An American Aristocrat
Edith Charlotte Lawton was born in Chicago on May 29, 1884, to Charles Tillinghast Lawton and Madeleine Sophy Cleaver Lawton. Her father’s lineage can be traced on his mother’s side to William White, one of the original signers of the Mayflower Compact (Charles Tillinghast Lawton’s 6th great-grandfather). Peregrine White, the first baby boy born on the Mayflower in the harbor of Massachusetts and the first known English child born to the Pilgrims in America, was Edith’s 7th great-uncle. Charles Tillinghast Lawton’s father’s line also went back to colonial times. Edith’s fourth great-grandfather, Robert Lawton, was a colonial soldier who was part of the 1757 and 1761 war councils during the French and Indian War.
Edith’s mother, Madeleine Sophy Cleaver, was descended from Prussian nobility. Madeleine’s grandfather was Karl Friedrich von Wedel Zimmerman, a scion of the aristocratic von Wedel family. According to family story, he was one of six von Wedel brothers who guarded Queen Louise of Prussia on her flight from Napoleon. His brothers were executed by the French, but Karl escaped to Switzerland, where he lived under an assumed name (Zimmermann).
For more on Edith’s heritage, click here: Edith Speik’s Fascinating Forebears.
Edith enjoyed a close and affectionate bond with her sister Emily, just two years older than she. The photographs above were taken in 1888, when Edith was three and Emily was five. Their brother, Bradley Cleaver Lawton, was seven years younger than Edith. The children’s mother died of Bright’s disease in 1892, when Bradley was only two months old and the girls were seven and nine. Their father did not remarry until 1910, after the children were grown, and he traveled a great deal on business as a salesman of fine cutlery, so it may have been a somewhat lonely childhood for Emily, Edith and Bradley.
Fortunately, they were cared for at home by a seemingly wonderful housekeeper, Fanny Porter. This image of young Bradley with “Mrs. Porter” seems to indicate that she had a close and caring relationship with the children. It is certainly unusual for portraits to be taken with a housekeeper, so it’s possible she was more of a mother figure to Bradley. Mr. Lawton kept at least one other live-in servant, so Mrs. Porter had help taking care of the house.
The family lived at 4737 Kenwood Avenue, Chicago, near the shores of Lake Michigan. Unfortunately the house no longer stands, but the neighborhood, and specifically Kenwood Avenue, seems to have been a pleasant, upper middle-class community of stately brick homes set on large lots on a leafy, tree-lined street.
Edith had a puckish sense of humor. On the way to school Emily and Edith used to ride the train together, and Edith would tease the conductor. She would place her arm across the back of the seat with her ticket out, as if ready to be punched, then yank it back just as the man reached for it!
The year that Edith turned nine years old, the great Columbian Exposition of 1893 took place only three miles from her house. The family almost certainly attended; perhaps more than once. The wonders of this fair included the world’s first Ferris wheel, built by Mr. Ferris himself, 264 feet high and covered with blinking electric lights (a spectacular new invention of Mr. Edison). From the top of the Ferris wheel, it was possible to see all the way to neighboring states on a clear day … but I have not been able to ascertain whether the enormous wheel itself was visible from Kenwood Avenue. The Ferris wheel carried 1.5 million passengers during the course of the Exposition. It is likely that nine year-old Edith Lawton was among them.
Education was valued in the Lawton household. Edith attended Hyde Park High School and–unusually for a woman of her day–went on to college, receiving a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1906. Her son recalls that she studied Latin–and probably other languages, since she could also speak French. She may have been interested in languages, and may have been given a “head start” in these studies, thanks to the influence of her mother’s mother. Sophia Charlotte Zimmermann Cleaver was a brilliant linguist and teacher who was fluent in English, French, German and Italian.
The 1906 yearbook, Chicago University’s Cap and Gown, features short sayings or quotes beside each graduating student’s photograph. Things like: “He knows a thing or two.” Or “I used to teach in Sunday school.” Beside Edith Charlotte Lawton’s senior portrait, the legend reads: “Her very frowns far fairer are/Than other maidens’ smiles are.” Quite a compliment!
Edith Lawton was a graceful, cultured young woman, a student of languages and philosophy and a lover of art, literature, and history. I am not sure how or when she met Frederick Adolph Speik, star athlete, medical student, and captain of the University of Chicago football team. It seems likely that they met at college, but how? Perhaps their social networks touched through some relationship between her sorority (Nu Pi Sigma) and one or both of his fraternities (Nu Sigma Nu and Phi Delta Theta). Perhaps they took a class or two together, although he graduated a year ahead of her. Or perhaps she saw him on the football field and was dazzled. If I find out, I shall update this blog entry!
In some ways, they seem an unlikely couple. But in other ways, their attraction seems obvious. Fred Speik was ambitious, driven, and intelligent, and even as a young man it was clear he was “going places.” He was a natural leader with a confident, commanding presence, and as the son of German immigrants he had made it his business to better himself. Small wonder, then, that he was drawn to Edith. She must have symbolized everything he wanted for himself and his children: background, culture, ease, all the niceties of life. If she was dazzled by his strength, he may have been equally dazzled by her delicacy. They married on June 19, 1909.
Wife and Mother
When Edith and Fred Speik married, he was the head football coach at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. By the time Fred Jr. arrived, however, the couple were back in Chicago and Dr. Speik was practicing medicine under the aegis of his mentor, the famous Dr. Sippy. Daughter Madeleine was born in Chicago in May of 1912, but while she was still an infant the family relocated to Southern California. Dr. Speik set up a private practice in the impressive new Auditorium Building in downtown Los Angeles, and moved his young family into the beautiful house in South Pasadena that was home for the next twenty years or more of their lives.
Charlotte was born in 1917 and Betty in 1923. Edith fit gracefully into her role as wife of a prominent physician, mother of a growing family, and hostess. She appeared regularly in the society pages of the Los Angeles Times presiding over elegant functions at her home and as a member of the South Pasadena Women’s Club and St. James Episcopal Church. She was also active in the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) and served as an officer for many years.
Edith’s life as Mrs. Speik was even more privileged than her life as Miss Lawton had been. Her family enjoyed horseback riding and polo, her daughters took dance and deportment lessons, the family employed live-in servants who were held in considerable affection and respect, and in addition to the comfortable and elegant home on Fair Oaks Avenue, the family had a summer home on Balboa Island where the children enjoyed boating and spending time on the beach. But in the summer of 1924, one of these happy summer stays on Balboa Island ended in tragedy. Edith’s eldest child, the Speiks’ only son, Fred Jr., contracted polio and died at the family home in South Pasadena within a week.
As the social norms of the day dictated, Edith seems to have soldiered on. The family even managed to host the funeral services in their home a few days after Fred Jr. died. The Speiks continued to spend portions of every summer at their home on Balboa Island, never “giving in” to the painful reminders that must have haunted them there. Edith doubtless rejoiced when, at the age of 44, she gave birth to another son: Robert Lawton Speik, possibly named for Edith’s illustrious colonial ancestor.
Fred Jr. seems to have resembled his father in many ways, but Bobby’s temperament and interests were more aligned with Edith’s. She was probably delighted when he picked up her love of books and history, and showed no particular interest in team sports!
The Great Depression
By the time the Great Depression hit in 1930, Dr. Speik was on a firm financial footing. In addition to his thriving medical practice, he had invested in Southern California oil wells with Edith’s Cleaver cousins and had taken the advice of his college friend, New York millionaire Ernie Quantrell, in various business ventures. Life continued for the Speik family much as it always had. Edith’s children grew, her daughters excelled in college, her daughter Madeleine married John Ross Lynden II in 1931, and grandchildren began to arrive.
There was much to make Edith happy. But under the surface, there were strains. In October of 1932 one of the Speiks’ oil wells in Huntington Beach burned, and when Dr. Speik fixed the well and built a new well nearby, he was sued for royalties on the new well–on the grounds that it was tapping the same oil as the old well that burned, which had paid a royalty percentage to the plaintiff. Dr. Speik apparently could not accept the eventual verdict on behalf of the plaintiff as fair. He appealed. He lost the appeal. He appealed to a higher court. The case stayed in court for the rest of the decade, draining Dr. Speik’s purse through attorney fees and his psyche through anxiety and frustration. Meanwhile, “Uncle Ernie” Quantrell had inadvertently given him bad advice, and the Speik family’s investments were not prospering. I am not sure how much of this was shared with Edith. Dr. Speik may have kept it to himself. There is certainly no evidence that the family curtailed its expenses in any way.
The shock of Fred Speik’s death in June of 1940 must have been substantial. Edith’s life changed immediately. She picked up the reins of financial management for her family and sold the beautiful (but very large) home in South Pasadena and the summer home on Balboa Island, moving into a smaller property in nearby San Marino with Bobby, the last child who remained at home. Sadly, her husband’s death caused a breach with her beloved church, St. James’ Episcopal in South Pasadena, which added to her pain by taking a hard line about suicide. Such matters were not properly understood in that day.
Years of following Dr. Sippy’s diet with her husband, with its emphasis on animal fats, took a toll on Edith’s health as it had on Fred’s. She remained active with the South Pasadena Women’s Club and the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as the local Episcopal church, and made a home for Bobby (and his cars!) through high school and college. She traveled to Missouri for Bobby’s wedding to Margaret “Tommie” Thompson in 1950, and lived to see the birth of five grandchildren, including Bob and Margaret’s eldest girl, Sarah Speik, and Betty’s first child, Tommy Blalock. Unfortunately, only the Lynden boys (Madeleine’s) were old enough when she died to retain memories of her.
Edith Charlotte Lawton Speik passed from this world in September of 1953. Her last words were: “Peace. Peace.”