Marilou McCarthy von Ferstel, one of the first women ever elected to the Chicago City Council, died last week at the age of 78.
She blazed a trail for women in journalism, politics and business, then served as a mentor for those who followed in her footsteps.
During an illustrious career that spanned more than a half a century, Mrs. von Ferstel served as a society columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a public relations executive and corporate director and a civic and Democratic Party leader.
In 1971, then known as Marilou Hedlund, wife of influential attorney Reuben Hedlund, she ran for alderman as a Democrat in a 48th Ward then controlled by Republicans and won. She was one of two female aldermen elected to the City Council that year. The other was Anna Langford (16th).
They had to build a washroom for them. At the time, there was only a men’s room with a urinal behind the Council chambers. The City Council was such a male bastion, it was equipped with spittoons for tobacco-chomping men.
That was the same year that then-Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed his Consumer Services Commissioner Jane Byrne to the largely-symbolic role of co-chairman of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization.
Byrne would go onto to become Chicago’s only female mayor. Marilou Hedlund would serve just one term — as a staunch Daley ally — then go on to be a Daley appointee to the Zoning Board of Appeals. She also held leadership positions on the Democratic National Committee.
By 1992, she had married Baron Henry von Ferstel, a former Austrian diplomat. Mrs. von Ferstel was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to a nine-member commission charged with examining the mayor’s plan to let Hilton Hotels, Caesars World and Circus Circus build a $2 billion casino, hotel and entertainment complex in downtown Chicago.
At the time, Mrs. von Ferstel was serving as executive vice-president and general manager of public relations giant Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart.
Former Ald. Marion Volini (48th) was one of many women to follow the political trail von Ferstel blazed.
Volini recalled holding a coffee for Marilou Hedlund during the 1971 campaign at the urging of Father Jack Wall, then assistant pastor at St. Ita Catholic Church.
“I lived in a neighborhood that had been entirely Republican forever. When I had the coffee, it was breaking new ground. But women came and they loved her. She was probably the most courageous young woman I had ever met and quite a visionary. When she spoke, she had such presence,” Volini said.
“She took on every issue we had been talking about. She had all kinds of plans and ideas beyond the scope of what we’d been thinking. We thought, `If anyone could do it, she could do it.’ We had been surprised to find that so many buildings that had been former transient hotels were being populated with former psychiatric patients relieved from state institutions. There had been no preparation for the community. Marilou tackled that first, then went on to fight for more beat patrols and better policing at a time when we had drug dealing on the corners and open prostitution,” Volini added.
“There was redlining so young families couldn’t get mortgages. They were leaving the neighborhood. Marilou could easily have moved to the suburbs. But, she chose to stay and fight.”
When Marilou Hedlund chose to give up the seat, Volini tried to follow in her footsteps with some sage advice.
“She told me it would be an uphill battle, which it was. I didn’t win the first time. But, she told me, ‘Don’t be intimidated. Keep going even when it looks like they’re trying to stop or silence you. Hold your own,'” Volini recalled.
“She was a pioneer. She blazed the trail for all of us and we’re all very grateful. She was truly a woman of great stature in everything she did.”
Mrs. von Ferstel was born at Cook County Hospital on Dec. 16, 1937 and adopted by Luise and James McCarthy.
She grew up in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, often telling friends she was raised by the circus animals and magicians who performed at the hotel during a magical childhood that fueled her imagination and sense of possibilities.
“She grew up in this fabulous hotel, instead of in a house. It was a very unusual, but exciting life,” said Ella Strubel, von Ferstel’s friend of 30 years.
“Remember the great book about the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York? Marilou would say that her life paralleled Eloise, which gave her an interesting dimension to her life.”
She graduated from Barat College and earned a masters degree in public policy at the University of Chicago, then went on to join the Tribune at a time when there were only a handful of women in the newsroom.
Not surprisingly, she was assigned to cover society as a protégé of Eleanor Page.
A former public relations colleague, Strubel noted that Mrs. von Ferstel packed enough into her professional and civic life to fill the careers of five women.
She ran two public relations giants, served as a director of Walgreens and a life trustee of Rush University Medical Center and chaired the Chicago Network. She was also a voracious reader and avid bridge player who traveled the world and took her grandchildren on trips to Africa, Europe and Latin America.
“She was one of the brightest people I ever met. Just a phenomenal person who accomplished so much in so many different areas. She had enormous amounts of energy that she put into so many different things. The spectrum of what she was interested in and knew about was just amazing,” Strubel said.
“The fact that she was born at Cook County and lucky enough to be adopted by people who gave her a wonderful home and education was always on her mind. She mentioned it frequently. It played a large role in what she wanted to accomplish.”
Volini added: “She always talked about being adopted. That she was so fortunate to be adopted by loving parents who gave her a fabulous childhood. … She felt that she had been selected by this couple and was obligated to give back to society because she had been given so much.”
Mrs. von Ferstel was married for the past 25 years to Baron Henry von Ferstel. He survives. Their wedding, in Austria, was one that few in attendance will ever forget.
Besides her second husband, Mrs. von Ferstel’s survivors include: son Jamie Hedlund; daughter Justine Fowler; and grandchildren Ursula, Jamie and Alexander Hedlund and Colton, Mackenzie and Annie Fowler. Survivors also include stepdaughters Valerie, Alexandra and Olivia and their five children.