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The Marshall Fields: The Evolution of an American Business Dynasty



The Marshall Fields: The Evolution of an American Business Dynasty

Axel Madsen

ISBN: 978-0-471-02493-4 September 2002 384 Pages

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A classic American success story with a twist

Like J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field was one of the overlords of triumphant capitalism in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. However, his phenomenal wealth and generous philanthropy masked a disastrous personal life. Deserted by his wife and alienated from his children, the founder of the Field dynasty left a legacy of immense wealth and misery to match.

The Marshall Fields recounts the classic tale of Field s spectacular success as well as the tragic story of a man who, while making millions by knowing what women wanted, had no inkling of his own wife s emotional needs. This revealing account follows the next five generations of the Field family, concentrating on the most important and controversial figures in each generation. What emerges is a startling saga of money, madness, and mystery.

From the son who may have been shot by a chorus girl to the great-great grandson who used his millions to create Hollywood fantasies, Field s descendants have caromed wildly between rebellion and folly. Their story offers a new and penetrating take on wealth, success, and the nightmare that often accompanies the American dream.



1. A Place to Linger.

2. Silent Marsh.

3. Partnerships.

4. Fire, Panic, and More Fire.

5. Instincts.

6. Marshall Field & Company.

7. Paid to Think.

8. Mile-a-Minute Harry.

9. Nannie.

10. Hostilities.

11. Giving Back.

12. Politics.

13. Delia.

14. Son and Father.

15. The Will.

16. Grandsons.


17. Secrets and Spies.

18. How to Spend It.

19. Audrey.

20. Evolutions.

21. Roosevelt Radicals.

22. Patriot Games.

23. Coming of Age.

24. Bearing Witness.

25. Cold War.

26. Successions.


27. The Crunch.

28. Each Generation Speaks for Itself.

Notes and Sources.


Unless you knew better, you'd probably think that earning $40 million a year a century ago was a good thing. But you'd be mistaken, at least in the case of Marshall Field, according to Axel Madsen.
In "The Marshall Fields," Mr. Madsen offers up a portrait of a man who made an awful lot of money but who also alienated his wife and family, devoting so much time to building his fortune that he didn't have much left over for anyone else - thereby setting into motion domestic troubles and, by extension, the troubles of his heirs and descendants.
Well, perhaps so. It would not be the first time that a rich man had a less than ideal family life. Still, if money and entrepreneurial zeal can somehow compensate for personal failure, Field had plenty of both. He was one of the country's greatest retailers as well as one of its shrewdest financiers.
Having started out as a dry-goods clerk in Pittsfield, Mass., when he was only 16 years old, Field quickly became a customer favorite. Five years later, in 1855, he moved to Chicago with a glowing recommendation from his boss and nearly $1,000 in savings.
Eventually he would take control of the successful retail and wholesale operation owned by one Potter Palmer. When Mr. Palmer's health failed him, he offered Marshall Field and Levi Z. Leiter, a bookkeeper and colleague of Field's, a chance to buy his business. In time, the company became known as Field, Leiter & Co. and, later, Marshall Field & Co.
It is here that Mr. Madsen is at his best. He explains that Marshall Field catered to his customers-overwhelmingly women-with a style that few merchants ever equaled. In Victorian America, writes Mr. Madsen, unescorted women were often unwelcome in city centers. But at Field's store, women were treated as royalty.
Marshall Field's department store became symbol of elegance-affordable elegance for the prosperous middle classes. It eventually became, as well, the place for the women of Chicago to meet - and to meet in proper comfort. Mr. Madsen says that prior to the installation of toilets in Field's store, women who spent the day shopping had nowhere to turn. The Women's Gazette actually had to campaign in the 1870s for lavatories to be built in "hotels, restaurants, and tea shops. "Marshall Field's department store led the way.
Unfortunately, most of Mr. Madsen's book lacks such vivid and reliable detail. It fails to explain how, by the 1880s, Field had become a significant investor in 30 major companies. And it sometimes trades in rumor.
In his introduction, Mr. Madsen writes that Marshall Field's first wife "died in France, possibly a drug addict," but he has no evidence for this. Later in the book he even quotes John Tebbel, the author of "The Marshall Fields: A Study in Wealth" (1947), saying that the claim was a rumor spread by Mr. Field's rivals. Mr. Madsen suggests that Field might have had an affair with his best friend's wife - a rumor at the time - but again there is no evidence. Elsewhere he passes along the speculation that Marshall Field II, the patriarch's son, was killed by an irate prostitute in a Chicago brothel and then transported home; he also reports that it is possible that Field shot himself at home by accident.
The rest of the Field generations get cursory treatment in Mr. Madsen's book, although they deserve more. The entertainment mogul Ted Field, for instance, is a fascinating sort of retailer's scion. In the early 1980s he forced the eventual sale of the remaining family assets in what was then known as Field Enterprises. (The trustees of Marshall Field's estate had sold 90% of the stock in the store to management in 1917. Today Marshall Field's is a unit of Target Corp.) With his stake, he went on to produce the hit movie "Revenge of the Nerds"; on the music front, his Interscope Records was perhaps the most successful independent label of the 1990s, featuring such performers as Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre.
A long way from dry goods, one can't help thinking. A long way from Victorian America, too. —Mr. Trachtenberg is a Journal reporter. (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2002)