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Family ties motivated Frick biographer

Thursday, October 22, 1998

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic

Martha Frick Symington Sanger, author of "Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait," lives in Stevenson, Md. She has lectured on Frick as art collector and was featured on camera and worked as a consultant for a public television documentary on Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

    Book Review:

A decendant crafts a darkly hued biography of Henry Clay Frick


She'll sign books from 1 to 4 p.m. tomorrow in the Frick spring house, West Overton, and will give a free lecture at 7 p.m. For directions, call 724-887-7910. She'll also be signing books and giving a talk at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

The author spoke recently with the Post-Gazette:

Question. Why did you write this book?

Answer. My mom had suffered from alcoholism since her teen-age years. It really took control of her in 1987. She had a bad reaction to intervention treatment and turned on the family. I had never seen that behavior. I didn't know how growing up in that [Frick family] environment had affected her. I was upset, angry and confused.

I entered into a course of therapy and tried to not think about the Frick story. Then I visited West Overton [H.C. Frick's childhood home]. I had a tremendous need to understand my mother and to understand what we carried as Fricks in our lives. I do believe there is an inner DNA that carries memory. Somehow I carried that. I finished my great-grandfather's mourning process. In the course of my research my thoughts on Mom's alcoholism disappeared.

Q. You have children?

A. I have three daughters, 22 to 32 years old. This heritage affected one of them. As I got into it, I realized this story wasn't just for me, although I got catharsis from the book. Alcoholics Anonymous was very helpful in showing me how one may have detachment with love: Fix and change yourself so you don't try to change someone else.

Q. And your mother?

A. She never changed at all.

Q. Where did you get your material?

A. Mostly from intensive reading of the Frick archives and what I had learned over the years. Frick had absolute focus. Helen had compassion for other human beings. She has been completely misunderstood. The pin was already in Martha's stomach when Helen was born. She witnessed this death, and her whole life she bore the pain of her parents. Later she became a parent to the parent. In her case, the love of the father is also hatred of the father. There was an absolute terror her love was not to her father's expectation. They had a fantasy bond. I had a domineering father. Helen's me. My father controlled me.

Q. What was Helen like?

A. I really understood my great aunt. I sensed her woundedness. She was very warm and sweet; very generous. But I really didn't know her in life as I did in her death. Her unconsciousness is fascinating. Hating Germans is really the rage she felt against the father.

Q. What about Childs, the first-born?

A. Childs is the lost or abandoned child. After Martha's death, Helen was the favorite and Childs became the family dump. He didn't fit his father's image, and Frick put him aside. Childs was bitterly disappointed but became a fine, a brilliant scientist.

Q. What made Martha special?

A. When a lost one is put at the ethereal level, it's for identification. Frick, having lost his feminine [side], his beauty to business, projected onto his lost child, like a light beam from a movie projector. The screen is Martha. In his day there was no psychoanalysis. He read a lot of self-help books, but they didn't get to his problem.

Q. Frick's father, like Carnegie's, was not aggressive.

A. Frick's father was typical of the agrarian age, but Frick, because of his health, couldn't participate.

Q. What about the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club?

A. It was founded by Frick and Benjamin Ruff, a tunnel contractor and coke dealer. I was the first descendant to go there since the flood. On the 100th anniversary, I was treated very well.

Q. Why was Frick so severe?

A. It was the work ethic. In Mennonite thinking, children were commodities that had to work to the limits of their strength. Frick was treated that way and felt strongly people should work all of their lives. He was tough on Helen. She never had herself or her life; she had her father's voice in her mind. When you don't live out your own life it causes trouble. I hope this book redeems and validates her. She was a brave woman. In today's world she would have been able to help herself. But even so she gave back to culture.

Q. How has the book been received by the family?

A. I had unlimited access to the Frick archives, although I am not a trustee of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation. I also had unlimited permission on photographs, and my family has been behind me. I'm enormously grateful.

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