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Bertha Palmer's Documentary Honors Chicago's Gilded Age Heroine

By Howard Ludwig | February 24, 2014 8:13am
 Lori McGunn of Morgan Park and Amelia Dellos of suburban River Forest are determined to tell the story of Bertha Palmer. The Chicago heroine is the subject of their short documentary and upcoming play.
Bertha Palmer's Legacy
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MORGAN PARK — Bertha Palmer's two greatest fans want the world to know the story of this Chicago heroine.

Lori McGunn of Morgan Park and Amelia Dellos of suburban River Forest have teamed to produce the 26-minute film, "Love Under Fire: The Story of Bertha and Potter Palmer."

The short documentary was one of 50 films selected out of 400 entries for the Women's International Film & Arts Festival in Miami. The Palmer biopic will be shown on March 6, the second day of the five-day film fest.

The documentary tells the story of Chicago's original power couple, who helped the city recover from the Great Chicago Fire and lent their name to one of the city's most famous buildings.

"Love Under Fire" Extended Teaser from Corn Bred Films on Vimeo.

McGunn and Dellos will return to Chicago for another showing at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at the Beverly Arts Center. McGunn, the executive producer of the film, and Dellos, the writer and director, will host a question-and-answer session after the movie in the 400-seat theater at 2407 W. 111th St.

"This part of history is so vital to the city, and yet it is somehow omitted," McGunn said.

The storytellers' drive to share the tale of Bertha Palmer and the success of the documentary has also inspired a stage show. Dellos and McGunn are putting the final touches on the script and have hired a director. They expect to have the story of Bertha Palmer on stage in Chicago this October.

For McGunn, an interest in Bertha Palmer began while dating her husband, Edward. Like Bertha Palmer, McGunn had moved to Chicago from Louisville, Ky. Bertha Matilde Honore would eventually wed the Chicago retail magnate Potter Palmer in 1871. (Honore Street is named after her father, Henry, a real estate developer.)

Palmer built the Palmer House Hotel as a wedding gift for his young bride — 23 years his junior. The $3.5 million hotel burned down just 13 days after opening on Oct. 9, 1871. The grand hotel was one of 17,500 buildings destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, which claimed some 300 lives.

At the behest of Bertha Palmer, the hotel was rebuilt, which motivated the rest of the city to pull itself out of the ashes, McGunn said.

Bertha Palmer's unofficial historian, McGunn and her soon-to-be husband would meet for drinks in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton Hotel throughout their courtship. In 2001, the pair held their wedding reception in the hotel's famed Empire Room.

This was the seed for McGunn's ongoing fascination with Bertha Palmer. The retired real estate attorney began collecting Palmer House memorabilia shortly thereafter. Her endless curiosity about Bertha and Potter Palmer has resulted in stacks of rare books and documents about the famous couple.

Meanwhile, Dellos' career as a freelance marketing and public relations consultant hit a snag when the economy slowed in 2009. She turned her attention to paper she'd written in graduate school about Bertha Palmer. This paper became the basis for a big-budget screenplay based on Bertha Palmer's life.

Dellos made a teaser for her epic film, hoping to drum up interest from investors. It was during this chapter in 2010 that she met McGunn. The pair eventually turned the teaser into a documentary.

"Love Under Fire" debuted on WTTW-Channel 11 last March. It's been shown three times over the past year and has attracted nearly 100,000 viewers, according to the public television network. The documentary also airs on all of the television sets at the famed hotel.

McGunn and Dellos both have long-term goals for the story of Bertha Palmer. A fire glows in their eyes when talking about her as a champion of women's rights and an advocate of Chicago. They both believe the big-budget love story will someday come to fruition.

Palmer once famously said of her position as a woman of high society, "I want to be more than a lady who lunches."

The filmmakers hope their work will show modern-day Chicagoans that the Gilded Age aristocrat's story is one worth remembering.