Walter Freeman and Me

As the time comes ever nearer for the publication of Examined Lives, I am still trying to understand the man who performed a lobotomy on my mother. I never met Walter Freeman, the man who was the very public face of lobotomies as cures for mental illness in the mid-20thcentury and at whose own reckoning performed some 3,500 such operations.  The photo below of his performing a lobotomy, without mask or gloves, in front of curious bystanders was one of his publicity stunts.  The procedure he used extensively, as depicted, involved hammering an ice pick-like device through the eye socket and wiggling it back and forth to severe connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.

MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.25616

Freeman performed that operation on my mother in 1950.  He saw her for the first time on a Friday, pronounced her a paranoid schizophrenic, and did the procedure the following Monday.  The man wasted no time.

The operation drastically changed my mother’s life and so my own.  Her diary and scrapbooks reveal her to have been a vivacious, competent woman.  She came to Chicago on her 20th birthday and began her rise in the hospitality industry, starting with serving at the lunch counter at a busy Walgreen’s Drugstore at Rush and Oak Streets, where she ended up supervising 12 other waitresses, to serving as room captain at the Camellia Room of the Drake Hotel, frequented by the likes of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.  In her off hours she devoured the nightlife, visiting numerous clubs on any one night with a string of young swain, several of whom wanted to marry her. One was Jerry with whom she visited a night club and “afterward on the way home Jerry and I spied a baby buggy in an apartment house hall and we stole it and I rode down Rush Street in a baby buggy.  Fun. They took the buggy back though.”

After the lobotomy, her drive and “sparkle,” as my aunt put it, was taken from her and in fact she ended up being “adjudged insane” and institutionalized for a period of time.

What led to her having the lobotomy?  That is the story I tell in my book Examined Lives, based on thousands of pages of family letters, diaries, scrapbooks, medical records, an unpublished novel, poetry, and photographs.  And, yes of course, on the writings of Walter Freeman.

Welcome to the Camellia House!

In my last blog I talked about The Drake Hotel where my mother worked as a hostess at the Camellia House, for her “a dream come true.”  She seated the likes of Clark Gable, Greta Carbo, Harold Lloyd and Joan Blondell.

Now welcome to the Camellia House, where I will be holding the book launch for Examined Lives on October 10th, World Mental Health Day, between 7 and 8:30. Fittingly enough there will be champagne and various savories and desserts.  Dress as you like, but this is your chance to dress to the 9’s if you so choose.

Please feel free to share this with family, significant others and friends.  For more information and to be placed on my contact list, they can use the contact form below or go to my blog at http://www.examininglives.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Drake Hotel

 

The Drake Hotel, named after John B. Drake and Tracey Corey Drake, the two brothers who built it on property purchased from Potter Palmer, opened its door on New Year’s Eve, 1920 to a party of some 2,000 of Chicago’s most distinguished citizens.  Standing at Lake Shore Drive and the north end of the Magnificent Mile, it formed a transition from the exclusive Gold Coast neighborhood and the nascent commercial district that eventually grew up around it and for which it set the tone.  It was one of the hotel bookends owned by the Drake brothers, the other being the Blackstone Hotel at the south end of the Magnificent Mile.

From the beginning it was the haunt of the powerful and famous.  A list of visitors would be a who’s who of the 20thcentury, including movie stars and heads of state.  Famously, the newlyweds Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio carved their initials, still preserved, on the bar of the Cape Cod Room.

It was and still is known for its Afternoon Teas in the elegant Palm Court (see pix above) and has its own special blend of tea for the occasion.

The Camellia House, where my mother served as hostess, seating the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, opened around 1940.  It is a relatively small room with an even smaller private dining room to one side, and a small stage where the likes of Frank Sinatra sang.  It has floor to ceiling mirrored pillars and large, crystal chandeliers.  It was designed by the famous Dorothy Draper, who managed to develop a thriving business after her husband ran off with another women the week of the Wall Street Crash.  Her specialty, which other interior designers had shied away from, was turning the public spaces of resort hotels from bland areas to walk through to luxurious surroundings to linger in.  Her dictum, reflecting her confidence was, “If it looks right, it is right.”

The entrance to the Camellia House up two short staircases directly opposite the front door.  There is a balcony area, now closed off, behind a clock where the paparazzi would congregate to take pictures of the celebrities making their way to dinner.

There is now Camellia Room where tea is served at Christmas, but that is not the real Camellia House.  That room, however, still exists, now called The Drake Room but alas they no longer serve dinner there!

 

The “Ice Pick” Age and Beyond

In writing the book Examined Lives about my mother’s lobotomy I include pictures taken by Walter Freeman before, during and after the procedure. I do not, however, show a picture of the ice pick-like device he used.  Here it is. It is much larger than an actual ice pick and thus able to penetrate deeper into the brain.

 

 

It seems incredible today that such a device could have been used, but the brain has always been and still is a mysterious frontier.  Despite the great gains made by the use of antidepressants, they do not always work.  And there are other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, that have proved ultimately intractable to chemical intervention.  So we are in the age beyond the “Ice Pick” but still in territory with which Freeman would be familiar.  Electroshock therapy is in use.  (As a matter of fact so are lobotomies in rare instances.) And deep electrical stimulation of the brain is being tried to treat depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s as well as electromagnetic stimulation.  So far I have seen no discussion in news sources of possible dangers of such treatments, just as was the case in the early days of lobotomies, and what is even more shocking [no pun intended] to me at least is the fact that the average consumer can buy machines that provide electrical and electromagnetic stimulation.  Freeman would approve—inexpensive and widely available, which was Freeman’s goal with lobotomies.

Mr. Ward, Mr. Field and Mr. Merrick

I have set aside every Friday morning to do research on Montgomery Ward at the Chicago History Museum, which has a huge collection of Montgomery Ward materials.  And every Friday morning I come across something new and surprising.

Recently I was going over the folder of materials relating to Ward’s legal battles over the lakefront. The Montgomery Ward & Co. headquarters was located on Michigan Ave. at the time and Ward got sick of looking out his office window at the mess and allegedly turned to his lawyer George Merrick and said “Damn, do something about it.”

There ended up being three separate cases involving the lakefront.  It should be pointed out here that Ward was not the only adjacent property owner to object to the presence of various structures, but he was the one basically footing the bills.

What surprised me about the cases was how sarcastic Ward and his lawyer could be.  They obviously felt that the powers that be were engaging in sheer boondoggles designed to use public land for financial gain or to garner prestige.

After winning the first case, which involved a so-called armory hardly used for that purpose, Ward described what he saw out of his office window:

The city has permitted the erection on the lakefront of a couple of so-called public buildings which, by the city political gang, were allowed to be used for circuses, dog fights, and even ‘Hinky Dink’s’ [a corrupt alderman] fashionable social assemblages [Hinky Dink threw political fundraisers  that involved outrageous costumes and behavior]. . .all for more or less private gain. The Illinois Central had five tracts west of their lawful right of way and at times the city used the property as a dumping ground for refuse.

His view did not change as further issues came up, most famously his opposition to the erection of the Field Museum in Grant Park.  In this he was going up against Daniel Burnham’s plan for the lakefront, which thanks to Ward, was now a cleaned up desirable piece of real estate.  Plans were made for building not only the Field Museum, but also the Crerar Library, municipal buildings, a possible site for the Olympics in 1904 and more.

But whether it was Hinky Dink or Marshall Field, all these plans in Ward’s mind involved taking land away from the people of Chicago that was rightfully theirs.  In a press conference in which Ward’s lawyer spoke, Merrick was as sarcastic as Ward had been earlier.  Slamming his fist on the table, he said

It will not be built if we can help it.  Mr. Field wanted a monument, and being a poor man he couldn’t afford to pay for a site.  Now it is proposed to secure a site from the City of Chicago by violating a trust, and we don’t propose to stand for it; the Illinois Supreme Court will not stand for it, and it will not be built there if we can help it.

And it was not built there. Amusingly enough, as soon as the verdict came down in the Field Museum case, some obviously angry state representative introduced a bill to allow the Field Museum to be built on an island in Lake Michigan, with no consideration given to how people were to reach it.

Ward and Merrick went up directly against machine politics and many of the most influential and powerful people in the city and won.  That Ward would not play ball with them and did it successfully is not something that happens often in Chicago.