Moore used her fairies and their castle to stitch up an alarmingly tattered social contract, providing an occasion for people of all ages, races, classes and backgrounds to look together at an astonishing object and to contemplate how collaboratively through the pooling of their individual contributions, they could move proverbial mountains.

By Kathleen Rooney

“Fairy tales are thus more realistic than they may appear at first sight; while the magic in them almost heightens the realism. The magic sets us wondering how we ourselves would react in similar circumstances. It encourages speculation. It gives a child license to wonder. And this is the merit of the tales, that by going beyond possibility they enlarge our daily horizon. For a man not given to speculation might as well walk on four legs as on two. A child who does not feel wonder is but an inlet for apple pie.” ~Iona & Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales, 1974

In the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the Beaux-Arts structure of the Museum of Science and Industry rises like a temple from the flats alongside Lake Michigan. Originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, today it houses the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere with 400,000 square feet of exhibits.

Passing through the Ionic columns beneath laurel wreaths and caryatids always makes me think of a movie set—something grandiose by Griffith or DeMille from the golden age of Old Old Hollywood.

Or maybe I only think of it in terms of that bygone era of cinema because of the smaller museum hidden inside the massive one, a miniature marvel built by that era’s arguably most popular female star, herself now mostly unjustly forgotten, the irrepressible and irresistible flapper and comedienne Colleen Moore.

Autographed picture of Colleen Moore.

Although her reputation is neglected now, her breakout role as the fiery Pat Fentriss in 1923’s succès de scandale Flaming Youth sent millions of women to the beauty shop to imitate her signature bob. Her chopped locks were as much of a signature as Charlie Chaplin’s mustache, Harold Lloyd’s glasses, or Buster Keaton’s porkpie hat. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”

The Los Angeles Times called her “Peter Pan with a collegiate figure and a Wall Street brain” in tribute to her incarnation of youthful energy coupled with a savvy sense for business. By embodying the breezy, proto-feminist zeitgeist in a tower of hits upon hits in the 1920s, Moore held the record in top box office receipts for three years running from 1927 to 1929.

Alas, Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that over 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost, and the Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost forever. The majority of Moore’s output has suffered that fate. All that remains of the incandescent Flaming Youth is an 11-minute clip.

But we’ve still got her Doll House, as she called it, or her Fairy Castle as it is more widely known, the most beautiful and elaborate doll house ever made. Taking 100 craftspeople, half a million dollars, and seven years from 1928 to 1935 to construct on a scale of one inch to one foot, the one-ton structure has been called “the ultimate enchanted castle” by CBS News, and they’re right.

As the onset of talkies followed by the stock market crash threw Hollywood and the rest of America into grim uncertainty, and as her own seemingly (from the outside) fairy tale marriage irrevocably crumbled—hers was the story the original A Star Is Born was based on—Moore threw herself and her fortune into this stunning creation, a tribute to the unseen fairies from her Irish grandmother’s stories.

Cast in aluminum to be light and shippable and consisting of 200 interlocking parts, the castle is roughly nine feet square with its tallest tower reaching 12 feet high. Its opulent rooms contain nearly 1,500 tiny and impossibly precious objects including miniature books, antiques, and artifacts. Characteristically whimsical touches range from a polar bear rug crafted from a bit of ermine skin and a mouse’s teeth to adorn the Bedroom of the Prince to a platinum engagement ring for the Fairy Princess with the smallest full-cut diamond on the planet, its band too minute to fit even the width of a pin.

A feat of engineering, the castle has its own fully functional plumbing and electrical systems. Every room is inspired by classic fairy tales, legends, and folklore and each one’s composition suggests a story with infinitesimal fairy participants.

Part of my lifelong obsession with the Castle stems from Moore’s insistence on the presence of said fairies. Back when I first visited, museum guests could pick up heavy black telephone receivers positioned around the display and hear the voice of Moore herself providing narration. In the library, she explained in a charming voice through the crackle of the line:

The furniture has a sea motif and is verdigris copper. Sea horses and sea snails hold the shell-like furniture. This furniture is made for fairy folk who like to read in different positions. That chair turned up in front is made for a little elf who likes to read with his feet in the air. 

There are no dolls or figures in the Castle anywhere, she said, because the edifice is meant for habitation by the fairies. Elsewhere, she explained, the floating spiral staircase in the Great Hall has no railing because fairy folk balance themselves with their wings.

The Museum of Science and Industry contains many better-known exhibits, including the Old Ben Coal Mine, the U505 German submarine, and the Pioneer Zephyr passenger train. Yet ever since I laid eyes on it for the first time on a visit to the MSI when I was eight years old, the Castle has occupied prime real estate in my brain. Never far from my heart, the Castle is what I tell friends they absolutely must see whenever they visit the city and ask for recommendations.

In short, it’s a wonder. Cinderella’s glass slippers, on display in the Great Hall, are hollow and have red bows, high heels, and are ¼ an inch long, made by a glassblower named E.H. Rohl who used to work with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Two elaborate silver-and-gold suits of armor given to her by Rudolph Valentino before his untimely death in 1926 pose eternally in the enigmatic lighting. A gold monstrance in the Chapel contains a sliver of wood believed to be a piece of the True Cross given to her by Clare Boothe Luce, former ambassador to Italy, who received it from the pope during her first audience with him. She was a new Catholic convert, and bestowed it to Moore in a gold medallion.

You could look at this wonder for hours, like I did as a kid. You could write a novel about it as I have done as an adult.

What’s the point of wonder, though? Moore’s Castle would be a stunning achievement had she never sought to answer that question herself, but she did. During the depths of the poverty and economic uncertainty of the 1930s, she found a way to make the massive problems of the world recede temporarily by feasting the public’s eyes on the Castle’s myriad tiny objects.

Moore made romance and magnificence accessible to everyone. Room by room, familiar and unusual objects make up a collection of collections documenting past lifestyles and customs, as well as the norms and mores of a totally fantastical realm. Fans, pipes, photographs, jewelry, keys, pharmacy containers and reliquary bottles, and books abound, all displayed in an intimate atmosphere evoking Moore’s private universe, which she then made public.

When her vision was complete, seeing the desperation of the nation during the Great Depression, Moore crisscrossed the country by rail to show the Fairy Castle in local department stores everywhere from Atlanta to Omaha, Los Angeles to Washington and on and on with the aim of raising $1 million for the disabled and destitute children in those communities. On a single day in April of 1935, over 115,000 spectators came to Macy’s in Manhattan to gaze at it. By the time she had to stop touring due to the onset of WWII, she had raised almost $650,000, along with the country’s sinking spirits.

A common question among her contemporary killjoys was: if Moore wanted to make such a difference, why funnel it into a castle, and why this pretense as to the existence of fairies? Why not just take a fat stack of movie star cash and fling it directly at the problem? But Moore knew that money wasn’t the only point—she sought to jolt a despondent citizenry out of its socially and economically induced anomie and into a sense of wonder and solidarity. She used her fairies and their castle to stitch up an alarmingly tattered social contract, providing an occasion for people of all ages, races, classes and backgrounds to look together at an astonishing object and to contemplate how collaboratively through the pooling of their individual contributions, they could move proverbial mountains.

In his 1990 essay “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” Marxist humanist John Berger writes that, “In the sky of the cinema people learn what they might have been and discover what belongs to them apart from their single lives.” This is one of the most beautiful definitions of the purpose of moving pictures that I know of.  And to me, it unites the magic of Moore’s work as an actress with her work as a visionary artist. In both her films and in her Fairy Castle, she evokes wonder in its most basic and elegant sense of “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience.”

The word wonder derives etymologically from the Old English wundor meaning “miracle.” I like to think of how thanks to her bringing a veritable miracle to a world awash in malaise, Moore also brought about a personal miracle. When her tour made its stop in Chicago, she met her third and most beloved husband, the widower Homer Hargrave, a prominent stockbroker and Vice President at Merrill Lynch, eventually becoming the doting stepmother to his son and daughter, achieving her own version of a happily ever after.

In 1949, recognizing the lasting value of Moore’s visionary project, the MSI in her newly adopted hometown acquired the castle, and since then it’s been on display in Hyde Park, blowing minds for almost 75 years.

These days, adrift in another wave of national malaise, I’ve found myself thinking more about Moore and her fairies. Because the kind of awe inspired by spending time in the presence and contemplation of creations like Moore’s doll house can offer an antidote against cynicism and bad faith.

Every object in the castle testifies—gorgeously and without any hint of preaching or self-righteousness—to the appeal of good faith. The castle’s chapel contains a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe done on copper by the Mexican artist Ramos Martínez to commemorate his daughter’s being cured of polio after he made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Guadalupe to restore her health, after which he vowed to honor the Virgin from then on through his art.

The castle operates as an engine for driving enchantment, a mechanism for producing awe, and Moore weaves the sort of magic our disenchanted moment could use a lot more of. As certified awe expert and psychologist Dacher Keltner has discovered, experiences of wonder make their experiencers “less narcissistic, less entitled,” leaving them willing to share, cooperate, and give more than before.

Writing of her friend Booth Luce’s aforementioned gift, Moore states “It is not possible to describe my emotions on receiving this remarkable offering, but I know that hundreds of thousands of children unborn will see this relic and I feel that it will mean something to many of them. The time will never come when we will not be in the presence of miracles.”

Almost 100 years after the date of its completion in the midst of another time of economic inequality and precariousness, the Castle stands as a reminder of how collective wonder can offer a break from the brutality of an individualistic and competitive system, and how our delight in and imagined organization of miniscule things can be a stay against the colossal threats around us.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her recent books include the national best-seller Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press 2017), the novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin 2020), and From Dust to Stardust, based on the life and work of Colleen Moore. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. Follow her at @KathleenMrooney