Mary Hallock Foote

"Molly [Mary Hallock Foote] met Helena at Cooper Union during the winter of 1866-67 and this was the beginning of their life long friendship. They came from different backgrounds, but their attraction to one another was instantaneous. Molly's memory of this encounter, expressed in lyrical prose years later, suggests its importance to the young artist: 'And then Helena dawned on my nineteenth year like a rose pink winter sunrise, in the bare halls of Cooper, sweet and cold after her walk up from the ferry. Staten Island was her home; a subsidiary aunt had taken me in that winter who lived on Long Island and I crossed by an uptown ferry and walked down. Across the city we came together and across the world in some respects.'

Ten months older than Molly, Helena was born into an old New York family...Her father died when she was only two years old, and in 1859 her widowed mother took the family to Europe, where they lived for a time in Dresden. There Helena learned French, German, and Italian and developed a passion for art. Later she attended a boarding school in Middleton, Connecticut, and then enrolled in painting classes at Cooper Union.

In the exhilarating atmosphere of the New York art world, Molly and Helena soon developed an intense relationship. Both then and years later, Molly called Helena the first great passion of her life...They wrote of their happiness when together and of their pain and loneliness when apart. And they openly avowed their love for one another, as when Molly wrote to Richard Gilder, Helena's fiance: 'Do you know sir, until you came, I believe [Helena] loved me almost as girls love their lovers. I know I loved her so.'

...In physical appearance, each young woman had pleasant features, and each wore her hair in a fashionable chignon. Helena was of average height, Molly somewhat shorter. Years later Helena wrote of her first impressions of Molly: 'very youthfull in figure, delicate and yet full of vigor. She rode well...She skated on her little feet like a swallow flying, and danced with the same grace and lightness. She could outskate and outdance us all.'

The tree years that Molly studied a Cooper Union were perhaps the happiest and most carefree of her life. The year she met Helena, however, was the most memorable of all. Helena was in the painting class and Molly was in drawing, but they attended anatomy lectures and Friday composition classes together...Molly still had in her possession years later a page on which Helena had copied a line from Shakespeare: 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.'

They spent afternoons at the School of Design, sometimes working on their sketches and paintings, oftentimes talking in vacant alcoves comparing our past lives and dreams for the future' Helena introduced Molly to the writings of new authors and thinkers and to new ways of viewing life. The very first book that she gave to Molly (in a lifetime of sharing books) was a volume of Emerson's poems. She also introduced Molly to the works of Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill, and together they pondered women's role in art and society.

Illustration by Mary Hallock Foote

They shared one another's friends and came to know one another's homes and families. Milton [Molly's hometown] charmed the New York City girl who had seen Europe, while the young Quaker never forgot the shared intimacy of Staten Island ferry rides...Molly wrote to Helena [years later] 'We have had our May day--darling! I believe very few girls knew better the joy of youth.' And much later, writing in her mid-sixties, Molly acknowledged her intellectual debt to Helena: 'Your mind has lead mine for a good many years,' and she referred to Helena as 'the strongest influence my life has known outside of its daily companions-- of flesh and blood."

from-"Mary Hallock Foote, Author-Illustrator of the American West" by Darlis A. Miller

Richard and Helena were married and had a new baby by the time Mary Hallock married Arthur Foote. The two women wrote letters and visited throughout their lives. Richard and Scribner's commissioned numerous illustrations and bought her stories once she began to write. Molly published 17 books and did illustrations for the major magazines of her day as well as for others' books.


"We had stopped in New York on our way back from our wedding journey that my husband might be presented to my best friend, who by some chain of coincidences had never seen him. It was the Gilder's second year in the Studio on East Fifteenth Street... Richard received us and I ran upstairs to embrace Helena alone, and take a peep at the baby Marion. I thought I could see signs already of the change that told her childhood was over. It went deeper than paleness and large eyes: it was the preoccupied mother-look I have seen in her expression so often when she was listening to one person and giving herself to others at the same time-- so many others! such millions of things and people crowding into her not long life!...Below the men were waiting-- she went to the stair head and looked down, her fate and my fate standing there side by side. 'Tell the Wretch he may come up.' she said in her low, cordial tones. My poor Wretch! he was so pleased-- they were friends from that word. When I asked him if he thought her beautiful-- if I had bragged too much? he said, 'She is very handsome-- yes, she is beautiful, but not like anyone else.' Not in the American type he meant; not as his sister, Mary Hague, was beautiful. When I saw the pictures of [Eleonora] Duse in her prime they made me think of Helena-- others saw it too, not a likeness in details, only the type and an inborn sadness of expression which Helena's daughters defined as ácquainted with grief.' She was not acquainted with grief at this time, her life had just been crowned with a woman's greatest blessings. It was a foreknowledge she was ripe with as a girl, and richly it toned with her brilliant mind and deepened her life-giving temperament.

I might go on and make this chapter 'one long sigh of articulate reminiscence,'and most of it would be of her: Helena teaching Bessie's little dark-eyed baby son to speak her name-- 'Henena' was as close as he could come, making it sound like an Arabian perfume. Helena reciting verses from Omar-- seated on the stone steps going up from our basement hall to the level of the grass in the sunlight; cherry trees along the lane in blossom and a glimpse of the garden beyond. There was no printed copy of the Rubaiyat in America at that time; she had learned it by heart from a manuscript copy lent her by John La Farge. Helena's in white, lying on the sofa in the darkened back parlor listening to Katie Bloede playing Chopin-- light from one half-open shutter streaming in, perfect silence and the bees and the sunshine outside. I made a sketch of her so, and the date is June 1874."

from- "A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West" by Mary Hallock Foote

            Edith Bonham, 1917. Foote's novel about Helena


Mary (Molly)

Their house in Idaho