Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale As though some ballad-singer had sung it all; —W.B. Yeats
Green beer and leprechauns, step-dancing and corned beef. Who decided that St. Patrick’s Day always has to be the same?
Not to take anything away from Bushmills, soda bread and “Danny Boy.” Fine in small doses once a year.
But there’s so much more to Irish history in general and Chicago Irish history in particular, wonders that never get hinted at, even leading up to the day when big buttons proclaim everybody is Irish.
Such as? For instance? We could mention … oh, to pick one example … the Chicago woman whose acclaimed beauty landed her face on Irish banknotes for half a century.
What, you don’t know the story? Well, pour yourself a Jameson, laddie, pull up a stool, lass, because Hazel Lavery, as Yeats observed in verse, is the stuff of legend, only it’s true.
The currency is not the half of it. She was friends with George Bernard Shaw and neighbors with Winston Churchill, whom she taught to paint, a lifelong comfort against his “black dog” of depression. She was rumored to be the lover of both freedom-fighter Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, leader of the Irish Free State, which some believe she had a direct hand in creating.
Maybe we should start at the beginning.
She was born in Chicago at 514 North Ave. on March 14, 1880. Her parents had trouble deciding on a name. By the June census, they listed her as “Elsa.” But that didn’t stick. Because of her large brown eyes, everyone began calling her “Hazel.”
Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was director of the stockyards, right-hand man to pig tycoon Philip Armour and wealthy in his own right — his people had come to America in the 1700s but traced their lineage to Galway back to 1235.
Rich girls were constant fodder for newspapers at the time, their fashions and debuts. The Tribune ran young Hazel’s photograph on the front page in 1901 when she came out into society, in a flower-strewn frame, labeling her “ONE OF THE BEAUTIES OF CHICAGO.” Some said she was the most beautiful of all
She had a passion for art — many society girls did — which she pursued with a vigor that stunned her friends in their little painting clubs.
“How is it possible,” one was quoted saying, “for a girl, young, clever and beautiful, and admirers numbered by the score, to do any serious work?”
But she did. As a teen, she studied art seriously in Europe, under well-known masters including Belfast-born artist John Lavery, 24 years her senior. Their interest in each other strayed beyond the canvas, causing her mother to whisk her back to America, where, in December 1903, Hazel married Dr. Edward Trudeau Jr., in a much-acclaimed Chicago society wedding. Instead of the standard diamond ring or string of pearls, the bride selected for her wedding present an etching press.
The marriage was short-lived; Dr. Trudeau died after an operation for pleurisy that May.
Her mother died in 1909, freeing the daughter to marry Lavery. The two toured Europe and made headlines in 1911 by visiting Chicago. John Lavery admired the El Greco at The Art Institute and compared downtown skyscrapers to the Pyramids, a compliment much appreciated by a sooty city that smelled of livestock. “CHICAGO NOT UGLY,” the Tribune headlined. “PAINTER SAYS SO.”
Visiting Ireland, the couple became enthralled with the drama surrounding the Easter 1916 uprising.
So how did she end up on the currency?
Two key factors:
First, the Laverys settled in London — John Lavery was knighted in 1918, making his wife Lady Lavery. Their home at 5 Cromwell Place “became a center of hospitality to Irish political and artistic personalities” including Collins, who wrote poems lauding her “delicate sad grace.” In 1921, she invited those negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty to use their home as neutral ground.
Some believed that, had it not been for Hazel Lavery holding dinner parties, consulting the prime minister here, the rebels there, “there would have been no Treaty,” as her husband wrote in his 1940 memoir. Others dismissed the idea of her role being significant as the pretensions of a “society flirt” and her adoring, aging husband.
The Collins liaison is also open to debate — he was gunned down in 1922 with a letter from her in his pocket, though he did sometimes communicate in code under the guise of romance. With O’Higgins, the vice president of the new Irish Free State, it was more certain. After O’Higgins was killed in 1927, Lady Lavery complained to a friend she “felt frozen in misery and utterly alone.”
Second, her husband had set to painting portraits of his young wife, her long nose and dark-circled eyes an embodiment of Gibson girl, 400 portraits in all. Both joked that her husband liked using her as a model because he didn’t have to pay her. When the new Irish Free State asked him to provide the portrait of an average colleen for the money, he offered up Hazel (some claim Irish leaders were shocked to discover this, though it’s hard to imagine they didn’t recognize her; the resemblance is clear).
Her physiognomy peered from the money from 1927 to 1976, working its way into the psyche of generations of Irishmen and women.
“Hazel Lavery thus became a singular epitome of desire, both amorous and material, in the Irish imagination,” Irish literature scholar Rui Carvalho Homem writes in “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry.”
The woman herself suffered a heart attack and died in 1935. But not before her husband, somewhat scandalously, painted one last portrait of his wife — on her deathbed. She died at home, age 54.
After death, Lavery’s allure lingered through all those paintings. Yeats name-checked her in his 1937 “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” in a passage beginning “heart-smitten with emotion.”
She lost her position on Irish currency in the 1970s, replaced by Irish writers and Celtic themes, though the watermark of her face was there until the introduction of the Euro in 2002.
Medbh McGuckian, a poet from Northern Ireland who studied under Seamus Heaney, included “Hazel Lavery, The Green Coat, 1926” in “Drawing Ballerinas,” her 2001 collection of poems. She credits John Lavery for giving her life beyond physical death.
He has been able to bring your inner sun
to full view, a real heartbeat and a lucid mind
inhabiting a body degrading into matter.
As do we all, one day. Something to think about as you raise your Harp lager and sing the old songs lustily come St. Patrick’s Day.
Although we should end on a more upbeat note about a famous Chicago beauty than McGuckian’s somber dirge, that also evokes a very Irish sentiment: “The living seem to go to bed with the dead.”
I learned about Lavery when I visited Jay Tunney, son of boxer Gene Tunney. His father, an improbably literate fighter, had struck up a friendship with George Bernard Shaw and, through the playwright, he and his wife, the steel heiress Polly Lauder Tunney, met Lady Lavery.
“When my parents first met Hazel, she was sitting on a settee in George Bernard Shaw’s living room, engaged in conversation with writers and artists, including her husband,” Tunney told me. “My mother found Hazel captivating. Hazel wore a silk chiffon scarf around her shoulders, and when she turned her head to speak, she sometimes flipped the scarf to the side, a movement my 21-year old mother always remembered as the picture of elegance and grace.”