Art and Soul In trying to reconcile the two faces of Henry Clay Frick -- ruthless capitalist and sensitive art collector -- his biographer looked to the death of his youngest daughter, and her namesake, Martha.

December 09, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

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.

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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.

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