Thomas Lincoln Chadbourne was born in Houghton, Michigan on March 21, 1871. He was named after his father, a lawyer. At the age of six, Thomas saw his three year-old sister die after running through glass. A rebellious child, he was expelled from every school he attended.
At nineteen, Chadbourne’s father left him at the train station in Chicago with $150. After taking a series of night jobs, he was hired by Judge Russell Wing of the law firm, Wing and Carter. Although he had never been to law school, Judge Wing’s coaching helped him to pass the state bar exam. He started a law firm with a cousin in Milwaukee, before going on to found Chadbourne, Babbitt and Wallace in New York City. The firm still operates today as Chadbourne and Parke.
In 1896, Chadbourne married Emily Crane. They separated three years later, and after gaining a divorce in 1906, he married Grace Wassall, composer of a Shakespearean song cycle. He considered her the love of his life, and they travelled widely together.
Chadbourne was well-known in both political and financial circles and a member of several of New York’s most exclusive clubs including the University, Union League, Metropolitan, and the New York Yacht. A prominent Democrat, he had personally corresponded with President Woodrow Wilson and sat on the War Trade Board until his wife’s illness compelled him to resign. Calling for a moratorium of European debt repayments from World War I, Chadbourne predicted correctly that the ensuing financial crisis would lead to another war.
Grace was diagnosed with cancer in 1918, and died in May 1919. In late 1919, Chadbourne began a whirlwind romance with actress Jeanne Eagels. At forty-eight, Chadbourne was nineteen years her senior. Jeanne was regularly seen climbing out of Chadbourne’s chauffeured limousine – either alone or with its owner – in front of the Playhouse Theatre, where she was rehearsing The Wonderful Thing.
In January 1920, her home at West 57th Street was burgled. Although she refused to reveal the value of her loss, it was estimated that around $10,000 worth of jewellery given to her by Chadbourne had been stolen. She informed him of the robbery, and while he apologized for not having the items insured, he never replaced them.
On May 16, Jeanne admitted her health worries in a New York Tribune interview. “Perhaps some time I shall find love,” she mused, “but just now the ‘wonderful thing’ is health!” In June, she and a fellow cast member became so ill that The Wonderful Thing had to close.
On August 21, Billboard reported that she was recuperating at home after undergoing surgery on her appendix a week before. Complicating her recovery was the breakdown of her relationship with Chadbourne. Many of their friends had thought they would eventually marry, as the lawyer had lavished the actress with gifts of jewellery, and publicly praised her beauty and talent.
While Jeanne may have dreamed of summers spent at their Greenwich estate or of being the hostess at parties on Park Avenue, with perhaps an occasional stage appearance, Chadbourne knew that his social standing would suffer greatly if he married an actress, and Jeanne was unlikely to give up her career to raise a family.
On January 8, 1921, the New York Times announced Chadbourne’s engagement to Miss Marjorie A. Curtis, the daughter of a well-known throat specialist, and “a member of the Junior League … active in war work here and abroad.”
The Baltimore Sun’s society columnist declared the engagement a total surprise, as “Miss Curtis had long ago … joined hands with a set that includes such sworn-to-celibacy spinsters …” A list, naming several other unmarried ladies from prominent families, then followed. At thirty-three, Curtis was two years older than Jeanne, and described as “exceedingly handsome.” In addition to a stepchild from his previous marriage, she and Chadbourne would raise two daughters together.
During the 1920s, Chadbourne became an early advocate of globalisation. In 1931, he led a committee of international sugar producers and secured an agreement between several nations to reduce production and establish export quotas. US producers refused to accept Chadbourne’s proposals, but Congress and the Roosevelt administration would later adopt compulsory measures.
“The capitalistic system is on trial,” Chadbourne told Collier’s Weekly in 1933. An early champion of both collective bargaining rights and profit sharing for workers, he subsequently became disillusioned with Roosevelt’s New Deal. After suffering a heart attack on his yacht, Thomas L. Chadbourne died on June 15, 1938.