Ron Moline, avid walker and sharp-eyed observer, drew our attention to the “Mystery of Pepe the Dog” last week after discovering a gravestone. Where is it located?
“On the lawn of the home just west of the FLW [Laura Gale] house on Elizabeth Court,” Moline wrote. “I’ve walked that walk for 30 years without ever noticing it before. Who knew?”
Well the perpetrators, Craig and Bette Williams, the owners of 4 Elizabeth Court, knew and they were happy to tell the (highly imaginative) tale. Bette wrote the following account in a brochure, which they will put out for curious passersby:
The Story of Pepe
“Assuredly, the most devoted of dogs.”
It was sometime in the fall of 1897 when a mongrel puppy with no tail started frequenting the back door of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home & Studio on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois. Times were different then, strays were not uncommon, and the family soon took a liking to the cheerful visitor, eventually naming him “Pepe” because their live-in tutor was at the time teaching Spanish to the three youngest children.
Pepe was what we would now call an “outside dog.” He roamed the streets but returned regularly to the house for scraps, and the family soon discovered that he was willing to perform for his supper: to sit up, roll over, or even stand on his hind legs and spin around in a pirouette that the delighted children called the “Flamenco Lobo,” roughly translated as “wolf dance.”
Over the next decade, as Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design and supervise the building of several houses in the immediate neighborhood, Pepe became a familiar sight, following his master as he walked between construction sites, darting away to chase rabbits and, to the consternation of many local housewives, occasionally catching one.
As the years went by, however, Pepe would more often simply trot by Wright’s side and lie down whenever the renowned architect stopped to give presumably lengthy, complex instructions to the assembled workmen. Pepe was getting older and content to wait.
Things change in 1909
Wright designs and starts construction of the Laura Gale house at what is now 6 Elizabeth Court. But shortly afterward, he leaves his wife and six children and sails to Italy to live with his mistress, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who had moved there so her husband Edwin could secure a divorce on grounds of desertion.
While Wright is in Europe, work continues on the Gale house, and Pepe remains a constant visitor to the site, where his now-absent master used to regularly offer him small cubes of dried salt pork so he would perform the “Flamenco Lobo” for the amusement of the construction crew.
Of course, Wright is now thousands of miles away, but the workers do their best to make Pepe comfortable during his almost daily vigil, even fashioning a small doghouse to protect him from the elements. (Although no pictures survive, it is said to have been built in the Prairie style.)
Final days and burial
Pepe continues to frequent the Gale house even after construction is finished, and the owner does her best to keep the old dog comfortable on his almost daily visits, going so far as to line his small house with dry blankets in cold weather. But one morning in March 1910, Pepe doesn’t come out.
Laura Gale removes the doghouse and buries Pepe on the same spot, planting a lilac as a living reminder of what she called “assuredly, the most devoted of dogs.” Wright returns to America in October of 1910. It is unknown if he visits Pepe’s grave. Within a year, he and his mistress move to Wisconsin, with disastrous results.
Nearly forgotten, until …
Pepe had been such a remarkable presence that, even through the 1970s, neighborhood tour guides would often tell his story. But by then the lilac bush was gone. No living residents had actually seen the dog, and many considered his story apocryphal. Most likely, Pepe would have been forgotten had it not been for a singular discovery.
In the summer of 2015, village workers had to dig up the electrical cables leading to a malfunctioning streetlight in front of the Gale house. While excavating, they discovered a set of small bones, obviously those of a medium-sized dog, laid out in such a manner that it could only have been purposely buried. The skeleton was complete in every respect, except that it had no tail. Just like Pepe.
The marker you see today, and this story, was established in May of 2016 by citizens of Oak Park so that this extraordinary dog will always be remembered. May Pepe rest in peace.