The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
Note: The 2004 Seminar on Jeanne Robert Foster at Chestertown, New York, will take place on September 6 -9,. 2004. For more information, contact Declan Foley, Beyond Ben Bulben, An Australian Yeats Society.
Jeanne Robert Foster was born in 1879 in Johnsburg, NY in the southern Adirondacks. She was the oldest child of a lumberjack and a school teacher, Frank and Lizzie Oliver. Christened Julia Elizabeth Oliver, she was known by her penname Jeanne Robert Foster. By the end of her life, she had been a famous beauty, a poet, a journalist and a social reformer. She left behind a rich legacy of prose and poetry which recreate the world of the 19th century Adirondacks as few others have done.
Born into rural poverty, Jeanne was influenced by her mother, a college graduate who had taught school before coming back to the Adirondacks. Lizzie encouraged Jeanne to study and learn, to use her mind and look to the world beyond the Adirondacks. Forced by economics to leave the Adirondacks, the family relocated to Glens Falls in 1896.
But Jeanne had already left the family; she had married Matlock Foster, a 40-year old insurance salesman from Rochester whose parents lived in nearby Chestertown, when she was just seventeen in 1896. The couple moved to Rochester and over the next eleven years alternated their residence there with New York City.
Jeanne had little patience with the social conventions of New York which said that as a woman she had a subordinate role to play. Her life in the Adirondacks had fitted her with a much more active and egalitarian self-image. Encouraged by Matlock, Jeanne graduated from the Anthenaeum and Mechanics Institute in Rochester. In New York she graduated from the Stanhope-Wheatcroft Dramatic School and acted minor roles in a few stage plays. During this period she also worked as an assistant to the fashion editor Grace Margaret Gould, designing the fashion pages of the New York Sunday American.
The newspaper featured weekly photographs of models wearing the latest fashions. Jeanne was asked to model and after joining the Model’s Club, she began a lucrative career posing for leading fashion artists of the day. These included Charles Dana Gibson and Harrison Fisher, where she became the leading model, known as the “Fisher Girl.” She appeared in many magazines, including Vanity Fair. With her earnings, she bought her struggling family a house in Schenectady in 1901.
When she was twenty-eight, Jeanne and her husband moved from New York to Boston to care for her sister who was seriously ill. She took courses at Boston University and enjoyed the art galleries, museums and cultural life of Boston. She also took extension courses at Harvard, meeting many of the leading intellectual and philosophical thinkers of the day.
Always a writer, she studied composition and moved into the next phase of her professional life, becoming journalist. But as exciting as her intellectual life was in the city, every summer she returned home to Crane Mountain in Johnsburg where she had lived as a child. Her spiritual renewal each year in the Adirondacks shows up in her writings.
Jeanne worked as a reporter for the Boston American newspaper. When she moved back to New York in 1911, she worked for Albert Shaw, the editor of the American Review of Reviews. She helped edit the 10-volume set, the Photographic History of the Civil War, which included Matthew Brady’s photographs. For eleven years she wrote book reviews, poetry criticism, theater reviews, and wrote about art, education, and women’s issues. Eventually Jeanne became the literary editor of the Review which had the largest circulation of any non-fiction magazine in the country.
Her work at the Review gave her the opportunity to travel to Europe three times during this period. In England she surveyed public housing, was a secret correspondent during World War I, and in France she secured the Lincoln cartoons from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. She also traveled to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. She became the major financial support for her family and her husband, who was elderly and unwell.
In 1916 Jeanne published a series of narrative verse stories about early settlers in the Adirondacks entitled Neighbors of Yesterday. Her literary portrait of frontier life in the Adirondacks was compared to Willa Cather’s O Pioneer! about the Nebraska prairie and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs about the Maine seacoast. Recognized at one of country’s leading women poets, Jeanne was listed in the 1922-23 edition of Who’s Who in America.
Between 1918 and 1924 she helped John Quinn, a New York lawyer and art patron, collect a large amount of French contemporary art. During this period she travel extensively in Europe and met many of the prominent artists of the day, including Picasso, and many of the leading literary giants like James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Elliot. For a year after Quinn’s death, Jeanne edited his vast collection of letters dealing with his art and manuscript collections.
From 1927 to 1932, Jeanne, who was in her mid-40s, traveled between New York and Schenectady, caring for family members. Her mother, father, brother and husband all died in the next few years. In 1932 Jeanne left New York City permanently, moving to Schenectady to begin her third career as a social worker. She served as a tenant-relations counselor for the Schenectady Housing Authority from 1938 until her retirement in 1955.
Remembering the isolated, difficult lives of elderly people in the Adirondacks, she successfully encouraged the city of Schenectady to build cheerful, appropriate housing for the elderly. It was the first low-income housing for the elderly built in the state. In 1959 she was elected the Schenectady Senior Citizen of the Year. In 1961 she received the city’s highest honor, the Schenectady Patroon Award.
Jeanne’s contributions to the folklore of the Adirondacks were revived in 1963 with the republication of Neighbors and Yesterday. Articles about her and favorable reviews of her work appeared, just as they had in 1916. It was recognized as an important piece of regional literature. Jeanne concentrated on finishing the second volume of her Adirondack poetry. In 1970, at the age of ninety-one and shortly before she died, Jeanne was granted an honorary doctorate from Union College in recognition of her contributions to one of the most exciting and innovative periods in art and literature.
Jeanne’s second book of Adirondack work was unfinished at her death; she willed her papers to a variety of individuals, including Tex and Ruth Riedinger, who received boxes of her Adirondack prose and poetry, scrapbooks, letters, photographs and artwork. Their daughter, Noel, looked through the material after her mother’s death in 1983.
Noel Riedinger-Johnson edited the remaining pieces into Adirondack Portraits - A Piece of Time by Jeanne Robert Foster (Syracuse University Press, 1986). The book is a snapshot of a vanished landscape. Jeanne Robert Foster’s descriptions of people and places from her Adirondack girlhood paint a word picture of an American wilderness. Recently the Grasse River Players brought selected pieces from the book to the stage in their Adirondack Sketches produced in Canton, New York.
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