Frick Legacy: Book Examines Life of Industrialist's Daughter

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

Frick Legacy: Book Examines Life of Industrialist's Daughter


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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. …

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