Bertha was well educated for a woman born in 1849. She graduated cum laude from finishing school and was further educated to understand the business world by her wealthy and powerful father, businessman, Henry Hamilton Honoré and later by her husband, Potter Palmer, merchant turned real estate magnate, turned luxury hotel builder.
During her lifetime, Bertha achieved a reputation as a skilled administrator and politician, as well as a capable musician, proficient linguist and excellent writer. She was extremely intelligent, beautiful, dashing, wealthy, fashionable, and very sure of herself; in other words, ‘a Renaissance woman” who was a force to be reckoned with.
When Bertha was six years old, the Honoré family moved to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky. She met her future husband, Potter Palmer, seven years later, at age 13, shopping in his store with her mother. Potter was 36 years old, but he was so taken with her that he decided to wait for her to grow up so he could marry her. They were married when Bertha turned 21 and he was 44. Potter built the Palmer House Hotel for her as her wedding gift. Just a year later, the Palmer House Hotel was burned in the Chicago fire of 1871 that gutted the city, but was rebuilt and became the Potter’s home, as well as a symbol of luxurious elegance.
Bertha was the cream of the social elite and the most spectacular hostess in Chicago. She was famous as an avid art collector and for lavish spending on mansions and jewelry.
She was also a devoted wife and mother of two sons, Honoré, and Potter Palmer II. She was well known as a strong supporter of women. She belonged to the Chicago Woman’s Club, a progressive organization that lobbied for fair treatment of women and in hospitals, prisons, and poorhouses and in neighborhoods neglected by the city government. Bertha used her opulent mansion known as the Castle to organize female factory workers and support woman’s causes. When Chicago was selected to host the 1893 World’s Fair featuring the World’s Columbian Exposition a celebration of the discovery of the New World by Columbus, women had a large presence in the fair.
Bertha Palmer was selected in 1891 as President of the Board of Lady Managers, which was the most prestigious position. This governing body, composed of a diverse group of women from all over the United States, was the first of its kind. There were two women members from each state and territory as well as nine from Chicago.
Bertha’s Board was charged with creating a pavilion to celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world. The first woman graduate of MIT’s school of architecture, Sophia G. Hayden, won the commission for the building. The Women’s Pavilion revealed much about the social plight of women at that time, and the need for greater progress in the movement for equal rights. The opening dedication ceremony in October 1892 was indeed a momentous occasion as Bertha stood at the podium with 600 hundred woman behind her on the stage. Bertha’s opening salvo was that in 1492 Columbus discovered America and she was delighted to report that in 1892, America finally discovered woman.
In his will, Potter left his wife 8 million dollars (an unprecedented sum to leave a woman) and even more unusual a generous stipend for her next husband because he said that any man who marries Bertha will need money. Ironically, after Potter died in 1902, Bertha never remarried because Potter was the love of her life.
Several years after his death, Bertha fulfilled her promise to Potter to continue his quest to invest in land. Inspired by an advertisement for land in beautiful, sunny Sarasota Florida by the bay, Bertha went on to purchase, own and develop more than a quarter of the land in Sarasota and the surrounding area, including a major cattle ranch. The same ranchers who hated her for her major modernized changes to the cattle industry in Florida later had to contend with her as the first woman president of the Florida Rancher’s Association.
Bertha is legendary as a progressive rancher, land developer, and farm developer who introduced many innovations to encourage the Florida ranching, citrus, dairy, and farming industries. She was also one of the first famous people to winter in Florida, and is credited with starting the now-common practice by encouraging her rich friends to spend winters in Sarasota. She actively promoted the development of many land parcel that today are still known as Palmer Ranch. Thanks to her savvy mind for business, the 8 million that Potter left her multiplied to well over 18 million despite economic challenges in land value.
In 1918, Bertha died of breast cancer at age 68, at her beloved winter home, The Oaks in Osprey, Florida. Her body was sent to Chicago to lie in state at “the Castle” and her casket was adorned with white lilies that she personally grew. A fitting tribute, since white lilies are a symbol of renewal and resurrection and her indomitable spirit and legacy will transcend time as a woman who made a difference.