Author Discusses Frick Heiress at West Overton Event

By Hollenbaugh, Barbara | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Author Discusses Frick Heiress at West Overton Event


Hollenbaugh, Barbara, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


To many people, the name Frick is synonymous with coal and coke. But in her research about her family, Martha Frick Symington Sanger discovered a different side of the Fricks -- a family that appreciated art and desired deeply to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

These traits were personified in coal and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick's daughter, Helen, the subject of Sanger's book, "Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress," and the topic of her recent presentation at West Overton Museum near Scottdale.

A tragic beginning

Born in Pittsburgh in 1888, Helen Frick had a strong bond with her father, but this bond was forged out of tragedy.

Henry Clay Frick's oldest child, Martha, died in childhood after swallowing a pin.

"She suffered for nearly four years," Sanger said. "Doctors eventually tried to remove the pin surgically. Because their instruments were not sterile, Martha contracted an infection from which she died."

Henry Clay Frick never recovered fully from this devastating loss. When he later lost a newborn son to what many people now believe was encephalitis, Frick became even more determined that he would not lose Helen. In fact, he forbade her to marry.

Pioneering philanthropist

Helen Frick displayed an early penchant for philanthropy. She had a special concern for women and children. As a present for her debutante party, Helen Frick requested that a tract of land in Pittsburgh be bought and set aside as a park for the children of Pittsburgh's millworkers. This tract of land later became Frick Park and is still one of the largest parks of its kind.

She also established a retreat near her father's summer home in Eagle's Crossing, Mass., so the young people who worked in New England's textile mills could find some respite from their hardscrabble existence.

Helen Frick also did a lot of relief work in France during and after World War I, at a time when organized relief efforts as we know them now had not materialized.

On the other hand, it was during this time that Frick would develop an abhorrence of all things German, despite her own German- Mennonite roots.

Into the lion's den

Indeed, Helen Frick had enjoyed a relatively sheltered life, nestled comfortably in her father's shadow. When Henry Clay Frick died in 1919, those days would end.

Helen Frick immediately found herself at odds with her younger brother, Childs (Sanger's grandfather). He was bitter because Helen Frick had received the greater portion of their father's inheritance.

Childs was bitter, Sanger said, because he was married and had a young family to support, whereas his sister was single. So Helen Frick moved out of her father's shadow and into the lions' den that was industrial America.

"Helen was a single woman at a time when single women were viewed as Bolsheviks or as lesbians," Sanger said. "Bolsheviks are people who destroy the natural order of things, and the natural order for women was to marry and have babies. She stood up against the male chauvinism of her time."

One of Helen Frick's first tasks was to take charge of her father's art collection, which he had bequeathed to become a museum housed in the Fricks' New York City home.

Fellow Frick Collection trustee J.D. Rockefeller had different ideas of what the museum should be like.

Helen Frick wanted to keep the home as it had been lived in. Rockefeller wanted to keep personal effects to a minimum.

Their differences came to a head when Rockefeller offered to Helen Frick several pieces from his own collection. Wanting to keep all non-Frick acquisitions out of the collection, she took the matter to court -- and lost.

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