At the beginning of the 20th century, the blunt, brooding steelman Henry Clay Frick was bitterly scorned as "the most hated man in America."
In the era of robber-baron industrialists, Frick embodied the public image of the cold, ruthless capitalist whose philosophy was unfettered business, whose ethos was money, whose "gospel was greed."
Starting out as a sickly, blue-eyed Mennonite farm boy from western Pennsylvania, Henry Clay Frick earned his first million by the time he was 30 -- on Dec. 19, 1879 -- in the industrial coke business. He was "The Coke King," creating disheartened and disgruntled workers as fast as he made dollars.
He built a $303 million steel company for Andrew Carnegie, then helped J.P. Morgan create U.S. Steel, one of the world's first billion-dollar corporations. Later, he became America's largest individual railroad stockholder. He died in 1919 with a personal fortune of $225 million, equivalent to something like $22 billion today.
But Frick is probably best remembered as the implacably anti-union corporate commandantwho marshaled Pinkertons, strikebreakers and militias to blitz his workers during the bitter and bloody Homestead Strike of 1892, a crushing defeat for labor that would set back unionization of the steel industry almost a half-century.
Conversely, he's revered as the inspired, exemplary and somewhat mysterious connoisseur who accumulated one of the most impressive collections of Western art in the world, then built a grand granite mansion in Manhattan to house it. Still a retreat of serene elegance at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, The Frick Collection retains the feel of a fin de siecle private home built to celebrate the pecuniary prowess of its owner. Visitors pass in hushed awe before extraordinary masterworks by Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez, Degas, Boucher, Fragonard, Manet, Vermeer, El Greco and other Old Masters.
But the inner life of the private Henry Clay Frick, the melancholy man who sat alone in the night, cigar in hand, contemplating his hoard of paintings, has remained elusive.
Now in a exceedingly handsome, lavishly illustrated new book, "Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait" (Abbeville Press, $50), he has gotten his ideal biographer: his great-granddaughter, Martha Frick Symington Sanger, who lives in Stevenson, Md., at "Brookfield," her own handsome home overlooking Green Spring Valley.
Dispassionate but sympathetic, exhaustive in detail but imaginative in scope, Sanger's biography tells a story worthy of a novel by Edith Wharton or Henry James, the tale of a man obsessed with a tragic death, a daughter bent to her father's will and a family stalked by trauma -- a psychological ghost story.
Wrenching traumas in her own family 10 years ago led Sanger, then a dedicated horsewoman who loved fox hunting and who owned brilliant steeplechase horses, to transform her life and embark on a long, complex and sometimes painful search through her family history.
She was an unlikely chronicler, "the least 'Frick' of all the Fricks," she says, and someone who loathed art museums. "You would have to just absolutely put a gun to my back to make me go. I really had to be dragged to these places."
The daughter of J. Fife and Martha Frick Symington, she grew up in the valley, went to Garrison Forest School and one year of junior college, then married at 19. The guest list read like a condensation of the social register.
"Really my whole life was involved on the sporting world with steeplechase horses and fox hunting," she says. "It was kind of my refuge, but also became my way of life."
She was a master of foxhounds at Elkridge-Harford Hunt for three years. She became one of the first woman stewards for the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association -- the first at the prestigious Foxfield Race Course in Charlottesville, Va. She owned a champion jumper and would help rewrite the rule book now standard for steeplechase and hunt races. Hardly the standard resume of a biographer.
"People say: 'You did this [book] with no higher degrees?' " Her answer: It wasn't necessary.
"Henry Clay Frick had maybe four years of education and look what he did," she says. "He was the CEO of the century in the 1800s. He collected the finest art collection perhaps on the planet. He had people around him who were good advisers, but he didn't need to be taught."
She thinks that for her, higher education would have been stifling and conflicting: "I would have been too preoccupied with the oughts and shoulds of the academic world." But she read copiously and widely during a long course of therapy with John Davis, a Jungian psychologist who founded the Towson Resource Group. "It was just like doing a doctorate with a great master," she says.
It helped her find the psychological key to the forceful, focused and driven industrialist who was her great-grandfather in the frightful death of his first daughter, the lovely, blue-eyed Martha Howard Frick. She died at the tender age of 5, from infections caused by a pin she had swallowed four years earlier.
Frick, the prideful businessman, could ignore, apparently unmoved, the plight of the children of striking workers he blacklisted. Or those killed in the Johnstown Flood (for which he, as the developer and principal stockholder in the club whose patched-up dam burst, may well have had real culpability). Ten thousand people died, including 396 children under the age of 12.
But he mourned Martha with an almost pathological obsession until his death 28 years later.
Frick surrounded himself with the elaborate artifacts of Victorian mourning. He commissioned a posthumous portrait of an angelic Martha wreathed in spring flowers, and a memorial bust of a rather fretful Martha. He even had Martha's likeness engraved on his bank checks. Thus, Sanger says, "every transaction Frick ever made, every bill he ever paid, every debt he ever settled, every painting he ever bought was settled in memory of Martha."
She writes that Frick believed a brilliant, blinding apparition of Martha saved him from an assassination attempt by the anarchist Alexander Berkman at the height of the Homestead Strike. (In an ironic quirk of family history, Berkman and Sanger's second husband's grandmother, Margaret Sanger, the pioneer advocate of women's sexual liberation, were briefly lovers.)
Henry Frick lived in two worlds, Sanger contends.
"The internal world where he's doing his mourning and the outer world where he has the stiff upper lip facade that nobody can see through," she says. "This is a very tormented and tortured man."
Even as Martha was dying and through his long years of mourning, Frick conducted his business affairs with consummate skill. He brought the Homestead strike to a victorious conclusion for Carnegie Steel as his son lay daying.
"In this book you get to go into that internal world, that private world, where you get him as a human being," Sanger says. "You don't have to like him. You don't have to care about him any way particularly. But you do at least get an understanding."
Does she like her great-grandfather? Her best answer, she says, is the book itself: 599 pages, seven pounds, hundreds of books and articles read, archives researched, dozens of locations explored, 10 years of her life.
"I hope he's resting in peace," she says. "I understand him. It isn't a question of liking and not liking. Because I think we all like and dislike things in everybody, even in the people we love most."
Sanger connects virtually every painting Frick ever bought to his emotional life, tracing many directly to his never-ending mourning for his dead daughter.
Her book emerged from a series of epiphanies about the art, beginning with a trip to Frick's birthplace at West Overton in Western Pennsylvania.
"I stood there in the springhouse where he was born and looked out the window and it was absolutely "The Village of Becquigny" by [Pierre-Etienne-Theodore] Rousseau," Sanger says. "It was just undeniable.
"So then the paintings began to reveal themselves, sort of like you crack a code. Once you saw the language and saw what he was seeing and walked his walk, you could take every painting in the Frick Collection and pretty much place it."
Not that she's dogmatic about her theories. "I don't say this is the gospel according to Marty. That's not what this is all about. He was collecting for all the reasons that we know that people collect."
But still, she sees in the collection the psychological underpinnings of Frick's life: "The collection then becomes his autobiography."
Not all readers find Sanger's connections so convincing. In a review for The Sun, Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, dismissed some of her analysis of the collection as far-fetched.
Sanger replies that she thought art historians and professionals would have the most difficulty with her psychological approach to the Frick Collection. But she argues that the work of art starts in the human psyche. "The artist does it because it's in his psyche," she says. "The collector collects it because it rings a bell in his psyche."
Its merits aside, Sanger's analysis is fascinating.
For instance, she notes that Frick, who kept close track of Martha's birthdays, died in his bedroom beneath George Romney's vivacious "Lady Hamilton," a portrait she believes he thought would have resembled the teen-aged Martha.
To his right hung "Miss Louisa Murray," a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence of a dancing child "who floats like an apparition through the air with haunting eyes, curly hair and forehead like Martha's ..."
"Frick died as he had lived," Sanger writes, "longing for Martha." And when he died, he was buried beside her.
The leaden legacy of little Martha has haunted the generations of Frick women even unto today.
Sanger is a Martha, of course, and her mother was Martha Howard Frick. Her mother always felt a little "contaminated" by her name, Sanger says. But she passed it on to her daughter in her turn. In this generation, the name was passed on by an older sister.
"My children, who are now having their children, have each in their turn said, 'Mom, is it OK if we don't name anybody Martha after you?' And I say, 'Great!' We've had enough of it."
But Sanger says the real martyr to Martha's memory was her great aunt, Helen Clay Frick, also the great beneficiary of the Frick fortune.
As his wife Adelaide faded dimly into sickness and withdrawal after the death of her children, Henry Clay Frick turned to his surviving daughter as hostess and companion in an obsessive relationship that parallels in many ways the Henry James novel "Washington Square."
From the age of 8 or so, Helen wore a locket painted with a miniature of the angelic portrait of Martha; her dead sister's memory, then, literally hung around her neck for most of her life. She shared her father's initials, and he called her "Clay," his nickname. As she grew older, he discouraged suitors.
The dual portrait on the dust jacket of Sanger's book is of Helen and her father. It's her 21st birthday.
"She's sort of his shadow," Sanger says, with no life of her own while Frick was alive. "Then after his death -- she's age 30 -- the damage was done. And she gets it that she has to live in his memory and use the money that she inherited for his memory."
She moves his bed into her bedroom and sleeps in it when she's in the New York mansion. The checks engraved with Martha's image are now hers. She also enhances the Frick Collection with a research library and fights to preserve its identity as a memorial to her father. She lives to be 96.
"I loved her, but she was just a funny old lady in my life," Sanger says.
Sanger recalls that her aunt always wanted the family's Clayton house restored to look as it did the 1890s. That wasn't necessary, she says.
"We stayed often in that Victorian house," Sanger says. "It was still as in the 1890s. You opened drawers and letters from the 1890s fell out. When Helen was there, you always felt that her parents could walk in the door at any time.
"It was a time warp," Sanger says. "Very spooky."
Helen Clay Frick died at Clayton in November 1984. She was carried down the steps past the bust of Martha in a downstairs parlor and buried with her father in the Frick family plot.
In her will, she asked that flowers be taken daily from the Clayton greenhouses and placed on her grave, as well as the graves of her mother, father, brother and the lovely little girl named Martha who died so long ago.
Pub Date: 12/09/98