What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age

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Overview

In late-nineteenth-century Chicago, visionary retail tycoon Marshall Field made his fortune wooing women customers with his famous motto: “Give the lady what she wants.” His legendary charm also won the heart of socialite Delia Spencer and led to an infamous love affair.  
The night of the Great Fire, as seventeen-year-old Delia watches the flames rise and consume what was the pioneer town of Chicago, she can’t imagine how much her life, her city, and her whole world are ...

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What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age

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Overview

In late-nineteenth-century Chicago, visionary retail tycoon Marshall Field made his fortune wooing women customers with his famous motto: “Give the lady what she wants.” His legendary charm also won the heart of socialite Delia Spencer and led to an infamous love affair.  
The night of the Great Fire, as seventeen-year-old Delia watches the flames rise and consume what was the pioneer town of Chicago, she can’t imagine how much her life, her city, and her whole world are about to change. Nor can she guess that the agent of that change will not simply be the fire, but more so the man she meets that night.…

Leading the way in rebuilding after the fire, Marshall Field reopens his well-known dry goods store and transforms it into something the world has never seen before: a glamorous palace of a department store. He and his powerhouse coterie—including Potter Palmer and George Pullman—usher in the age of robber barons, the American royalty of their generation.
 
But behind the opulence, their private lives are riddled with scandal and heartbreak. Delia and Marshall first turn to each other out of loneliness, but as their love deepens, they will stand together despite disgrace and ostracism, through an age of devastation and opportunity, when an adolescent Chicago is transformed into the gleaming White City of the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Rosen skillfully charms, fascinates, frustrates, and moves her readers in this turn of the century tale. Set on an epic historical stage, What the Lady Wants contains all of the hedonism, decadence, success, and tragedy of the great American novel."— Erika Robuck, national bestselling author of Fallen Beauty

What the Lady Wants is a story that opens with the Great Chicago Fire and keeps on smoldering to the end. Rosen's characters are finely-drawn, and her love triangles are full of subtlety and sincerity.  What the lady indeed wants may not be what you assume it to be!”—Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist

What the Lady Wants is an absolutely brilliant novel. The love story of Marshall and Delia is completely engrossing. You get to experience their first meeting, their friendship, their love story, and their highs and lows full of romance, passion, loss, and sadness. […] Rosen has clearly done her research as Chicago during the Gilded Age comes alive with the various people, places, and things.”—The Examiner

“Set against the backdrop of the great Chicago fire, the rebuilding and resurgence of the city, and the ensuing excesses of the Gilded Age, this historical novel has all the requisite features of an irresistible page-turner.”—Booklist

“What the Lady Wants is superb historical fiction… It has everything within it, fashion, mystery, crime, labor disputes, social refinement and snobbery, family support and opposition, tragedy and stunning success. A MUST read and guaranteed to be a best seller… Exquisitely written!”—The Best Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
2014-10-01
Rosen's second paean to the Second City (after Dollface, 2013) is a fictional biography of the "Merchant Prince" Marshall Field, told from the point of view of his mistress.Delia "Dell" Spencer, daughter of Franklin Spencer, one of Chicago's wealthiest purveyors of dry goods, seems destined to love her father's rival Marshall "Marsh" Field, founder of the iconic (and now defunct) department store that bore his name. The couple first meets at a ball celebrating the opening of Chicago's equally iconic Palmer House, when Dell is 17 and Marsh, 37. That very night, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroys the entire city, including Spencer's and Field's stores, the Spencer mansion and the Palmer House. By being the first to reopen, Marsh forever captures the hearts and wallets of Chicagoans. Five years later, Dell makes what her social set considers a sterling marriage to wealthy Arthur Caton. Dell hopes for more of her husband's attention while gradually realizing the unmistakable (and at times not very convincing) appeal of Marsh, whose Prairie Avenue mansion's backyard abuts the Caton abode. When Arthur sinks into depression and alcoholism after his best friend Paxton marries, Dell realizes that he prefers men, and she and Arthur enter into a threesome of sorts with Marsh. With Arthur's consent Marshall and Dell conceive a child, but thanks to a push down a staircase from Marshall's vindictive wife, Nannie, Dell loses both the child and her ability to have children. Dell evinces almost no internal conflict over her affair (love justifies all is her constant refrain), and her smug sense of entitlement belies the strong character with which the author is at great pains to imbue her. Efforts to paint Nannie as the villain backfire since Dell can garner no reader sympathy. If Rosen's intent was to portray Marshall Field in all his flawed complexity, it was not served by her choice of narrator.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451466716
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/4/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 60,633
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Renee Rosen

Renée Rosen is the author of Dollface and the young adult novel, Every Crooked Pot. She lives in Chicago where she is at work on a new novel.

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Read an Excerpt

ALSO BY RENÉE ROSEN

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ONE

1871

She supposed she fell in love with him at the same time the rest of Chicago did. The Great Fire had raged on for two days, and the flames didn’t discriminate: they devoured businesses and residences, mansions and shanties alike. In the end, miles of streets and buildings were ravaged. But from this smoldering ash, a handful of men came forward to rebuild the city. Marshall Field was one of them.

The day before the fire started, seventeen-year-old Delia Spencer was walking down State Street in search of hair combs needed to complete an outfit for a party the following evening. She was strolling along when her heel got caught in a loose plank on the wooden sidewalk. Oblivious to the throng of horse-drawn cars, wagons and coaches rumbling by, she worked to free her boot. It was only the train whistle, from several blocks over, that seized her attention. She could feel the ground juddering as the locomotive barreled through town, coughing clouds of black, oily smoke. The soot remained after the train passed, clinging to the facades of the restaurants, tearooms and dime museums. Even the Nicholson paved roads were covered in a thin coating of locomotive residue.

She was moving again, and in the time it took her to walk less than a city block, half a dozen peddlers selling everything from chicken feet to slabs of lard tallow soap approached her. She crossed the street to get away from them, lifting her hem and watching her step to avoid the road apples left behind by the horses.

The whirl of chaos surrounding her reminded Delia of the time her relatives from Boston had come to visit, telling their friends and neighbors that they were going to a trading post out west. They’d been appalled by the fetid smells of the Chicago River and said that the city was a noisy, vile, dangerous place. But Delia argued that no other city could boast a three-tiered fountain like the one in Courthouse Square or the marble and limestone buildings along State Street that stood four and five stories high. She couldn’t imagine a more vibrant place to call home. The city was barely thirty years old and it was changing all the time, maturing, ripening with each new day. Her father was fond of saying that Chicago was coming into its own in 1871.

“The clover is upon us now,” he’d said to her just days before the fire as Delia had stood with him on their velvet green lawn that their gardener faithfully watered each day to combat the months of drought. “Yes, indeed,” her father had said again, “we’re in the clover now.”

Mr. Spencer was a proud Chicagoan and one of the men who’d built up the city in the very beginning, long before the boom began.

“When we moved here back in ’54, we were pioneers,” he’d told her. “You weren’t even a year old. There was a cholera outbreak that year and everyone—including your mother—thought I’d lost my mind, moving my family to this desolate place. They said Chicago was uninhabitable. And they weren’t entirely wrong,” he’d chuckled. “The roads were nothing but dirt and mud. Thickets of weeds were everywhere. The city was full of nothing but cottages and shacks. There were miles of marshland all around, and if people think it smells bad now, they should have been here back then. Hard as you tried, you couldn’t get away from the stench of sewer water.”

Standing next to him on their lawn, she’d followed the line of her father’s gaze toward the downtown horizon. “Didn’t you tell me once that you found fish in your drinking water?”

He’d smiled, giving her a nod. “You’d fill up your basin and there’d be fish this big”—he held his fingers an inch apart—“flipping and flopping right before your eyes.”

Delia had laughed. “Why did you want us to live here back then?”

“Because I saw promise in Chicago. I knew this swampland in the middle of the country was going to be the key to prosperity. This city has waterways and railroads, and we’re smack in the center of everything. I knew if anything worthwhile was going to happen in this country, it was going to have to go through Chicago.”

Her father had been right. Delia found it hard to believe that just twenty years before the Spencers arrived, Chicago had been a fur trading post, home to the Indians and just four thousand brave pioneers. Since then the Potawatomi had been replaced by more than ninety thousand intruders, come to seek their fortunes.

When Delia arrived at Lake Street and Wabash Avenue, a horse-drawn streetcar let dozens of riders off in front of a group of dry goods stores—one of which belonged to Delia’s father. Hibbard, Spencer & Company stood three stories proud, dwarfing the blacksmith, the umbrella repair shop, the cordage shop and the other merchants surrounding it.

Delia went inside and wandered up and down the aisles, letting her fingertips graze the different bolts of brocades, chambrays and gossamers piled one on top of the other. She lost herself among the white and yellow beeswax candles and spiced soaps when her father called to her.

“What a surprise. What are you looking for, Dell?” He removed his spectacles and gave them a polish on the bottom of his waistcoat.

“Hair combs.”

“Well,” he said with a laugh, “you won’t find them in this aisle.”

“I know, I know. I can’t help it, I got distracted.”

As a young girl, before her mother taught her to know a woman’s place, Delia had spent many an afternoon down at Hibbard, Spencer, hoisted up on the counter, watching her father ring up all the sales. Oh, how she loved the sound of the till each time the cash drawer sprang open. She had wanted to become a merchant like her father. She wasn’t afraid of hard work, or put off by the responsibility. She wanted the satisfaction of making her own way and had even thought of taking over her father’s business someday. But she was a girl and a Spencer girl at that. She grew up on the exclusive Terrace Row, in a rusticated stone block home with a majestic mansard roof and dozens of servants. She’d studied piano and dance and had attended the city’s finest finishing school. Her mother wouldn’t even allow her to take painting classes at the Academy of Design, let alone work in a dry goods store. No, her only job was to find a suitable husband and raise his children.

•   •   •

The night the fire started, on October 8, 1871, Delia was getting ready for Bertha and Potter Palmers’ party in celebration of the opening of their new hotel, the Palmer House. Sitting at her vanity, she gazed into the looking glass while her maid pinned her long brown hair and fastened it with the sterling hair comb she’d purchased the day before. This was the first party Delia would attend after having been formally introduced to society in September, and she wanted to make a good impression. She chose an emerald gown with forest green velvet ruches and beading along the bodice. It had been designed for her by Emile Pingat on her last trip to Paris the summer before.

“Quit your dillydallying,” Abby said, standing in the doorway.

“Don’t you worry, Augustus will still be at the party when you get there.”

Delia saw her sister’s cheeks flush at the mention of her beau. “It’s not Augustus I’m worried about. It’s Mother.”

“Oh, she must be seething down there,” Delia said as the maid gathered her long train and fastened it to the hook at her waistline.

“You know how she is about being prompt.” Abby stepped closer to the looking glass and adjusted the bow atop her curls, which their maid had styled for her before reporting to Delia’s room.

Abby was four years older than Delia. Her piercing blue eyes and light blond hair came from her mother, whereas Delia’s dark coloring belonged to the Spencer side of the family. After studying themselves in the cheval mirror one last time, the girls went downstairs to join their mother at the foot of the staircase. Her mother’s hand was gripping the banister and Delia just knew her fingertips must have long since turned white inside her gloves.

Mrs. Spencer raised her hand and summoned her girls to her side. “Come now. Your father has the coach waiting out front.”

It was half past eight on a Sunday evening. There was a chill in the air accompanied by fierce winds that whipped around their carriage. Delia noticed that even the gaslights, protected by glass domes, flickered from the wind’s force.

They were nearing State and Jackson when they first heard the alarm bells sounding from the courthouse tower. Delia peered out the carriage window but saw nothing.

“Not again,” her mother said as she adjusted her hat. It was the fourth time that week that the fire alarms had sounded.

“It’s to be expected,” said her father. “After all, we haven’t seen a drop of rain since July.”

“Look,” said Abby, pointing toward the west.

Delia turned and saw a sweep of red and yellow on the horizon, rolling in like waves on the lakefront. It seemed ominous to her, but her father didn’t appear concerned, so she pushed her misgivings aside and shifted her thoughts to the coming party.

Bertha had been telling Delia and her sister about the hotel’s grand opening celebration for weeks. Bertha and Abby were both twenty-one and had been friends for years. Being younger, Delia had always tagged along, the unwelcome shadow. But this past year the awkwardness of their age difference seemed to have vanished. In fact, many now mistook Delia for the older sister, and in recent months, she’d become closer to Bertha, even closer to her than was Abby.

Age obviously didn’t matter to Bertha, who had married a man twenty-three years her senior. And what would the richest man in Chicago give his young bride as a wedding present? If you were Potter, you’d give her a hotel with your name on it. It seemed like an odd choice to Delia, but the Palmer House was spectacular. Even the smallest guest rooms started at three dollars a night.

The Palmer House had opened its doors less than two weeks earlier and everyone had been looking forward to the grand opening party. As the Spencers made their way around the corner, Delia saw the finest carriages in the city lined up out front.

A uniformed doorman, imposing as a statue, greeted them, while another uniformed man inside helped the women off with their manteaus. Entering the lobby, Delia paused in the rotunda, eyeing the oversize chandeliers. The stenciled ceiling was breathtaking and the plush royal blue Axminster carpeting seemed to swallow her footsteps whole. At last she got to see the Carrara marble that Bertha had been talking about and wherever she turned she saw gold—gold trim on the portrait frames, along the wainscoting, the moldings, the winding staircase banister and the glowing wall sconces.

The ballroom on the second floor was even more elegant with high-buffed marble floors that reflected every image from above. Delia guessed there must have been close to two hundred people in the ballroom and yet Augustus Eddy had no difficulty finding Abby and sweeping her onto the dance floor.

Augustus had been courting Abby for the past three months, which pleased Delia’s parents. He was a good prospect for her sister. At just twenty-four Augustus was the youngest director the Rock Island Railroad had ever had. He was also the youngest man Delia had ever known to wear a monocle. She thought perhaps he did this to offset his boyish face, round and seemingly full of innocence.

Delia remained with her parents, though she lagged a bit behind, testing her independence and very much aware of the newspapermen eyeing her and jotting down notes on their tablets. Abby had been mentioned countless times in the papers over the past several years and now it was Delia who was about to capture the reporters’ attention. For as far back as she could remember, her mother had stressed the importance of fashion. The Spencer girls, as they were known, made annual fall visits to Europe for their wardrobe consultations and fittings. For years Delia and her sister had been known for their sense of style.

With a cool eye, she observed the women who no doubt were still wearing last year’s pannier crinolines beneath their bejeweled bustled gowns. They were each an elegant statement, but a statement of the past. They had unwittingly passed the fashion baton to the younger generation of women such as herself, and Delia wondered if they were even aware of this as they sipped champagne and sherry. She drifted on, passing before a group of men drinking brandies and talking business. All around her handsome couples glided about the dance floor to the music of a twenty-piece orchestra. Delia watched her sister and Augustus waltz, twirling and spinning, wondering when her turn would come.

While the orchestra played on, Delia smiled, thinking that this was the world she’d been groomed for and at last she was old enough to embrace it. She loved everything about the party—the music, the glowing candles on the tables, the scent of fresh flowers in the air, even the Negro servers balancing sterling silver trays of hors d’oeuvres upon their white-gloved palms.

In the center of it all, Potter and Bertha mingled with their guests. Potter, in a white jacket and tie, paled alongside Bertha in her satin ruby-colored ball gown adorned with silk floss and metallic lace. The diamonds in her tiara sparkled each time she moved. Delia would have guessed she was wearing ten pounds of jewelry that night.

“Come,” Bertha said, as she looped her arm through Delia’s, whisking her along. “Let me introduce you around.”

Delia met so many people she could scarcely keep the names and faces straight—except for one.

“Mr. Marshall Field,” Bertha said with a sweep of her hand, “may I present Miss Delia Spencer.”

“Charmed.” The elegantly dressed dry goods merchant leaned forward and kissed her hand. “You wouldn’t by chance be related to the Spencer of Hibbard & Spencer, would you?”

“I would indeed,” she said. “Franklin Spencer is my father. And please don’t tell him this, but I’m a great fan of Field, Leiter & Company.”

He laughed. “Obviously you’re a young lady with impeccable taste.”

She smiled, feeling very grown-up and glamorous. Being a Spencer, Delia had met plenty of important figures, but something about Mr. Field intrigued her, though she couldn’t say why. He stood bandy-legged with his right hand parked in his jacket pocket like he was posing for a portrait. And he was impossibly too old for her. Judging by the hint of gray at his temples, she guessed he was nearly twice her age. Delia preferred fair-haired men and Mr. Field had dark brown hair and an even darker mustache, bushy and in need of a trim. But he did have captivating blue gray eyes. That he did. Bertha excused herself to tend to her other guests, and while Delia continued talking with Mr. Field, she noticed that he wasn’t wearing a wedding band.

“Shall we see what all the commotion is about?” He motioned toward the crowd that had assembled near the windows, stepping aside so that she could precede him.

Delia looked for her parents and Abby as more people squeezed in to look out the windows, watching what was growing into a raging fire in the southwest. Delia heard the alarm bells ring again as the partygoers oohed and aahed over the flaring flames in the distance. It was as if they were watching a fireworks display.

“I’ve never understood the morbid fascination with other people’s misfortune,” said Mr. Field.

Delia glanced around, looking again for her family, and when she couldn’t find them she followed Mr. Field off to the side. The orange glow from outside bathed the wall of windows near them. But Mr. Field wasn’t watching the fire. Instead, he turned and gave her an appraising look.

“I know it’s impolite to ask a lady her age, but exactly how young are you?”

“Seventeen. I’ll be eighteen next month.”

He closed his eyes and patted a hand over his heart. “My oh my, but you are an enchanting creature, Miss Spencer.”

She smiled timidly, uncertain of what to say or do next. No man had ever spoken to her like that, had ever looked at her like that before, either. She stared at his hand covering his heart and noticed his crooked index finger. The joint just above his knuckle was hyperextended. Delia chanced another bashful smile just as a white-hot blaze cannonballed across the horizon. Even from where they stood they both saw it and rushed back toward the windows.

Seconds later there was a loud explosion that shook the building with such a force that the chandeliers clanked and a server dropped his tray. Delia shrieked and grabbed hold of Mr. Field’s lapel as couples cleared the dance floor and the musicians put down their instruments. Delia saw a glimpse of Abby’s blond curls before she lost her again in the crowd. Everyone squeezed in around the windows, watching the night sky, alive and wild with streaks of red, blue and orange.

Delia released her hold on Mr. Field’s lapel and clutched her chest. “I’m sorry. That frightened me so.”

He didn’t say anything. His eyes were trained on the inferno. The winds had picked up, howling against the windows, feeding the flames. The fire was gaining on the city. There were more explosions and rumblings heard from miles away.

“Must have been the turpentine plants or else kerosene tanks,” said one of the guests.

“Don’t forget there’s half a dozen lumberyards over there, too,” said another man with a full goatee that hung from his chin like a whitewash brush.

The next explosion happened closer by and Delia watched in horror as a fireball appeared just blocks to the west and consumed an entire building as if it were made of paper. The room filled with screaming and shrieking. This was not like the fires of the summer. Delia was paralyzed with fear.

Before the flames got any closer, Mr. Field grabbed hold of her hand. “Come with me,” he said. “We have to get out of here.”

Everyone at the party had the same idea, as they all quickly rushed for the doorways. Delia thought she spotted her father, but then he disappeared in the chaos. She saw Potter Palmer climb onto the stage where the orchestra had been. Cupping his hands about his mouth, he shouted above the panic and commotion. “Everybody—it’s time to evacuate. Please, everyone leave the hotel now!”

The room exploded into even more mayhem as people shoved one another out of the way and rushed the doors. Hats and evening bags flew as people tripped over their own feet, trying to escape. Delia’s gown rustled as she raced down the staircase, holding tightly to Mr. Field’s hand until someone pushed her from behind and she was separated from him.

“Mr. Field? Mr. Field—wait!”

She was caught in a blur of people shoving past her, rushing toward the exit. Delia thought about her manteau, but there was no time to get it. Frantically she searched for her parents and Abby, but all she saw was the chaotic barrage of strangers. By the time she made it outside, the street had turned to pandemonium as people fought to flee the buildings and restaurants nearby. There was no sign of Mr. Field anywhere. No trace of her family, either. She was all alone, surrounded by confusion. All she knew for certain was that the fire was growing closer and that she had to find a way to escape it.

CHAPTER TWO

Delia soon found herself among a mass of people heading north. She’d lost track of time as alarm bells continued to sound and fire shot out of the windows and doorways she passed by. The flames rose from the ground up, reaching far above the rooftops and leaping over entire buildings.

People were hauling drays and carts filled with clothes and blankets, dishes and a jumble of other personal belongings. It seemed as if they had grabbed whatever they could find to fit inside their carts as they’d fled their homes. Even small children lugged suitcases at their sides, banging into their knees and shins as they ran. Spooked horses galloped madly, careening through the streets, dragging carriages behind them as their passengers desperately held on to the side rails.

Even as Delia steadily moved north, she could feel the heat rolling in from behind as the flames drew closer to her. The air was hot and thick with smoke. Tiny orange cinders alive with fire swam before her eyes, floating about like dust motes. The strong winds blew burning planks of wood across half a city block, setting off new fires wherever they touched down.

The heat soon became unbearable. Delia stepped onto a tarred walkway, her shoes sticking to the blistering, bubbling surface. Something stung her arms and legs and she noticed the sleeves and bottom of her dress were smoldering. She screamed, frantically swatting at the live embers that landed on her. She’d never been so frightened in all her life as she slapped out the cinders with her gloved hands.

She trembled even after she’d extinguished the embers, but did her best to keep moving. The roads were becoming congested, crowded with carriages at a standstill while pedestrians like Delia squeezed their way around the clogged streets and walkways. All the while, she tried not to think about what might have happened to her family. She had to keep a watch on her emotions for fear that if she eased up, the panic would swallow her whole.

She lost all sense of where she was until she passed the post office engulfed in flames. Just beyond that, she saw a wooden swing bridge ignite and disappear within seconds, slipping beneath the water of the Chicago River. At last she recognized Courthouse Square. People stood in the fountain, trying to escape the suffocating heat. The alarm bells from the cupola continued to sound even as twelve-foot flames licked the sides of the building. Delia watched the guards marching prisoners from the courthouse jail out onto the street. Red-hot embers landed on one of the inmates, and before her eyes, she saw his uniform burst into flames. Terrified, she turned away and moved on, passing a series of saloons that had been broken into, their windows shattered by men helping themselves to every bottle they could get their hands on.

Though Delia was surrounded by people, could feel their steaming flesh pressing up against her own skin, she felt utterly alone. Another wave of tears rose up on her, but she pushed them back down as a blast of wind caught her from behind and carried off her hat. She watched it rolling down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed, gone forever. Her feet were blistered, her legs throbbed and she wasn’t sure how much farther she could go. She was hungry and tired. The noise was deafening: people crying, hooves pounding the pavement, explosions going off and buildings collapsing. She couldn’t comprehend the suffering she was witnessing: grown men sobbing, people and animals set aflame, women rushing back inside burning homes for their children. Delia didn’t want to see any more. She wanted to go home. More panic rose up inside her and she feared she’d never see her parents or Abby again. She was fighting back another round of tears when a familiar voice called her name.

“Delia, Delia—” her father shouted from inside the family carriage as their driver pulled back on the reins and brought the coach to a stop. The horse’s coat was shiny with sweat and foam oozed from its mouth. Part of its mane looked singed and she saw the blood seeping from a gash on its hind leg.

“For goodness’ sake, child, get in.” He opened the door and grabbed her around the waist, hoisting her up.

Delia couldn’t speak. Her family finding her in the midst of the chaos was a miracle. As soon as she felt her father’s arms around her, she released her tears, letting the fright she’d been trying to suppress come to the surface in full, gulping sobs.

Her mother plucked a handkerchief from her satchel and dabbed Delia’s eyes while at the same time scolding her. “Why did you wander off alone? We were looking everywhere for you,” she said. “You scared us half to death.”

“Shssh, she’s all right. That’s all that matters,” said her father.

Abby scooted closer to Delia and reached for her hand. Her sister had torn her glove that evening and the seam along her index finger had opened. Even in the dark, Delia could see that Abby had bitten that exposed nail down to the quick.

The carriages were still backed up and it took an eternity just to round the corner. Once they’d made it around the bend, though, they picked up speed and traffic started moving again. Yet, everywhere Delia looked, there were more wagons, drays, even stray horses heading north. She realized they were just one in an endless caravan that night, trying to stay ahead of the fire.

When they reached the southern tip of Lincoln Park all the coaches came to a stop. Some of the horses, like their own, were injured and overheated from the flames, frothing at the mouth. Looking out the window, Delia saw hundreds of people sitting on the ground with horse blankets wrapped about their shoulders. Others used their suitcases as stools, their elbows propped on their knees. They were in the midst of a refugee camp that had sprung up out of nowhere. She was struck by all the different people—the Irish, the Germans, the rich, the poor—all united in their need to escape the fire. A man in a Prince Albert coat with a velvet collar streaked black from smoke stood next to a man in a fraying nightshirt and a tattered cap. It was the same with the women, some in ball gowns and hats and others draped in work dresses with babushkas covering their heads.

Delia joined her father when he stepped out of the carriage to stretch his legs. Everywhere she turned, she saw mothers sobbing because they couldn’t find their children, while their husbands stood by helpless to console them. Her father said he was going to speak with some of the other men and Delia watched him walking away, his broad shoulders sifting through the crowd until she lost sight of him. That was when a kernel of panic formed in her gut. She realized that she’d been expecting her father to fix this—this impossible catastrophe—just as he’d fixed her skate, or the roof on her dollhouse, or splinted her dog’s hind leg after he was hit by a wagon. He’d always fixed every other problem in her life, but this was bigger than him, bigger than anything they’d ever seen. That terrified her but it also marked a change in her. She knew she couldn’t afford to crumble and something deep inside her solidified. It was as if she could feel her inner core expanding with a force she didn’t know she had. Looking back, she would remember this as the moment she found her strength and came to understand the meaning of self-reliance.

When her father returned to the carriage he told them that everyone had decided to wait it out. “We’re far enough north now. The fire will never come all the way up here. We’ll stay here tonight and in the morning, once they’ve put this beast out, we’ll be able to go back home.”

Home! It was the first time anyone had mentioned home and the very word brought to mind the question that had haunted Delia through the whole ordeal. It was Abby who finally asked, “What if our house is burned down? What will we do? Where will we go?”

“Now you listen to me,” Mr. Spencer snapped. “The fire’s spreading north and all those buildings that burned were nothing but balloon structures. They were made of wood frames. Our house is stone and we live far enough south. Our house will be fine, you hear me?”

“Now not another word about houses burning down,” their mother said, giving both Delia and Abby a warning glance.

Delia tried to take comfort in her father’s words, picturing their home among the other limestone mansions that lined Terrace Row. She listened to her mother and sister talk about needing a hot bath, wanting a cup of calming tea, wondering if McVicker’s would be open for that Friday’s matinee show. Delia wanted to join in, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the flames still breathing in the distance. It didn’t seem possible that anything could stop the inferno.

When dawn broke Monday morning, the sky was still dark with thick black smoke. The only light Delia could see came from the flames, still shooting a hundred feet into the air. The fire looked to be about a mile away and that was too close. The carriages started moving again as the fire pushed their caravan farther and farther.

An hour or so later they stopped in a stretch of prairie land, surrounded by shanties and cottages. Delia was hungry and tired. Time seemed to hang in the air, just as thick and unmoving as the smoke. There was nothing to do but wait. A man who had salvaged his accordion began playing oompah music while other men passed around lager and whiskey that she assumed they’d taken from the looted saloons back in town. People were eating raw corn that they’d found growing in the nearby field, juice from the kernels dribbling down their chins. Her father commented that it was the first time he’d ever seen the Germans and the Irish tolerate one another’s company. They had no choice.

As the day stretched on, Delia moved from the carriage to the field, where the blanched-out grass rose up past her knees, just waiting to feed the fire. But still, it felt good to walk around after being cooped up for so long. Their coachman was tending to their horse, inspecting the gashes on its leg, shaking his head as he muttered something to her father. Delia distanced herself from them, thinking how she couldn’t bear another night inside that coach. She had barely closed her eyes the night before. The winds had howled so, beating against the sides of the carriage, rocking them to and fro. She’d been freezing one minute, sweating the next. The sounds of the fire had terrorized her during the night, but now, in the daylight, she had become accustomed to the booming roars off in the distance. She thought only vaguely about it, just another lumberyard igniting or perhaps more buildings collapsing.

At dusk she had no choice but to retreat to the carriage again with the rest of her family. They all slept fitfully. It was almost midnight according to her father’s pocket watch when they heard a steady tap, tap, tap on the roof. At first Delia feared it was cinders showering down on them, but then she heard the yelping and clapping. She looked out the window. Rain! It was raining. She held out her hand and let the droplets pelt her open palm. A gift from the heavens! The harder it rained, the more it lifted people’s spirits. She watched them, young and old, standing with their heads thrown back, letting the rain wash over them. She could almost hear the hiss of the fire losing ground as giddy relief spread throughout her body.

•   •   •

By Tuesday morning, the fire was out and the black smoke had given way to a gray smoldering haze. Tears sprang to Delia’s eyes. They had survived. They were going to be all right. These were the only thoughts circling her mind as their carriage slowly began making its way back through the city and toward their home.

“Everything’s so quiet now,” said Abby, who had worried the open seam of her glove so that now two additional fingers were exposed along with their nibbled nails. When she started in on a fresh fingernail, her mother swatted her hand away from her mouth.

All was calm now but Delia found the stillness haunting. As they made their way back through Lincoln Park, she could see that the city had been broken to its core. The wooden sidewalks were gone. The trees were gone. So were all the houses and buildings. The rain continued to fall, turning the streets, already filled with heaps of debris, into gray sludge. Without any landmarks to guide them, even Delia’s father had difficulty knowing where they were. Through his clenched jaw he called out to the driver, trying to decide which paths to take. Despite the coachman’s prodding whip, their horse was barely inching along. Block after block of buildings that had stood four and five stories high days before had now been reduced to piles of charred wood. Delia’s mother kept her hand clamped over her mouth, her eyes blinking back tears.

At last, up ahead in the distance, Delia spotted the turrets of the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station on Michigan Boulevard. Two days earlier, they’d simply blended into the background, but now they were everything, an anchor for her hopes. The pumping station was still standing. All was not lost! Hope rose up inside her.

“Look,” she shouted, her pulse jumping with enthusiasm. “It’s going to be okay!”

But as soon as those words left her mouth their carriage came to a halt. The driver cracked his whip over the horse’s hide, but it refused to move. Delia’s father got out and climbed up onto the box. Again and again the driver whipped the animal until its legs buckled and it collapsed.

Delia and Abby cried out and their mother covered her eyes as the carriage violently jolted forward. Mr. Spencer and the driver jumped down off the box to check on the horse. Delia watched through the window. The horse was dead, its eyes bulging open, its mouth covered in froth, its coat slick from sweat and rain. Delia turned away, thinking she might be sick despite having nothing in her stomach.

Now they had no choice but to go the rest of the way on foot. The mud and ash covered Delia’s bottines as they walked, coming across odds and ends lying in the carnage. Delia saw a rag doll in the muck, her button eyes looking up to the sky, and a ceramic bowl or perhaps a vase, melted into a twisted shape. A pocketknife had survived along with a man’s shoe, its tongue hanging out thirsty and covered in soot.

The downtown streets and walkways had become impassable and unrecognizable. Any minute now Delia expected to see McVicker’s Theatre or Colonel Wood’s Museum. She was desperate to see the opera house or the Green Room, even the State Savings Institute, anything that looked familiar. But other than an occasional wall or storefront left standing, the city had been incinerated. The fire had been so hot that even the limestone had decomposed into heaps of sand and grit. Even the metal and steel cores of the buildings that everyone believed were fireproof had melted into globs still glowing red from their centers. If those had melted in the inferno, what could possibly be left of their home? Delia swallowed hard and pressed her hands to her throbbing temples.

Her father looked at her, as if he knew what she was thinking. He had two days’ worth of whiskers covering his face, dark circles looming beneath his eyes. “We’re going to be fine,” he insisted as they forged ahead. “The entire city can’t be in ruins.”

Delia prayed he was right, for if not, she feared they would never survive. There would be no clean water, no food, let alone anything else.

The rain stopped as they continued to slog through the ash. A man in the middle of the rubble held a coveted copy of the Chicago Tribune and called out the headlines: “Tens of thousands homeless. More than three hundred dead. Medill declares, ‘Chicago shall rise again!’”

Delia walked alongside her father as they came across heaps of dead cinders, soaked from the rain but still hissing and sending plumes of steam rising ten and twenty feet high. One lone pole remained standing with a cardboard sign nailed to it. When Delia saw what it said her stomach lurched.

CASHBOYS & WORK GIRLS WILL BE PAID WHAT IS DUE THEM.

MONDAY 9AM OCT. 16 AT 60 CALUMET AVENUE.

FIELD, LEITER & CO.

“Oh, it can’t be,” Delia said to her father. She thought of Mr. Field as she bent down and picked up a handful of damp ash, collecting it in her hand like a snowball. “This can’t be all that’s left of Field, Leiter & Company.” She was choking back tears because she knew then that her father’s store, just a few blocks over, must be gone as well. “This can’t be all that’s left of State Street!”

Each step after that was harder to take, their spirits sinking in the mud along with their shoes. Delia and her family continued walking south, heading deeper into the heart of the destruction. As they approached Terrace Row, Delia’s heart dropped down in her chest and she felt as though she couldn’t breathe. All they found was a charred wall, not more than six feet tall, looking as though it was a single wind gust away from tumbling over. Smoke rose from the piles of debris like campfires on the prairie. She felt hysteria mounting inside her. Where were all the trees? The gardens? The mansions? There was no neighborhood left. Their home was gone. Everything was gone. She promised herself she wouldn’t cry. She had to be strong for her father, who held her sobbing sister, and for her mother, who had already dropped to her knees, landing in a heap of ash as she wept into her hands.

Delia had to distance herself from her broken family. Their tears and sobs echoed through her body, draining what little courage she had left. As she walked among the ruins, she wondered, Could this rubble possibly be where the parlor stood? Is this what’s left of the music room? Where was my bedroom?

Then she found a gooseneck copper teakettle lying on its side. It must have been in the kitchen, or maybe it had belonged to a neighbor. She’d never seen it before and yet it was the only thing they had left. She picked it up and cradled it in her arms as a single tear leaked from her eye.

CHAPTER THREE

Five days later, Delia and Abby lay on their sides facing each other, crowded into the same bed. Not that Abby didn’t have her own bed just a few feet away, but she’d had a nightmare and come running to Delia.

Delia covered Abby’s shoulders with the blanket and propped herself up against the walnut headboard. She could smell her sister’s breath, sour like yeast. As she turned up the lamp on the nightstand, a warm glow filled the room, bringing objects into view: the intricate wood carvings around the mirror of the bedroom hutch in the corner, the Persian rug, the blue velvet draperies on the bay windows. It was a fine house, but it wasn’t home.

Delia and her family had taken refuge at a relative’s house down on Eighteenth and Michigan, on the fringe of where the fire stopped. Her aunt and uncle had welcomed them without question. It had been less than a week since the fire, but Delia felt as if the first seventeen years of her life had all but faded away like fragments of a dream she couldn’t fully recall.

“Do you think Augustus is okay?” Abby whispered to Delia.

“You’ll hear from him soon.” She’d been telling Abby that every night since the fire.

“But how will he know where to find me?”

Delia didn’t have an answer. She didn’t know where to begin to look for friends. Her father told her that several families had already left the city, heading for Philadelphia or New York. But he wanted to stay in Chicago and rebuild his home and his business. Thankfully he had insured everything, so Delia knew that the physical could be rebuilt—but what about everything else? She thought about her father, the strongest, proudest man she knew, and how this fire had taken something vital out of him, like the marrow from his bones. His confidence, that part of him that always knew what to do next, seemed to have been buried in the rubble.

Her mother was even worse. She’d stayed in bed for two days, refusing to get up, unable to eat. “I can’t face it all,” she’d cried into her fists. “I tell you, I can’t face it.”

Delia, like her parents and everyone else, walked around in a stupor for days, trying to grasp what had happened. She couldn’t comprehend that the city was gone. The tasks ahead were overwhelming. The cleanup seemed insurmountable, the repairs and rebuilding too daunting. At times she had to stop and sit, catch her breath, for fear that she might faint.

“Try and get some sleep,” Delia said to Abby, reaching over to turn down the gaslight. “Don’t you worry, it’s going to be all right,” she said, stroking Abby’s hair. “Somehow everything’s going to be all right.”

As Delia’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she heard Abby’s breathing deepen. She had fallen back asleep, but Delia remained awake. She rolled onto her back, thinking about how in another few hours she’d have to get up and face another day. It had been less than a week and already she was exhausted. It wasn’t physical fatigue she suffered from, for nothing visibly demanding had been put upon her. It was emotional, a steady draining from her mind, her heart. She was worn down from the inside out and no amount of sleep could revive her. How was she going to find the energy to keep going? God, how she just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before the fire.

•   •   •

Delia remained despondent for days. She spent her time in her aunt’s front parlor, sketching the scenes she’d witnessed the night of the fire: two men laying wet carpets on a rooftop hoping to spare it from the blaze lapping at the house next door, people running into Lake Michigan, rats and other rodents coming out from underground, seeking escape from the heat. Though she knew better than to think of herself as a real artist, she had a modest talent. Despite her mother seeing no point in Delia studying art, drawing and painting had always helped her make sense of the world around her. That was how she connected all the fragments she experienced, giving it order in her mind. She turned to drawing now, but even after she’d done a pile of sketches, the fire’s devastation was beyond her.

Putting her sketch pad aside, she reached for the newspaper and came across an advertisement on the front page of the Chicago Tribune that surprised her:

FIELD, LEITER & COMPANY REOPENING ON THE CORNER OF TWENTIETH AND STATE STREET

She recalled the sign outside the rubble where the old Field & Leiter store had stood at State and Washington and realized that Mr. Field must have started looking for a new location the moment the fire was out. Even Delia’s father—considered one of Chicago’s most astute businessmen—was still months away from being able to reopen Hibbard, Spencer & Company. How could it be that in less than two weeks, and in the midst of such suffering and chaos, Mr. Field had been able to get a new dry goods store up and running? Though she wished her father’s store had been the first to reopen, she couldn’t help but feel a surge of admiration and gratitude for Mr. Field. He was bringing life back to the city.

Delia grabbed the newspaper and ran into the drawing room. “Look,” she called to her sister as she waved the Tribune. “Let’s go! Please, say you’ll come with me.”

Abby didn’t need much convincing. She was heartened by the news as well. They needed to replace everything and Abby especially loathed having to wear her aunt’s and cousin’s hand-me-downs.

So that afternoon Delia and Abby headed on foot from Eighteenth and Michigan over to Twentieth and State. It was a cold fall day, gray and overcast. The air still carried a stale smoky smell. As they walked they didn’t see a single hack or omnibus go by, but they did hear the trains, which had been spared from the fire. Their whistles blasting in the distance were a welcome sound.

Many of the streets were impassable, so they had to take the long way around, walking east toward the lakefront. With collars turned up and hands stuffed inside their coat pockets, Delia and Abby passed city workers clearing pathways, shoveling heaps of rubble toward the water, dumping it all into Lake Michigan. They saw planks of wood, half of a piano, a parlor chair and other debris floating along the choppy surface.

As they headed on, they noticed a carriage or two passing by and when they turned south onto State Street there were more carriages and phaetons rumbling past them. Half a dozen more. When they arrived at their destination, Delia stopped and checked the address.

“This can’t be right,” she said. “It’s nothing but an old barn.”

“And in the middle of nowhere.”

Delia observed the horse barn, which sat on a barren stretch of overgrown grass. The ground was dried out with more cracks running through it than a broken eggshell.

“They must have made a mistake in the newspaper,” said Abby.

A group of women trudged past them, trampling through the rough terrain with their dresses hiked up to their ankles. They were elegantly clothed, one in an inverness cape, another wearing a bonnet with a lace-embroidered brim and the third with a jacket with a pannier that cascaded past her bustle.

“Excuse me,” said Delia, “but we’re looking for the new Field, Leiter & Company.”

“This is it,” said the woman with the bonnet.

“Here?” Delia pointed at the horse barn.

“Well,” said the woman with the cape, “the line starts around the corner, but yes, this is it.”

The line? Delia and Abby peered around the side of the barn and there were women—a hundred or more—lined up, chatting among themselves and eagerly anticipating their turn to step inside. Delia and Abby took their places at the end of the line and within minutes another dozen or so women had joined the wait behind them.

Delia caught a glimpse of Mr. Field standing in the doorway. With his white gloves and plug hat, he looked as proud as if he were standing before a castle.

“Plenty of merchandise inside, ladies,” he called out. “New shawls and silks just arrived this morning from New York and Paris.”

She watched him greet his customers as they crossed the threshold, and when their turn came, he looked at Delia and took her hand in his. “Miss Spencer,” he said. “What a lovely surprise. Welcome to Field, Leiter & Company. And who is this you have with you?” he asked.

After Delia introduced Mr. Field to her sister, he welcomed them both inside. “Please,” he said, “come have a look around. Stay as long as you like.”

When she and Abby entered the makeshift store, Delia was amazed by what she saw. It may have been a horse barn on the outside, but inside, it was a genuine dry goods store. Not as grand as the one that had burned down, but a real store nonetheless. Mirrors had been mounted on the whitewashed walls, and the floors were wide planks but sanded, so that the surface was smooth and even. The salesclerks stood eager and erect, the men in black suits, the women in dark dresses. The horse stalls had been converted into display counters, filled with bolts of fabric—brocades and tweeds, satins and merino. There were beautiful silk mantillas and velveteen bonnets, and next to that, rich lisle threads for embroidery, an assortment of cattle bone, jade and pearl buttons and other notions. There was a counter just for toilet waters, one for handkerchiefs and lace, another for hosiery and bloomers.

The sisters paused before a handsome display of inkwells, fountain pens and desk blotters. Then they moved on to another fabric stall. Delia felt the need to touch each item, run her fingertips over the different textures, the taffetas, velvets and satins. It was crowded inside with women entering through the doorway more quickly than others left out the exit. With the exception of the trains, this was the first sign of normal life she’d seen since the fire. It was uplifting and invigorating to be surrounded by people ready to get on with their lives.

Delia had been admiring an ivory-handled parasol when she looked back at Mr. Field still standing in the doorway greeting more arrivals. After nearly two weeks of despair and devastation—when even her own father admitted feeling broken and beaten up—this man was the one person she’d seen radiate hope and confidence. While everyone else doubted the city’s resilience, he was forging ahead. She found his optimism contagious. Apparently, so did the hundreds of other women who had gathered at the store. It was as if he was restoring their spirits, giving them a reason and a way to carry on.

Though she recalled that the night they met, Bertha said he was thirty-seven—twenty years her senior—Delia Spencer recognized that there was something rare, something extraordinary about Marshall Field.

CHAPTER FOUR

Delia welcomed the sound of hammers pounding, of saws slicing back and forth, their blades chewing through marble and granite. She took comfort in the workmen shouting from stepladders and rooftops as she made her way down Michigan Boulevard with Abby and her mother. It was December and the ground was a solid mass of frozen ash, covered in snow. And yet, over the past two months, even as winter set in, Delia watched with wonder as the city started to come back.

“Oh look,” her mother said now, pointing to the construction on a snowy lot, the site of their future home. “They’ve started on the chimneys.”

The three of them paused to look at the progress the builders had made. Stacks of masonry blocks and brick were scattered about, as the city had outlawed wooden construction right after the fire. The Spencers were rebuilding at Michigan and Sixteenth, near where they were staying with their relatives. It was to be a twelve-thousand-square-foot Romanesque-style home designed by an up-and-coming architect, Henry Hobson Richardson.

“I can’t wait until we’re back in a home of our own,” said Abby.

“And just think, now you’ll live even closer to Augustus,” said Delia.

As it turned out, Augustus’s family home on Wabash and Twenty-second Street had been spared in the fire. It had taken him about ten days but eventually he had located Abby. Delia could tell that the temporary separation and fear of losing each other had only intensified their budding love.

“Come along, girls,” said Mrs. Spencer. “We mustn’t be late.”

In an effort to return to some semblance of normalcy, Delia’s mother had been taking her daughters to the dressmaker for weekly consultations so that the Spencer girls could replace their lost wardrobes. The dressmaker, like so many other small businesses, had set up shop in a makeshift shack. When they arrived, she hustled Delia behind a flimsy drape that served as a changing room.

“Of course this is just temporary,” the dressmaker apologized for the umpteenth time while pinning the flouncing to Delia’s dress.

Delia looked in the mirror and frowned. “I’d prefer the trim a little higher on the hip,” she said.

Delia always involved herself in the dressmaking process. Weeks ago she had presented the seamstress with sketches illustrating how she wanted her evening, afternoon and even walking dresses to look. She’d even given her a design for a new skating outfit. As much as she had carefully chosen her designs and as talented as the dressmaker was, Delia knew that none of these new dresses would compare with the work of the Paris designers. But the Spencer girls’ annual autumn trip to Europe had been postponed because of the fire. Mrs. Spencer did not want to leave her husband, who had started running Hibbard & Spencer from William Hibbard’s home.

“And remember,” said Delia, “use the silver floss embroidery, not gold.” She caught herself in the mirror and felt a stab of regret. She didn’t like what she saw and it wasn’t the dress that she was unhappy with. It was her own image. How could she be concerned about things like embroidery and flounce when so many others had nothing at all?

Immediately after their visit to the dressmaker, Delia went to the First Presbyterian Church and signed up to help distribute warm clothing and food to those who had been left homeless.

“Are you certain you’re up to this?” asked the petite woman in the vestibule, folding blankets, rising on tiptoes, straining to reach the top. “You’re one of the Spencer girls, aren’t you?”

“But I want to help. I’ll do anything.” Delia stepped in, took the blanket from her and placed it on the pile.

The woman looked at her and smiled. “Very well, then,” she said with a nod. “You can fold those over there,” she said, pointing to a heap of dull, rough blankets the color of olives. “And when you’re done, we just got a new donation of shoes. They need to be sorted and arranged according to size.”

After that, Delia reported to the church seven days a week to help the fire victims. And oh, the things she saw! Children without warm clothing, the soles of their blistered feet bleeding and peeking out of their torn, tattered shoes. Men and women so beaten down and frail, their eyes seemed sunken in their sockets. Delia would stay at the church as long as she could, reading one last story to a child or rubbing an old woman’s tired shoulders with liniment.

Despite her efforts, Delia still felt guilty when she returned to her relatives’ home, knowing her aunt’s cook prepared their supper, the footman chopped wood for the fireplaces, and the maids made sure they had warm beds. How could Delia enjoy these comforts? Instead she lay awake at night, unable to escape the forlorn faces that haunted her memory come sunset.

•   •   •

After volunteering for two weeks straight, Delia took a day off and accompanied Abby and Augustus to the Palmers’ country home in Hyde Park. It was a lovely estate on a large plot of land with a fine stable and sprawling gardens out back. Inside, the house was beautifully decorated with a Mathieu Criaerd commode and several gilded wood fauteuils, which Delia recognized as the work of Jean-Jacques Pothier. Delia’s eye for design wasn’t limited to just fashion. No, she was equally interested in home furnishings. From the time she was a young girl, she had pored over her father’s back issues of Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book and devoured every issue of Harper’s, studying up on the latest designers.

That Sunday afternoon in December, Bertha hosted a small gathering that included her neighbor Paxton Lowry and his friend Arthur Caton.

“Well, if it isn’t the Spencer girls,” said Arthur as soon as Delia and Abby entered the drawing room.

They had both known Arthur since childhood, but this was the first time Delia had seen him in years. He came from an extremely wealthy family; his father was one of the most powerful judges in Chicago. Like his father, Arthur had gone to law school out east and he had recently been admitted to the bar. He had moved back to Chicago just three days before the fire.

Paxton explained all this before saying, “Arthur comes back to Chicago and the whole town falls apart.”

Delia and the others watched Paxton in silence as he moved to the bar. No one could think of anything to say in response. “Oh, come now,” he said, plucking a bottle by its neck, letting it swing like a pendulum. “It was a joke.”

“Not a very funny one,” said Bertha.

“Forgive me.” Paxton hung his head in mock shame.

Delia found Paxton to be an unusually pretty man with long lashes, smooth, almost whiskerless skin and a tender smile. She watched as he refilled Potter’s glass and then Arthur’s. Augustus adjusted his monocle and waved his hand, saying he’d had enough. Delia and Abby were drinking tea along with Bertha.

While the men talked about the vigorous rebuilding of the city, Bertha and Abby summoned Delia into the hallway. “Well, what do you think of Arthur?” Bertha asked.

Delia peered back into the drawing room. Arthur was sitting casually in a cane-backed chair with his long legs stretched out before him, crossed at the ankles. He was very stylish with sandy blond hair combed back off his forehead and rugged-looking muttonchops.

“I don’t remember him being so handsome,” Delia admitted.

“And don’t forget, he is a Caton, after all.” Abby said this as if no further explanation was needed. Of the two girls, Delia knew her sister was the one more concerned with appearances.

As they started back toward the drawing room, the butler appeared in the hallway announcing the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field.

Mr. and Mrs.? Delia turned abruptly. She felt an unexpected burst of disappointment, as if an unspoken promise had been broken. She’d had no idea he was married. Even after all she’d read about him in the newspapers, she’d never seen even a single mention of his wife.

Mr. Field smiled generously when he saw her. “And so we meet again, Miss Spencer.”

“Very nice to see you, Mr. Field.”

“Please, call me Marshall. Or better yet, Marsh.”

“But only if you’ll call me Delia. Or better yet, Dell.”

They laughed in agreement. She couldn’t help but notice how easy and comfortable she felt talking to him. It was that way every time she saw him, like they were old friends rather than recent acquaintances.

Delia felt his wife’s eyes on her even before Bertha introduced them.

“This is Marshall’s wife, Nannie. She’s from Kentucky,” said Bertha. “Like my people.”

Nannie patted her hair in place as she said hello, her voice carrying a hint of Kentucky drawl. “Well, isn’t it nice to meet you.”

Delia found that she was every bit as intrigued by Nannie as she was with Marshall. Or maybe it was because she’d been so intrigued with Marshall that she took an interest in Nannie. She couldn’t help it. Delia was fascinated by the woman who had captured Marshall Field’s heart. She noticed every detail from Nannie’s brown hair, fastened in a Gordian knot, to her slender figure and the Japanese silk day dress with gathered flounces. She was very stylish, befitting the wife of the city’s most successful merchant. She was older, closer to Marshall’s age, probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Whereas Marshall moved about with ease, shaking hands with the men, Nannie held back. She appeared self-conscious one minute and then, as if to overcompensate for her insecurity, she would make bold gestures. She would interrupt conversations with non sequiturs or suddenly sit down at the piano to play a song that she clearly hadn’t mastered. Delia suspected that Nannie was who she was by virtue of marrying Marshall Field. It appeared that she’d been thrust into a world she’d hadn’t been groomed for.

“Nannie’s starting a new club for women,” said Bertha.

“Yes, you must come join us,” said Nannie. “We’re going to be discussing books and plays, and the opera. We’re going to recapture the culture that was lost in the fire. We’ve already received a shipment of books from England for the city’s library.”

“But we don’t have a city library,” said Delia.

“Well, we certainly have the start of one now,” said Nannie with a cunning smile.

The more they talked, the more Delia liked her. Nannie, for all her quirks, had spirit. She realized that must be what had attracted Marshall Field to her; she seemed to be a woman whose energy could match his.

Delia sipped tea from Bertha’s delicate jeweled cups while Potter told everybody of his plans for the new Palmer House Hotel.

“Construction is already well under way,” he said. “And this time, by golly, that hotel will be fireproof.”

“I no longer believe there is such a thing as a fireproof building,” said Augustus.

“Mark my words,” said Potter. “The Palmer House will be one hundred percent fireproof. In fact, I challenge any man who thinks he can set fire to one of my new guest rooms.”

“Let’s not encourage the guests to set fire to the rooms, dear,” said Bertha.

“You just better hope Mrs. O’Leary doesn’t check in,” said Nannie with a cackle.

“Oh, that poor woman,” said Abby. “Did you see the horrible things they wrote about her in the newspapers?”

“Poor woman?” Marshall sat up straighter. “Her cow nearly destroyed the entire city.”

“They don’t know for certain that her cow started it,” said Delia.

“If Marshall said her cow started it,” said Nannie, “then the cow started it. He’s never wrong. About anything.” She smiled, but Delia noticed that Marshall did not.

“Oh please,” said Arthur. “Is anyone besides me tired of talking about this fire? What on earth did we talk about before the fire? Can anyone remember?”

As the day wore on, the ladies exchanged their teacups for glasses of sherry and Delia found that while Marshall and Augustus were engrossed in conversation with Potter, Arthur and Paxton were quite attentive to her. Arthur was explaining that he’d just sold his telegraph company to an outfit called Western Union.

“It all sounds very exciting,” said Delia.

“Actually it’s rather boring,” said Arthur. “A lot of paper signing and handshaking.”

“Will you stay on with this Western Company?”

“Western Union,” Paxton corrected her.

“Western Union, then.” She smiled at Paxton and turned back to Arthur. “Will you be tending to their legal matters now as well?”

“Hopefully not. Really, Delia,” Arthur added with an inebriated grin, “I only did it for the money. I never have to work another day in my life because, you see, now I’m very rich.”

“You’ve always been very rich,” Paxton pointed out.

“Well, then, now I’m very, very rich.” Arthur looked at Delia and raised his glass.

Arthur and Paxton were laughing, but Delia felt a bit dismissed, as if he thought she wasn’t intelligent enough to follow the workings of a business deal when truly she wanted to hear more about it. That was the sort of thing she found interesting, but she wouldn’t ask again. She wouldn’t beg to be taken seriously.

Before the afternoon was over, Arthur had asked if he might call on Delia. She hesitated, still miffed over the way he’d disregarded her interest in his business affairs earlier. Yet she couldn’t ignore the fluttering in her body each time she looked at him. He was a very handsome man and he was certainly charming and educated.

“Oh please,” Paxton said finally. “Say yes or he’ll only keep asking.”

“Well, in that case,” said Delia, “I’d be delighted.”

CHAPTER FIVE

1876

Delia Spencer married Arthur Caton five years later. Arthur had courted her for nearly four of those five years before proposing. Delia hadn’t hesitated to say yes. No one made her laugh like Arthur and no one tried harder to make her happy. Whether they were sailing or horseback riding with Paxton or picnicking with Abby and Augustus, Arthur made her feel like the luckiest girl alive. He had become her favorite person to do anything with—it didn’t matter what as long as they were together. She couldn’t imagine finding a better man to spend her life with, to raise a family with and fulfill her role as a wife and mother.

Delia knew her wedding was the most anticipated social event of the season. And while Abby’s wedding to Augustus Eddy two years earlier had certainly been elaborate, it paled in comparison with Delia and Arthur’s.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 10, 2015

    While the cover art was enough to invite me to take a second loo

    While the cover art was enough to invite me to take a second look, what persuaded me to buy it was the subtitle: “A novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age”. I love reading historical fiction, and learning about a period of history while enjoying a good story.

    Renee Rosen scores on both points. Entrepreneur Marshall Field carried on thirty-year affair with socialite Delia Spencer Caton, both married. While not much is known about the details, it is documented that Field’s wife, Nannie, suffered from various illness, Marshall, Delia, and Delia’s husband, Arthur, frequently traveled and socialized together. Rosen did meticulous research with what was available, and filled in the holes with educated speculation about what might have gone on.

    The book focuses on the romance between Marshall and Delia, and, in fact, the entire story revolves around Delia’s point of view. Major historical events, such as the Haymarket Affair and the building and rebuilding of Marshall Field’s store are painted with very light brushstrokes. This is a light work, with much “telling” versus “showing”, and I would have enjoyed a more meaty look at the intricacies of who he was as a businessman. The popular Masterpiece Theater show, “Mr. Selfridge” demonstrates that both can be done. (And, I did appreciate the cameos of Harry Selfridge, as he did work for Marshall Field for twenty-give years before opening his own grand emporium in London.)

    Still, I was entertained, and walked away knowing more about the subject and time period than I knew before. I will definitely look forward to reading the author’s other works.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 4, 2014

    This is a great story of Marshall Fields and his second wife.  T

    This is a great story of Marshall Fields and his second wife.  Their love story is so passionate although very controversial.  This novel is a long the same strain as "The Aviator's Wife" and "The Paris Wife", I love the stories of successful men and the women they loved.  It is so wonderful to learn about those from the past, the lives they lead, and the history that they encompassed.  Would highly recommend.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 4, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    an absolutely fascinating novel! The novel is a mix or real and

    an absolutely fascinating novel! The novel is a mix or real and imagined details and characters. The novel follows the adult life of Delia Spencer.  I found Delia to be a compelling protagonist. Her life, though very cushioned, faced a number of difficulties. She was graceful when so many others were cruel. She was very much a lady. Rosen cleverly weaved a story which allowed the reader to understand why Delia strayed from her husband, Author.




    The numerous characters throughout the novel were just as compelling as Delia. Each character added depth and interest to the story. I was just as interested in the outcome of their stories, as I was in Delia's story. Rosen's writing is absorbing. I was able to feel the heat of the Great Fire and to see the changing landscape of Chicago.




    The story was solid, well written and compelling. Though the novel spans thirty-five years of Delia's life, it never drags on. I felt completely carried away by the story. One of my favorite novels this year. I am highly recommending you cuddle up this November with a copy of WHAT THE LADY WANTS by Renee Rosen.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2015

    A fun read, especially if you're from Chicago

    I'm not positive out-of-towners would be as interested in this book as native Chicagoans who will revel in the historical references and anything having to do with our wonderful Marshall Field's store, gone but never forgotten. Don't expect strict historical accuracy or era-appropriate dialogue, do expect love scenes that verge on bodice-ripping type language. If those aren't off-putting and you're looking for a quick, enjoyable read, go for it. Our book club is reading this, I'm not sure it will lead to substantive discussion, it's a bit lighter fare than our group usually goes for but if you're looking for a break long deep reads this might fit the bill.

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  • Posted February 25, 2015

    For Downton Abbey lovers, this is the equivalent in America. His

    For Downton Abbey lovers, this is the equivalent in America. Historical fiction with romance that teaches and entertains.  
    I learned so much about Chicago at the late 1800s. The Great Fire, the Gilded Age, a famous love affair - this book has it all.

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  • Posted January 27, 2015

    more from this reviewer

    As Delia hurries home from having witnessed the ravages of the G

    As Delia hurries home from having witnessed the ravages of the Great Chicago Fire, she has no idea how her life will change. It Chicago in the late 1880's. She marries Arthur Caton, a lawyer, and at first they are happy. But as the wheels of time turn, the marriage begins to reveal its problems and secrets. Despite their troubles, they befriend Marshall Field and his wife who live around the corner. And before long, neither Delia nor Marshall can deny the powerful attraction they feel for each other. Soon, they are embroiled in a passionate affair, even though Delia remains loyal to her husband. Arthur is aware of his wife's affair, and their marriage soon becomes an open one as it frees him to pursue his own unusual interests. Despite all the gossip and scandal, and being ostracized from society, Delia holds her head high and offers no compromise to her life, finally overcoming all to ultimately marry Marshall in widowhood. 




    It is evident the author has done her research for this story truly came alive. Never boring, the novel tantalized me to keep reading with each turn of the page. I was engrossed in the two marriages, the love that existed between Delia and the two men, and of course, the brilliant mind and honorable intentions of tycoon Marhsall Field. I could not help but be tottally enthralled with the characters. The setting, Chicago during the gilded age added much to enrichen the story line. I love works of fiction that are based on fact, and the novel did not disappoint. This is an exceptional story, which exceeded my expectations. Very highly recommended.

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  • Posted November 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    1871 Chicago ¿ Delia Spencer is attending a ball and is fascinat

    1871 Chicago – Delia Spencer is attending a ball and is fascinated by the men she sees examining the ladies, that is until she meets Marshall Field.  He’s an older man who exhibits all the graceful, polite but kind traits that attract an impressionable young lady just stepping out into the finest of society.  Delia is a very intelligent lady when it comes to appreciating the finest of fashions in clothes, interior decoration in any home, architecture, art, and more.  But all of that comes to a screeching halt when the same night as the ball the Great Fire of Chicago breaks out.  Delia, her family, and all of the City of Chicago are doing the best they can to stay ahead of the fire until they manage to get far from the City. It’s not just a fire – it’s a disaster that destroys all the major businesses of Delia’s family’s friends and acquaintances. It will be rebuilt.  The process symbolizes the upcoming life Delia and Marshall will share until 1906.
    No, they will not marry yet for Marshall is married to Nannie, a hypochondriac woman whose only consolation is her laudanum that makes her even sicker and furiously jealous as well.  For it’s clear that Marshall and Delia share a spark that will grow into a friendship and later passionate love, a relationship few spouses ever achieve.  Marshall is just as married to his work and the reader will be fascinated as he rebuilds his lost business, beginning on the day after the fire.  He will argue with his partner for many years until Delia encourages him to strike out on his own.  She becomes pivotal in helping him to choose styles and designs for everything in his store, from clothing to jewelry to home products and more.  Later she will help him create a home away from home for all the ladies who live in and visit Chicago.  These pages are absolutely riveting and delightful, sure to be loved by anyone with a flair for beauty in one’s personal appearance or home.  Nothing, I repeat, nothing is left out or repeated; utterly spectacular!
    Delia marries a man who has inherited money but has little else that he loves, other than his horses that he raises.  Arthur has a penchant that is totally unacceptable in the late 1800s; he and Delia will come to an agreement but one that is never wholly acceptable to either of them, one that will bring as much tragedy as it does satisfaction. Marshall is there for her through many shocking scenes that the reader will never forget.  His debacle with workers demonstrating and fighting for better pay, rights and other benefits is depicted with all of its passionate conflict and tension that is most likely precisely as it was in the famous Haymarket riots.
    What the Lady Wants… is superb historical fiction that this reviewer loved and was so disappointed when it ended.  It has everything within it, fashion, mystery, crime, labor disputes, social refinement and snobbery, family support and opposition, tragedy and stunning success.  A MUST read and guaranteed to be a best seller!  A KEEPER!!! Exquisitely written, Renee Rosen!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2014

    Nineteenth century Chicago is well underway in its transformatio

    Nineteenth century Chicago is well underway in its transformation of becoming the proving grounds of some of the most notable success stories in America's 'Gateway to Empire.' It is 1871 and the night before the infamous Chicago fires--an inferno that would level the world of society's famous and certainly most fortunate. Delia Spencer's and Marshall Field's worlds are about to collide. Something as simple as her search for silver hair combs to complete her languish outfit for a party the following evening would be the beginning of their lives together in a truly unconventional way for decades to come.

    Chicago's elite are enjoying the finer things in life. In the distance, the land is ablaze with the approaching fires. Earlier in the evening the Spencer sisters had nothing more to worry about than preening and primping for the event of the season. Palmer house was hosting a party. Abby Spencer was all but betrothed to Augustus which left Delia ('Dell'), the last of the Spencer sisters to marry off. An explosion rocks the festivities and the sight of the blaze is rapidly approaching their safe haven. Chicago is ablaze and the formidable fire is proving it isn't selective toward the intended destruction it plans to leave behind in its wake. As pandemonium escalates and the guests trample one upon the other to escape the rapidly approaching flames, Dell is separated from her family. Earlier in the evening, she had met the infamous Marshall Field. He has hold of her hand now and is guiding her to safety in one moment only for the two to be separated in the next. When Dell is finally reunited with her family, she has a fleeting recollection of that moment in time when she and Marshall Field met. Somewhere in the depths of her soul, she knew this was not happenstance. Sadly, life had another plan for her. The journey of Delia Spencer and Marshall Field coming together was a road filled with obstacles of desperation, heartache and insurmountable tests and their ultimate reality would be the fact there are no guarantees in life in the end.

    Renee Rosen has written a wonderfully historical account of an epic period of time in retail history. She plays out the behind-the-scenes life and times of the front-facing retail magnate Marshall Field--a man who refused to give up and embrace the challenge of constant do-over's bigger and better each time in his complex life. Ms. Rosen strategically plants the seed of forbidden love between Marsh Field and Dell Spencer in "Scarlet Letter" fashion that deliciously treats her audience to the shock and awe of watching the plot grow. There is a lot to be said when the formula of wealth and taboo come together and Rosen is a master at spinning the twists and turns. The writing has a solid pace and Ms. Rosen knows how to breath credible life into characters that blend perfectly with the times. I am always pleased to read a body of work that is injected with renowned historical account. Ms. Rosen has done her homework and done it well. She has used her detailed research and penned an intriguing story about the life and times of the man responsible for the retail empire: Marshall Field's. This is a fantastically written book and without question, an engaging read.

    Quill says: Renee Rosen definitely gives the reader what he/she wants in her latest novel, What the Lady Wants.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 30, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2015

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