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 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.

Working with Family Documents and Other Primary Sources

If you are interested in your family’s history and are fortunate enough like me to have family letters, photographs and other documents available, here is some advice gleaned from my own experience about how to mine them for the interesting information about your family that they contain.

  1. Read Everything

And I mean everything.  I am in the process of writing Coming to Amerika which is based on family documents spanning over one hundred years. Just recently in looking over old photos I found one of my great uncle John in his 60’s wearing a uniform. On the back of the photo was the notation “Columbian Guard.” Obviously, he had not been in the Army of Columbia! I knew, however, that as a young man he had been to the World’s Columbian Exposition—the Chicago World’s Fair—in 1893 as I had a booklet he had collected at the time. Further research revealed that the law enforcement authorities at the time felt they needed to beef up security and so hired from around the country about 2000 young men to help keep the peace and deal with pickpockets and other such offenders. They were called the Columbian Guard.

I checked to be sure that the uniform great uncle John was wearing in the photograph matched the uniforms in the other photographs of Columbian Guards on the internet. It did. So great uncle John not only attended the World’s Fair in 1893, he was part of it—a good story to include in Coming to Amerika.

  1. If You Have Documents in a Foreign Language, Get Them Translated!

Such documents are mute unless people today can read them. It may be that you are fluent in the language in which they are written. If not, there are translation services available and a professor or graduate student in a foreign language at a local college might be a good resource. In my case, although I have studied quite a few foreign languages, including German, I could not read the letters written in Old German script. Before his death my father had had some of the letters translated, but there were many more. My brother and I researched translation services, finding it difficult to locate someone who could read the script. Then through perseverance on his part, my brother located a German professor in a small college in South Dakota who in fact taught the old German script. She and her institution were willing to have her translate the remaining documents for a relatively small fee and the donation of some of the original materials for use by students in her classroom. Translations done, she is now serving as a consultant for Coming to Amerika. Without her the book would not have come alive.

  1. Put the Documents in a Historical Context

Just from the content of the documents themselves, it is not always clear just what a reference means or how typical a particular circumstance is for the time when a document was written. So now you must dig. I am a historian by training and nature and have written a great deal about United States history, but I find myself learning new and surprising things as I try to place the documents in context. For example, a number of the letters speak of going to Pike’s Peak. As I researched this I learned there was a brief gold rush in the Denver area in 1858-1860. In fact, this was how Denver got its start.

My great-great grandmother in 1850’s Germany was deeply in debt.  She had only 150 Gulden to pay them off. I could find no solid information about the value of a Gulden so I looked for amounts for comparisons. It later cost her 300 Gulden to travel from Germany to the United States, funds raised by selling possessions and receiving money from a son who had already emigrated.  So 150 Gulden was not much.

  1. Go Through Your Letters and Documents Again and Again

This is important because what might have had little meaning when you first read the material may now be a significant piece of the puzzle. In my case, as I was riffling through some materials I came across, for the second or third time, a business card for an inn in New York City. With the information I had now gleaned I realized it was for the inn my newly arrived relatives stayed at when they first disembarked.

  1. Verify, Verify, Verify

Just because a document is a primary source does not make it accurate. It was written by a human being with a certain amount of knowledge, which might have been limited, and a certain perspective, which could be quite biased. So be sure to check statements out with other available sources. In my case, in addition to writing Coming to Amerika, I am currently researching a biography of Montgomery Ward. I encountered his brief memoir in the files of the Chicago History Museum in which he asserts that his name came from the name of a general who fought in the French and Indian War. Just a little research showed that there was no such general.

  1. Not Everything is on the Internet

There is of course much information on the Internet today.  Ancestry.com and familysearch.org as well as other sites have much family data as does fold3.com for those wanting to search military records. Many important historical books have been digitized and made available, often for free, through GooglePlay and other sites.

It is a mistake, however, to limit research to just the Internet. In gathering information about Montgomery Ward I have followed his path from Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was born, to Niles, Michigan, where he lived as a youth, and finally to Chicago.  All along the way there have been resources available that are not on the Internet. Local historical societies, run often by committed volunteers, as well as public libraries are amazing founts of information. The public library in Niles has an extraordinary genealogical section with information on Ward which I am not finding at the much larger and fancier Chicago History Museum.

 

Going off the Internet grid was most important for my book Examined Lives, which will be coming out this fall.  It is a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, narrated around the lives of my mother and me. I had family letters but I ferreted out much more by locating medical records and sources for information on Walter Freeman, the man who gave my mother a lobotomy and who famously botched the lobotomy of Rosemary Kenney. I was fortunate in having a major research library at hand at the University of Chicago, from which I graduated with a B.A. and M.A. in history. They had copies of materials written by Freeman which had been destroyed by many other institutions as well as the only copy of a work by another neurologist who was Freeman’s inspiration.

Special Collections at the George Washington University where Freeman had taught, archives his donated papers, which include an unpublished autobiography, which I paid to have digitized for myself and future scholars.

I hope that these pointers will make your own family research more fruitful and thus in the end more exciting and amazing!  Happy digging!