- Historic Sites
Essay: Filial Piety And The First Amendment
Frick lawsuit threatens historians' ability to present all sides of a subject.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
”… an upright and honorable man, conducting all of his affairs in full compliance with all laws and with the highest principles of ethics and good conscience. … He treated working men fairly, paid wages which were reasonable and in line with the current conditions and raised them whenever possible, provided safety equipment of the best quality then in existence, and greatly improved the quality of homes rented to employees. …”
Although she is not personally mentioned in Dr. Stevens’ book, Miss Frick believes that anything that historically blackens her father’s character injures her reputation.
Henry Clay Frick was, in fact, a pretty tough old bird. Born of Mennonite and other German stock in 1849, and named for the great Whig compromiser, he went to work early for his grandfather, Abraham Overholt, a distiller of Youghiogheny whiskey whose name and countenance still adorn the label of a popular brand of oh-be-joyful. Serious, businesslike, hardworking, a character out of Horatio Alger, Frick moved on into coke and then steel, accumulated millions in his own right, and became a partner of and manager for Andrew Carnegie. Later in life he quarrelled with Carnegie, who was as hypocritical as Frick was straightforward about his wealth. In 1913, while breaking into New York society, Frick built a five-million-dollar house on Fifth Avenue at Seventy-First Street which, he said, would “make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack.” This truly handsome building he filled with paintings by El Greco, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens, among others; on his death, when modern tax laws had begun to make their appearance, he left the home and its art to the public as The Frick Collection.
His loyal daughter was a strong character, too. She never married, and she devoted her career to continuing and augmenting her father’s philanthropies, a Lady Bountiful with a whim of iron. According to a 1939 New Yorker article by John McCarten, she in those days hated wearers of bobbed hair, New Dealers, and (despite her antecedents) Germans. Out of her genuine love and knowledge of art, she built and organized, next door to her father’s museum, the great Frick Art Reference Library, a superb scholarly institution that is a more durable achievement in its way than anything her father constructed. Generous and petty both, she for a long time excluded from it anyone with a German name until she decided that some of them might be just Americans who liked art, or that they could be Jews and other anti-Nazi refugees who had more reason than she for disliking Germany. (She was still angry from the First World War.) She gave the public a nature sanctuary near her home in Westchester County, north of New York City, but threatened not long ago to repossess it if the Bureau of Public Roads went ahead with a plan to drive one of its big highways through it. Recently she has had a bitter controversy with the University of Pittsburgh, to which she has donated millions for an art building where she placed a collection of old masters. When Pitt incurred her displeasure by showing modern art and, in her opinion, otherwise misusing the building, she withdrew her financial support and her art. Lady Bountiful is apt to tie strings to her gifts.
There is an anachronistic air to the Fricks, father and daughter, that belongs to the era of great estates, large fortunes, forelock tugging staffs, private railroad cars, and a kind of charitable disdain for the great unwashed. Mr. Frick abhorred publicity and avoided it all his life. Once, when the stock market was sinking and Mr. Frick was known to be conferring with James Stillman of the National City Bank, a financial writer whom both men respected found out about the meeting and sent in to seek their opinion. Out came, after an hour, this statement:
“The U.S.A. is a great and growing country.
[signed] James Stillman,
Henry C. Frick
This statement is confidential and not for publication unless names are omitted.”
Miss Frick seems to dislike equally the glare of public attention, even when it is favorable. Many years ago she founded a retreat, or vacation home, for working girls at Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, not far from the family summer place at Prides Crossing. The retreat was later turned over to the Girls Clubs of America. In 1964, Mrs. Ellen Boyd, then a lady of eighty-six, who had worked at the home for some thirty years, privately printed an autobiography dealing largely with the history of this particular charity. Its references to Miss Frick were only devoted and laudatory, but the object of this gratitude was so distressed that she brought a suit in a Massachusetts lower court to enjoin distribution of the book and have all copies suppressed. It is to the credit of the startled Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where the matter was soon referred, that it threw out the case a month after the judges heard it, in January, 1966.
Unfortunately, no such thing happened in the suit against Dr. Stevens. The case was instituted in January, 1965, and dragged on until June, 1967, when Judge Clinton R. Weidner, in a most eloquent opinion, decided in favor of Dr. Stevens.