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Now it can be told! The shocking tale of Henry Field's illegitimate son


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At another time and under other circumstances, the Henry Field-Nancy Keene Perkins wedding would have been a high point of the international social agenda. The groom was a grandson of Chicago's late Marshall Field and a nephew of the commander of the British navy. The bride was a Virginia debutante and niece of the legendary Langhorne sisters. Aunt Nancy was the wife of Sir Waldorf Astor and author of the celebrated comment "I married beneath me. All women do." Aunt Irene was the wife of artist Charles Dana Gibson, who redefined Western beauty and fashion by creating the "Gibson girl" look.

The young couple's choice of a "simple little wedding" on February 7, 1917, was easily defensible. These were somber times.

The debate over whether the United States should enter the Great War incited riots in the streets. German submarines infested the Atlantic. Rumor said if President Wilson sought a declaration of war the first lady would set an example of austerity by banning all social entertaining in the White House for the duration.

But the 22-year-old groom had an even more compelling reason to indulge his bride's wishes for a small, private reception in the seclusion of the Gibsons' Manhattan mansion. That reason was known only to Henry, his brother Marshall III, their attorneys, and a young woman named Peggy Marsh.

A more fatalistic bride might have abandoned Henry at the altar. Tragedy and scandal seemed to plague the Field family, and her groom would be no exception.

In November 1905, when the future groom was only ten, the family butler found Henry's father, Marshall Jr., lying mortally wounded in the family's Prairie Avenue mansion, a bullet hole in his abdomen. The coroner ruled the death an accident, though many insiders knew the victim had suffered from deep depression, aggravated by his widower father's marriage to widowed heiress Delia Spencer Caton, at least 20 years younger than her groom.

No one publicly disputed the coroner's conclusion until a former Chicagoan named Vera Scott surfaced in Los Angeles eight years later. Arrested for vagrancy and questioned as a suspected con artist, Scott presented herself as a former chorus girl whose view of life had been formed by service in the New York shows Hanky Panky and Hoity Toity. She told police that she'd shot Marshall Jr. by accident during a wild party at the Everleigh Club in Chicago's notorious levee district, and explained that the bleeding man insisted on going home alone in a taxi. According to Vera, the senior Marshall Field paid her $20,000 to skedaddle.

A spokesman for the Marshall Field & Company dismissed Scott's assertions as "the ravings of a drug-mad unfortunate." He pointed to the police and coroner reports that concluded Marshall Jr. had shot himself with his own pistol while packing for a camping trip.

Henry's grandfather died--of pneumonia--less than two months after his son. His trusts would retain most of his fortune until 1946, when, according to his instructions, 40 percent of it would go to Henry and 60 percent to Marshall III.

The brothers' widowed mother, Albertine, abandoned Chicago for Britain, where in 1908 she married Captain Maldwin Drummond, a minor nobleman. Defying her late father-in-law's will, she took her two sons abroad with her to be educated at Eton. The elder Field had stipulated that his grandsons be educated in the United States for business careers.

Henry grew to young manhood in London and developed a strong dislike for most things British, including the young women his mother introduced to him as prospective brides. He found solace in the arms of fellow expatriate Peggy Marsh, a chorus girl in the Palace Theatre Follies.

When war broke out across Europe, Henry chose to face death. He left for the French front as a civilian volunteer on an unarmed ambulance team that retrieved victims of German bullets, artillery shells, and mustard gas.

In September 1915, Henry received news of his mother's death in her Southampton manor. According to testimony Peggy Marsh gave later, her young lover in mourning returned from the front, swore he would send for her to be his wife, and then sailed back to America.

Having braved the German U-boats, Marsh arrived in Chicago herself months later with a baby she claimed was Henry's son and promptly discovered he was engaged. After some hard bargaining, she signed a financial agreement the morning of Henry's wedding day. The document remains on file in Chicago's probate court. Henry agreed to pay her $10,000 a year in monthly installments to support her child born "on or about July 11, 1916." The annual remittance would increase by $2,500 when little Henry reached age five and again by that amount at age ten, and big Henry would either designate little Henry the beneficiary of a $100,000 insurance policy on the former's life or set up an irrevocable trust paying the boy a minimum of $20,000 annually for life.

Peggy received a $5,000 signing bonus for accepting three conditions: she would relinquish all future claims against big Henry, never communicate with him again except through his attorney and then only with respect to the terms of their agreement, and "support, maintain and care for and educate her said child with care and diligence." Despite the implications, nowhere in the agreement did Henry admit to fathering Henry Field Marsh.

Though Peggy had failed to hold Henry to his promise of matrimony, she at least secured her son's future. Or so she assumed.

Soon after Henry's wedding, the United States went to war and Henry enlisted. Practicing preventive medicine, Henry decided he'd have his healthy tonsils removed before reporting for duty. Three months later, he reentered New York's Presbyterian Hospital with a raging infection. A hospital spokesperson told inquiring reporters that Henry was readmitted "for a slight operation" and cheerfully insisted that "a speedy recovery is expected."

Chicago newspapers broke the news on July 9. The "slight operation" had failed and Henry Field was dead. His surgeon blamed complications from an attempt to drain a lung abscess too near his heart.

Marshall III had rushed by train from his Illinois National Guard encampment to join his sister-in-law at Henry's bedside. Reporters would write that Marshall III arose from that bed "the wealthiest young man in the world"--sole beneficiary of his late grandfather's trust, estimated to be worth as much as $200 million.

About a year later, Peggy Marsh heard a knock at the door of her modest New York apartment. She might have hoped to find a messenger delivering a check from the Fields, for child support had all but ceased with Henry's death. Instead she greeted a stranger in uniform who introduced himself as Chief Yeoman MacGregor Bond of naval intelligence.

Bond had come to inquire about Peggy's latest lover, Antoine Jechalski (alias Tony Farraway), a suspected pro-German and/or pro-Bolshevik provocateur.

Bond's report on the first of his several interviews described Marsh as "a well bred girl, with quiet manners and maternal instincts." Bond, an investigative reporter for the New York Herald in civilian life, phrased his questions with knowledge of the government's fat file on Jechalski. The suspect already had been interrogated by counterspies from army intelligence, the Secret Service, and the Department of Justice.

This much Bond knew: Antoine Jechalski, a man with wealth from unknown sources, bore a scar on one cheek he claimed was the memento of a saber duel during his student days in Vienna. He'd arrived in the U.S. in 1914 to procure American steel for the Russian imperial army and quickly become a playmate of Russian prince Paul Troubetsky, a wealthy sculptor whose pet wolf, brace of Russian wolfhounds, and escapades with fast automobiles, women, and horses caused sensations in New York and Paris.

Jechalski was a habitue of Long Island's infamous Cafe Beaux Arts, a hangout for slumming debutantes and young society matrons, foreign diplomats, German spies, and American counterspies. He'd ingratiated himself to New York's equestrian set with his skills at polo and his keen judgment of horses. Before the U.S. entered the war, Jechalski espoused Germany's cause and spoke enviously of his brother in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry.

He claimed to have known about Kaiser Wilhelm's secret weapon, a huge long-range cannon, before it fired its first salvos on Paris. His closest associates were fellow Russian immigrants who squandered much of their questionable income on women and regularly sat in on table-stakes poker games that floated among luxurious suites in Manhattan's finest hotels.

Peggy spilled all she knew about Antoine Jechalski. She'd met Antoine through another free-spending Russian immigrant, Alexander Weinstein, a stage-door johnny she'd known as a London chorus girl.

Bond was also familiar with the government's file on Weinstein, like Jechalski a suspected spy for Germany and Bolshevik provocateur. British intelligence reports referred to Weinstein as "the whore monger from Kiev," a suspect kept under constant surveillance during his 1914 stay in London.

Weinstein, one British intelligence report stated, "was infatuated with women and usually was visited by at least two ladies every day. [He] was considered to be a millionaire and spent large sums of money in the pursuit of pleasure. Weinstein bought a considerable amount of jewelry from Henri Eliascheff of 49 Carnaby Street W for presents for his lady friends, and during his visits to the Palace Theatre he presented to each girl in the chorus a handbag with their initials in diamonds on the side."

Peggy showed Bond a keepsake from London, a small handbag bearing her initials in diamonds.

When Bond commented on the fine behavior of the toddler clinging to Peggy's chair, the sad story poured out of her--of her romance with Henry Field, of his promise to make her an honest woman and little Henry his legitimate son and heir, of her settlement with the Fields, of Henry's tragic death and Marshall III's welching.

"Miss Marsh believes it is the intention of the family to cut it off entirely," Bond noted, referring to the pledge of lifelong support for the baby.

Peggy admitted seeking solace in Antoine. What she didn't reveal to Bond, but what army intelligence later uncovered in its questioning of Jechalski, was that he'd found her a pair of lawyers and staked them to the retainer they required to file suit against the Fields.

Bond noted signs of alcohol abuse in Peggy's face and shaky hands. "Despite her misfortunes and her rather doubtful friends, chorus girls of 'international repute,' she is a pure American," he judged, "intensely loyal and shows every desire to help this office in its investigation."

Peggy obligingly told stories of traveling with Antoine in his private Pullman compartment from New York to San Francisco and back, stopping along the way at various mining towns. She recalled spending nights alone in small hotels while he visited with "miners." Bond noted that those stopovers coincided with strikes by copper, lead, and zinc miners.

Peggy also recalled that Antoine always traveled with a German-made camera at hand and snapped military installations, hydroelectric dams, and transmission towers from the moving train. "Question your men friends closely," she remembered him insisting, "particularly young army officers and businessmen interested in war work."

Peggy knew she shared Antoine's affections with other women, but Bond could have told her who. He'd already interrogated two formidable competitors.

One was silent-movie queen Clara Kimball Young, the first actress to see her name spelled out in electric lights on a Broadway marquee and her face imprinted on pillows that theater owners across the country gave away to loyal fans. Young had taken up with Jechalski on the rebound after an affair with New York filmmaker Lewis J. Selznick.

Bond had good reason to believe Young would cooperate with him. She'd demonstrated her support for the boys in uniform by auctioning off every stitch of her clothing during a celebrity benefit out in that competing film capital called Hollywood. According to a Los Angeles newspaper's account of that auction, Cecil B. De Mille paid through the nose for her stockings; Gloria Swanson's future costar Elliott Dexter shouted the highest bid for her corset; matinee idols William S. Hart and Douglas Fairbanks claimed her panties and bra; and Charlie Chaplin bought her garter belt and wore it around his neck for the rest of the evening.

Bond's report on his interview with Young contains more circumstantial evidence that Jechalski was inciting workers. She recalled their rendezvous in Havana while she was there on location. A few weeks later, Cuban socialists staged an insurrection. Later, after Jechalski visited Arizona, the International Workers of the World rioted, struck, and shut down production at all southwestern copper mines.

Another contender for Antoine's affections was Nita Naldi, a Ziegfield Follies chorus girl. "She said she always suspected he was a spy or German agent," Bond reported. "She even accused him to his face, but he always laughed and shrugged his shoulders and said he was used to being called a spy."

Naldi called Jechalski more than that when Bond told her he was now a prisoner at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He'd stopped for a week of polo playing at the cavalry station and wound up arrested as a suspected spy.

"In one breath," Bond reported, "she declared that she loved Jechalski and in the next, she said if he was going to be shot, she hoped she would be the one to pull the trigger."

Though Bond demonstrated his skills in investigative reporting, he proved himself a doubtful judge of beauty. He described Nita Naldi as "about twenty...and while a pretty woman, is very coarse and brazen...a true Italian type: extremely attractive without being good looking." Yet after matinee idol John Barrymore spotted her in the Winter Garden chorus line and insisted on casting her in his film Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she rocketed to stardom.

She developed into the prototype of the Hollywood vamp, starred with Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand and several other films, played an Asian seductress in De Mille's original Ten Commandments, starred with Harry Houdini when the master illusionist ventured into filmmaking, and played feature roles in two Alfred Hitchcock silent films. Only a squeaky Brooklyn accent and her losing battle against the scales prevented a segue into talkies.

Bond proved right on one count. She was only an "Italian type," not the Italian countess her press agents claimed. Later in life, the forgotten Nita Naldi confessed to being Anita Donna Dooley, daughter of Irish-American parents and raised in a Brooklyn convent by her aunt, the mother superior.

Peggy Marsh left no doubt about her indebtedness to Antoine Jechalski. She told Bond she'd given her son the new middle name of Anthony, as tribute to him.

Army intelligence reports confirmed her story. One army agent had intercepted a telegram she sent him. "My dear Poppy," it began. "You shall realize I am very, very sad and I so wish you were here, as I presume you have read in the papers of Henry Field's death. The end was really very sudden, although he had been ill for about six weeks. Come back soon. Love. Peggy."

"This telegram," commented the intelligence report containing it, "while on account of strange wording, may be in code." Appearing to miss the point throughout, the report made reference to Jechalski's New York checking account and an agent's finding that he'd paid "many thousands of dollars to an actress named Peggy Marsh, who has apparently born him a child." In fact, those payments were to cover her legal fees.

With Jechalski's backing, Marsh pursued the Fields in court. She sought $2 million on behalf of her son and retained two lawyers she hoped would strike fear in Marshall III.

Former Illinois governor Edward Dunne represented Henry Anthony Field Marsh in probate court, and his son Edward Jr. served as the toddler's legal guardian. Both Dunnes were prominent Chicago Democrats. Marshall III remained a staunch Republican. His conversion to Democratic New Dealer (he'd be denounced by fellow millionaires as a traitor to his class) would come later, during the Roosevelt administration.

"We feel that Mrs. Marsh has a perfectly legitimate claim," the Dunnes announced to the press, "as is further shown by the fact that it is recognized by young Field's family." They produced a copy of the 1917 agreement signed on Henry Field's wedding day.

In a January 1920 deposition, Peggy Marsh revealed a secret about her past. She was born Annabelle Greenough. A privately published genealogy of the Greenough family proved Peggy qualified for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. One of her forebears, William Greenough, had arrived in the American colonies in 1650. His great-grandson John had served in George Washington's continental army.

On March 13, 1920, Peggy and little Henry suffered their first courtroom defeat. Attorneys for Marshall III had petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court to "construe" the definition of "issue" in his grandfather's will. The court prudishly construed it to exclude any and all descendants born out of wedlock.

Marsh persevered, filing suit in circuit court. She suffered another defeat on June 11, 1920, when Judge Charles Foell ruled that her son had "no right, title or interest of any kind in or to any of the property" in big Henry's estate.

Seven months later she appeared before another judge on a happier occasion. A justice of the peace in Greenwich, Connecticut, pronounced Albert "Buddie" Johnson and Peggy Marsh man and wife.

Buddie was rich and a hero. He'd survived aerial combat over the western front and held the medals to prove it.

Fifteen months later, the new Peggy Johnson received a surprising offer. With the probate court ready to approve distribution of Henry Field's personal estate, Marshall III offered her $100,000 in exchange for her promise to drop all claims against the Field family and their estates on her son's behalf. She quickly accepted.

With Field money finally in her bank account, Peggy held another press conference. She announced that she and Buddie would be hitting the vaudeville circuit with a song-and-dance act. Eight months later, the act turned sour. One stormy night, Buddie checked into the hospital in Plattsburg, New York, with a bullet in his abdomen. They'd been vacationing at a private island compound in the Adirondacks. Fellow guests told the Plattsburg police and district attorney about nightly shouting in the Johnsons' quarters and hearing a shot ring out.

Peggy claimed she'd heard the shot too, returned to her room, found Buddie lying in a pool of blood, and fainted. After regaining consciousness she'd dragged her bleeding husband to the dock, loaded him into a dinghy, and rowed to the mainland through a torrential thunderstorm.

"Be sure about this," her husband told the police. "It was an accident." He insisted he'd been fooling with a pistol he'd found in the resort owner's cabinet and the weapon discharged.

The resort, Camp Jack, and its owner, Virgil Montani, were already notorious. Camp Jack had been the love nest of former Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit; it was where she entertained Montani, a dancer and gigolo, while her husband was locked up in a New York state hospital for the criminally insane. One June night back in 1906 her husband, young multimillionaire Harry Thaw, had approached the famous architect Stanford White, Nesbit's former lover, in the nightclub atop Madison Square Garden and fired three bullets into him.

While Thaw did time Nesbit enjoyed international celebrity on the lecture and entertainment circuit and took up with Montani. She got a divorce and married him soon after Thaw was released. This union was also doomed to fail, but Montani kept Camp Jack in the settlement and loaned it out to friends like Peggy and Buddie.

Apparently the district attorney put no credence in Montani's denial of owning a pistol. "I learned of no possible motive for an attempt at murder," the DA announced. "Nor did I get so much as a hint of any reason for an attempt at suicide."

About two months later Peggy called another press conference and announced that she and Buddie were splitting because "he is so temperamental and high-strung that I decided we had better part for six months to see how things develop." No reporter is on record as asking how a man should behave if he is covering up his wife's attempt at murdering him and worrying she might try again.

Peggy fled to London and opened her own dance club "with the latest in cocktail bars." Her man troubles, however, weren't ended.

About four months after the shooting, Buddie died of pneumonia in New York. He told his attending physician that he'd never recovered from his drenching while Peggy rowed him bleeding across the lake.

Peggy returned to New York aboard a White Star liner and wept buckets of tears for reporters waiting at dockside. She announced that she'd expected Buddie to rejoin her in London and claimed that he'd even bought a one-way ticket aboard that same ship for its return trip to Southampton.

Peggy Johnson sailed back to Britain a rich widow. She celebrated the arrival of 1925 by taking a second husband: Captain Keld Robert George Fenwick of the Royal Horse Guards. Three years later she held another press conference to announce she'd divorced Captain Fenwick and was "fed up" with British men.

If any correspondent thought to inquire about Henry Anthony Field Marsh, then going on 12, her reply never made it into print. Mother and son vanished into what one of Antoine Jechalski's acquaintances described as "the dustbin of history."

While in exile in New York between 1914 and 1917, Leon Trotsky had edited a Bolshevik newspaper for fellow Russians and worked part-time as an electrician on the sets of silent movies. He even appeared briefly in My Official Wife, a melodrama set in tsarist Russia that starred Clara Kimball Young.

There is nothing to indicate that Peggy Marsh ever saw Antoine Jechalski again.

This mystery man, described in army intelligence reports as having "a very slight German accent, rigid, erect, cold and formal carriage and manners, mounts his horse like a German officer," strode out of the Fort Sam Houston guardhouse on Armistice Day 1918 a free man after six months of solitary confinement. All the massive investigation by army and navy intelligence, the Secret Service, the Department of Justice, and the IRS could prove was that he'd made his fortune the easy way. He'd wedged himself in between the Russian Supply Committee in New York and its American vendors to rake in a fortune from procurements of rifles, munitions, locomotives and boxcars, and other war supplies.

He returned to New York, cleaned out his financial accounts, and left for Poland, again a sovereign nation under the treaties that ended the Great War. Whenever in the future he'd apply for a U.S. visa as a Polish government official the Department of State would deny it on grounds he remained under suspicion as a Bolshevik spy.

Jechalski vanished into the dustbin himself, sometime between Hitler's invasion of Poland and Stalin's seizure of it at the end of World War II. Besides his riches from war profiteering, he could claim a namesake, Henry Anthony Field Marsh, alleged descendant of one of the richest families in the capitalist world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Corbis Bettmann-UPI.


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