Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222
When he is released from a Pennsylvania prison in the 1870’s, Frank Algernon Cowperwood is a millionaire but not very young. He goes to Chicago to begin a new life with his mistress, Aileen Butler, and within a short time has made friends among influential businessmen there. Divorced by his first wife, Cowperwood finally marries Aileen. He prepares to increase his fortune, to become a power in the city, and to conquer its society. To this end, he seeks an enterprise that will yield heavy returns on his investment quickly. In his first battle among the financial barons of Chicago, he gains control of the gas companies.
At the same time, the Cowperwoods lay siege to Chicago society, but with little success. Aileen Cowperwood is too high-spirited and lacking in the poise that is required for social success. Then Cowperwood becomes involved in several lawsuits, and his earlier political and economic disgrace in Philadelphia is exposed in the Chicago newspapers. After a long battle, Cowperwood is able to force the rival gas companies to buy out his franchises at a profit to himself. That deal brings social defeat to the Cowperwoods, at least temporarily, for Frank’s rivals in finance are also the social powers of Chicago at the time. Cowperwood turns once again to a mistress, but the affair ends when Aileen attempts to kill her rival.
For several years, a cable-car system of street railways claims most of Cowperwood’s time. He buys control of the horsecar company that serves the north side of Chicago. Then his naturally promiscuous temperament asserts itself when he meets the dark, lush Stephanie Platow. Ten years younger than his wife and interested in art, literature, and music, she is able to fill a place in his life that Aileen never could.
While involved in his affair with Stephanie, Cowperwood coerces the street railway company on the west side into giving its franchise to him. His enjoyment of his victory is partially spoiled when he learns that Stephanie is also the lover of another man. Meanwhile, financial forces are at work against Cowperwood. Two city bosses hope to play the city politicians against him, for without the support of the city council to aid him with franchises and grants, the financier will be helpless to merge all the street railways of the city under his control.
The first battle is fought in an election to gain possession of the Chicago city council. Cowperwood finds it far more painful to learn at this time that his wife has been unfaithful to him than to discover that he has arrayed the whole financial and social element of the city against himself. The loss of the election proves no permanent setback to Cowperwood, however, nor does his wife’s infidelity. From the latter he recovers, and the former is soon undone by his opponents when they fail to pave the way with favors and money when they try to push bills through the new reform council. Even the new mayor is soon an ally of Cowperwood.
Soon afterward, Cowperwood meets Berenice Fleming; the daughter of a woman who runs a house of ill repute, Berenice is being prepared in a fashionable boarding school for a career in society. Cowperwood takes her and her family under his wing. He also becomes her lover, though with some misgivings, given the fact that Berenice is but seventeen and he is fifty-two.
At about this time, his financial rivals are trying to gain franchises for elevated rail lines powered by electricity. This new development means that his own street railways have to be...
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converted to electricity, and he has to compete for at least a share of the elevated lines to prevent ruin. The South Side’s elevated train, or “L,” is already a tremendous success because of the World’s Fair of 1893, and the whole city is now clamoring for better transportation service. Cowperwood’s opponents control the city’s banks, so those institutions will not lend him the funds he needs to begin operations. When he attempts to secure funds in the East, Cowperwood discovers that his assets are in question. With one masterstroke, however, the financier wipes out any question of his ability and his credit: He donates three hundred thousand dollars to the local university for a telescope and observatory.
Even with unlimited credit, gaining franchises is not easy. Cowperwood is determined to keep control of the Chicago transportation system, but he begins to realize that neither he nor his wife will ever be accepted socially. He decides to build a mansion in New York to hold his collection of art, hoping to make that his card of entry into society.
Having obtained his franchises in Chicago, he begins work on elevated lines there. Cowperwood’s enemies hope that he will overreach, after which they can force him out of Chicago financially as well as socially. With the collapse of the American Match Corporation, however, a failure partially engineered by Cowperwood, a series of runs begin on the Chicago banks controlled by his enemies. When their attempts to recall the enormous loans made to Cowperwood fail, he emerges from the affair stronger than ever.
The final battle, and the climax of Cowperwood’s financial career in Chicago, is the one he wages to secure fifty-year franchises for his growing transportation system. This project is doubly difficult because of Cowperwood’s latest property, the Union Loop, by which he controls the elevated lines. This loop of elevated track encircling the downtown business district has to be used by all the lines in the city. The moneyed interests oppose Cowperwood because he is not with them; the newspapers oppose him because they want to see better and cheaper facilities. In the face of such opposition, even the most reckless of the city’s aldermen fear to grant the franchises Cowperwood wants, regardless of the money and power he is prepared to give them. Cowperwood’s lawyers inform him that the state constitution prevents the city from granting such long-term franchises, even if the city council could be coerced into approving them. Cowperwood’s next idea is to use bribery to get a transportation commission set up in the state legislature. The bill that will set up the commission includes a clause extending existing franchises for a period of fifty years. The bill is passed by the legislature, but it is vetoed by the governor.
Meanwhile, Cowperwood’s New York mansion has been completed, and Aileen has moved in. She meets with no social success in New York City, except among the bohemian set. Berenice Fleming settles at the same time with her family in a mansion on Park Avenue. Aileen hears of Cowperwood’s affair with Berenice, and when he asks her for a divorce, she tries to commit suicide but fails.
Cowperwood again tries to force his bill through the Illinois legislature, but the legislators return it to the Chicago city council. There, as before, Cowperwood loses. The aldermen are so afraid of the people and the newspapers that they dare not grant what the financier wishes, despite his huge bribes. With his hope of controlling the Chicago transportation system gone, Cowperwood sells his interests. Admitting defeat, he goes to Europe with Berenice. The titan’s empire has fallen.