If Elaine Silets ever writes her autobiography — and we can only hope she does, and soon — it will have to be published in a couple of volumes. The woman has stories.
Born in Chicago to a lawyer father (the Marx Brothers were among his clients) and concert pianist mother, she graduated from Bennington College in Vermont, and lived in Paris as a grad student, artist and art dealer. Returning to the U.S., she married Chicago attorney Harvey Silets, raised three children, helped run her husband's practice, and then almost by accident founded a high-end model railroad business.
Huff & Puff Industries (trainlady.com), begun more than 20 years ago, designs, builds and installs meticulously detailed layouts for botanic gardens, shopping centers, retailers, private gardens and individuals across the country. Working from a drafting office in her north suburban home, Silets has her hands full with projects.
Her interest in trains is one of those wonderful stories. An uncle in the wholesale hardware business before
Her brother wasn't interested, she says. "I was 3. He was 9. I thought dolls were very boring. All they did back then was pee. My parents let me have his trains. I set them up and ran them all over the house. Trains! They're mechanical things that moved. They made sounds. Smoke tablets — my god, smoke tablets!"
How many women her age — she declines to be specific — get excited about smoke tablets?
She also gets excited talking about her late husband, their kids and grandchildren and her favorite charity. And, of course, trains.
Q: You started in the art world.
A: I got a degree in fine arts from Bennington, then I spent four years in Paris and did graduate work there. I went to L'Ecole Superieur des Beaux Arts. Then I became a dealer in high-end museum-quality artwork. I did it about 10 years.
Q: Where did you meet Harvey?
A: I came back to Chicago from Paris, and my mother gave a cocktail party for my return. One of my oldest friends brought his new roommate. And he asked me to marry him on our second date. My father told him, "You must be batty to marry my daughter, but you'll never be bored." And for 44 years, he was never bored.
Q: Speaking of your father ... the Marx Brothers?
A: My father (Martin Stanton Gordon) was an entertainment lawyer, back when Chicago was the center of the movie industry. The Marx Brothers were clients. The Marx Brothers in real life were just like they were in the movies. My father would get a call. "We've got them down at 11th and State." One call, they were staying at the Palmer House, and they had dismembered a piano and thrown the pieces out the window.
Q: You and Harvey raised your family, and eventually you went to work for him.
A: After my third child went to first grade, I went to help my husband start a new practice. I was supposed to stay two weeks. I stayed 16 years. Then the practice merged (in 1991) and I was out of a job. .... I was getting bored, so I decided I wanted to build a garden railway. Harvey said I'd never do it. But about a month later, we had a garden railway. One day I got a call from Tom McComas (a nationally known model railroading expert). He came out and photographed it, and it was in one of his videos. The following month, 10 copies of the video arrived. So I was feeling full of beans. I figured, if I could market something as dull as lawyers, I could market this. I sent the 10 videos to prospective clients —
Q: There's a lot of hands-on work in building these layouts. Where'd you learn all that?
A: (Starting out) I was getting very annoyed at the plumber and carpenter I was employing. They wouldn't show up, and I'd have to explain to my clients. So I learned to do those things. Over the years people used to come up to Harvey: "You're married to the train lady. I bet you did the plumbing and electric (on the layouts)." He'd tell them, "I'm a trial lawyer. She does all that."
Q: You open your railway gardens to the public every year for a garden walk. This year you had 5,000 visitors, and it benefits Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
A: Yes. The Harvey M. Silets Memorial Scholarship. There have been nearly 100 Silets scholars.
Q: Have you thought about slowing down?
A: Looking at my friends who are going into retirement living, I'm appalled. They may be doing that to get some help with their lives, or for safety reasons, but that's not what I would want. I'd never want to be surrounded by people my age. I love kids. Little kids, bigger kids. That's what makes my life vibrant.
Q: You've been an artist, a mother, worked in the legal world, started a business ... what advice would you share?
A: What has driven me is this: Take a challenge and run with it. Don't let anybody tell you you can't do something. If you don't know how to do something, educate yourself. Learn how. Also, take everything with a grain of salt. Nobody is God. If you doubt what they're telling you, go find out. Another thing: My father used to have time for everybody. He was very interested in the paperboy. He was very interested in the clerk at