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The $15,000 Misunderstanding

Headline from the CHICAGO AMERICAN

Chicago-American Headline: Beautiful Woman Yields $15,000 a Year to Wed Man She Loves

In a January 22, 1904, letter to a friend, Great Uncle Victor Elting characterized the Hearst-owned CHICAGO AMERICAN as "the yellowest of the yellow." He had his reasons. The previous week, newspaper readers were titillated with this front-page banner headline: "Beautiful woman yields $15,000 a year to wed man she loves."

The woman referred to was Marie Winston and the man, Uncle Victor. They had just announced their engagement, setting August 1 as the wedding day. Her first husband, Wirt Dexter Walker, who died in 1899, had bequeathed the $15,000 to Marie.

Chicago journalists had a field day speculating whether Marie's legacy from Walker would be forfeit if she remarried. Authorities could be found who said yes.

In those days $15,000 was nothing to be scoffed at. I asked a Harris Bank economist friend, and he said that allowing for inflation, the $15,000 was the equivalent of roughly $260,000 in today's dollars.

Give that up for a man of "slender means" from New Paltz?

Marie, engaged to marry Victor later that year, got the full journalistic treatment:

-- "Late husband, lawyers say, cuts her off in case of remarriage." 
-- "Mrs. Walker will renounce all annual income."
-- "Their engagement has hit like a thunderclap in Chicago." 
-- "Victor has had so many 'affaires de coeur'."
-- "Cupid will exact a heavy toll."

Victor, painted in the press as a good-looking fortune hunter, a clubman, and a romancer who "has more brains than wealth," was, in fact, poor. One of the society writers sought to console the couple on their impending loss by pointing out that Marie would still have her share of her father's estate, even helpfully estimating it at $250,000. Another reporter dug up a society onlooker who claimed that blind Wirt Walker was "insanely jealous" of Marie "and so curtailed her income if she married again."

The press's invasion of privacy went beyond even that of present day media forays. The 1904 press clippings of the $15,000 misunderstanding and the Winston-Elting marriage are remarkable in their intrusiveness. We have them thanks to the lucky find by Victor's namesake grandson, Victor III, of Chicago.

Marie vehemently denied there was any cut-off provision on the will and said even if there were, she would still marry Victor. And so she did. The matter was quietly settled without changes in the $2 million estate (equivalent to $34 million in today's dollars), and all she did was lose the house, "Blythewood" in the Berkshires.

Who, then, was the blind Wirt Walker whose wealth and involvement with the Eltings made headlines?

Propelled by curiosity, I've looked up references to great aunt Marie's first husband in the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society.

Wirt Dexter Walker was the son of James M. Walker (1820-1880), who, in the words of Holden Caulfield describing his lawyer-father in CATCHER IN THE RYE, "really hauled it in." James Walker was a lawyer-businessman in Chicago's boom years. Described as standing at the very head of the legal profession in the West, he was president ("a very king") of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railway and of the Union Stockyards in Chicago. While "great trains traversed the continent at his command," he was evidently a distant, intense man in poor health who died at age 60, leaving two sons.

As early as his late 20s, his son Wirt began buying lakeside property in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with the idea of establishing a summer home. The result was Blythewood Farms, a 470-acre estate with a mile-long driveway. An 1899 news story called it "one of the finest places in Berkshire County."

It must have been about 1895 that Walker married Marie Winston. By then he was totally blind and so had had only five or six years to enjoy the sight of the beautiful Blythewood.

Wirt died of pneumonia on April 24, 1899, at age 39. He had been in New York preparing to sail to Europe with Mrs. Walker and "a party of friends."

By the terms of Walker's will, Blythewood was Marie's to own and enjoy "as long as she shall remain my widow." When she stopped being his widow five years later by marrying Uncle Victor, Blythewood reverted to the Wirt D. Dexter Art Gallery in Chicago whose trustees sold it in 1905 to a Chicago tycoon, John Alden Spoor. The $15,000, by all accounts, went undisturbed, yellow journalism be damned!

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