Life and career
Leiter was born to Anne (née Ziegler) and Joseph Thomas Leiter, of Leitersburg, the Washington County, Maryland, town founded by his grandfather, Abraham Leiter. Leiter's family was of German Swiss descent, and some of his ancestors had been Mennonites. Leiter was raised a Lutheran.
As a boy, Leiter worked for a dry goods business in Springfield, Ohio. In 1853 he began working as a bookkeeper at Chicago's then-largest dry goods company, Cooley, Wadsworth & Co., where he worked alongside Marshall Field and Potter Palmer. Leiter and Field became partners in the firm, but in 1865, they sold their interest in the company to John V. Farwell and went into business, along with Palmer, as Field, Palmer, Leiter & Co.
In 1866, Leiter married Mary Theresa Carver (1844–1913) of Chicago.
In 1867, Palmer left his business to pursue real estate ventures, and the company was renamed Field, Leiter & Co. Field & Leiter built a six-story store on State Street in 1868. It was rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. From 1874 to 1880, Leiter was a member of the Executive Committee of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, which helped collect and distribute funds to rebuild Chicago after the fire. When Leiter sold his interest to Field and retired from the dry goods business in 1881, the name was changed to Marshall Field and Company.
As Leiter's wealth increased, he invested much of his savings in Chicago real estate. After retirement from Field, Leiter & Co., he devoted his attention to real estate and corporate interests. He later devoted time to travel and philanthropy. He was the first president of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the second president of the Chicago Art Institute, a president of the Chicago Historical Society, and a prominent figure in the Illinois Trust Company.
In 1895, his eldest daughter Mary Victoria married the British Conservative statesman George Curzon, later 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston. His second daughter, Nancy, was the sponsor of USS Illinois (BB-7). His youngest daughter, Margaret Hyde Leiter, married Henry Molineux Howard, the 19th Earl of Suffolk and 12th Earl of Berkshire.
Leiter's only son, Joseph (b. 4 December 1868), graduated from Harvard University in 1891, and was Levi Leiter's agent from 1892 to 1898. Joseph attempted to corner the wheat market from 1897 to 1898, and was briefly the largest individual holder of wheat in the history of the grain trade. Concerted action by his competitors broke the corner. Levi paid millions of dollars to settle Joseph's debts after the market crashed in 1898. Levi's losses were reputed to run to $10,000,000. Joseph was later president of the Zeigler Coal Company, Chicago, and of the Chicago, Zeigler and Gulf Railway Company; and a director of the American Security and Trust Company.
After his death, his Washington, D.C. home was used for elaborate parties hosted by his widow. During WWII, the mansion was leased to the U.S. Government for office space. The property was sold and the structure demolished in 1947. The site is now the location of the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
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