Background photo courtesy of John Sheba.
Today I am sharing an image sent to me by Carol in Boynton Beach, Florida, whose great-grandmother survived the Chicago fire.
Carol reports that her great-grandmother completed this tapestry just a few months before the fire, and it was one of the things she chose to bring with her in the chaos of that night. As my last blog post said, the fire came with no warning, and very few people were able to secure a wagon to transport their belongings. For most people, the only things they were able to save had to be carried on their backs.
The people who survived the fire were able to salvage so little of their lives, that those few belongings carried immense emotional value for them. When I wrote Into the Whirlwind, I included a scene where Mollie decides to keep her stained, cinder-marked scarf as a beautiful/terrible reminder of what she lived through. Many accounts I read by the fire’s survivors mentioned how they treasured those few items they could salvage.
Carol reports that this tapestry has been passed down through the generations….a memento of that amazing, terrible night. Many thanks to Carol for sending it along!
I did plenty of research for Into the Whirlwind, a novel of the Chicago fire. I tried to use as many stories from real life as possible to incorporate into the fabric of the novel, since they add a sense of authenticity and the stories were so profoundly moving.
There were many glimpses into the fire I was not able to weave into the book, but they were too moving to be forgotten. Here are a sampling:
In the days after the fire, thousands of telegrams flew in and out of the city. Here is one from a man telling his wife (who was visiting relatives in New York) that they have lost everything: “Store and contents, dwelling and everything lost. Insurance worthless. Buy all the coffee you can and ship this afternoon by express. Don’t cry.”
Oh….. somehow that “don’t cry” gets me every time.
The streets were chaos and it was hard to breath. The owner of a hat shop stood on his front stoop, shouting at the moving mass of people to grab a hat for their journey. “They’ll all burn up anyway,” he shouted. “Make yourselves at home with a new hat free. No charge! Take what you want!”
Those hats surely came in handy. Survivors wrote that burning ashes swirled through the sky like falling snow, and it was better for a hat to catch fire than someone’s hair!
The story that moved me the most (because I’m a booklover,) was of the old man who was trying to save his set of beautifully bound Shakespeare plays….too many for him to carry. The streets were complete chaos, and the few people driving wagons had them stuffed to capacity as they fled the city. The bookman kept flagging down the wagons, offering people $50 if they would carry his books to safety. One driver after another refused. Finally, the old man said to a driver, “Will you take them if I make a present of them?” The driver agreed. “Take them then,” the owner said. He put them into the wagon, turned away, and burst into tears.”
There are literally hundreds of stories written by the survivors of the fire. You can find them online here.
Below is an artist’s rendering of the absolute chaos on the streets, as people made a mad dash for one of the few bridges to get across the river:
Grace of Monaco
I admit to loving a bit of royal gossip, but most movies based on royal marriages have been almost toe-curlingly bad. When I heard there was a movie about Grace Kelly in the works, I figured it would go down in flames like most other royal movies. Last year’s movie about Princess Diana, starring Naomi Watts, earned less than $65,000 in the United States and was pulled from theaters after the first weekend based on terrible critical and popular reviews.
But a movie with Nicole Kidman starring as Grace Kelly? Some of the supporting cast also looks first rate (Derek Jacobi, Frank Langella, and Parker Posey). The movie might also benefit from the historical distance with Princess Grace, which somehow makes her more suitable to carry a movie.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this movie to do well, as I love a movie with a healthy dose of glamour and delicious European settings. It is set to be released March 14.