Thursday, January 8, 2009

Nelson Morris


Age: 45

Residence: Homewood, IL

Occupation: Executive with Armour and Co.

Location at time of fire: Passenger decks - starboard lounge


Nelson Morris was by far the most prominent of the four Chicagoans on board the last flight of the Hindenburg, and also arguably the wealthiest of the ship's 36 passengers. During the Civil War, Morris' grandfather had founded Morris and Company, a Chicago meat-packing plant which flourished until its merger with Armour and Company in 1925. Nelson Morris, born on December 22nd, 1891, entered the family business as a young man, and by the time of the 1925 merger was serving as board chairman. Subsequently, Morris took an executive position with Armour.

Nelson Morris (right) and his brother Edward, Jr. (left) in 1916.

The Harvard-educated Morris was also a colonel in the Army Reserves, having served in World War I as the commander of a refrigerating plant in France, where he stayed on after the war and took flying lessons, eventually obtaining a French pilot's license.

Nelson Morris - 1911
Nelson Morris, circa 1911

His first marriage had been to French actress Jeanne Aubert in 1928. Within two years, the couple had separated and subsequently went through an acrimonious and highly publicized divorce. As of 1937, Morris was married to former French musical comedy star Blanche Bilboa (they had been wed on October 30th, 1933) and living in a mansion in the suburb of Homewood, south of Chicago. Morris had been vacationing with Blanche in France during the Spring of 1937 and needed to make a short business visit to Chicago. He had booked passage back to the States for the first week of May on the new German passenger airship, the LZ-129 Hindenburg, and intended to return to Europe on the Hindenburg's May 14th flight.

No stranger to airship travel, Morris had flown twice on the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, once sharing officer's quarters with one of the ship's captains on an overbooked flight. After his first flight in August of 1929, Morris wrote to his brother Edward, "This is the most interesting experience I have ever had in my life... I cannot find the words to properly express the sensation." Morris also almost made the Graf Zeppelin's famous round-the-world flight in 1929. With the Graf Zeppelin fully booked, Morris had arranged to take the spot of anyone who happened to cancel at the last moment. He waited hopefully at Friedrichshafen as the Graf Zeppelin cast off for Japan, at last running alongside the ship's gondola as it sailed across the airfield, hoping in vain for a last-moment change of heart from Dr. Eckener.

In late April of 1937, Nelson Morris had met up with a longtime friend and business associate, Burtis Dolan, in Paris. Dolan had worked for Morris at Morris and Co. for years, as well as for Armour after the 1925 merger. Within the past year, Morris had recommended his friend for a vice-president's position at Lelong Importing, in which Morris had a financial stake. On meeting Dolan in Paris, where he was finishing up an extended business trip for Lelong, Morris learned that Dolan was preparing to return home via ocean liner. Morris suggested an alternative: that Dolan instead fly home with Morris on the Hindenburg. It would be a far more luxurious way to travel, Morris said, and it was fast enough that Dolan would be able to surprise his family by making it home in time for Mother's Day on May 9th. Morris would cover the fare difference between the Hindenburg and the steamship, and Dolan would cover Morris’ bar tab at the end of the flight.

Dolan agreed, and the two of them decided to tell only Morris' brother Edward, who they cabled back in Chicago with the news and the additional request that he not say a word about it to Dolan's family.

The flight itself was enjoyable for both men, if relatively uneventful. Morris and Dolan were given a private tour of the ship by one of the stewards, and spent the rest of their time socializing with the other passengers. The two men particularly favored the Hindenburg's pressurized smoking room, as it was adjacent to the ship's bar, and Morris himself was a chain smoker. Later, Morris was to recall to crash investigators that none of the passengers acted out of the ordinary, other than one passenger who was drunk for virtually the entire flight.

The Hindenburg first reached Lakehurst shortly before 4:30 in the afternoon on May 6th, ultimately turning southeast towards the Jersey coast to ride out the thunderstorms which covered the area, and Morris and the others watched as they cruised over the various Jersey shore resorts over the next few hours, occasionally hearing the rumble of thunder or the brief flash of lightning in the distance.

As the Hindenburg finally came in to land at Lakehurst on the evening of May 6th, Nelson Morris and Bert Dolan were watching landing operations from the observation windows alongside the starboard passenger lounge. As the ship made its initial northward pass over the mooring area, Morris and Dolan could see the air station's airplane hangars below. The two men would shortly board one of the American Airlines DC-3 parked in front of those hangars, and fly to Newark, where they hoped to make a connection to Chicago that night via one of American's DST "Skysleepers." If there wasn't a flight available that night, then they'd stay overnight in New York and catch the first flight back to Chicago in the morning.

After circling the air base, the ship flew up and and hovered over the field to the right of the mooring mast, and a number of the passengers walked over to the portside windows to watch the final landing maneuver. Many passengers, however, remained in the starboard lounge, including Morris and Dolan, who stood at one of the forwardmost starboard windows, watching not only the landing operations, but the lightning which was crackling almost continuously off in the distance to the west. They saw the forward yaw lines drop from the ship at 7:21 PM, and watched as the ground crew picked them up and pulled them towards the yaw cars in the mooring circle. Morris glanced backward past the forward starboard engine and noted that the aft lines had not yet been lowered enough to be visible.

Nelson Morris' location in the starboard lounge at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, Morris heard an explosion. It was not a loud explosion, he later recalled, but was approximately as loud as a regular service rifle would sound if fired from a distance of 15 to 20 feet. The concussion was not enough to throw him off-balance, but as the stern of the ship dropped, almost immediately after the sound of the explosion, Morris and Dolan were forced to hang onto a post and brace themselves. As the ship neared the ground, with the starboard passenger decks filling with smoke and fire, Nelson Morris jumped from the ship, with Bert Dolan right behind him. They landed in the sand beneath the ship, just as the ship's hull collapsed to the ground, trapping them in a maze of burning girders and wires. Separated from Dolan for the moment, Morris made his way out of the wreckage by pushing the red hot girders aside with his bare hands, breaking them "like paper" he was later to recall.

Morris made his way to safety, then noticed that Dolan was not with him. Turning back toward the flames, Morris tried several times to re-enter the wreckage to save his old friend, but was unable to locate him. He never saw Bert Dolan alive again.

Nelson Morris in ambulance en route to New York in the care of his sister, Dr. Ruth Bakwin (left.)

Nelson Morris was taken to nearby Paul Kimball hospital in Lakewood, NJ with burns to his face and hands. His sister Ruth, a doctor who lived in New York, arranged to have him moved to a hotel close to to her home where she could take care of him. His wounds were not severe, and he recovered, though he constantly wore cotton gloves for some time after the disaster in order to protect his injured hands.

Nelson and Blanche Morris in New York upon their return from Europe aboard the steamship
Ile de France on July 27th, 1937. Note the white cotton glove Morris is wearing to protect his burned hand.

Nelson Morris saw to it that the family of Bert Dolan continued to receive income from Dolan's interest in the LeLong Company, and also set up a trust fund for Dolan's children. He and his wife Blanche devoted a great deal of time and money to a variety of worthy causes and charities. It was the Morrises who gave Blanche’s home country of France some of their first infant incubators. During World War II,  Blanche taught French to American troops preparing for the D-Day invasion and, in coordination with the Red Cross, donated money and supplies to the French underground. Following the war, the Morrises continued to live at their mansion in Homewood, IL as well as at their home in Miami Beach, FL, and were notable philanthropists in both cities.

On October 6th, 1955, Nelson Morris died suddenly as he and Blanche were disembarking from an ocean liner in New York City. He was 63 years old. He willed a 24-room home that they owned on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive to the Catholic church. Blanche Morris continued the charity work to which she and her husband had been so devoted. She set up a scientific foundation in Nelson Morris’ name, dedicated specifically to cancer research. Blanche passed away in 1983.

(Special thanks to Dennis Kromm for providing much of the information regarding Nelson Morris’ relationship to Bert Dolan)


Unknown said...

Nelson Morris was the brother of Muriel Gardiner, an American woman who was a medical student in Vienna in the 1930s, helped save many Jews and other endangered persons as a member of the Austrian resistance after the Nazi takeover in 1938, and was almost certainly the model for Lillian Hellman’s “Julia,” as depicted in Hellman’s supposed memoir and the movie of the same name. In 1940,shortly before the fall of Paris, Gardner and her husband Joseph Buttinger (who is famous in his own right),fled to the United States, where Gardiner became a noted psychoanalyst.

Incredibly, Gardiner’s daughter, Constance Harvey, cameto the U.S. on the Andrea Doris, which sank of the coast of Massachusetts in 1956. Harvey survived.

Anonymous said...

Hiya -- according to Blanche Morris's obituary (Chicago Tribune, 14 September 1983, Section 2, Page 14, Columns 4-6), the home donated after Nelson Morris's death was located at 18000 Perth Avenue in Homewood, Illinois. Also, it was donated not to the Archdiocese, but to Homewood's St. Joseph Catholic Church, which was undergoing a big building expansion back in the mid-'50s. It seems the parish then turned around and sold the property, using the proceeds of the sale to fund (partially, at least) that expansion.

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