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Frick legacy: Book examines life of industrialist's daughter

| Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007

In 1919, 31-year-old Helen Clay Frick inherited $38 million -- more than $404 million in today's dollars -- making her the richest unmarried woman in America.

But even with Helen's newfound fortune, she continued to live and work under her father's influence. She devoted the ensuing years to perpetuating Henry Clay Frick's legacy, as well as defending it.

A new book -- "Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress" (Universirty of Pittsburgh Press, $40) -- chronicles Helen Clay Frick's lifelong commitment to social welfare, the environment and her purchase of many significant works of art. Those pieces found homes in a number of places -- her private collection, The Frick Collection in New York, the University of Pittsburgh teaching collection and the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze.

The biography was written by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, of Stevenson, Md. She is the great-granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick and granddaughter of Helen's brother, Childs.

For all of her great aunt's eccentricities, Sanger says, a portrait of Helen Frick as a heroic figure began to emerge while Sanger worked on the book. During her 96 years, Helen Clay Frick stood up for her convictions.

"I saw a deeply wounded woman who was up against the sexism of the times, up against the misunderstanding of abuse of power by the father, just up against so much," Sanger says. "But she pulled her bootstraps up and did it anyway."

As Sanger tells it, living in the shadow of one of America's great industrialists was no walk in the park.

Of course, growing up in a life of privilege in the 1890s, Helen had everything at her fingertips, from ivory dominoes crafted by Tiffany to playing cards from Vienna. She often entertained important visitors in her playroom at the family's Pittsburgh mansion, Clayton, serving tea to Andrew Carnegie and to the Mellon brothers, Andrew and Richard.

But such trappings were overshadowed by the loss of two siblings before the age of 4, especially the loss of her sister, Martha, who died when Helen was just 3.

Born in 1885, Martha was the first daughter of Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide Howard Childs Frick. She was nicknamed "Rosebud" because of her creamy complexion and soft red curls.

The circumstances of her death in 1891 -- one week before her 6th birthday after being ill for four years -- haunted Henry Frick for the remainder of his life. Less than a year later, Adelaide gave birth prematurely to a son. He died two months later. During this same time, Frick was shot and stabbed in his office by a Russian anarchist. Frick's wife began "retreating more and more into depression and abdicating her role as his companion and wife."

Helen, then 6 and Frick's only surviving daughter, became her father's consoler and companion, which lasted well into his waning years. For this, Sanger says, "she was ridiculed for being in love with her father."

When he died, Frick left approximately 83 percent of his fortune to be used for the greater good, distributed to charitable institutions in New York, Pittsburgh and the West Overton-Connellsville Coke region where he was born. The bulk of what remained went to Helen, despite the fact that he also was survived by his widow; his son, Childs; and four grandchildren.

As Sanger writes, Helen was proud of her father's affection. In her diary, she confessed that her father often said, "Helen's my girl." And sometimes, Helen wrote, "after perhaps giving me a little reproof, he would say 'never mind -- I'm so in love with her -- her happiness is what I am after.' "

Frick refused to allow Helen to marry, and even after his death she remained single. Yet she was a fierce defender of her father.

"She was as much an enigma as Henry Clay Frick," Sanger says. "For us, Henry Clay Frick was almost presented as this God who descended on earth and did all of these marvelous things, then left. That usually came from Helen Frick and the way that she sort of glorified and deified him. But she herself was very much the matriarch of our family.

"I knew her in the later part of her life, and to me, she was sort of a fussy old lady who wrapped up her dogs in little coats and gave them aspirin when she took them for walks in their rubbers. She was very coddling that way. In fact, she seemed overprotective of all of us. "

From student to scholar

Henry Frick's pursuit of paintings was a tireless obsession, but it also was done as a leisure activity. For several months of the year, Henry and Adelaide Frick and their children would travel to Europe with friends and art dealers to examine collections, attend art salons and art auctions, and soak up "The Continent."

The Fricks filled their homes -- Clayton in Point Breeze and, later, their mansion in New York and their 104-room summer retreat, Eagle Rock, in Pride's Crossing, Mass. -- with art, great and small, and decorative objects picked up on trips and through a network of dealers and independent agents. As the Fricks moved around seasonally, Henry Frick had his paintings packed up and moved to accompany them.

As Helen grew older, she and her father spent much of their free time viewing art, discussing it and documenting it.

"She was born extremely bright with a very good eye," Sanger says. "Very sensitive to everything that is around her as far as beauty is concerned, as far as history is concerned. That was not visited on her by her father. That was something that she was already genetically predisposed to, whereas my grandfather, her brother, could have cared less. I mean, he didn't have any interest or aptitude for all of that."

From an early age, Helen was educated by a governess and was a voracious reader.

"Helen was fascinated by the history of a painting," Sanger says. "She was fascinated by provenance, who had owned it, and who the artist was, and how that artist linked to other artists of the period."

When Helen was just 8, Sanger writes, her father told an associate that he could not exchange a painting in his collection for another, because "Helen would not consent to part with it."

"There wasn't much about art that she didn't fully study and understand," Sanger says. "Whenever she traveled abroad, she read voluminously about what she was going to see. And then, of course, she went through Europe with the best of the best advisors and historians who were friends of the Fricks."

From apostle to heir

After her father's death, Helen began to fashion a life for herself. But she faced her brother Childs' bitterness over the uneven distribution of his father's wealth and the envy and suspicion of the men she joined on the board of The Frick Collection.

Sanger describes Helen as "a teacher" who wanted to educate the public about art, which led to the formation of the Frick Art Reference Library.

She threw herself into the creation of the library, which originally was in the bowling alley of the family's New York mansion at 1 E. 70th St., although she registered the library in Pennsylvania. Throughout her life, Helen would keep her legal residence in Pittsburgh, although she spent much of her time in New York; at Eagle Rock; at her property in Bedford Village, N.Y., called Westmoreland Farm; and traveling abroad.

From an early age, Helen was interested in photo-documenting works of art in America and Europe. As early as 1922, she commissioned photographers to take pictures of the art in many museums for the Frick Art Reference Library.

The library was relocated in 1935, around the corner from The Frick Collection in New York. With holdings of more than 280,000 volumes, including more than 70,000 auction sales catalogs and almost a million photographs, it was, and still is, the largest art reference library in existence.

The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Documents in War Areas, based at the Frick Art Reference Library during World War II, used the library's photographs and indices to ensure Allied bombers could avoid striking sites with important works of art. After the war, the library's records were used to aid in the repatriation of art.

Another of Helen Frick's causes was the True Blue Society, which gave female factory workers from Massachusetts a vacation at Iron Rail Farm at Pride's Crossing. She began this endeavor in 1908 and continued it until 1970.

In the late 1920s, she set about establishing a fine arts department at the University of Pittsburgh, agreeing to donate $25,000 as startup money for a fine arts library and agreeing to pay the $10,000 annual salary for the head of the department, as well as another $10,000 for books and photographs. She also agreed to fund the department completely if it met with her satisfaction after three years.

In 1927, she presided at the opening of her father's birthplace in West Overton as a historic site that she hoped would "stimulate interest in the splendid early history of this locality." She had bought the property in 1922 and, after the opening of the Historical House, she also bought the distillery across the road, together with nearby mill buildings and three-and-a-half acres of land.

Controversies

Throughout her life, Helen was forced to tangle with powerful men and institutions. She held strong views about politics -- she was an avowed Republican -- art and other topics.

For instance, after post-World War I trip to Europe, where she viewed the terrible toll the war had taken on France, she developed a strong animosity toward all things German. This position would harden, resulting in her rule excluding Germans or people with German-sounding names from using the Frick Art Reference Library.

After her father's death, she was in frequent conflict with John D. Rockefeller Jr., whom her father also had appointed a trustee of the Frick Collection.

By the end of Henry Clay Frick's life, he had bought almost 250 paintings, although he did not retain all of them. He bequeathed all he had, as well as his decorative arts collection, to become a museum in the Frick's mansion in New York City.

Known as The Frick Collection, Helen wanted to keep the house as it had been lived in, but Rockefeller thought it should be a real museum, and the furniture and personal effects should be pared down to a minimum.

In 1948, Rockefeller offered to give paintings by Botticelli, Goya and Fragonard to The Frick Collection. Vehemently opposed by Helen, who wanted to keep non-Frick acquisitions out of the collection, the matter went to court, where she lost.

In 1961, during a similar battle over accepting artworks from the Rockefellers, she resigned from the board of The Frick Collection in a fury. She also vehemently opposed the addition of modern art to the collection.

In late 1964, Helen came undone about the release of historian Sylvester K. Stevens' "Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation" (Random House). A copy of the book had been given to her as a Christmas present. Upon reading it, she became incensed about the characterization of her "stern, brusque, autocratic" father as the hard-line "Coke King" who forced Pennsylvania coal miners to toil for $1.60 a day and ruthlessly led "the disastrous Homestead strike of 1892."

Calling Stevens a liar, Helen Frick sought an injunction to stop the sale and publication of the book, suing under a 1944 Pennsylvania precedent defining libel as a publication "tending either to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or the reputation of one who is alive."

At the time, statutes in several states made defamation of the dead a crime. The possibility of a Frick victory alarmed historians, even though many in the legal profession believed it was a case impossible to win.

It was. Two-and-a-half years later, Cumberland County Judge Clinton R. Weidner ruled not only that Stevens' book was protected as free speech, but also that Stevens was accurate and, in fact, too easy on the tycoon.

If Helen Frick's suit were upheld, Judge Weidner said, "our bookshelves would be either empty or contain books written only by relatives of the subject."

Perhaps her biggest disappointment of all came over the formation of the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Art Reference Library. Having paid for its creation in 1965 -- reportedly between $4 million and $5 million for the building alone -- she withdrew her support of the library in 1967 in a controversy about the employment of Germans and the exhibition of modern art at the university.

Still, she remained as director of the Frick Art Reference Library in New York until 1983, when she was persuaded to resign. Sanger's book quotes a witness who said that after Helen Frick resigned, she ''turned her face to the wall and said she wanted to die.''

A lasting legacy

Helen Frick died in Pittsburgh in 1984. She had returned to live at Clayton in 1981 and, upon her death, bequeathed her beloved family home to become a house museum to show how people lived during "The Gilded Age."

She already had created The Frick Art Museum on the Clayton estate, in 1969, to house her own fine art collection. Clayton opened as a house museum in 1990 after a $6 million restoration.

"Helen Frick fought for every inch of what she did, and she never gave up," Sanger says. "She never 'spat the bit out,' to use a horseman's term. She just dug in, worked harder, tried harder, and for a lot of that she was basically vilified." Additional Information:

Frick family

Also by Martha Frick Symington Sanger:

• 'Henry Clay Frick: A Portrait'

• 'The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors and Landscapes in the Golden Era'

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