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WOMEN AND DIVORCE IN 1910 OAK PARK

by Elizabeth Catherine Wright


Both my grandmothers were members of The Nineteenth Century Club in the early years of the twentieth century, and both faced a decision about divorce when their husbands left them and their children in 1910. The history of their lives, as well as the Club archives, give us some insight into their preoccupations during the period preceding and following their husbands' abandonment.

Note:  let your mouse hover over top of each photo to see a description of each photo.

Statistics show that divorce was not a common option for women at that time: less than one percent of married women divorced during that period. My maternal grandmother, however, accepted divorce immediately and remarried two years later, whereas my father's mother refused to divorce for twelve years, and did not remarry until all her children were adults.

My paternal grandmother, Catherine Lee Tobin, also known as "Kitty," married Frank Lloyd Wright on June 1, 1889, when she was eighteen and he twenty-two. After the marriage, children arrived very quickly: their sixth and last child, my father, Robert Llewellyn, was born in 1903. Kitty joined the Nineteenth Century Club in 1895, the year her fourth child was born.

Frank's career also prospered during this period, and he built many homes for people in Oak Park. In 1903, he began designing a home for Edwin and Mamah Cheney, perhaps on a referral from Catherine, who knew Mamah from the Nineteenth Century Club. Mamah had more formal education than Catherine, and had worked as a librarian in Michigan before marrying Edwin when she was thirty. The couple had two children, John, born in 1902, and Martha, born in 1906.

In the Fall of 1909, both Frank and Mamah left their families behind to join each other in Europe, and when this became known, the scandal in Oak Park was immediate and profound. Mamah's husband Edwin divorced her immediately, but Catherine refused to divorce Frank until 1922, by which time her youngest son Llewellyn had left home to go to college.

During the 1920s, Catherine became a social worker, for Hull House in Chicago and other organizations outside of the state. In 1930, when her youngest son Llewellyn had begun a career as a lawyer and was getting ready to move into his own apartment, she married Ben Page, an associate of her first husband. Catherine divorced Page in 1937, and subsequently led a rather difficult nomadic life. After failed attempts to live with each of her children, she had a bad fall and moved to a nursing home in California, where she died on March 24, 1959, just before her eighty-eighth birthday.

My maternal grandmother, Elizabeth May Osgood, called "Bess," was from a prominent Chicago family. Her father, Edwin Sewall Osgood, founded a successful engraving and printing business in Chicago, and her mother, Elizabeth Ann Bryan, called "Lizzie," was the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family. They built a large house in Austin, and had seven children, the last three of whom died before reaching adolescence.

Bess, their fourth child, married James Howard Kehler, on October 18, 1899, when they were both twenty-six. Kehler became a prominent advertising man in Chicago and was friends with Frank Lloyd Wright. They both had offices in the Fine Arts Building and were fellow members of the Cliff Dwellers Club. Bess and James had two sons: Gordon, born in 1900, and Stewart, born in 1902.

The family lived in West Deerfield Lake, and in 1909 they rented a cottage to Keith Ransom, a widow with a young daughter Julia, born in 1907. Keith was a very well educated and extremely independent woman, and sometime between April and July 1910, when James and Bess' third child was about to be born, Kehler left the family to be with Keith, whom he married a few months later, in October 1910.

Bess moved to 119 N. Kenilworth Avenue in Oak Park before July 21, 1910, when her daughter Elizabeth, or "Betty," my mother, was born. She joined the Nineteenth Century Club in November 1911, and on July 26, 1912, she married the Oak Park real estate agent who had sold her the house, William R. Lloyd. They moved to 422 Clinton Avenue, where they lived until they left Oak Park around 1918, after Lloyd decided to become a Congregational minister. They moved around to many small Midwestern towns until finally settling in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother felt that during this period her mother withdrew from her husband through a series of neurotic illnesses, but their marriage lasted until Bess' death in 1942, at the age of sixty-eight.

What was the effect on the children of these two different approaches to divorce and remarriage? My father Llewellyn's adolescence was haunted by his father's notoriety due to his extramarital relationships. He said that it was not an honor to be Frank Lloyd Wright's son during that time. My mother's childhood was initially happy with her stepfather in Oak Park, but she idealized her absent and glamorous father, who died when she was thirteen. When Betty's stepfather became a minister, she resented the more restricted life, and suffered from the shame of not being able to tell anyone that she had another father.

There is no ideal solution to a family breakup, and I draw no moral from this comparison of my two grandmothers. I admire Catherine's strong determination, but feel that the end of her life was quite sad, and I admire Bess' resourcefulness in finding a new husband and father for her children, though I think that she probably repressed her feelings of unhappiness, both with her first and second husbands.

The happy ending to all this is that the two children who experienced such difficulties during adolescence met and courted in 1932-33, and engaged in a marriage that lasted over fifty years and produced my two brothers and myself. This is the story I recount in Dear Bob, Dear Betty: Love and Marriage During the Great Depression (Lulu Press, 2009).

Copy of presentation on January 24, 2011 (pdf) Courtesy of Elizabeth C. Wright, 2011.

Copyright notice:
No portion of this page (including all photographs and attachments) can be used or reproduced without the written permission of the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association and Elizabeth C. Wright. Permission granted for exclusive use of the content on this website granted by Elizabeth C. Wright, 2011.



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