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By Jean Lotus
He was an ambitious shopkeeper who parlayed his understanding of women's shopping trends into a fortune, and she was a former teen customer, 20 years his junior, daughter of a real estate tycoon. The scene was 1870 Chicago, the beginning of the "Gilded Age."
River Forest filmmaker couple Amelia Dellos and Eric Anderson tell the story of Chicago's first "power couple" in their new documentary Love Under Fire: The Story of Bertha and Potter Palmer. The film will be shown at the River Forest Public Library on Oct. 10. It has already been screened at the Oak Park and Forest Park libraries.
The film tells the story of the beginning of the Chicago couple's marriage in 1871. After revolutionizing the department store shopping experience and selling his business and trade secrets to Marshall Field, Potter Palmer moved into real estate in his 40s when he married Bertha, 20 years younger. He had just completed Bertha's wedding present — the magnificent $3.5 million Palmer House Hotel during that dry, windy autumn of 1871. On Oct. 8, the Great Chicago Fire burned it to the ground, along with all the Palmers' other Chicago real estate holdings.
"The two of them made a decision to stay in Chicago and rebuild," Dellos said.
Though they had lost everything in the fire, the Palmers immediately rolled up their sleeves, secured new funding and began to build again, inspiring the town during those post-catastrophe months and helping to create the legendary "I will" spirit of Chicago.
"It's up to every man, woman and child to rebuild," Bertha Palmer announced to her husband. "And rebuild we must!"
Bertha Palmer became powerful, nicknamed the Queen of Chicago, but it was not just because she married a millionaire, said Dellos.
"Potter considered her a business partner and an equal," Dellos said. "She was a little bit bossy and a hardworking philanthropist. When [Potter Palmer] died in 1903, he left $6 million to her, and she doubled it in the 16 years she lived afterwards."
Dellos first encountered Bertha Palmer while writing her dissertation at the University of Illinois Chicago about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
"Bertha and [fair architect] Daniel Burnham butted heads about the Women's Building," Dellos said.
"Burnham wanted to give the displays about the achievements of women one corner in one of the exhibition halls and Bertha insisted that the women and all of their work should have their own building.
"Furthermore," Dellos added, "she insisted that the architect for the building be a woman, Sophia Hayden, one of the first women graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture."
The couple also gave a great cultural gift to the city of Chicago. Art collectors and early champions of Impressionism, they travelled to Europe regularly and snapped up works by then-contemporary painters Monet, Degas, Renoir, Rodin and Mary Cassatt — whom Bertha commissioned to paint murals for the Women's Building.
"The Palmers 'got it' with Impressionism," said Dellos. "Their paintings ended up being the core of the Impressionism collection at the Art Institute of Chicago."
Cornbred in the Midwest
Dellos and Anderson have been scriptwriters for years, but Dellos said she and her husband finally decided to start Cornbred Films, a film company that focused on "telling the stories of the Midwest," Dellos said.
She quit her job as PR director for the National Hellenic Museum to work on Cornbred full time, and raise her 2-year-old child.
With a new enormous Cinespace soundstage, built in 2009, in the old West Side Ryerson Steel plant and a town full of top-notch actors and writers, Dellos is betting Chicago is the "next big thing" in film.
"Chicago does a great job of attracting big budget films like Superman and Divergent, but there's no reason we can't be on par with New York as far as film goes," she said.
Love Under Fire is Dellos/Anderson's first full-length feature. It was screened on WTTW in February and filmed with help from staff and students at Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago.
The story of Bertha and Potter and their love affair was one that stuck with Dellos, who feels the couple has been underappreciated in Chicago history.
"Our business partner is also a Bertha-phile. There are lots of us out there." Dellos said.
The couple worked with curators at the Chicago History Museum where there is a large collection of Bertha Palmer's gowns and other clothing from the Gilded Age.
Dellos and Anderson originally dreamed of a big-budget costume drama about the Palmers' courtship and early marriage, but the project was too vast and expensive for a beginning film company. She was onto a zeitgeist, though, because shows such as Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge with Jeremy Piven have been huge hits.
And Bertha is inexhaustible as a subject, Dellos said.
After the Great Fire, Bertha helped husband Potter speculate in parcels of land that now form the Gold Coast of Chicago.
"Everyone laughed when they started to build their Palmer Castle [on what is now Lake Shore Drive]," said Dellos. "They thought it was a marshy swamp. They called it 'Potter's frog folly.'"
But the Palmers realized the Industrialist-owned grand homes on south Prairie Avenue were too close to Chicago's burgeoning factories and would eventually become less desirable. So they made a killing on the Gold Coast.
They lived in their castle-like, million-dollar mansion for a few years, finally abandoning it to live in Europe most of the time when they weren't at the Palmer House Hotel. The castle was sold to another real estate speculator for $2 million, who then sold it back to a Palmer son. The building languished empty for 20 years and was finally torn down in 1950.
During her Chicago heyday, Bertha was also a philanthropist, working through the Chicago Women's Club. She took on the plight of women and child laborers in the millinery industry. She met a younger Jane Addams, Dellos said, who was "too revolutionary for her, so they parted ways.
"She was definitely not a suffragette."
As a widow in the early 1900s Bertha speculated on land in Sarasota, Fla., and made a profit of about $6 million. She bought a 350-acre ranch, raising Spanish cattle, which she ran herself, revolutionizing flea-dipping techniques that improved cattle ranching all over Florida.
"Potter left $1 million of his fortune when he died to 'her future husband' because, he said, 'He's going to need it,'" Dellos said. "But she never remarried." Bertha Palmer died in 1918 of breast cancer.
"The people of Sarasota embrace her more than in Chicago," Dellos noted. "They have not forgotten how she developed the town. They even had a musical about her in Sarasota a few years ago."
Anderson and Dellos have written a radio play about the Palmers that will be performed in Minnesota and hope to also mount a theater production in Chicago.
Cornbred films also plans to produce a film, tentatively titled Oriole Park, about serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the neighborhood he lived in — the neighborhood where Dellos grew up.
Also in the works is a romantic comedy, Other Plans, starring Jamie Kennedy, shot next month in New York, as well as a film about Chicago newspapers to be produced by Fulton Market Films.
Like the 1860 Chicago boosters who lured Potter Palmer from New York to try his luck in dry goods, Dellos is excited about Chicago's potential to become influential in film.
"There are stories begging to be told in the Midwest," Dellos said. "Chicago has theater performances that win Tony awards. We have an amazing cultural community here of actors, singers, and musicians.
"We think there's a market for actually producing work from filmmakers here in Chicago."