Anita Willets Burnham

Gazette Article by: Robyn DeKoven Grossberg
Appeared in the Gazette: June 1999

“Doing what can’t be done is the glory of living.” With that gently defiant introduction, Anita Willets-Burnham sweeps her readers away on a whirlwind journey through the pages of her family’s travelogue in book form, Round the World on a Penny. First published in 1933, the book chronicles the fascinations and foibles of world travel with a family of six during two separate ventures, the first for a year from 1921-1922 and the second from 1928-1930.

Better known to Winnetkans as the audacious transporter/owner/restorer of the c. 1830s log house on Willow Road, the oldest home in Winnetka and probably Cook County, Anita Willets-Burnham lived an exuberant life that touched many others. Claiming a genealogy in America dating back to 1635, Anita Willets was born in Brooklyn in 1880 but raised in Chicago.

Anita’s early talent in art led her to study at The Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. Always an independent spirit, Anita, when she fell in love with Alfred Burnham, agonized over marriage. One of her children reports Anita as saying, “When Dad [Alfred] popped the question and I had to decide whether to continue my art career or marry him, he startled me by saying, ‘Why can’t you have a baby and paint one, too?“’ Alfred’s warmth and open-mindedness were to serve him well during future global escapades.

The Burnham family burgeoned to four children over a period of 13 years. Carol-Lou was born in 1908, followed a year later by Florence (Sis), then Willets (Bud), and finally, almost nine years later, baby Ann. During that bustling time Mrs. Burnham somehow managed to juggle children and sketch pads, often surprising neighbors by dropping off her children in her quest to capture a beautiful sunset on canvas. Apparently she offered many a sketch as “hostess gift.”

Mrs. Burnham’s reputation as an artist extended throughout the Chicago area. A faculty member of The Art Institute of Chicago, she became an active member of a group that began an informal sketching class in the Ravinia area. The group eventually evolved into the North Shore Art League, housed for many years in the Winnetka Community House. Mrs. Burnham was a charter and life member of the Art League.

At age 38, with the children ranging in age from nine-month-old baby Ann to 13-year-old Carol-Lou (future artists themselves) and with four years of living in a log house under their belts, destiny appeared to Mrs. Burnham in the form of a relative departing for Paris. “Why not come over?” was the tantalizing question. “Flowers and cathedrals and antique markets everywhere! All for a song. And cauliflower only three cents a head.” Later Mrs. Burnham would admit, “It was the cauliflower that did it.”

Thus began one of the more colorful odysseys recorded by a Winnetkan. Traveling third class, the Burnham crew cheerfully endured every inconvenience imaginable. (Years later, when asked why she traveled third class, Mrs. Burnham answered, “Because there wasn’t fourth class.”) From sitting up all night among the ruins of Pompeii to sleeping on benches in Algiers and in train depots in France, the characters they met provided a sort of international Damon Runyan chronicle.

The family embarked on a second trip in 1928. With Mrs. Burnham in her signature black cape and gargantuan hats and baby Ann in a doll carriage cum ‘go cart’, the Burnham family cut an eccentric swath across Europe and the Orient and made friends everywhere through sheer charm and the common language of art. Mrs. Burnham traded sketches for rooms in places as diverse as Peiping, Florence, Seoul, Cairo, Athens, and Belgium.

Anita Willets-Burnham, artist, wife, mother, renovator, lecturer, traveler, visionary, was most of all an optimist—the personification of Winnetka itself, with all the vision, charm and ‘can-do’ spirit of a village that thrives on individuality. So, for a lift one rainy day, pick up a copy of Mrs. Burnham’s book at the Winnetka Public Library. It’s worth the trip.

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