In planning our Chicago trip, one of the highlights I almost insisted on was lunch at the Palmer House hotel, followed by the lecture and tour on the historic hotel. Lunch was at noon, and the tour began at 1:30, scheduled to be over by 3:00. Last May I published The Gilded Cage, a novel of Chicago in the late 19th century, the Potter Palmers, the Palmer House Hotel, and the Columbian Exposition. Okay it’s much more than that, at least I think so, but those are the main events. I wanted to see if I was on the mark or not, and I wanted to see the famed hotel, though I think I was probably there with my parents as a young child.
Lunch was delicious—most of the kids had salmon, but I had a buttery homemade pasta with mushrooms and truffle sauce. Absolutely delicious.
We met the tour guide in the lobby adjacent to the restaurant. Everybody stood around talking, while Ken Price, the guide, questioned us. Eventually he led us up a floor to the hotel’s museum. Now, how many hotels do you know that have their own museum? Price was, if I got the story straight, hired to do marketing for the hotel, but today he is the archivist, whether or not he still does marketing.
We gathered around a table in the crowed small space, and he went around the room asking each of us questions. When he found out I was an English major, he zeroed in on me. But before that he had orchestral music playing, told us it was from the 1930s and asked who knew what orchestra it was. I said Eddie Duchin, because who else played in that decade. A lucky guess.
The next question was a quote: “In the room, the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” His question was the source, and he looked directly at me. I said T. S. Eliot, and he asked for more, so I said Prufrock. Yes, it was from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
His final question was, “Who called Chicago the hog butcher of the world?” Easy. Carl Sandburg. I was a little bit filled with pride to have been singled out and to have acquitted myself well.
For the next two hours he gave us a random, rambling history of Chicago, the Palmers, the hotel, and himself. Charming, garrulous and knowledgeable, he was one of those people who liked to name-drop and had me convinced that he had important ties. I was convinced he had important connections. He’s occasionally drag out posters or other visuals to augment his talk.
When the overlong lecture wound down, he suggested a 15-minute break and then a tour of the hotel. We had dinner plans and couldn’t stay which didn’t bother me a lot. I had learned much from his lecture, most of which confirmed that I got the information in The Gilded Cage right except when I deliberately veered off into fiction.
We left a copy of The Gilded Cage with him, along with a business card, and he promised to be in touch and read the book. Who knows? This might be my one chance at fame and fortune. On the other hand, I’ll probably never hear from him. But it was still a heck of an interesting afternoon.