The Mortons at Mid-century

                                    Sterling II, Preston and Suzette





By Megan McKinney



 David Adler’s storied entryway for the Potter Palmers II in 1301 Astor St.—several owners later. Living there grandly somewhere in between was Suzette Morton.


Sterling Morton II, son of salt baron Joy Morton, was educated at Chateau de Lancy at Geneva, Switzerland and Lawrenceville before graduating from Princeton with honors in 1906.

During the winter of 1910, Sterling met Chicago debutante Preston Owsley, and, according to both, it was “love at first sight.” They were engaged the following August and married in November.  

The family of Sterling’s bride was socially prominent and among the city’s most historic. Her grandfather, Carter H. Harrison Sr., had been the first of Chicago’s mayors to serve five terms, and he was also the most colorful of the city’s honest mayors.       

Mayor Carter H. Harrison Sr.


There was never a public event in Chicago that Mayor Harrison did not attend, riding up in his signature slouch hat on a white Kentucky mare, commanding the goodwill and respect of all. On the night of the 1886 Haymarket Riot, Mayor Harrison “walked unmolested through the crowd of anarchists and advised the police to leave the demonstrators alone.” 


231 S. Ashland Blvd., the house in which Bertha Palmer was raised and Mayor Carter H. Harrison Sr. was murdered.  


This genial member of Chicago’s laid-back—yet affluent—Kentucky Colony lived in one of the gracious houses along Ashland Boulevard, previously known as Reuben Street, where—in the welcoming southern spirit—the gate was always open, the door unlocked and the light in the cupola burning.     

Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Carter Harrison purchased the estate from Henry Honoré, another Kentuckian; and, until two days before the close of the World’s Columbian Exposition, he lived with his family in the house in which Bertha Palmer had been raised. On that evening a deranged office seeker entered the property and shot Harrison three times. Chicago’s beloved mayor was dead in 10 minutes and a city was left in profound mourning.

Mayor Harrison’s son, Carter H. Harrison Jr., would also be elected to five terms as mayor of Chicago and his daughter, Carolyn, would marry Heaton Owsley. It was the Owsleys’ daughter, Preston, who wed the younger Sterling Morton.

Two of Preston and Sterling’s children, Carolyn and Millicent, died as little girls, but a third, Suzette, born in 1911, not only lived to a great age but also retained a high level of visibility throughout much of her life, during which she was often thought to have been the little “When It Rains It Pours” girl—and in a way she was.  


Sterling Morton II.


Suzette’s father, whose task it was to choose the trademark and slogan for the campaign, said that when he was selecting from possible choices, “I was immediately struck with one. It showed a little girl with an umbrella over her head, rain falling, a package of salt under her arm tilted backward with spout open and salt running out.

“Perhaps the fact that my daughter, Suzette, was occupying a lot of my time and attention at that period had something to do with my interest. But, anyway, it struck me that here was the whole story in a picture—that the message that the salt would run in damp weather was made beautifully evident.”  Thus, in 1914, Sterling provided the company with its logo and famous slogan, while also imbuing an otherwise colorless product with charm and personality.  

Following the 1953 death of his sister, Jean Cudahy, Sterling succeeded her as Morton Arboretum chairman and quickly recognized the need to classify and house the institution’s books in a central library. However, he died before his plans were realized, leading Preston and Suzette to build a wing to the administration building as a memorial to him. The Harry Weese-designed Sterling Morton Library, officially opened in October 1963.     


At his death, Sterling was board chairman of Morton Salt and living in a Lake Forest house designed for him by Ralph Milman, a former Howard Van Doren Shaw associate. Sterling had recently given the 1962 Morton Wing to the Art Institute of Chicago, with a $350,000 endowment for its maintenance; this was hailed by the museum as “one of the greatest gifts the institute has ever had.”  He and Preston were also major donors to the Santa Barbara Museum.  


Suzette Morton Hamill Zurcher Davidson.

Sterling and Preston’s daughter, Suzette, grew to be a good-looking, although by no means beautiful, woman, who was known to her friends as Susie. In 1935, she married Ernest A. Hamill. Worked into her wedding dress was lace from the veil worn by her great-grandmother at her wedding to Carter H. Harrison Sr. The lace veil was then worn by Susie’s grandmother, Carolyn Harrison, bride of Heaton Owsley. And again worn by the Owsleys’ daughter Preston, when she married Sterling Morton II.

The ceremony, in the Morton apartment at 1260 Astor St., was attended only by the immediate family but followed with a reception at The Casino. The two children of Susie and Ernest Hamill were Sterling and Ariel.

During the time she was bearing their children, the Vassar graduate spent four years studying typography and design at the School of the Art Institute. She then established Pocahontas Press, named for the Native American princess to whom she traced her genealogy. The books produced by her press were illustrated volumes intended for limited distribution.

After a divorce from Hamill, Susie married New Yorker Victor Zurcher Jr., who, although his parents were of La Galle, Switzerland, was related to the Hutchinsons of Chicago.  He and Susie had a son, Victor III. After the marriage dissolved, she was one of several handsome and fascinating Chicago heiresses who were romantically involved with Former Governor Adlai E. Stevenson II.


The twice presidential candidate was desired by a number of glamorous, wealthy mid-century American widows and divorcees of a certain age.

She was in good company; the national Stevenson assemblage included Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Dorothy Fosdick and Marietta Tree; among those with Chicago connections were Alicia Patterson, Pussy Paepcke, Ruth Field, widow of “richest boy in the world” Marshall Field III, and Mary Lasker, who provided Stevenson with campaign funds and museum quality art to tone up his Waldorf Towers apartment during the United Nations days. At least several, if not all, of these women were thought to wish to become the second Mrs. Stevenson; however, Adlai managed to elude each of them.

Susie cruised the Mediterranean with Stevenson on adman William Benton’s 200-foot yacht, The Flying Clipper, during the summer of 1959 in a relationship that remained heated over the next two years, disappointing other aspirants—at least for a time. The most tenacious of the Stevenson favorites was the still-married Marietta Tree, whose biographer Caroline Seebohm wrote that Marietta entertained both Susie and Adlai at a party for Bill Benton in her New York apartment the following October. According to Seebohm, Marietta’s diary that night exclaimed cryptically, “Susie Zurcher!”

Susie cared only minimally for horticulture and considered herself the first member of the family to be interested in the visual arts, which seems odd, considering her parent’s generosity to the Art Institute and Santa Barbara Museum.  


David Adler’s entryway to the 1301 Astor triplex, commissioned by the Potter Palmers II, who moved there in 1932, and owned by Susie Morton mid-century. The interior photography is part of an enviable collection owned by a more recent owner.

Susie obviously did have an “eye,” evidenced by her purchase of the stunning Astor Street triplex David Adler designed for the Potter Palmers II at the beginning of the 1930s. She kept Adler’s dazzling mirror and steel entryway, five Art Deco bathrooms and his curving staircase in the foyer. But she added antique Chinese Chippendale wallpaper in the grand salon and hung the fine collection of art she was accumulating.

The creation of 1301 Astor is one of the pivotal stories of Chicago residential real estate. A prescient plan began taking shape in 1927, a time when Chicagoans who could afford to do so almost invariably lived in houses—usually grand houses—either on Lake Shore Drive or elsewhere in Potter Palmer’s Gold Coast. Although the Great Depression was nearing, it was still two years away.

The strategy was for a sleek, elegant residential building, designed by architect Philip Maher, to be built at the corner of Astor and Goethe, with its plans presented in advance to a gathering of prospective buyers.

Descendants of those who attended the event tell of a cocktail party, which was given for the purpose, although the very thought of a stand-alone cocktail party in the 1920s for this set of potential purchasers seems in itself almost implausible. Nevertheless, architect Maher “recalled every floor being sold out within 24 hours of a cocktail party” and no one has ever contradicted him.

When Potter Palmer II and his wife, Pauline, moved to 1301 Astor’s premier unit in 1932, it was directly from the “Castle” at 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr.— from Chicago’s grandest house to its finest apartment. Contained within the three stories of their new home was a full floor for Pauline’s mother, the widowed Mrs. Herman Henry Kohlsaat. The building’s remaining apartments were either duplexes or full floor simplexes.

Susie’s reputation as art connoisseur and collector led First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to appoint her to the Special Committee for White House Paintings. She is seen below in splendid company at a December 5, 1961 tea given for the group by Mrs. Kennedy in the White House Green Room.


Susie Zurcher was standing far left at Jacqueline Kennedy’s tea. Seated are Mrs. Kennedy, James W. Fosburgh and Susan Mary Alsop. Stanley Marcus is at Susie’s left, followed by Lawrence Fleischmann, Minnie Cushing Fosburgh, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Andrea Cowdin, Henry Francis du Pont,  Helen Chisholm Halle, Babe Paley and Joseph Pulitzer Jr., more or less in that order.   

In November 1968, Susie, married her third and final husband, Eugene A. Davidson, who had been editor of the Yale University Press. After her father’s 1961 death, she had begun chairing the Arboretum board of trustees, with a focus on art. To instill in visitors a sense of the relationship between art and nature, she promoted the study of botanical art at the Arboretum and began The Morton Arboretum Quarterly, which included essays, original art and plant information. During these years, she purchased many rare books and artworks for the library.  

The contribution was so significant that in 2000 her successor as chairman of the board of trustees, Charles C. Haffner III, built a secure, climate-controlled addition to the library to house the Special Collections and he named it in her honor, the Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections.

In the late 1970s, Susie moved from the Potter Palmer II Astor Street triplex and an estate in the western suburbs near the Arboretum to Santa Barbara. She remained there until her death at 84 in 1996.


Arbor Day is this Friday, April 28. Plant a tree!

Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on The Mortons concludes with this segment.


Photo Credit:

Select images courtesy of the Sterling Morton Library

The Morton Arboretum.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl