Local author wrote about Chicago financier
Theodore Dreiser twice lived and wrote in Glendale. During his second stay here, he wrote on the life of financier C.T. Yerkes. Photo circa 1933.(Courtesy Carl Van Vechten photograph collection, Library of Congress)
After a stint in politics, Dreiser returned to Glendale with his wife, Helen. They lived in a small courtyard apartment at 253 W. Lorraine Ave.
During that time, in the early 1940s, Dreiser was working on “The Stoic,” the third book in his trilogy based on Chicago financier Charles Tyson Yerkes. The first two volumes were published much earlier: “The Financier” in 1912 and “The Titan” in 1914. Little did Dreiser know that a few years after he finished “The Stoic,” a distant relative of C.T. Yerkes also would reside in Glendale.
Dreiser, of a poor family, moved to Chicago, where he worked as a collections agent until he got a job as a reporter in 1892. Championing the cause of the poor and the helpless, he had a particular bias against the hard-driving businessman Yerkes.
Yerkes had begun his career as a clerk at a Philadelphia commission house and later bought a banking house specializing in first-class bonds. When the city of Philadelphia found itself in financial distress, Yerkes became involved, but he went bankrupt during the 1871 financial crisis and was charged with misappropriating funds. Sent to prison, he was pardoned after serving seven months of a 33-month sentence, according to an article published in the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine in February 1997.
Later, Yerkes moved to Chicago and began putting together a group that in 1886 bought a controlling interest in a streetcar company and built a mass-transit business that included the famed Loop. Later, a massive streetcar strike set off unrest in the city, triggering unrelenting newspaper scrutiny of Yerkes.
Dreiser witnessed the strike against Yerkes’ streetcar line and the resulting violence in the city triggered his hatred of the tycoon, according to an article, “The Financier Himself: Dreiser and C.T. Yerkes,” written by Philip L. Gerber.
“C.T. Yerkes was a tough businessman in a tough time,” said Marilyn Harder Yerkes, a distant relative by marriage of the financier. She grew up in Glendale and recently moved to Grass Valley.
“He was reviled by his peers, especially when the seven-month prison term he served after the Philadelphia fiasco surfaced. Over the years, Chicago’s views on C.T. Yerkes have changed,” she continued.
Several years ago, her son, Doug, a 1986 Glendale High School graduate, was hired by the city of Chicago as chief of the city’s infrastructure, overseeing 10 departments.
Shortly after he was hired, an alderman (member of the city’s ruling body) who was also the city’s historian, called to ask if Doug was related to the financier.
In a recent e-mail, Doug Yerkes recalled his conversation with Alderman Edward Burke. “He told me that I shouldn’t believe everything I read about the tycoon. He thought C.T. Yerkes was a great financier, but lousy at public relations and that he had suffered for it.”
Dreiser died in 1945, shortly after completing “The Stoic.” It was published two years later. The trilogy is generally considered to be among the finest historical novels in America.
“Dreiser may have juiced things up when he wrote the trilogy. Truth may lie between the family’s history and Dreiser’s version,” Marilyn Yerkes reflected.
Readers Write: Marilyn Harder Yerkes has a chronicle of the Yerkes family that was written in 1904 and subsidized by Charles Tyson Yerkes. “It presents a much edited version of the above events, omitting the prison sentence and presenting him in a favorable light. To regain his reputation, he donated money to the University of Chicago for an observatory, which is named for him,” she said.
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