The (Nearly) Presidential Bordens





By Megan McKinney


Portrait of the younger Ellen Borden.


As noted earlier in this series, John Borden and his first wife, Ellen, divorced in 1924 after 17 years of marriage. The marriage produced two daughters, who would be visible throughout much of their lives. However, as was true for so many women of the era, they would be identified primarily through their marriages. They were Ellen Jr., born in 1907, followed by Mary Elizabeth, invariably known as Betty.

In 1925, while the girls were still in adolescence, their father married the beautiful Courtney Letts Stillwell in a union that ended in Reno eight years later. Within a month of the divorce, John married Frances Yeaton and Courtney was wed to Ambassador Felipe A. Espil of Argentina.


Courtney Letts during her marriage to John Borden.


Then, in late 1932, rumors began circulating that John Borden’s first wife, Ellen Waller Borden, would marry composer John Alden Carpenter, widower of the brilliantly talented Rue Winterbotham, the creative force behind The Casino and The Arts Club. The extraordinary Rue had died in 1931 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.


John Alden Carpenter.


Carpenter, who carried on the business of his ship-chandler father, George Carpenter, had gained national notice as a composer and was considered Chicago’s finest. The prospective bride, despite more than adequate abundance surrounding her, would not set a wedding date until $100,000 was raised for a music temple at the Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair. Thus, friends were asked to give wedding presents in cash.

Apparently the request was successful, because one afternoon in January 1933, Ellen was driven to Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station to board the Century bound for Boston. Thinking she was slipping quietly out of town, she was surprised to find a small group, including her brother James B. Waller III, Adlai E. Stevenson II and Marion Deering McCormick, waiting at the gate with flowers.


Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station was the O’Hare Airport of 1933.


The couple married in Cambridge a week later at the home of her aunt and uncle, the Kingsley Porters, with Rev. Samuel A. Eliot, son of former Harvard President Charles William Eliot, officiating. The newlyweds sailed from New York the following morning for a two-month wedding trip in Europe.

By this time, the two daughters Ellen had produced with John Borden had matured to marriageable age. The younger Ellen married young Chicago attorney Adlai E. Stevenson II in 1928.


Adlai E. Stevenson II, far left, was managing editor of The Daily Princetonian and appears to have sported a full head of hair a few years before his marriage to Ellen Borden.


She was 19 and he, 28. Previously, she had attended the University School for Girls in Chicago and St. Timothy’s School in Maryland, before spending a year in Italy studying art, music and languages.


Ellen Borden Stevenson, soon after her marriage to Adlai.


 Adlai and Ellen Stevenson, left, were a social couple about town when this photograph was taken at one of the costume parties they were fond of hosting.


The Adlai and Ellen Stevenson estate in Libertyville, known as The Farm, was built in 1938.


Adlai and Ellen at the Farm.


Adlai, with the three Stevenson sons, Borden, Adlai III and John Fell, at a Princeton-Harvard game in Cambridge.


As was recently reported in a Classic Chicago series on the Pirie family, Ellen Stevenson’s sister, Betty Borden, married Robert S. Pirie, and the adventurous young couple drove a trailer to Mexico City in 1936, where they bought 54 paintings, including five new Diego Rivera’s, and exhibited them at The Arts Club with great flourish the following year.  

The marriage lasted less than a decade after the Mexican trip, and, in 1947, Betty Borden Pirie married Ralph Hines of the Chicago lumber dynasty. However, the second marriage ended three years later with Ralph’s death from a fractured skull after a fall in their New York home.


By this time, Adlai Stevenson had become a familiar figure in America nationally.


Adlai Stevenson II, with President Harry S. Truman, whom he would have succeeded had he won the 1952 presidential election.


Ellen and Adlai Stevenson were famously divorced in 1949, creating a significant disadvantage to Adlai’s 1952 and 1956 Presidential campaigns against Dwight D. Eisenhower.



He was nevertheless immensely successful in public life as Governor of Illinois, United States Ambassador to the United Nations and a man greatly admired for his stylish wit and intellectual demeanor. Of their divorce, he would only say that it was due to “the basic mutual incompatibility of our lives.”


 At the United Nations.


Ellen never gave an explanation for the divorce. She did, however, describe him in 1956—regarding his indecision about participating in a second race for the Presidency—as “a Hamlet who can’t make up his mind” and added that he “loves to be dramatic.” Neither ever remarried.


 With President John F. Kennedy.


In 1964, at the request of her mother and three sons, a conservator was appointed for Ellen’s estate. She died of cancer eight years later.

Adlai Stevenson died on July 14, 1965, following a well-publicized collapse on a London sidewalk, during an afternoon walk with close friend Marietta Peabody Tree. They were strolling toward Hyde Park along Upper Grosvenor Street when “he fell backward on the pavement like a felled forest oak,” according to Mrs. Tree. He had suffered a sudden massive heart attack and would die within minutes.  

   Marietta Tree had been walking along London’s Upper Grosvenor Street with Adlai Stevenson shortly before his death.  


Although not a Borden by blood, Adlai Stevenson—one of the most charismatic Chicagoans of his time—makes a stylish conclusion to this Classic Chicago Dynasty series.


Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl