football team. He edited the school newspaper and was a yearbook editor. A fixture on the honor roll, he was winner of each one of the school’s prizes for the writing of essays, for debating and for orating, and he was class poet. During his first year, he was selected for the Forum, one of the school’s two literary and debating societies and for the Olympian, one of its pair of athletic societies.

A postcard showing the early 20th century Hotchkiss School.

MacLeish’s reaction to his Eastern preparatory school was shared by many of the era’s young Midwesterners—boys from substantial backgrounds back home—who, when suddenly finding themselves immersed in the student body of a prestigious prep school in the East, hated it. Chicago Tribune heir Joseph Medill Patterson, who would establish the New York Daily News—the nation’s most successful newspaper—was another; he loathed Groton.

Joe Patterson some years after Groton, but continuing to loath it.

Archie MacLeish, as he was known by contemporaries—then and always—felt his Eastern classmates were exceedingly class conscious and snobbish. So, he fought back by excelling both on the sports fields and off. It wasn’t that Archie was snubbed; he was simply not accustomed to feeling anything but first-rate, and there was the usual hazing, all which distressed his mother. The distinguished third Mrs. Andrew MacLeish, Archie’s mother.

Archie’s mother, Martha Hillard MacLeish, former president of Rockford College, was not her family’s only school head; her sister Mary Hilliard had founded Westover School for Girls in 1909 and would continue as its headmistress until 1932. Aunt Mary, who doted on Archie, visited Hotchkiss regularly from Middlebury, Connecticut to console him.

Those who have followed the many stories, books and gossip about the romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lake Forest’s Ginevra King may recall that Ginevra was one of three girls expelled from Westover School for leaning from their dormitory window one night and talking with boys standing outside. Miss Hilliard gained her moment of fame in the popular culture as the headmistress who dealt the suspension and then rescinded it. (Nevertheless, Garfield King, withdrew his daughter from Westover and enrolled her in a school in Manhattan, Miss McFee’s on 72nd Street.)

Esther Cleveland

Mary Hilliard was determined that her nephew marry a girl from a rich and/or powerful American family, preferably a Westover girl. When she set him up with President Grover Cleveland’s daughter, Esther, he found the girl unattractive. So, in late 1910, Miss Hilliard arranged a luncheon at Westover, and surrounded Archie’s spot at the table with place cards for stunning girls from the nation’s top-drawer families; however, providence intervened.

A young woman not on Aunt Mary’s list, Ada Taylor Hitchcock, was mistakenly seated across from Archie and following luncheon she took her new friend on a tour of the school Mary Hilliard had founded. Before the end of the day Archie was “completely smitten” with the pretty, vivacious Ada.

MacLeish was an extraordinarily handsome and compelling man throughout his life. In the words of his sister, Ishbel, the adolescent Archie was “death to women.” This would continue. Women would always be attracted to him and he to them—particularly, beautiful women. It was difficult for Archie to resist a stunning woman and often he did not. Women would come and go in his life; however, from that day in late 1910, it would always be Ada to whom he would return.


In September 1911, Archie entered Yale, where he would be as outstanding as he had been at Hotchkiss in both athletics and scholarship. He began the term as starting center on the freshman football team, with his poem Gifts published in the year’s first issue of the Yale Literary Magazine. When the class of 1915 approached graduation four years later, Archie was universally thought to be viewed by faculty and his classmates as its most outstanding member. He was voted both Most Brilliant and Most Versatile, and he emerged with both a Phi Beta Kappa key and membership in the senior society Skull and Bones, for which he was tapped in May 1914. And Yale would not forget him.

Harvard Law School

It was now time to make a life with a career to live up to this dazzling promise. Like so many young men of his time and later, he believed law school would fit him not only to practice law but also as a foundation for other career possibilities. Thus, the next step was not merely law school, but Harvard Law School.

Archie did beautifully at Harvard Law and was, as all expected, elected to the highly respected Harvard Law Review. Meanwhile, there was Ada Hitchcock, the young woman with whom he had become “completely smitten” during Aunt Mary’s Westover School luncheon. His feelings for Ada had escalated from smitten to a desire to have her in his life permanently.Farmington’s Elm Tree Inn in Farmington, where wedding guests were housed

Archie and Ada were married after his first year at law school on June 21, 1916, in the First Congregational Church near Ada’s family home in Farmington, Connecticut.

The  continuation of law school would be interrupted by Archie’s participation in World War I, where he served in the historic Second Battle of the Marne. His final term at Harvard Law would be a special post-war session, February to August 1919, from which he graduated as top student in the class of 50. To make it official, he received the Fay Diploma, awarded to the member of the graduating ranking highest in “scholarship, conduct and character, and gives evidence of the greatest promise.”

Could he have known he and Ada would be back in France very soon in much happier circumstances?


Publisher Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasty saga of the MacLeishes will continue next with the years Archie and Ada spent with the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds in the France of the 1920’s .


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl