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American Art

The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

T H E    A R T I S T ' S    W I F E

The Houston Post
February 29, 1972
By Elizabeth Bennett
Post Reporter

"She gave up a successful New York career for a Browning-type love story, and now she’s planning an exhibition of her late husband’s paintings."

Portrait if Artist's wife
Portrait of the Artist's Wife
oil on canvas
36 x 23
Green Room
University of Houston,
Moores School of Music, TX

She was the daughter of a prominent attorney, a Smith graduate, and a successful New York career woman.

He was a Russian immigrant, a struggling artist with no money, and dead-set against marriage.

They met in 1941, were wed five months later, and their life together, according to a close relative, was the closest thing you could find to an Elizabeth Barrett-Robert Browning love story.

Artist Ary Stillman is dead now, but his wife lives in Houston. She is currently getting his paintings and drawings together for an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. Some 50 pieces of his work will be included in the collection, which will be exhibited from Tuesday to March 26.

Mrs. Stillman is wrapped up in the art world today, and most people know her only as the artist’s wife. But she had a fascinating career of her own in Manhattan in the ‘20s and ‘30s and worked closely with some of the biggest political and financial figures of the time.

She was the "ghost writer" for Franklin D. Roosevelt when he ran for President, hired for the job by kingmaker Louis Howe. She worked in a public relations capacity for Henry J. Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt.

She handled much of the correspondence for Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., working in his mansion where Radio City is located today.

And she watched famous writers like Sinclair Lewis and Lowell Thomas turn manuscripts over to Liberty Magazine editor Fulten Oursler when she worked as his secretary. "I went to New York in the ‘20s to seek my fame and fortune as a concert violinist," Mrs. Stillman recalls. "After college I’d returned home to Sioux City, Iowa, to ‘revolutionize the West’ but soon learned that it wasn’t so easy for a woman."

"I thought it would be better in New York — but it wasn’t. No orchestra would hire a woman in those days, and it was tough getting any kind of job with the Depression just around the corner."

She vividly recalls standing in line with some 50 other girls one morning for a $15-a-week typing job. She managed to get past the receptionist on the basis of her college degree, but she didn’t get much further. She failed her typing test.

One of her first jobs was with Liberty Magazine, the major news magazine of the time, though she didn’t make a very good first impression. After interviewing her, Fulten Oursler said, "You’re not the kind of person I’m looking for but you’ll do till I find somebody more dynamic."

She later learned that she was the 26th secretary he’d had in two years. She managed to survive by the skin of her teeth — and by working days and nights, just running out in the evening for a quick bite to eat and dashing back to the office. What kept her going? "All the exciting things happening in those days and being so involved in them — the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s child, for instance, and all the kooky calls we’d get at the magazine with the latest tips."

When Oursler left New York for California to work for the movies, he asked Frances to go with him. When she declined, saying she wanted to stay in Manhattan, he wrote a "fabulous letter of recommendation for me saying I’d worked for him two or three times as long as I really had."

Mrs. Stillman’s next job was in FDR’s campaign headquarters in the correspondence department. Her boss was former newspaperman Louis Howe, who had left Fall River, Mass., to come to New York and "live and work with Roosevelt in his campaign," she said.

"Howe had a theory that you win votes with good letters. I was assigned to answer all the ones from old ladies and children when they found out I could do the human-interest kind. The whole idea was to make people think Roosevelt was really concerned about people."

The theory worked even better than anybody ever expected. "Everybody started saying that Roosevelt really cared, that nobody really had before."

Although she had no faith in him in the beginning, adds Mrs. Stillman, "I grew to be his biggest fan. He made a lot of mistakes, but our country would have gone to rack and ruin without him. His incredible confidence and cheerfulness were badly needed at that time."

She’s also one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biggest fans, and thinks the new best-seller about the Roosevelts is in bad taste.

"The Roosevelt family believed very strongly in independent women," says Mrs. Stillman. "Perhaps the fact that Eleanor had her own life and activities made it possible for her to live with her husband’s infidelities."

After the campaign, Mrs. Stillman moved to Washington to work as assistant to the director of the National Recovery Administration and later worked for the WPA (the Works Progress Administration). But she didn’t like Washington, nor the long hours she had to work ("days and nights, night after night,") nor "the jockeying for favor in such government jobs. I felt I’d just degenerate if I stayed."

She returned to New York where she later worked for Henry Morgenthau in his campaign to raise money for Jewish refugees and still later as a correspondent for Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., "a real nitwit. He was a playboy and nothing else. He was always trying to do things like getting alimony for his third wife from her second husband."

In 1941, through mutual friends, she met Ary, "after wanting to be married for many years and wondering if I’d ever find the right man. I wouldn’t settle for second best — but I didn’t ever get 'first-best'."

Neither Frances nor Ary were young lovers when they met — she was well past 30 and he was 50 — but you’d never have guessed it. With little money for luxuries, they took in all the bargain delights of New York: "A free movie at the museum and ice cream afterwards was beautiful, or lunch at the Bronx Zoo, or just a leisurely walk together across Brooklyn Bridge."

Life was complete for Frances after she met Ary, and they spent 13 happy years in New York. In 1955 they went to Paris and Majorca for 18 months, later moved to Mexico for five years, and finally took up residence in Houston in 1962. Five years later, Ary died.

Looking back on her life, Frances is pleased. "I think I’ve never encountered a couple whose marriage was as complete as ours" she says simply. "Most things that concern other people don’t concern me — beautiful clothes, a beautiful home, I have had beautiful years."

For more information see "I Remember."

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