Thursday, June 19, 2008

George Fabyan, Eccentric

Fortune magazine, in an on-line list of 10 American wealthy eccentrics, has this to say about George Fabyan: "Fabyan made a fortune as a cloth dealer and then retired to his estate, Riverbank, in Geneva, Illinois. The house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There, Fabyan devoted himself to his varied interests. He became convinced, using cryptological analysis, that Francis Bacon was the author of many Shakespeare plays, and persuaded a court to rule to this effect in 1916. He spent almost two years and $75,000 transplanting a windmill to his estate. And he spent years trying to build an acoustically-operated levitation device.

"But Fabyan was more than just a crank - or at least he left more of a legacy. At Riverbank he brought in world-class researchers in architectural acoustics, and it was Riverbank-trained cipher analysts who helped crack German and Mexican codes during World War I."

Actually, Fayban's house was re-designed by Wright. It's near the west bank of the Fox River, through remnants of a formal garden and up a slope. Fayban and his wife found it as a farm house in the early 1900s, and commissioned Wright -- then still an architect in Oak Park with an eye for clients' wives -- to redevelop it. It certainly looks like it has the stamp of Wright on it, and it's also fairly easy to distinguish some of the original rooms from those that Wright added. Wright didn't believe in particularly tall ceilings, for one thing.

Fabyan apparently liked to collect things, including stuffed animals and Japanese items, many of which are still on display in his house, now called the Fabyan Villa Museum. You (I) have to like any little museum that has both a glass case full of bird eggs, including that all-important ostrich egg, as well as a full suit of samurai armor, and a mummy (discovered many years later to be a fake).

In his lifetime, we were told, Fabyan also keep a small menagerie on the grounds of his estate. Among others were two bears, Tom and Jerry, and a small troupe of monkeys. On the second floor of the house, we saw a room with a tin floor where the monkeys stayed in the winter. It might have been hard to sleep on certain winter nights in the Fabyan household.

More astonishingly, Fabyan, through his daft interest in breaking a code that he supposed existed in the works of Shakespeare, inadvertently created a nucleus of cryptographers that proved to be invaluable to the United States in both World Wars. F.N. D'Alessio of the AP wrote about it in 2001: "[Fabyan's] cryptology project might have dissolved had the United States not entered World War I in April 1917. The federal government had virtually no cryptographers, and Fabyan had plenty, so Riverbank became the NSA of its day. Newlyweds William and Elizebeth Friedman were soon cracking German and Mexican codes for the US military and helping Scotland Yard expose anti-British agents in North America.

"When the US Army finally established its own Cipher Bureau, its first 88 officers were trained by Fabyan and the Friedmans at Riverbank. When they graduated, William Friedman took a commission himself and went to France...

"William Friedman became the nation's top code breaker and led the successful effort to crack the Japanese codes before World War II. Elizebeth Friedman did her code breaking for the Coast Guard and the Treasury Department, and later established a secure communications system for the International Monetary Fund.

"In 1955 [long after Fabyan had died], the Friedmans returned to the Shakespeare question in their book, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Although they thanked Fabyan for encouraging code studies, they concluded that they began their careers seeking something that did not exist."

The entire article is here.

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At 3:41 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Thank you. We just finished touring the George Fabyan estate near the Fox River and found it quite interesting.

Ann Arbor, MI

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Wish you'd have posted photos with the story.

Neal Brown
Wheaton, IL


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