Born to a society and a life of privilege, Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, a wealthy entrepreneur who called her Cissy. Neither dreamed the direction the other’s life would take. He built the Palmer House Hotel, still famed today, and become one of the major robber barons of the city, giving generously to causes of which he approved. She put philanthropy into deeds, going into shanty neighborhoods, inviting factory girls to her home, working at Jane Addams’ settlement Hull House, supporting women’s causes.
It was a time of tremendous change and conflict in Chicago as the city struggled to put its swamp-water beginnings behind it and become a leading urban center. A time of the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, and the triumph of the Columbian Exposition. Potter and Cissy handled these events in diverse ways. Fascinating characters people these pages along with Potter and Cissy—Carter Harrison, frequent mayor of the city; Harry Collins, determined to be a loser; Henry Honoré, torn between loyalties to the South and North; Daniel Burnham, architect of the new Chicago—and many others.
The Gilded Cage is a fictional exploration of the lives of these people and of the Gilded Age in Chicago history.
Getting the Voice Right
by Judy Alter
It took me over twelve years to write The Gilded Cage, the story of Potter Palmer (founder of the famed Palmer House Hotel in Chicago) and his socialite/philanthropist wife, Bertha Honoré (Cissy) Palmer, in Chicago’s Gilded Age. The first files I find on my computer date to 2002, but I suspect there are earlier files somewhere, on disks that my equipment no longer reads.
I was fascinated with Cissy Palmer because she was one of the first women to insist that great wealth carried an obligation of philanthropy and to put that belief into action, not just donating money but actively working in the community, inviting factory girls into her home and talking about their lives, volunteering at Jane Addams’ legendary Hull House settlement house, putting philanthropy into compassionate action.
Potter Palmer, on the other hand, was one of the rags-to-riches men who built Chicago in the late nineteenth century. From a Quaker family in a quiet upper New York town, he ventured forth to the then-frontier outpost of Chicago to make his fortune. He ruled out New York City and other eastern metropolises as too established, too stale, and landed in Chicago with its bad smells, sewage in the streets, and hastily built shanties. There was a small upscale community in Chicago, and Potter catered to it. During the Civil War, he became a man of wealth. He too believed in philanthropy—giving thousands of dollars to established charities and never knowing the people he helped.
I knew there was a story there, but I had a hard time capturing it. I tried telling it from a third-person narrator, but my first attempts fell flat. I tried from Cissy’s point of view, but there were too many characters and sub-plots, and I couldn’t end up reporting them all as Cissy heard about them. Potter’s point of view proved even less workable. Although he was sociable, he was fairly rigid in his standards and ultimately less likeable than Cissy—at least in my fictional hands. Besides, used to writing about women as the central characters, I saw Cissy as the pivotal character in this story.
All the time I worked on this book, I was working on other projects. But Cissy’s story was always there, calling me back. At first I called it “Potter’s Wife,” a double entendre I liked because of its subtle reference to poverty and a potters’ field and also the fact that it emphasized what Potter thought Cissy’s role in life would be—as his wife, taking care of him. Although theirs was a long and happy marriage, he was destined to be disappointed in that expectation.
Having rewritten the entire book three times, I went back for a fourth try, in third-person omniscient. This time I decided I got it as right as I could, and that’s the version you’ll find in print and ebook today. Even after I thought I had the right voice, I rewrote and rewrote, finding fault with various passages and redoing them. On the advice of the colleague who edited, I cut out whole sections about Daniel Burnham and the architecture of Chicago. Burnham was the man who oversaw the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire and then the construction of the White City of the Columbian Exposition.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat if I found the right subject. I think the book ultimately benefited from all those earlier drafts because I became more a part of its world, more familiar with Cissy and Potter and the other characters, both fictional and real. I would hope though it would not take me as long another time. If I find the right subject, I’ll jump into the research. I learned a lot about writing from The Gilded Cage and a lot about the city I called home for so many years.
GIVEAWAY!About the Author:
Judy Alter is the award winning author of fiction for adults and young adults. Other historical fiction includes Libbie, the story of Elizabeth Bacon (Mrs. George Armstrong) Custer; Jessie, the story of Jessie Benton Frémont and her explorer / miner / entrepreneur / soldier / politician husband; Cherokee Rose, a novel loosely based on the life of the first cowgirl roper to ride in Wild West shows; and Sundance, Butch and Me, the adventures of Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang.
For more information visit Judy Alter’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Goodreads.
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