Cissy Patterson, At the Heart of Two New Books
This fall, two impressive new nonfiction books have appeared, both of which have at their core a story of a young single mother, Cissy Patterson (the Countess Gizycka), and her little daughter, Felicia. Published October 11 was Chicagoan Megan McKinney’s The Magnificent Medills: America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor (HarperCollins). The other book, out in September, is Washingtonian Amanda Smith’s Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson (Knopf). As this piece is being written, events are being planned around both of the books, a commitment to an exclusive Tuesday evening, November 15, benefit gathering for the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society with author Megan McKinney in the still-stylish classic home Cissy and Felicia lived in and also very likely an appearance at Lake Forest College by Amanda Smith to discuss her gripping biography.
Both books are fascinatingly told accounts of Chicago and Lake Forest’s larger-than-life Medill-McCormick-Patterson dynasty, must-reads for anybody who follows the colorful lives of former Lake Foresters like Ginevra King, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary muse, polo greats like Freddie McLaughlin, and little theatre pioneer and playwright Mary Aldis, spouse of Onwentsia’s Master of the Hunt Arthur Aldis. Cissy (Eleanor Medill) Patterson (1881–1948) was the granddaughter of Lake Forest founder the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Patterson (1814–1894), who was pastor of Chicago’s Second Presbyterian Church, where the plans were developed in the mid-1850s for what would become Lake Forest, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. She was also the granddaughter of early Chicago Tribune publisher and builder Joseph Medill (1823–1899), and after a traumatic early marriage from which she recuperated in Lake Forest by riding and acting, etc., Cissy went on to be the first woman to head and then own a major national daily newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald.
The grandchildren of Medill and Patterson—Cissy, Captain Joseph Medill Patterson (1879–1946), and Colonel Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955)—all orbited around Onwentsia fox-hunting and Mary Aldis’ Lake Forest Players a century ago. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, the three operated a media galaxy centered on Chicago (Robert McCormick, Tribune), New York (Joe Patterson, Daily News), and Washington, D.C. (Cissy, Times-Herald), with planets of columnists and comic strips that lit up the country through their syndicated daily affiliates across the U.S.
It is this larger dynastic story that Megan McKinney tells in her fast-paced narrative of the rise and zenith of this great clan, The Magnificent Medills. She also details the places they lived in some detail. Cissy and the future Col. McCormick had places west and northwest of Onwentsia, respectively, and Cissy’s brother Joe and his spouse Alice Higinbotham Patterson lived at Westwood, their estate and experimental farm west across the Des Plaines River—the site today of Westfield Hawthorn Mall.
Author of the over 700-page but fast-moving Newspaper Titan, Amanda Smith has built on the experience of editing the letters of her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, Hostage to Fortune: the Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (Viking, 2001). In Newspaper Titan, Smith covers Cissy’s first marriage and local period and the family context in greater but no less gripping narrative development than there is space for in McKinney’s broader topical coverage. Cissy acted in plays by her brother, Joe, locally and on tour, but annoyed her mother in doing so. Cissy’s daughter, Felicia, previously held in Europe for ransom or dowry, depending on point of view, was guarded at all times by uncle-like bodyguards as she played around town with her little friends. For Smith, this “infamous” early Lake Forest phase of Cissy’s adulthood (1909–15) and what had led up to it becomes the background for appreciating more fully her accomplishment in rising above a chaotic personal and familial situation to become in another decade and a half a major force in American media. Indeed, she blazed a trail that later would make a path for legendary women newspaper moguls Katharine Graham (1917–2001) of The Washington Post and Alicia Patterson (Guggenheim, 1906–1963), founder of Long Island’s Newsday. Of course, Cissy was not without some means, but her gifted employment of those and of her high-profile position propelled her to the outer fringe of opportunity for women in that era.
Both authors have provided family trees for those readers who are bewildered by all this genealogy. Both books, too, are well-documented and illustrated, including images from Lake Forest College Library’s Special Collections Patterson family papers and materials. The College’s holdings of J.M. Patterson’s papers arrived in the mid-1980s, from his son, James, with additions over the years by Mrs. Michael Arlen, New York, daughter of Josephine Patterson Albright, granddaughter of J.M. Patterson, and the author herself, as Alice Hoge then, of a pioneering biography of Cissy (1966). The main Patterson donation here was facilitated by College alumnus J. Howard Wood ’22 (1901–1988), Lake Bluff, retired Tribune company head, and Wood’s second spouse, Barbara—good friends of the East Coast-based James Pattersons. When the papers were opened with some fanfare in 1985, Felicia Gizyka McGruder was present, and indeed dined with the Pattersons at this writer’s home near campus.
For more information about the upcoming Historical Society benefit event with author Megan McKinney, call 847-234-5352. Also, please watch for a possible future announcement about an event with author Amanda Smith.
—Arthur H. Miller