Review of "Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick" and interview with author Andrea Friederici Ross
“Edith: The Rogue Rockefeller McCormick” is an exceptional book about an exceptional woman. Andrea Friederici Ross’ extensive research is obvious and draws us into Edith’s story and all she was able to accomplish (despite not being taken seriously as a woman in so many situations.) This story will make you angry on her behalf but you will also admire her ongoing tenacity. This is a remarkable work that honors Edith’s many legacies and highlights a history that might otherwise have been lost. This is a well-written and beautifully documented work that has the suspense and pace of a fiction novel.
To Purchase the Book:
Use coupon code SIUP20 to get 20% off Edith at the publisher’s website:
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ABOUT THE BOOK:
This thrilling story of a daughter of America’s foremost industrialist, John D. Rockefeller, is complete with sex, money, mental illness, and opera divas—and a woman who strove for the independence to make her own choices. Rejecting the limited gender role carved out for her by her father and society, Edith Rockefeller McCormick forged her own path, despite pushback from her family and ultimate financial ruin.
Young Edith and her siblings had access to the best educators in the world, but the girls were not taught how to handle the family money; that responsibility was reserved for their younger brother. A parsimonious upbringing did little to prepare Edith for life after marriage to Harold McCormick, son of the Reaper King Cyrus McCormick. The rich young couple spent lavishly. They purchased treasures like the jewels of Catherine the Great, entertained in grand style in a Chicago mansion, and contributed to the city’s cultural uplift, founding the Chicago Grand Opera. They supported free health care for the poor, founding and supporting the John R. McCormick Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases. Later, Edith donated land for what would become Brookfield Zoo.
Though she lived a seemingly enviable life, Edith’s disposition was ill-suited for the mores of the time. Societal and personal issues—not least of which were the deaths of two of her five children—caused Edith to experience phobias and panic attacks. Dissatisfied with rest cures, she ignored her father’s expectations, moved her family to Zurich, and embarked on a journey of education and self-examination. Edith pursued analysis with then-unknown Carl Jung. Her generosity of spirit led Edith to become Jung’s leading patron. She also supported up-and-coming musicians, artists, and writers, including James Joyce as he wrote Ulysses.
While Edith became a Jungian analyst, her husband, Harold, pursued an affair with an opera star. After returning to Chicago and divorcing Harold, Edith continued to deplete her fortune. She hoped to create something of lasting value, such as a utopian community and affordable homes for the middle class. Edith’s goals caused further difficulties in her relationship with her father and are why he and her brother cut her off from the family funds even after the 1929 stock market crash ruined her. Edith’s death from breast cancer three years later was mourned by thousands of Chicagoans.
Respectful and truthful, Andrea Friederici Ross presents the full arc of this amazing woman’s life and expertly helps readers understand Edith’s generosity, intelligence, and fierce determination to change the world
Today, Andrea Friederici Ross joins me so I can ask her questions about this book and her writing world. Thanks for taking the time to hang out for a little while, Andrea, and first I have to say congratulations!! I’m so happy for your success with this book! As you can see from the review above, I really love it. I know that this was a labor of love—a long one.
Q. Can you tell us about your journey to publication and about your previous versions of this book?
A. Ha! Yes, it was a very long process! It took me ten years to write and publish this book. Valerie and I met numerous times during the journey, so she can attest to my frustration over the years. I have six binders in my home office – six different versions of Edith’s story. I wanted to write historical fiction but that just never took. I came really close numerous times, with dozens of agents requesting full manuscripts, and numerous R&Rs and interviews, but it just didn’t work as historical fiction. I think it was too hard to cram her entire life story into a fictional story arc. Once I wrote it as straight biography, everything went quickly. It wasn’t what I set out to do but, in the end, I’m happy with the final product.
Q. What was it about Edith that kept tugging at you and making you want to tell her story?
A. She was treated so unfairly -- both in her lifetime and after her death. The powerful men around her did all they could to keep her in check; history has kept track of her scandals but not her contributions. After decades of focusing on the men in history, people are now realizing that women had important stories too, giving us a fuller understanding of societal norms over time. Frankly, if this had been a novel unconnected to a real person, I would have given up years ago, but I felt strongly that her story needed to be told.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Edith? What was the most appalling?
A. The most surprising? Her intellect. She is always portrayed as the crazy Rockefeller, the black sheep, the spendthrift. Very little has been written about her lifelong scholarship, her quest for truth, and her desire to move society further along the evolutionary axis. She had grand plans, even if many of them didn’t come to fruition. And the most appalling is easy – her abysmal mothering. When I figured out that Edith hosted a giant garden party just days before her infant daughter died, it sent me reeling. Who parties while their baby is suffering? But Edith was a complicated person and the times were very different. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t need to agree with everything she did, or even like her all the time. I just needed to record it. I leave the judgment to the readers.
Q. Your research on this book is amazing. There’s so much detail. We learn later in the book that after her death much of her correspondence was burned, so I’m wondering how hard it was to find these details. Where did you go to do this research?
A. Oh, I love a good scavenger hunt! That was part of the challenge of this book and one that I relished. I made numerous trips to the McCormick family archives and the Rockefeller Archive Center and found a fair amount of correspondence there – though not nearly as much as one would think. Her files are noticeably thinner than those of the other family members. It forced me to dig a little deeper, so I perused all the Chicago area historical societies and museums, university collections, and newspaper archives. Some visits were dead-ends, and some only resulted in one or two finds, but, when pieced together, a personality began to appear. Think of a jigsaw puzzle where, once you have enough pieces, the image becomes clear. Honestly, maybe that process is more satisfying than having all the materials handed to me.
Q. The photos in the book were fabulous, too. Was it hard to find photos and gain permission to use them?
A. Most of the photos are from archival collections. Permission is easily granted and it usually comes with a modest fee. On the other hand, there are wonderful photos of her from local newspapers but, at $250 a pop, those were way beyond my price range!
Q. Did you need to get permission from the family to write this story? I know you met some of them. Did they appreciate what you were doing to tell Edith’s story?
A. Edith’s descendants were very supportive of this project. Several family members expressed gratitude, one commenting that it helped them make sense of old family stories and photographs. It feels like a great honor to have the role of “introducing” them to their ancestor.
Q. Are you working on any new books right now? Would you endeavor to undertake such an extensive biography again in the future?
A. I’ve selected my next subject but haven’t been motivated to really get going with the research. Much of her materials are in Boston and travel is so difficult right now. I hope to get there this summer and really begin in earnest. Honestly, I look forward to the process: digging for clues, piecing them together, then finding a way to connect them logically in a manuscript.
Q. Before we move on to the Super Six list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?
A. I’ve been reflecting lately on the long journey to publication. I spent so many years frustrated that I couldn’t get Edith’s story out there. I pushed so hard; so many queries, pitches, drafts. But here we are in 2021 and the pandemic has turned everything upside down. It’s hard to keep spirits up, hard to be able to see past this dark time (especially in a long Chicago winter). One very bright spot in my life is Edith. I’ve teamed up with a local historical interpreter and we host Edith Zoom events, spreading her story to an even wider audience. Honestly, Edith is helping me navigate the long pandemic months. Was there some greater reason why the book didn’t materialize earlier? Who knows! Life works in strange ways!
Fav Pizza Topping: Deep dish spinach
Book You’re Reading Now: “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World” A novel by Elif Shafak
Coffee, Tea, or Both (or neither): Coffee with unhealthy amounts of cream
Fav Pastime or Hobby: Volunteering with the local dog rescue
Most Interesting Place You’ve Lived: Munich, Germany
Best Place You’ve Vacationed: Tasmania, Australia. Gotta go back one day.
Q. Where can readers discover more about you and your work?
For info on our Edith Zoom events, visit https://elliepresents.com/interpretations/edith-the-rogue-rockefeller-mccormick/
Thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions, Andrea!!
Absolutely my pleasure!
Other books and writing by Andrea Friederici Ross: