Windy City Blues

In her fun very readable Windy City Blues (Berkley 2017; $16), Chicago author Renee Rosen again takes another slice of the city’s history and turns it into a compelling read.

Rosen, who plumbs Chicago’s history to write such books as Dollface, her novel about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and What the Lady Wants which recounts the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, says she and her publisher were racking their brains for her next book which encompassed Chicago history.

“She suggested the blues,” says Rosen, who didn’t have much interest in the subject.

But Rosen was game and started her typical uber-intensive research.

“When I discovered the Chess brothers, who founded Chess Records, I fell in love,” she says, noting that when researching she was surprised about how much she didn’t know about the subject despite her immersion in Chicago history for her previous books. “I thought this is a story.”

“As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago,” she says. “I also met with Willie Dixon’s grandson and with Chess family members.”

Combining fact and fiction, Rosen’s story follows heroine Leeba Groski, who struggling to fit in, has always found consolation in music. When her neighbor Leonard Chess offers her a job at his new Chicago Blues label, she sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in. Leeba starts by answering phones and filing but it soon becomes much more than that as she discovers her own talents as a song writer and also begins not only to fall in love with the music industry but also with Red Dupree, a black blues guitarist.

Windy City Blues was recently selected for Chicago’s One Book project, a program designed to engage diverse groups of Chicagoans around common themes. Rosen says she is very honored to be a recipient.

“I put my heart and soul into this book,” she says. “I think it’s a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the Civil Rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color along with the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.”

Chicago Writer Takes Us Back to the Gilded Age in New Novel

Renee Rosen. Photo by Charles Osgood.

         Chicago author Renee Rosen is again taking us on a trip to the past. In her previous novels, she’s explored the city’s jazz roots (Windy City Blues), the Chicago Fire and the founding of the city’s iconic department stores (What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age), and Prohibition-era Chicago (Dollface). Now, in The Social Graces we meet two mega-wealthy women—Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor who starting in the 1870s vied to become the leader of high society.

         If that meant spending $10 million in today’s money to stage a ball at the Waldorf Hotel, so be it.

         “Think the original ‘Real Housewives of New York City’ but in Worth gowns,” says Rosen about the competition which in many ways also sounds like middle school. “They had plenty of balls such as the circus ball with a live elephant. Entertaining was the only arena where women could exert some influence. After all they had few rights, they couldn’t even vote, so they literally created this high society where they made the rules and determined who belonged and who didn’t.”

         At first Caroline Astor ruled New York and Newport, Rhode Island society. She was old money while Vanderbilt was one of the nouveau riche and after all, no matter how much new money you had it wasn’t as good as the old.

         “Mrs. Astor was the gate keeper, the reigning queen, she decided who was invited to her annual ball,” says Rosen, noting that only 400, the number her ball room could hold, were invited to this ball and thus they were deemed to be the elitist of the elite. “If you weren’t invited, you either left town or turned off all your lights and pretended you were out of town.”

         Determined to replace Caroline, Alva hosted her famous Masquerade Ball at her Fifth Avenue mansion, inviting  1200  though not Caroline who finally was able to get an invitation. It was so excessive, it helped catapult her to the top.

          Rosen didn’t want to just write about these women, she wanted to know them.

         “I admired both Caroline and Alva for several reasons and I disliked them for several reasons,” she says. “Alva certainly wouldn’t have been mother of the year.”

  And yes, it is true. Alva locked her daughter Consuelo in her room so she couldn’t marry the man she loved and instead forced her to wed the impoverished Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. He in turned just wanted her vast fortune to restore his very outdated palace which didn’t even have central heating or hot water. The marriage, by the way, made Consuelo a relative of Winston Churchill and the yet-to-be-born Princess Diana.

         “Alva was such a trail blazer,” says Rosen. “This was a time when so many men had mistresses and women had to put up with it. But when Alva’s husband Willie K. started canoodling with other women, she put her foot down and divorced him. She became a suffragette. She wasn’t a licensed architect, but she knew all about building. There was something really vulnerable about Caroline. I  think she was very lonely. She was at the top of society but at some level she knew that none of it really mattered. There was a whole lot of wealth but very little substance.”

Renee Rosen Virtual Events

April 27 6PM CST / 7PM EST

A virtual evening at the Newport Mansions & the Newport Preservation Society

Hosted by An Unlikely Story. Register Here

April 29 12PM CST / 1PM EST Hosted by Bookends and Beginnings

Literary Lunch Break with Karen White. Register Here

May 5 4PM CST / 6PM EST A Special Virtual Gilded Age Event

Featuring Chanel Cleeton, Marie Benedict & Renee Rosen Hosted by InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel & Berkley Publishing. Signature cocktail recipe & special VIP raffle gift, courtesy of Pomp & Whimsy! General & VIP tickets Register Here

May 10 7PM CST / 8PM EST Hosted by Blue Willow Bookshop

In Conversation with Chanel Cleeton. Register Here

June 22 7PM CST Literature Lovers’ Night Out

Please check back for details & registration.

This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

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