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P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  I    R E M E M B E R

I Remember
1897 to 1997

by Frances Fribourg Stillman

As my 100th birthday approaches, I feel engulfed in a sea of memories. Some are painful, it is true, but for the most part they are memorable experiences. The younger members of the family have asked me to record these events as most of them occurred in a world which has vastly changed. Let me add that I am tremendously grateful for the opportunities I have had, and I thank God every day for this prolonged life.

My Father was a great influence on my life, but there was one matter on which I did not cooperate with him. I refused to be born on his birthday. It was eleven o'clock the night before that I popped into the world. Fortunately, he didn't hold this against me and we used to enjoy celebrating our birthdays together.

My date was August 21, 1897, and the place was Sioux City, Iowa, which was our home for many years. A tragedy befell our family at an early date, with the death of my mother. There were four of us children. Various members of the family wanted to adopt one or the other of us. It was to keep the family together that my father and my mother's sister, Belle, decided to get married. Belle was a lovely person but was more or less an invalid. She could not be much of a companion to my father so I shared many of his activities in her place. But my father, who was a brilliant and respected lawyer, was much concerned with giving his children the best possible education. Two doors which he opened for me were violin lessons and, later on, enrollment in Smith College. He shared in my musical education, accompanying me on the piano.


I began taking violin lessons when I was seven years old. This became the biggest interest of my life, during all the early years. At Smith College, which I entered in 1914, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful violin teacher, Rebecca Holms. After a year or so, I was invited to play second violin in a quartet of college professors. At the graduation concerts of my Junior and Senior years, I played solos.

Back in Sioux City, I continued with the violin, teaching and concertizing. At that time, radio was a modern miracle. There were no national hookups, just separate stations which were more or less efficiently handled. I played solo, led a small orchestra, and played in some improvised programs of popular music.

When I moved to New York City in 1930, I found that I was at a dead end. Women were not allowed to play in orchestras. I was not expert enough for solo performances, but I had to earn a living. There was a special short-hand typing course available, which lasted a month. I decided to take it. I almost had a nervous breakdown, but I got through it. Then I searched for a job. I was welcomed at several offices until they tested my typing skills and then it was no go. Finally I said to my Aunt Rosely, "I don't believe I could get a job if I worked for nothing." She said, "Why don't you try?" And I did. I put an ad in the New York Times. There were several answers. I chose one, a man who was about to publish a biography of Knut Rockne. I had to type the manuscript. I knew so little about it that I began typing it single space. I stayed with this person for a month and then set out to hunt for a paying job. Fulton Oursler, editor of the popular news magazine, Liberty, worked from his home just across the street from the hotel where I was living. I applied to him for a job as secretary he was trying to fill. After an interview he said,"You are not the type of person I want, you are not dynamic enough, but if you want, you can stay until I find the right person." So I stayed. I worked long hours and hoped I could make a go of it. A few weeks later he called me into his office and said, "You handle my people very well and you handle my correspondence beautifully, but you are the world's worst typist!" That was more than I could take. "I am not a typist," I cried, "I am a violinist!"

"What is all this about?" Fulton Oursler asked. So I told him the whole story. At its conclusion I stood up to say good-bye to him, but he motioned me to sit down, "Well, work to improve your typing, " he said. Then he went on to give me the day's work. I was not fired! In fact, he told my story to many of his friends. Rupert Hughes wrote it up in one of his stories and so did Oursler himself.

One of the people who came frequently to see Oursler was Louis Howe, chief advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. So when Oursler went to California on a literary mission, I went to Louis Howe to ask for a job. Roosevelt's campaign for the Presidency was just starting. Howe and Eleanor Roosevelt had been working to persuade Roosevelt to run despite his physical handicap. When I was ushered into Howe's office at campaign headquarters he was talking with Alben Barkley, later to be Vice President. Howe looked at the card his secretary handed him, looked at me, smiled and said, "Oh, you're the girl who plays the violin." Howe was organizing a correspondence department because he and Eleanor felt that the best way to make friends was through the warmth of letters. I was given a job in the correspondence department.

There were seven or eight people in the department. Statements of policy were distributed to everyone. There was a professional forger who signed Roosevelt's name. When Roosevelt was out on a campaign trip, batches of letters were sent to his various stops to be mailed from there.

We soon found that I was best suited for human interest letters - little boys who voted for Roosevelt at school, old ladies who praised him for his courage and wished him well, people in all sorts of economic difficulties. Eleanor Roosevelt saw that the latter type were sent to the city from which the letter came to an interested democrat, who would see if help could be given.

I had come from Iowa, a republican state, and I felt uneasy at working for a democrat. But that feeling soon passed and I was head-over-heals in support of Roosevelt. When the election of Roosevelt was announced, those of us who had worked for the campaign were invited to the Inauguration in Washington, D.C. I went there and stood in the crowd in the Capital Building when the new President said, "There is nothing to fear, but fear itself." Afterwards we campaigners went to the White House for the reception and refreshments.

Now I needed a job. I had met Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., through Fulton Oursler. I heard he needed a secretary and I applied for the job. He was delighted because of the Oursler connection, so I started to work at the Vanderbilt mansion on 5th Avenue. It wasn't interesting work my boss was a sort of aimless fellow but it was fun. It was interesting to go through the mansion, though it was not kept in very good condition. I worked there for several months and then I had a call from Washington, D.C., asking me to come there to work for the newly established National Recovery Administration (N.R.A.), under General Hugh Johnson. Arthur Forbush, who with his wife, had helped the Roosevelt campaign correspondence department, was in charge of the N.R.A. correspondence department. He wanted me to be his assistant. I was glad to take up his offer. I worked with him for a year or more, until the N.R.A. was declared unconstitutional, and disbanded. General Johnson then became the head of the Works Progress Administration, in New York City. I was offered the post of head of the Correspondence Department. Our correspondence department at the N.R.A had been a huge success. We answered lots of mail sent over by the White House. People wrote in saying that they had never had such careful attention from the executive department.

I was well treated at the W.P.A. and had a good job, but I became bored with bureaucracy. Eventually, I resigned.

There are several things I would like to record concerning Franklin Roosevelt. In the first place, when I was secretary to Fulton Oursler, he would occasionally go up to Hyde Park for the weekend. When Oursler returned home, he would dictate to me some of the happenings up there. There is nothing I remember except the fact that the women of the family were very important. They felt that each woman should have a definite place in the world. Incidentally, Oursler's going to Hyde Park was prompted by the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt was writing a column for the magazine, Liberty.

I shall never forget the first time when angry farmers from the Midwest came to tell the President how badly he was handling things. They filed into the President's office with determined looks. When they filed out a half hour later, they were each clutching an autographed picture of the President.

Another incident I shall never forget is that one day, for some reason, I was walking in the darkened underground passage between the White House and the Congress, when there was a disturbance. Along came a wheel chair bearing Roosevelt steered by one of his bodyguards. The President was all hunched over as if exhausted. Somehow, I must have made a little noise. When he heard that, the President immediately straightened up and took on his "President look."

Before too long, I met a man who was involved in the Jewish community. Through him I managed to apply to an organization, which shortly after became known as the United Jewish Appeal. When I joined, there were three separate branches - I can't remember the names, but they were concerned with Jews in Europe and immigrants to the United States. Shortly after I joined the organization, it became closely knit as the United Jewish Appeal (U.J.A.). I was given the post as head of the correspondence department. We wrote letters asking for money and letters acknowledging contributions, all in the name of the organization's treasurer, I. Edwin Goldwasser. I remember particularly a contribution we received from a group of soldiers stationed in the South Pacific. A Rabbi who was with the troop sent in money he had collected from the soldiers. It was to him that I wrote a letter of thanks. It happened that he was the Rabbi Kahn, who shortly after came to Houston as the Rabbi of Temple Emanu El.

While I was working there, I had a call from Washington, D.C., asking me to come down to talk about a job there. The two women who wanted me were Gabrialle Forbush, who had been in charge of the Roosevelt campaign correspondence department and Henrietta Klotz, who it turned out was the wife of a cousin of Ary Stillman. I had met Ary shortly before that time. I did not want the Washington, D.C., job and refused it. In talking to Henrietta, I mentioned that I had met Ary Stillman and she said, "Oh, that's why you don't want to leave New York. I don't blame you. Stay there with Ary."

After President Roosevelt's death, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who had been Secretary of the Treasury, left Washington, D.C., and came to New York. He agreed to become Chairman of the U.J.A. A year or two later the professional leadership of the U.J.A. was changed and Morgenthau accepted the chairmanship of a bank in lower Manhattan. Henrietta persuaded me to go with them and I spent a year or two handling Morgenthau's correspondence at the bank. The Bonds for Israel was formed and Morgenthau accepted the chairmanship. I was glad to go along with him and Henrietta. I spent several happy years with the organization.

It was in 1941 in September that Ary phoned me and introduced himself. He had had dinner the evening before with Dr.Lande, of Sioux City, who was on his way to England to serve with the Red Cross. Dr.Lande had asked Ary if he knew me (I was from Sioux City too, born there) and they evidently had talked about me at some length. What really prompted Ary to call me, I don't know. It was so unlike him. He always said later that our angels in heaven had gotten together. In any event, in five months (February 26, 1942) we were married, at the home of my cousins, Louise Adams and her husband, Milton.

Ary's best man was a Russian friend, whom he knew from Paris, an art dealer named Rabow. Rabow was a bachelor also, and neither Ary nor he knew anything about weddings, but Rabow vaguely recalled that it was customary to bring flowers to the bride. So the afternoon of the wedding they went to a florist shop. Rabow said he would buy the flowers. As they looked around they saw some very pretty flowering plants. Rabow said it might be a good idea to bring a plant instead of flowers. Ary thought it would be a good idea, so that evening they arrived bearing a nice plant for the bride.

Ary was dressed in a dark suit, but underneath it he wore the pretty light blue sweater I had bought him for his birthday a couple of weeks before. I looked at it aghast, but remembered I was marrying an artist, and I mustn't be surprised at anything he did. During the wedding supper when Ary became too warm in the blue sweater, I helped him take it off.

I have never seen anyone as nervous looking as Ary when he came in to the apartment, where a few of the family were gathered. His face was ashen and he was shaking like a leaf. I was frightened and terribly sorry for him. I drew him aside and said, "Ary, it isn't too late to back out, if you don't want to go through with it." But he said no, he wanted to have the wedding.

I knew that Ary hadn't married as a young man because he wanted to be free to paint. He knew that if he had the responsibility of a wife, and probably children he couldn't be absolutely free he would have to compromise with his ideals. In fact, Ary had warned me that his painting would have to come first, that I would have to take second place to it. It was so at first, I believe. But gradually I assumed more and more importance to him, and his painting and I seemed to merge into one. The second summer after we were married, I received a letter from Ary from Rockport, Massachusetts where he had gone to get settled in a vacation spot (I was to join him later).

He wrote:

"I was hard at work today and while painting I kept thinking about you. Strange, how a person who lived to himself for so many years should change to such a degree. l never imagined that I was capable of loving the way I do. Undoubtedly it was always within me, and you during these 16 months have brought it out it was you who were capable of performing that change. My life is fuller; while before I just painted, now I paint for my dear Frances, and feel doubly happy."

This feeling grew ever stronger with time, and in the later years when Ary would show a new painting to someone, he would often say "We painted this..." and I would have to correct him "No, I cooked the dinner. You painted."

As the years had gone on, Ary and I had become more and more dependent upon one another. After I gave up working in 1957, we were together constantly, really 24 hours a day. We realized that it was not wise, this utter dependency, and more than once we gave voice to the thought that one or the other of us would eventually pay dearly for this, in the unbearable pain of loss and aloneness. But I would say, "Ary, it is so precious, so wonderful while it lasts that I don't think we should deny ourselves the joy of it. It is such a miraculous experience one that comes to so few it is worth paying the price for." I don't believe that anyone ever loved and admired anyone more than I loved and admired Ary. To the end there was a fascination about his every word, his every movement, his smile. And such admiration of his honesty, his modesty, his refinement, his sensitiveness, his beauty of spirit, his tenderness, and of course his great talent.

I am tremendously grateful to those of my family and Ary's family who are so kind, affectionate, and attentive; without them I could not go on. But my one reason for living is to try to do something for Ary's paintings. They are my joy and at the same time agony, for they are here and Ary himself, is not. But definitely they are my raison d'être. I find myself again and again thanking Ary, for having made life worthwhile for me. And I promise him again and again that I will never cease my efforts to do what I can to help his paintings live on, and to attain the recognition they deserve; which was, like with so many other artists, denied him during his lifetime.

As I re-read the above, I think of a sentence that struck me in Thornton Wilder's "The Eighth Day" and which I copied down:

"The fairest giftsand the most banefulare those of which the donor is unconscious, they are conveyed over the years in the innumerable occasions of the daily life in glance, pause, jest, silence, smile, expressions of admiration or disapproval."

When Morgenthau retired from the organization, I went to work for the head of the New York City division handling their correspondence. Meantime, Ary and I had been forced to leave our studio on 59th Street because they were tearing it down to build a new commercial building. Ary was heart broken and eventually became quite ill. We decided to go back and live in Paris. The Bonds for Israel employees gave me a lovely farewell party and we were on our way. We didn't find suitable quarters in Paris and Ary was ill and despondent. Eventually we set off for Majorca, at the recommendation of a Spanish painter we had met. Majorca proved very comfortable and relaxing. We were thinking of taking up permanent residence there, when I had a telegram from Martin Panzer, head of the Paris office of Bonds for Israel. Martin was losing his assistant and he wanted me to take the job. We were both glad to go back to Paris under these circumstances. We found comfortable quarters at the apartment of friends of Ary's, who were going down to the south of France for the winter.

I enjoyed my work with Martin and had a nice young girl as secretary. The Paris office was in charge of the Bond drive in various European cities. Their collection was nowhere in line with the outpouring in the United States. I am hazy as to how long I worked there.

As time went on Ary was in increasingly poor health and spirits. When eventually a friend of Ary's sister, Sarah Lack, came to visit Paris, she brought us an urgent invitation from Sarah to come back to the United States and settle in Houston. She even sent us transportation money. After due consideration, we decided to accept the offer.

Arriving in Houston, we took up residence in one of the houses, which the Lacks owned on Ewing Street. Fredell introduced us to some interesting people including David Parsons, the sculptor, and Arthur Mandell. Ary decided we would be better off in Mexico where he had spent six interesting months in 1940.

We flew down to Mexico the first time we had traveled in a plane. Eventually we moved to Cuernavaca, which became our home for five years, until Ary's health was such that we felt we should be in Houston, near Fredell's husband, Dr. Ralph Eichhorn. Cuernavaca worked a miracle on Ary. Gradually his health and eyesight improved and his painting seemed revitalized. For the next few years, there was an outpouring of fantasies on canvas or paper.

In September 1962, Ary's physical condition was less favorable. Sarah Lack suggested that we permanently take one of the apartments, which she and her husband owned. We decided to do this and moved back to Houston.

In 1963, Ary accepted the invitation of Dr. Alfred Neumann, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston, and Peter Guenther; Chairman of the Art Department, to have a showing of some of his non-representational work at the University for a month beginning sometime in November.

From then on it was a losing fight as far as Ary's physical condition was concerned. When he aroused himself enough to paint, the old spirit was still there and some of his very finest canvases were painted in his last few months. Ary's death occurred on January 28,1967. He was 76 years old.

It was about a year before I was able to gather myself together enough to start on what I felt was now my mission in life - to make the world aware of Ary's work.

The first thing I did was to issue an invitation for an open house at my home on Portsmouth Street for Sunday afternoons, for the public to see some of the Stillman paintings. The Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle Art Editors wrote articles about this.

In September 1968, there was an exhibit of some of Ary's drawings and gouaches at the main building of the Houston Public Library. In early 1969, I gathered together 24 of Ary's Palestinian water colors done in 1925, and sent them to the Theodore Herzl Institute in New York City, where they were on display in May. It was received with much enthusiasm and there were many letters and reviews. A little later that year the same works were displayed at Temple Emanu El here in Houston, where they were having a national meeting of Reform Congregations.

I can't recall what led up to it but on February 20, 1969, I did a ten minute program on Channel 11 with Sid Lasher. We have a copy of the audio-visual tape showing a few of Ary's paintings and my answers to Sid Lasher's questions.

In 1972, an exhibition of Ary's work took place in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The opening reception was well attended and everyone was very enthusiastic.

When the Spring Branch School Art Department heard of the coming exhibition, they asked permission to come to the house, photograph some of Ary's work, and make an audio-visual record for their children. They asked me to talk about the various paintings. When I talk about Ary, I never know when to stop. It turned out to be a 55 minute recording. The Spring Branch schools showed it and I took it to various other schools in the city where it was shown to the children. It was also shown at the museum the first Sunday afternoon of the exhibit.

In 1972, another exhibition of Ary's work was arranged at the Robinson Gallery. Ann and Bill Robinson put on a good show. It was well attended and several paintings were sold.

In 1976, I wrote to the eminent art critic Clement Greenberg to ask if I could see him when I came to New York that summer. I wished to ask his advice about placing Ary's work in various museums. He wrote a very nice letter, stating that he was living in upstate New York, but that we could get in touch by telephone and letter. He made good on this and got me started on the way to offering a Stillman work to various museums. This went on for some years. At the last count there were some 35 museums, which have Ary's work.

In 1989, Raymond Balinskas brought the owner of the New Gallery, Thom Andriola, to see Ary's paintings. Thom was enthusiastic and arranged for a show for Ary and Hillaire Hiler, entitled "Americans in Paris: Two Artists of the Lost Generation Rediscovered." They were both American Jewish artists who went to Paris in the 20's "to drink from the well spring of art." The show was beautifully hung, well attended, with good publicity and several nice sales. Altogether, it was a great success.

It was about five years ago that Fredell told me that the University of Houston had received a multi-million dollar gift with which to build a new music building, and David Tomatz, the head of the music department, was eager to have a gift of Ary's paintings to make up a Stillman Green Room a reception room off the concert hall. The Foundation members were agreeable to this and I was particularly pleased because music was such an important part of Ary's life. It seemed appropriate that some of his paintings should take their place in the music building.

The construction is finished now and the building will open in several weeks. We are all looking forward to visiting the building, especially the Ary Stillman Room.

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