The Houston Post
February 29, 1972
By Elizabeth Bennett
"She gave up a successful New York career
for a Browning-type love story, and now shes planning
an exhibition of her late husbands paintings."
|Portrait of the
oil on canvas
36 x 23
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 artists 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
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 Id returned home to Sioux City, Iowa, to revolutionize
the West but soon learned that it wasnt so easy
for a woman."
"I thought it would be better in New York
but it wasnt. 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 didnt get much further. She failed her
One of her first jobs was with Liberty Magazine,
the major news magazine of the time, though she didnt
make a very good first impression. After interviewing her,
Fulten Oursler said, "Youre not the kind of person
Im looking for but youll do till I find somebody
She later learned that she was the 26th secretary
hed 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 Lindberghs child, for instance, and
all the kooky calls wed get at the magazine with the
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
"fabulous letter of recommendation for me saying Id
worked for him two or three times as long as I really had."
Mrs. Stillmans next job was in FDRs
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."
Shes also one of Eleanor Roosevelts
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 husbands 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 didnt 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 Id 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 Id ever find the right man. I wouldnt settle
for second best but I didnt ever get 'first-best'."
Neither Frances nor Ary were young lovers when
they met she was well past 30 and he was 50 but
youd 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 Ive never encountered a couple whose marriage
was as complete as ours" she says simply. "Most things
that concern other people dont concern me beautiful
clothes, a beautiful home, I have had beautiful years."
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