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'Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait' by Martha Frick Symington Sanger

A descendant crafts a darkly hued biography of Henry Clay Frick

Thursday, October 22, 1998

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic


Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait

By Martha Frick Symington Sanger

Abbeville Press


A great-granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick, once “the most hated man in America,” has unleashed a 600-page biography that is, culturally speaking, a psychological thriller of Johnstown Flood proportions. That seems only right since Frick was a primary originator of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. When its earthen dam broke in 1892, 2,200 people drowned.

But “Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait” is really a double portrait, not only of Frick but also of his daughter, Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984). This dark saga ends with her death at Clayton in Point Breeze. The public has long needed such a book in order to understand what motivated this family.

Frick’s personal life has never been so openly revealed nor so intensely described. The book also is filled with many color and black and white illustrations of art and houses that help the reader understand the breadth of this fascinating subject, from the village of West Overton, Frick’s Westmoreland County birthplace, to the stone halls of New York’s Frick Collection and Eagle Rock, Frick’s long-razed Massachusetts estate.

Frick’s life has not been investigated (although there are a eulogistic biography and art book) for at least two reasons. Frick (1849-1919) was taciturn and hated publicity. Knowing that, Helen, his principal heir, fiercely protected his reputation. Frick also left few personal notes despite voluminous business and family archives.

Sanger, 54, grandniece and regular visitor to Helen, learned from childhood inside information no outside biographer could claim. Reading her deeply psychological account of Frick’s many problems and how his nostalgic memories infused his art collection, even those who may despise him for his union-busting and cold-heartedness will be surprised to learn how unhappy he was, despite his millions.

The inside story of the coke and steel tycoon and his family, beyond salient facts, has been veiled in stony mystery because Frick and Helen (1888-1984), of Pittsburgh and Bedford Village, Westchester County, N.Y., insisted that it be that way.

Now, after 10 years of research and a need for catharsis, Sanger traces in detail many curious aspects of Frick and Helen’s lives. She delves deeply into Frick’s meteoric and turbulent business career, his Mennonite youth, his silence on the Johnstown Flood, his attempted assassination by Alexander Berkman and the catastrophic deaths of two children.

These wrenching events vie with this 20th-century Croesus’ lifelong pursuit of wealth, beauty and the cool grandeur personified by his New York Louis XVI-style mansion.

Henry Clay Frick and daughter Helen’s philanthropy was considerable, benefiting many people and organizations in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Yet their lives in very different ways were filled with feelings of remorse and grief. As true mourning Victorians, the Fricks could never relinquish the memory of Martha, Frick’s elder daughter who died at age 6. Both Frick and Helen carried the dead girl’s portrait on their personal checks.

Frick’s early interest in fine things was stimulated by prints that he hung in his live-in work shack in Connellsville. Soon he was buying more prints and paintings to adorn his room in Pittsburgh’s posh Monongahela House.

His interest in art led to an eye-opening tour of European museums with his younger friend and banker Andrew W. Mellon, who was similarly impressed and would form the National Gallery of Art. Frick’s interest in beauty and luxury led him to enlarge and further decorate his Point Breeze mansion, Clayton. But he established a finer life, a finer palace and a greater gathering of art, the Frick Collection, one of the world’s most impressive, in New York City.

In bequeathing it to the nation, Frick assured for himself the highest form of immortality that the modern world offers. He also gave Frick Park to Pittsburgh as well as millions to Princeton University.

Helen added to his legacy by creating New York’s Frick Art Reference Library, as well as the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Fine Arts Department, Frick Art Reference Library and the Frick Fine Arts Building that contain them. When her museum plans for the latter were thwarted, she built and endowed the Frick Art & Historical Center at Clayton, willing that the house would become a museum to show how the family lived there.

She could not have anticipated Sanger’s fascinating interpretation that should be must-reading for anyone wishing to understand this city’s past and present.

As a bright, sickly but hard-working grandson of Abraham Overholt, Frick was profoundly affected by him, a formidably tough but fair farmer/miller/distiller, and his rock-ribbed wife, Maria.

Although Frick suffered intermittently but severely throughout his life from inflammatory arthritis which debilitated him for long periods, he made his first million from his coke works by 30 and was worth $600 million at his death.

Frick’s father was an unimpressive farmer, so the youth patterned himself on Abraham. Frick’s mother and grandmother doted on him, but Abraham, who died of apoplexy during a morning visit to his outhouse, left Frick nothing, except a way to behave. Abraham kept a sign saying, “If you want to know who’s boss, start something.”

Like his partner, boss and later enemy, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), Frick stood five feet, two inches. His power of concentration may have been his greatest quality. Handsome and well-groomed, he was also nail-tough and fearless.

Taught by Abraham to expect a day’s work for a day’s pay, he was adamant that unions would never gain control of any business he was in. Yet he was often fair, Sanger writes, in dealing with employees, and he provided the latest materials for their safety. But his successful hiring of strike-breaking private police, first in the Connellsville region against non-English-speaking workers and then in 1892 in Homestead against mill supervisors, cost him public opinion.

Sanger believes Frick regretted losing his softer side but had no way to regain these qualities in an era before psychoanalysis. And it was not that Martha, who died shortly before age 6, was more than a sweet child. But she became the lifelong screen on which her father projected his softer side. Martha swallowed a straight pin in Paris in 1887 and began suffering abdominal pain. Her red curls and eyebrows fell off, and two years later the pin was discovered protruding through her side. Her lingering death was caused by peritonitis that Frick’s homeopathic doctors were unable to correct.

Devastated by Martha’s death, her mother, Adelaide Childs Frick, lived in constant depression and forever in her husband’s and then Helen’s shadow. Disappointed with first-born son Childs’ non-business but poetic and scientific nature, Frick fixed on Helen, who was 3 when Martha’s died. Helen became her father’s companion, confidante, ultimate protector and psychological slave/victim.

Frick not only turned away her suitors but forbade her ever marrying. Her inheritance was established to promote his name and good works, or she could have lost it. Even in death Frick was a success. Helen dedicated her life to his memory.

But Sanger makes a strong case that Helen had a powerful love/hate attitude toward her father. The book concludes that since Helen dismissed his caretaker shortly before he died, she blamed herself for Frick’s death, living daily with this assumed guilt.

Sanger finds that Frick’s family memories strongly influenced his choices as a collector of paintings. The reader may remain skeptical of Sanger’s first comparisons between Frick personal photographs and the paintings he purchased.

But as her comparisons mount – from Martha holding her hands around a ball similarly to how a girl holds a doll in Renoir’s “Mother and Children” to comparing a photograph of Helen in 1909 with the knight’s face in Rembrandt’s “The Polish Rider,” both in the Frick Collection – the personal meanings to Frick become convincing.

As Sanger knows, she has stepped beyond the finite dimensions of history and art history to make many of her conclusions . In doing so, she often seems to be scouring her subjects’ brains. Her book is a dark mirror, but an utterly fascinating and welcome addition to the Frick lore. It filled my dreams for three nights and probably will again.

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