Portrait of an Adirondack Poet
June 28, 2019
By Pat Gormley
In the eastern section of the Adirondack Park is Chestertown, New York, one of the region’s oldest towns dating to 1799. Like most small towns in America today, Chestertown has a selection of churches, a health care clinic, a diner, and a baseball field. It also has a cemetery just south of the village on Main Street. Of the 2,600 souls interred there, this is the story of two: one a poet native to the Adirondacks, the other an artist from across the Atlantic.
Jeanne Robert Foster was born Julia Elizabeth Oliver in 1879, in the Town of Johnsburg, Warren County, about 65 miles north of Albany. Like many working families in the Adirondacks of the 19th century, the Olivers were poor. Jeanne’s father Frank was a lumberjack, and her mother Lizzy an aspiring poet and educator with a degree from the Albany Normal School (the predecessor to the University at Albany). Later in her life, Lizzie changed her name to Lucia, and became a writer and social activist advocating for women’s rights. She ran for state senator twice on the Socialist ticket. Her work for the public good would one day have a profound influence on Jeanne.
As a child, Jeanne lived with other relatives from age eight to age 12 to ease the financial burden on her parents. For two years, she lived at the Putnam Farm at the base of Crane Mountain and guided parties up the steep trail for a fee of 25 cents. She was extremely curious and excelled in school, and like her mother, exhibited talent in teaching and writing. Jeanne’s independent spirit was evident in her teens when she changed her given names to honor two deceased male relatives. (She would use the variations of this pseudonym as writer later in life.) At 15, Jeanne was a certified teacher and taught elementary school in Warren County. An economic depression hit rural communities, and the family was forced to move to Glens Falls where Frank worked in the carpentry trade. Jeanne, however, had other plans.
At 17, Jeanne married Matlock Foster, a 49-year-old insurance salesman from Rochester. The unlikely couple met while Foster was visiting his parents in Chestertown. Once married, Matlock encouraged Jeanne to attend college in Rochester and to follow her passion for writing and acting. While visiting New York City with her husband, she met the editor of Vanity Fair magazine who immediately noticed her natural beauty and encouraged her to model. Shortly thereafter, she appeared on the cover of the popular magazine and appeared in other national publications. Her visage could even be seen on a box of cigars. In 1903, Jeanne also was a “Fisher Girl” model for the renowned American illustrator Harrison Fisher (1877-1934). But Jeanne envisioned herself as much more than a fashion model.
When she moved to Boston to care for her ailing sister, she studied writing at Boston University and Harvard and began to publish reviews on contemporary art and literature. She even worked as a correspondent while in England during World War I. Her work as a journalist and critic introduced her to some of the most acclaimed writers and artists of the era. The young woman from the Adirondacks was now making her mark in the world
as a writer.
John Butler Yeats of County Down in Northern Ireland, met Jeanne in 1914, and a special friendship emerged. When the elder Yeats, an accomplished portrait painter and writer met Jeanne in New York City, he was enchanted. In a letter to his son William, the world-famous Irish poet, he described Jeanne as “extraordinarily pretty and clever.’’ He also added, “It is so rare to find so much really strong intellect [mixed] with kindness and affection.” Yeats soon discovered that the indomitable spirit was born in her hardscrabble childhood in the Adirondacks.
Yeats and Foster developed a professional respect for one another's work. At times, Jeanne posed for Yeats, and in return, he read and critiqued her poetry. The aging Yeats encouraged Jeanne to write poems about the people and surroundings she knew best. She agreed. Her poems began to feature the stalwart Adirondack men and women in an unrelenting landscape that Jeanne had experienced firsthand. Jeanne published Neighbors of Yesterday in 1916 at age 37, capturing in verse the indifference of nature to the heroic and desperate struggles of common people. In her book on Adirondack women writers, Kate Winter suggests Foster’s poems “are most reminiscent of the work … of Robert Frost whose poems are similarly rooted in his own landscape.” Notice the connection between the people and the land in Foster’s “The Wilderness is Strong”:
Here in the wilderness folks will tell you
To be careful about the place you live,
For there’s something in the mountains
And the hills that is stronger than people,
And you will grow like the place where you live.
-Neighbors of Yesterday, 1916
As Yeat’s health began to decline, Jeanne stayed by his side and cared for him until he died in New York City on February 3, 1922. His death had a significant impact on Jeanne, and she published a poem in The New York Times honoring her friend of more than 10 years. Jeanne continued to live and work among luminaries including Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, and the son of her late friend, William Butler Yeats. In her mid-40s, Jeanne settled in New York City, but stayed in touch with many of her contemporaries across the sea.
After the deaths of her parents, brother, and husband, Jeanne left New York City in the midst of the Great Depression to live in the house she had bought for her family in Schenectady. Jeanne abandoned the life of a celebrity to work as a tenant-relations counselor for the local Municipal Housing Authority until 1955 and became a strong advocate of social reforms for the poor and elderly in her community.
Jeanne Robert Foster died in 1970 at the age of 91, leaving behind an extensive legacy as a fashion model, journalist, poet, editor, and social reform leader. She is buried next to her close friend, John Butler Yeats in the Chester Rural Cemetery in her beloved Adirondack Mountains.
“Adirondack Portraits, A Piece of Time” by Jeanne Robert Foster, Noel Riedinger Johnson, ed. Syracuse University Press, 1986.
“The Woman in the Mountain, Reconstructions of Self and Land by Adirondack Women Writers”, Kate H. Winter, ed. State University of New York Press, 1989.