It’s 80 years since Major Frederic McLaughlin schemed to end the tyranny of Canadian hockey domination by turning his Chicago Black Hawks all-American. I wrote about that in The New York Times not long ago. I would have liked to have expanded there on McLaughlin’s background and his marriage to Irene Castle, not to mention her hockey history, but I’m willing to do it here instead.
William F. McLaughlin starts selling coffee in Chicago in the 1860s. This isn’t a beverage history, but if it were, this would be the part that mentions how he helped to revolutionize the way Americans prepare their coffee at home. When W.F. dies in 1905, an elder son, George, takes over as president of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee while Frederic, younger, steps up as secretary and treasurer. Frederic is 27. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s already making a name for himself as a crack polo player for the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois. Accounts of his exploits on the turf remark on his supreme horsemanship, his daring, his fearlessness.
He gets married in May of 1907, at noon, to Helen Wylie, in Baltimore. “One of the surprises of the seasons,” The Chicago Tribune calls it. Not even a year later The Washington Post alerts readers: “The supposed domestic trouble of the McLaughlins is a frequent subject of gossip.” The Tribune’s sources suggest that the trouble stems from (i) McLaughlin refusing to give up “old haunts and friendships” and (ii) his wife spending too much on clothes. McLaughlin denies that they’re divorcing — his wife, he says, just spends a lot of time in Baltimore, visiting her mother. In 1910, the couple does divorce. Mrs. McLaughlin isn’t in court when her husband, alleging desertion, files suit, so he’s the one who does the talking.
Judge Lockwood Honore: Are you living together at the present time?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: How long have you been separated?
McLaughlin: A little over three years.
Judge: Did you leave her or did she leave you?
McLaughlin: She left me.
Judge: Did you know she was going?
Judge: Did you request her to leave?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: During the time you lived together, how did you treat her?
McLaughlin: All right.
The divorce is granted. Mrs. McLaughlin doesn’t ask for alimony; she just wants her name back.
McLaughlin plays more polo, suiting up for the Midwick Country Club in Los Angeles when the weather’s wintry in his native north.
In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sends troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin summers there, serving in the Illinois National Guard as a sergeant of artillery.
A year later, the United States joins the war against Germany. McLaughlin secures a commission with the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, where he takes command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. The division trains in Chicago and then England before shipping out for the front in France — just in time for the peace that breaks out in 1918.
Post-war, Major McLaughlin goes back to selling coffee and playing polo. In photographs from this time, he wears a tidy moustache, and accessorizes his bowtie, mohair coat, and Homburg hat with an air of privileged impatience. He returns to Chicago society as one of “the prize ‘catches’ among American bachelor-millionaires.” That’s what the newspaper columnists note in 1923 when news of the Major’s secretive wedding begins to leak. He’s 46 now, living in what’s described as a “seven-room deluxe bachelor apartment” on the top floor of a former coffee warehouse on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.
Prizeworthy as he might be, he’s also the least famous member of his new marriage.
The new Mrs. McLaughlin is the old Irene Foote, from New Rochelle, New York. She’s just 18 when she gets married for the first time, in 1911, to the English actor and dancer Vernon Castle, who’s 23. Together they help generate the ballroom-dance craze that sweeps the United States as the First World War starts to quake. The Castles teach America the tango, the maxixe, the hesitation, the turkey trot. In New York, they opened a dance academy and a night club. They taught and toured and lectured. “They ruled completely,” a later review of their regency recalls. “They set America to dancing as a naturally temperate country had never danced before. Weightlessly she moved; without effort he spun her about; smart people adopted and fads bore their name.”
Irene is a movie star, too, and revered as America’s best-dressed woman. The bob haircut is an innovation of hers, along with the ankle-length skirt and the velvet headache band.
Frederic McLaughlin isn’t the only one duty calls: Vernon Castle, too, joins up in 1916. There will come a time for romanticizing this later, with passages in The New York Herald telling how he’s “led by a glorious discontent to lay down his life for his country.” In the meantime, he returns to his home and native land, where he volunteers for the Royal Flying Corps, is commissioned as a lieutenant, ends up commanding a squadron at the front. Serves with distinction — wins a French Croix de Guerre — before he’s transferred to instructional duty in Canada in 1917.
He nearly dies there, in a crash near Deseronto, Ontario, before he’s killed in a training accident near Forth Worth, Texas, in 1918.
His widow marries Captain Robert Tremain, an American aviator, three months later, though the match isn’t announced for a year after the fact.
In 1923, amid rumours that she’s angling to divorce her second husband, Mrs. Tremain insists that no, she’s not. Captain Tremain rushes to France, just in case, to woo her back, which he succeeds in doing, the papers report, with Al Jolson’s help. “If I ever get a divorce,” Irene says when she arrives (alone), Stateside, “it will be because I want to be single and not because I want to get married.”
That turns out to be not entirely true: she has a Paris divorce in hand when she says this, and in November, she and Major McLaughlin celebrate a quiet wedding at his Michigan Avenue apartment.
In December they sail away as honeymooners, from Seattle, on the President Grant. It’s supposed to be a six-month trip, but they’re back within two. Gossip, inevitably, attends their return. Some of the honeymooners’ shipmates are talking, and the newspapers are happy to take it all down. They report on Mrs. McLaughlin’s charm and poise, and how popular she is, along with her Belgian Griffon, Joy. The Major they find cold and aloof. Two weeks out, during a storm, in the middle of a round of mahjong, he’s reported to take offense at a stray comment by a New York silk salesman, whom he then knocks under a table with one punch.
There’s more trouble, supposedly, when they land in Japan, and Mrs. McLaughlin draws more attention than her new husband would like. Report on this run long, with plenty of detail, though not a lot of direct quotation. The couple cuts short their journey, returning home on the ship they’d come out on.
Canadian reporters rush to the deck for a comment when the ship docks at Victoria, B.C. In vain, as the Vancouver Daily World reports it:
While the ship’s orchestra played “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Major McLaughlin answered three questions with the terse “No, we will give no interviews.” Irene herself refused to speak at all.
Take that, if you want, as the first public evidence that she’s giving up her old life, retreating from the limelight, effacing Irene Castle in favour of Mrs. McLaughlin.
A New York columnist confides that the marriage is “a surprise, a shock, and a disappointment to Chicago society.” The feeling there, it’s said, is that the Major should have married further up the social ladder. His mother is reported to have opposed the match.
Major McLaughlin puts his money into launching the Chicago Black Hawks in 1926 before he ever watches a hockey game in person. His new team doesn’t particularly impress him, but he likes the sport itself: “polo on skates,” he declares.
Setting aside her career, Mrs. McLaughlin also takes up as a Black Hawks fan when the team makes its NHL debut. Although she’s often credited with designing the team’s original uniforms (including the famous chief’s-head logo), I don’t think that’s right. (More on this to come.)
In 1927, it may be that she’s jeering Detroit Cougars centreman Duke Keats when he swings his stick in her direction — unless, more likely, the scorn originates with someone sitting nearby her rinkside seat. The incident makes hockey headlines across the continent and shifts the course of Keats’ career. It happens like this:
Five games into the season, the Black Hawks are hosting Detroit at the Coliseum. It’s November. Keats is, at 32, a veteran star by then, though most of his renown has been achieved beyond the NHL, with the Toronto Blueshirts of the old NHA and Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos. He has a famous temper, it’s worth noting, with a rap-sheet that includes a suspension and $50-fine for an incident in Edmonton on New Year’s Day of 1923, when he climbed out of the penalty box and into the stands to attack a spectator.
The game in Chicago is “gruelling and rough” “jammed with thrills,” with the two goaltenders, Chicago’s Chuck Gardiner and Cougar Hap Holmes shining as “outstanding stars of the game.” No pucks pass them, and after an hour of regulation play, ten more minutes of overtime are added. No goals there, either — the game goes into the books as a scoreless tie.
The wire stories report the sketchy minimum with a focus on the second-period disturbance that started when Keats took a penalty for “rough play.” The Ottawa Journal’s two column-inches of sensation are typical. Skating off the “floor,” the wire-service story goes, Keats hears a boo, dashes towards the man who breathed it, swings his stick. The man ducks, the stick slams the back of the seat “not two feet” from Mrs. McLaughlin.
Back in Chicago, Tribune reporter Frank Schreiber tells a different tale. As he tells it, Keats hasn’t yet been penalized when the “stir” starts. It’s a “verbal war,” in fact, “with some of the fans at the rink,” wherein Keats emphasizes his point by “making a smash at an usher with his hockey stick.” The usher is standing behind the rinkside box occupied by Major and Mrs. McLaughlin and a guest of theirs, the former U.S. amateur golfing champion Robert A. Gardner. The Major seems to be in the clear: it’s Gardner and Mrs. M whom Keats narrowly misses.
(Harold C. Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle has his own version of the incident. Given that he didn’t publish it until 1940, it’s fair to say his memory be blurred. Burr’s version has Keats skating over to punch a heckler, who ducks, and so it is that Mrs. McLaughlin gets Keats’ glove “flush in the face.” Burr has the Major screeching here, too: “I’ll drive him out of hockey!”)
That’s when Keats gets his penalty from referee Dave Ritchie: two minutes for attempted murder. Ritchie also warns Detroit manager Jack Adams not to play his bellicose centre in the third period. Keats has something to say, too, once the game is over: he testifies that the usher and two fans abused him with their talk. Like Ritchie, he promises to submit a report to NHL president Frank Calder.
Calder considers the case. His verdict: “player Keats” is guilty of “misconduct,” for which he’ll pay a $100 fine and serve an indefinite suspension.
Keats, as it turns out, never plays another game for Detroit. That doesn’t mean he’s finished: Major McLaughlin is so appalled by the whole incident that he trades defenceman Gord Fraser and $5,000 cash to the Cougars to bring Keats to Chicago. He’ll end his NHL career within the year, but in the meantime he’ll thrive, ending the season as Chicago’s leading scorer. Asked whether he’d been impressed by Keats’ reckless endangerment of his wife, Major McLaughlin laughs and says that Keats is an aggressive forward, just what the Black Hawks need.
We don’t know what Mrs. McLaughlin thinks about this. Her opinion isn’t on the record. She continues to attend Black Hawk games, presumably. No-one else takes a swing at her — that we know about. When her name finds its way into the news in succeeding years, it sometimes involves buying horses and (sometimes) falling off them. More often, it has to do with her efforts to save and succor and fight for the rights of animals. She sues farmers for their cruelty in keeping pigs in too-filthy a sty. She sees brutality in tail-sets — harnesses that hoist horse’s tails ornamentally high in the air — and demands that the Chicago Horse Show ban them. She founds a sanctuary for homeless dogs. Orphans of the Storm, that’s called.
After George McLaughlin dies in an automobile crash in 1931, the Major takes over the presidency of the coffee company.
In 1934, Irene goes to work as a style consultant for Formfit, a clothing company, which puts her back in the press extolling the “authentic smartness” and “style rightness” of select brassieres, girdles, and girdleieres.
A year later, she brings her fashion formulae to the rink, redesigning the Black Hawks’ uniforms.
Those last for two seasons, the last of which, ending in 1937, also sees Major McLaughlin’s all-American experiment fizzling out. That summer, Mrs. McLaughlin is called to California to consult on the RKO movie Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are making about her former dancing life. Castles In The Air is the working title; it’s touted as a “musical comedy biography.” There’s talk, fleetingly, of Irene playing her own mother, but that doesn’t quite work out. When the film opens in 1939, the title on the marquee is the more prosaic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.
In September, Irene returns to Chicago, taking up residence at the Ambassador Hotel with her two children, 12-year-old Barbara, and William, 8, along with Mrs. Philby, her personal maid. After Major McLaughlin shows up to spirit Barbara away, things gets nasty fast, in a very public way. She files for divorce, charging her husband with cruelty.
News of the case fills the newspapers as the couple trades allegations of physical abuse and extravagant spending. The McLaughlins are eager to talk, as is George Enzinger, a prominent advertising executive described as a “good friend” of Mrs. McLaughlin’s.
Back in July, as she’s soon telling it, Major McLaughlin forced her to leave the family home in Lake Forest. The suit further alleges that he “choked her into insensibility” in April of 1933, and punched her in the nose, cracking it, in September of 1926. Going back to the couple’s honeymoon in 1924, he’s accused of giving her “a terrific punch in the face which knocked her six feet.”
The Major denies it all. He in turn accuses Mrs. McLaughlin of a reckless extravagance that has been, quote, forcing his expenses past his income.
Mrs. McLaughlin doesn’t mind casting back to the beginning. She describes a friend taking her to supper at Major McLaughlin’s warehouse-apartment back in ’23. A whirlwind romance followed then, I guess? “He promised me security. He seemed to be in love with me and I listened.”
Once they were married, though — well, he did anger so easily. “I was hit, as my divorce bill will show, many times.”
For his part, McLaughlin tells the Tribune that any time his wife walked in the door, she’d be welcomed back, but no way he’s going to make the first move.
“Is there any chance of a reconciliation?” Judge John Lupe wonders when the couple meets in circuit court. Lawyers on both sides tend to think not, and the day’s proceedings seem to agree.
To his wife’s charges of physical abuse, Major McLaughlin says, “Look at me. Do I look like the kind of man who would strike a woman?” His wife’s lawyer promises to produce a 1926 x-ray of her broken nose.
She wants full custody of the children. “I didn’t sacrifice a glamorous and lucrative future and live through the 14 years with Frederic just casually to turn one of my babies over to him. They’re mine and I want them.”
She wants $1,500 a month in temporary alimony. The Major offers $400. Judge Lupe decides on $750.
Irene is back in the news in January of 1938 with a pair of winter complaints. One: because Major McLaughlin has refused to replace the furnace, the Lake Forest house is so cold that the dogs are in sweaters. “I have to wear a coat in the house all the time,” she says. “My little son, Billy, has to be bundled up in sweaters and mufflers.”
Two: she’s being deprived the free tickets to Black Hawk games she once received.
The suit drags on through to December of 1939. That’s when Irene Castle asks for the case against her husband to be dismissed. Is the couple is back together? There are rumours to that effect.
The summer after the Black Hawks win their Stanley Cup in 1938, Major McLaughlin steps back from the team, ceding his place on the NHL’s Board of Governors and the presidency to Bill Tobin, who’s been serving as the club’s business manager.
That’s most of it. Major McLaughlin dies in December of 1944. He’s 67. Irene Castle gets married again two years later, to the ad man, George Enzinger.
The evidence seems to point to her remaining a hockey fan as the years go on, but most of her attention in subsequent years is taken up with advocating for animals. She agitates against scientific testing on live animals. “Vivisection,” she says in 1950, “is the most serious blot on our present-day civilization.” She has her doubts, too, about vaccinating dogs against rabies, thinks it cruel and potentially dangerous to dogs. “No-one,” she claims, “can prove that a person bitten by a rabid dog ever died as a result.” She offered to let such a dog bite her. “I’ll put up $5,000 that I don’t get rabies.”
I don’t know that anyone — or any dog — took her up on the offer, though the head of the Chicago Board of Health does weigh in. “Ridiculous,” says Dr. Herman N. Bundesen. “She would most certainly die.”
The Enzingers spend their later years on a fruit farm near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. “When I die my gravestone is to say ‘humanitarian’ instead of ‘dancer,’” Irene says towards the end of her life. “I put it in my will. Dancing was fun, and I needed money, but Orphans of the Storm comes from my heart. It’s more important.”
And so it goes. Upon her death in January of 1969, that what’s engraved on her tomb, above her dates, just below her several names:
She’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, in New York, alongside Victor Castle.