Dynamist Blog

Life Is More Interesting than Fiction, Mr. Selfridge Edition

Rose Selfridge as portrayed by Frances O'Connor in "Mr. Selfridge"

The TV show Mr. Selfridge, discussed in my most recent Bloomberg View column, is very loosely based on the biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead. One thing that becomes clear when you read the book is that, aside from its eponymous protagonist and his family, the show's characters are fictional--composites in a few cases like Lady Mae, completely made-up in most. The show is drama, not history. That's fine, except when the fictional version is more boring than the real one.

One of the show's most tedious plot lines is the flirtation Rose Selfridge, Harry's long-suffering wife, has with a bohemian painter she meets at the National Gallery. Rose, we're led to believe, used to paint before she got married and gave up art for domesticity. Her artist beau paints her portrait, showing her at the easel, with her hair flowing down her bare shoulders. It's a cliched bit of art-versus-commerce, bohemianism-versus-domesticity--far less original than Rose's real story.

Before she married Selfridge, Rose wasn't a dilettante painter. She was a successful real estate developer.

Woodhead explains:

His bride-to-be has been described as a "Chicago debutante." She was indeed a debutante when a teenager, but by the time she met Harry she was nearly thirty and had spent several years working as a successful property developer. Rosalie had learned her craft from her father, the property investor Frank Buckingham, who was also a member of the exclusive Chicago Club. Mr Buckingham had died in the early 1880s, leaving his twenty-three-year-old daughter enough money to venture into development herself. In partnership with her brother-in-law, Frank Chandler, Rosalie bought land on Harper Avenue in Hyde Park, then a rural outpost of the city. This was no small venture. Rosalie planned and oversaw the building of forty-two villas and "artists' cottages," the villas each with a forty-five- or fifty-foot frontage and a driveway to reach the stabling at the rear. It was an enlightened development, including a business block with a drugstore, a family grocery store, a café, a reading room and even a public hall for lectures and concerts. The houses looked out on the park lagoons and lake, with the east side of the development being built sixty feet away from the railroad tracks, which the railroad company was expected to landscape in harmony with the general plan. The architect for the development was Solon S. Beman, the designer of the famous "Pullman model town," where George Pullman corraled his employees. But Rosalie's villas were not intended for factory workers. They were elegant, spacious, middle-class homes in what was the area's first planned community. Miss Buckingham was no giddy debutante.

The real Harry Selfridge married a visionary businesswoman with an executive temperament, not a self-effacing frustrated artist. Now that has potential for drama.

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