Uptown Chicago Resources

“Remembering the Edgewater Beach Hotel” by Adam Langer

Remembering the Edgewater Beach Hotel

Part 5

The Natural.

In The Natural starring Robert Redford, the shooting of Roy Hobbs by a mysterious woman in a Chicago hotel mirrored what happened to pro baseball player Eddie Waitkus when he stayed at the Edgewater.

Then, there was the time that Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus was shot in the hotel by Ruth Steinhagen. If you talk to the people who lived and worked at the hotel at the time, most of them get the story wrong. “Some fella got shot from the Cubs,” one told me. Marilou Hedlund had gone with her parents to the movie that night and, from what she heard, Waitkus was shot by his girlfriend. The girls from the Dorothy Hild Dancers were so sheltered that none of them ever even heard the story.

But Bernard Malamud knew it. And, a couple of years after it happened, he put a very similar incident into The Natural. According to Malamud critic Earl Wasserman in his essay “World Ceres,” the shooting of Roy Hobbs by a mysterious woman in a Chicago hotel room mirrored what happened one June evening in 1949 in the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

A star first baseman, Eddie Waitkus was hitting .300 and leading the National League in all-star votes at his position when he came to Chicago to face his old ball team, the Cubs. At 29, the former Harvard man was at the height of his career.

And Ruth Steinhagen was obsessed with him. On a table in her Chicago home, she’d arrange a display of Waitkus mementos—baseball cards, photographs and game programs. Steinhagen was 19 years old, worked as a typist, and lived at 1950 N. Lincoln. But, when the Phillies came to town for a mid-week series with the Cubs, she checked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

Back then, National League baseball teams favored the Edgewater Beach Hotel because of its convenience to Wrigley Field. Her first night there, Ruth Steinhagen’s best friend came over. She told the friend that she was going to “get Eddie,” but the friend didn’t believe her. Steinhagen was always talking about Eddie Waitkus. Another time she’d said she was going to move to Philadelphia because Waitkus played there.

Steinhagen would later say that she had wanted to do this for two years. She had made her hotel reservation a month before. She brought with her a change of clothes, a knife, and a .22-caliber rifle. She wasn’t a big drinker, but that night she had a couple of drinks.

She tipped the bellboy $5 to deliver a note to Waitkus that, according to the Tribune, said “It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain this to you as I am leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow. I realize this is out of the ordinary but, as I say, it is extremely important.” It was signed “Ruth Ann Bums.”

Waitkus got the note and phoned her. She told him she had to get dressed so he should come by in half an hour, at 11:30. Steinhagen assembled her rifle and put the knife in her purse. She’d explain that she had wanted to stab Waitkus when he came in, but he walked by so fast that she didn’t have time to open her purse and pull out the knife.

Waitkus sat down in a chair and Steinhagen said, “I have a surprise for you,” as she walked toward the closet. Out came her rifle. She told him to move toward the window and she said, “For two years you’ve been bothering me and now you’re going to die.” Then she pulled the trigger. Hit in the chest, Waitkus fell to the floor and looked up at her. He smiled as she went for the phone. “Baby, what did you do that for?” he asked.

Edgewater Beach Hotel Fireplace.

Winter guests at the Edgewater Beach Hotel could stay warm and cozy in front of the massive fireplace. Image courtesy CRCC collection.

Steinhagen held Waitkus’s hand until the hotel detective arrived. Steinhagen was charged with assault with intent to kill and placed under psychiatric examination. She told reporters that she was happier in jail than she had ever been, for the people in jail were much nicer than the people she knew in the real world. She said she shot Waitkus because she admired him.

For a while, Eddie Waitkus’s life hung “in balance”—or so a Tribune headline declared. But he recovered and went back to playing baseball. And when reporters wondered what had happened in the hotel room, Waitkus said, “I asked what it was all about and when I turned around—holy smokes! She had a rifle in her hands... Before I could say anything, Whammy!” “Why did she have to pick on a nice guy like me?” he said. “Oh brother—it was safer in New Guinea.”

The baseball players came. So did the celebrities and the heads of state. They all came to the legendary Edgewater Beach Hotel. On a given day, you might see Don Ameche or Kate Smith; during the 1959 Pan American Games young Fidelito Castro, son of Cuba’s new boss, celebrated his tenth birthday there. When the Mets were in town, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see Casey Stengel at the bar. Magician Jay Marshall played the Edgewater Beach Hotel three times in his career, in the ’40s, the ’50s and the ’60s.

Jay Marshall, magician:

When you’re old, your mind starts to go, but I remember seeing quite a few people there. Groucho Marx, Franchot Tone. It was the ideal place for prom parties. For a lot of the girls, it was their first time out, they’d get a little drunk and you know that story.

It was a very tall hotel. There was a room at the top where they had a bar. Casey and the other people hung out at the bar on top. You always could see him up at the bar. It had a lovely view of Chicago.

Les Waverly, bandleader:

My bass player told me that he and the saxophone player were sitting at the bar one night having a drink, and sitting next to them was Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. Casey was buying drinks and pretty soon Yogi said, "Hey, we got a game tomorrow. I’m gonna go get some sleep." Casey said, “OK, go ahead.” In the meantime, Casey’s still there buying drinks and the room was closing, so he said, “Hey, where can we go for some serious drinking?” So they went across the street and had a couple more hours of drinking.

They got back at four in the morning and the next day my bass and saxophone players were watching the game on TV. And there’s Casey, sitting in the dugout like nothing ever happened.

Mahatma Gandhi.

When political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, the hotel chefs prepared special vegetarian meals.

George Stanton, chief executive steward:

I would see everybody there. But from a distance. Like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. (The Yankees would have stayed there during the ’32 World Series against the Cubs.) People would flock to see them for autographs, but I’d seen them all out on the field.

We had every one of the governors staying there at one time. The governors were a happy-go-lucky bunch. They wanted an American menu. Steak one night. Prime rib the next. We had to make a thousand prime ribs. We had two slicing machines—huge sterilized slicing machines. The chef and I would make sure that no one put their fingers there.

Gandhi stayed there. His menu was the most unusual one. He had his own special milk delivered; his own goat’s milk was delivered especially for him. We had to make up a special preparation for him because he was a vegetarian.

Marilou Hedlund, resident:

The king of Saudi Arabia. That still is in my mind. Absolutely. I can look and I can just see the whole thing. They came in a stream of limousines and they took over the octagonal part of the hotel and our apartment was directly across from the octagonal building in the tower. And I can remember looking with binoculars when they would pray to Mecca.

Talk about provincial, these were the most exotic things to me. Back then, there were magical books and you would read quite a bit about Arabia and Persia and wonderful, magical places, and that’s where these people were from. So, to me, they were strange and wondrous.

Betty Gray, organist:

King Saud was there one time and the orchestra was being led by Henry Brandon. And I remember he didn’t know what to play when the king entered the Marine Dining Room. So he finally picked “The Sheik of Araby,” which I thought was about as corny as you could get. It’s funny what people do when you’re caught, because you have to think of something and you don’t have a lot of time. Afterwards, I remember the king gave away a lot of wristwatches to the various people around the hotel. I didn’t get one.

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