The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee
A Budding Female Sherlock
Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee was known by family, friends and servants to be domineering and exacting, a perfectionist in everything she did (she even numbered the bottoms of vases in her home, says Botz, to ensure they were always on shelves with corresponding numbers). Yet she was also full of good humor, especially around police officers, many of whom sent her cards on Mother's Day. In a 1949 article for the Coronet, George Oswald described her thus: "A queenly looking woman with the high, white coiffure and the tiny gold-rimmed eyeglasses is known as a passionate crusader for justice and a tireless lobbyist for reform." It took her into her 50s to reach that status, but once she was there, she took full advantage.
Born into a wealthy family on March 25, 1878, in Chicago (their fortune came from International Harvester), "Fanny" was raised in an austere, castle-like home (which many neighbors thought resembled a prison), designed by architect H. H. Richardson. She was protected, coddled, and exposed to many great minds, but tutored entirely in private. Hers was a life of privilege on Prairie Avenue, the wealthiest area of a booming city; she was surrounded by servants and the most exquisite handcrafted furnishings. Her father, industrialist John Jacob Glessner, even wrote a book about the house, now a museum, and lavished a great deal of attention on it. As Botz observes, "The very creation of the models [the Nutshells] can be viewed as a continuation or perversion of her parents' obsession with their home."
Young Frances, who developed a brilliant mind and an eye for detail, had high hopes of making a contribution one day, possibly in the field of medicine, but she was not allowed to attend a university. She had to watch as her older brother George went off to Harvard while she, like it or not, was doomed to the domestic scene. In later life, she considered that her existence had been lonely and devoid of human contact. Many who knew her, including her own son, thought she'd have been happier to have been born a male.
When she was 20, Frances married Blewett Lee, an attorney and law professor at Northwestern University. They had three children before the marriage failed after eight years — a social disgrace — and they eventually divorced. But Frances was soon caught up with a new direction. As a young wife and mother, she met a friend of her brother's named George Burgess Magrath, who was just getting his MD from Harvard Medical School and aiming for a career in pathology. The Glessners had a thousand-acre summer home in New Hampshire's White Mountains, called "the Rocks," and during a vacation, Magrath came to visit. He talked about his interested in legal medicine, especially death investigation, but when Lee echoed his words to her father, Glessner made it clear that no member of his family would ever be caught up with such a sordid subject.
Apparently Glessner's imperial dictates were no match for Magrath's charismatic personality, so tales about medicine, investigation and death continued to fire Lee's imagination. In fact, she followed Magrath's career and kept in touch with him until the day he died when she was 60. (Her father died only two years before that, in 1936.) And Magrath was to benefit greatly from her interest. In 1930, a year after her brother died, Frances Glessner Lee began her own career in legal medicine, albeit indirectly. By then she was 52.