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.