What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

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The story of Marshall Field’s phenomenal success, and adulterous affair, is given to us through the eyes of his mistress in this work of historical fiction.

Renee Rosen’s heroine, the real-life Delia Caton, brings us to Chicago in the glorious nineteenth century, beginning with the Great Chicago Fire and going on to the time it hosted the World’s Fair. Included in its history are the men I’ve heard about all my life: Swift, Palmer, Armour, and of course Field himself.

Marshall Field is a legend to any shopper who ever lived or visited Chicago. His magnificent store, now replaced by Macy’s on State Street, was second to none and forged through his indomitable spirit.

My very first job was at Marshall Field’s and Company. I remember clearly the black and white training video we had to watch before going on the floor as salespeople. His mantra was made very clear to us: “Give the lady what she wants.”

But I never knew that he had an affair with Delia Spencer Caton. An affair which lasted more than thirty years and caused plenty of distress, along with the joy, in their lives.

Nor did I know that the Loop earned its nickname because Marshall Field had the cable cars loop through that area of Chicago and stop in front of his store.

What The Lady Wants is a richly imagined recreation, interspersed with fact, of how their lives may have been. It is told through the eyes of Delia, and it is her perspective that is the focus.

I enjoyed it for the history of a city I’ve known all my life; others may enjoy it for the romance and scandal. In either case, we have a clearer picture of Marshall Field himself, and the city he helped build, once we turn the last page.

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8 thoughts on “What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

  1. My aunts shopped Carson Pirie Scott, but of course Marshall Field’s was revered. I miss the days of the “real” stores: Sakowitz in Houston, Lord and Taylor, all of them. To go shopping was quite something in those days. Even though Des Moines’s Yonkers wasn’t quite as elevated, it had a tea room, and one rite of passage was to go there for lunch with the ladies. White linen tablecloths and napkins, plush chairs and chandeliers made quite an impression on us.

    The book might be worth a read just for its reminders of a time when graciousness was a bit more widespread than it is today.

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    • A right of passage in our family, besides the Walnut Room at Fields, was to dine at Eaton’s in Winnipeg, Canada. My grandmother took me there when I was five, and it is a memorable experience to this day.

      It’s interesting how you say that shopping was such an elevated experience in those days. I found that to be true in my life, just as flying on an airlines was an extraordinarily special event. For both, my parents would dress us up, I mean in our Sunday best, and we would sally forth. No going out in one’s flannel pajamas in those days.

      Also, I think part of Marshall Field’s success lay in actually serving the customer. Now, one is lucky to find a salesperson who doesn’t say, “Huh? What’s that?” when asked for a specific item.

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  2. Bellezza, I have never been to Marshall Field’s in Chicago,but I have been to similar stores (mostly in NY). Yes, shopping was different back then, and perhaps more of a special event. This book sounds intriguing. I have only been to Chicago a few times, and enjoyed a very brief stay there this past summer.

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    • There are still Frango mints to be had, a vestige from the times of Field himself. If you come again, have them, eat in the Walnut Room, stand under the famous clock on State Street, and in so doing give a nod to this man who formed so much of Chicago. It’s a fabulously interesting book about his life, one which told me many things I had previously not known about him (or the city itself).

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  3. I like the sound of this, although we don’t have MF in England. For some reason when reading of your review I kept thinking of The Ladies Paradise by Zola. He really captures the glamour of the shopping experience.

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    • Oh, now I have to look up this book by Zola. I enjoyed his novel, Therese Racquin, so much! I wonder if there are similarities between the book you’re thinking of and Field…you do know hat Selfridge, who worked under Marshall Field, came to London to establish stores there?

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  4. As a native of Chicago I can’t wait to read this novel. My childhood is intricately linked with Marshall Fields, the Walnut room at Christmas, the second floor ladies lounge to meet friends and family, the wonderful clock. I still have not recovered from Macy’s taking over my beloved Marshall Field’s. I no longer live in Chicago, miss it dearly but I am in a way glad to not see Macy’s on the State Street store. I’ve refused to shop in any Macy’s anywhere. Don’t know why they couldn’t have just left Field’s name, etc. as they did with Bloomingdale’s! I love your blog — Laura

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    • I so agree, Laura! It’s hard to see the things we’ve enjoyed, the traditions of our lives, slip away. At least you and I both know how wonderful it was!

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