[Revised in February 2020]
Barbara Newhall Follett was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, on March 4, 1914. Her parents were the writers and literary critics, Helen (Thomas) Follett and (Roy) Wilson Follett (Wilson was my grandfather). When Barbara was born he was teaching English at Dartmouth College. In 1917 the family moved to Providence, Rhode Island where Wilson taught at Brown University, and a year or two later they moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he briefly worked for Yale University Press before Alfred A. Knopf hired him as an editor at his young publishing house in New York City.
Helen schooled Barbara at home, believing she would receive a better education if free to explore her own interests. Reading and writing were early passions, and her curriculum included corresponding with friends of the family.
A turning point in Barbara’s young life occurred when she became interested in the clacking and ringing of her father’s typewriter. She was four years old. In a very short time she’d taught herself to touch type and was composing stories, poems, and letters on her own machine. When she was a little over five she wrote to Mr. Oberg, proprietor of an antiques shop in Providence:
The goldfinches come every afternoon and eat their supper on the clump of bachelor’s-buttons right on the left-hand side of the path that leads from the back door to our road. There are ten goldfinches, five males and five females. Before they eat their suppers, they sit on the clothesline and swing in the breeze. I wish you could be here to see them.
Day before yesterday Daddy killed a snake in the potato-patch; then he threw the snake away with a stick, and then he threw away the stick. The next day Ding [Barbara’s grandmother on her mother’s side, who lived with the family] and I went down Ridgeview Place, and there were the snake and the stick. The snake was about three feet long.
Soon Barbara had set up her own office in the Follett home on Observatory Place and was composing longer stories on her typewriter, editing them in pencil, and typing up a final copy. By the time she turned six she’d worked on the 4500-word The Life of the Spinning-Wheel, the Rocking Horse, and the Rabbit over a period of several months. It begins:
Once upon a time, though I can’t say exactly when, there lived in a far-off country a spinning-wheel, a rocking-horse, and a rabbit. They knew many of the people in that country. They lived in a house with many pretty things in it, such as I am going to tell you about: amethysts, turquoises, opals, pearls, diamonds, and rubies, and precious stones of all kinds.
One day when Mrs. Spinning-Wheel had her head stretched out of the window looking down upon the glorious garden of flowers, she was saying to herself, humming a low, sweet little song,—”Oh dear! how I wish Mr. Horse were white!”
Mr. Rabbit was hiding in a corner behind the door, and he heard what Mrs. Spinning-Wheel had said. “Ha! Ha!” said Mr. Rabbit to Mrs. Spinning-Wheel, with a wiggle of his nose, “Mr. Horse shall be white, as white as you want him to be!”
“Eh?” replied Mrs. Spinning-Wheel.
“I say” began Mr. Rabbit a little louder. But Mrs. Spinning-Wheel interrupted him, saying:
“What do you mean to say to me?”
“I mean to say to you,” said Mr. Rabbit, “that Mr. Horse shall be as white as you want him to be.”
“Ah! Now I get you,” said Mrs. Spinning-Wheel, with a merry little laugh. “But,” said she, in a few minutes, “how are you going to make Mr. Horse as white as snow?”
“I am going to take a fairy’s wand,” said Mr. Rabbit to Mrs. Spinning-Wheel.
“A bright idea!” exclaimed she.
“Well then,” said Mr. Rabbit, “tomorrow morning I’ll go off for the wand. But now Mrs. Clock says seven and so I should think we might as well go to bed.”
And so they all went to bed.
In the early years Barbara had few friends her own age to play with, but her animal friends (both real and stuffed) and her vivid imagination kept her company. Here’s an excerpt of a letter to Mr. Oberg from January 1922:
I pretend that Beethoven, the Two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me, and when I invite them to dinner, a place has to be set for them; and when I have so many that the table won’t hold them all, I make my family sit on one side of their chair to make room for them. My abbreviation for the Two Strausses is the Two S’s. Beethoven, Wagner, and the Two S’s have maids; Beethoven’s maid’s name is Katherine Velvet, Wagner’s maid’s name is Katherine Loureena (she got the name Loureena when she was a little bit of a girl because she loved to skate in the Arena), and Strauss’s maid’s name is Sexo Crimanz… Now I am going to tell you about a funny accident that Wagner had. One morning when I had two chairs set out, one for Beethoven and the other for Wagner, I hadn’t pretended long enough to get my family used to them, and Daddy suddenly grabbed the chair that Wagner was sitting in, but I held on to it squealing: “Hey, that’s Wagner’s chair!” Then he went around to Beethoven, and I was looking suspiciously at him all the time. But he turned around again and didn’t bother Beethoven. I suppose that when he got around there, he thought that Beethoven was there.
Also in 1922, Barbara began to describe on paper her imaginary world, Farksolia, and to develop its language, Farksoo. Her Farksoo lexicon, complete with syntax and conjugated verbs, would soon occupy two card catalog files—one for the Farksoo-English and the other English-Farksoo. Barbara worked on Farksoo at least into 1933, when she asked her mother to bring a particular notebook with her to Germany (“I need Farksoo”). In a May 1922 letter to the illustrator Dorothy Lathrop, she wrote:
I have now started a story about kittens, and the most important character is Verbiny the princess who found the mother-cat in the woods, caught her, and tamed her. One of the four kittens had a black back arched up like a kangaroo rat’s, and at the top of each white stocking was a band of yellow. All the kittens catch little crickets and grasshoppers, and one of the kittens catches a bay mouse, and a kitten named Citrolane catches two sparrows, one with each paw. But just a little while after the kittens are born they want so much to see what is on the other side of the fence that fences in their property that they climb up over it and jump down and almost land on a porcupine, be he good-naturedly steps aside in time. In a chapter called Springtime I have written down a little poem in a secret language that Verbiny called Farksoo. In the secret language it was this:
Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yars fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart ain birdream.
Afee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen der tuee,
Darnceen craik peen bune.
I will now translate it as best I can.
As the (and maiburs means a flower that comes in May) begin to come,
The air is filled with perfume.
The dandelion fluff floats like a (and birdream means something very beautiful).
Also like a fairy in her dress of gold,
Dancing to the wind.
In Barbara: Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius, Harold McCurdy and Helen suggested that Barbara invented her complex imaginary world because she wanted to escape the one the adults had made, with all its cruelty and violence. She also wanted freedom and independence—themes that would persist throughout her life They also suggested that Farksolia was particularly attractive because in the past it had been ravaged by war and destruction and had barely escaped depopulation altogether, and now its future rested in the hands of a six-year-old and a baby. And, of course, in The Adventures of Eepersip (later titled The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s life there, Eepersip runs away from home and lives happily in Nature. In Barbara’s words:
It is about a little girl named Eepersip who lived on top of a mountain, Mount Varcrobis, and was so lonely that she went away to lived wild. She talked to the animals, and led a sweet lovely life with them–just the kind of life that I should like to lead. Her parents all tried to catch her, with some friends of theirs, and every time she escaped in some way or other.
Due to illness Barbara was unable to finish Eepersip quite in time to give to her mother on her own ninth birthday (as was Barbara’s custom), but did finish it a few days later; and at her father’s suggestion she revised it over the course of the summer. But in October 1923 the Follett home burned to the ground, and the manuscript went up in flames. Heartbroken, Barbara began writing new stories, but returned to Eepersip in early 1924 and worked on it over the next two years. Her father thought the revised version, which Barbara was much happier with, might be published.
Wilson presented Mr. and Mrs. Knopf with the manuscript and it was accepted for publication; and The House Without Windows arrived in the bookshops in January 1927. The first printing of 2500 had sold out before the publication date, and a second printing of it was immediately ordered. The book was warmly reviewed by New York Times, the Saturday Review of Literature, and The American Girl, among many others. The book was also published in London, and a Dutch translation appeared in The Netherlands. Eleanor Farjeon, composer of Morning Has Broken, wrote:
These pages simply quiver with the beauty, happiness, and vigour of forests, seas, and mountains…. I can safely promise joy to any reader of it. Perfection.”
In 1927 Barbara’s nascent fascination with pirates and the sea reached fever pitch. In the early summer she befriended the captain and crew of the Frederick H., a Nova Scotian lumber-trading schooner that was anchored in New Haven harbor. She demanded that her parents let her go on the Frederick‘s next cruise north. Finally, after a chaperone for Barbara was secured in George S. Bryan (or, as Barbara called him, James Hook—first dedicatee of The House Without Windows), they consented. Barbara spent ten glorious days in June climbing up to the ship’s crosstrees, encouraging the crew to mutiny, and serving as cabin-boy. As soon as she got home she wrote about her adventure in very long letter to her friend in New Hampshire, Leo Meyette. Soon she would turn this letter into her second book for Knopf; and The Voyage of the Norman D. was published in May 1928.
To the outside it looked as though Barbara’s future as a writer was secure, but in fact her world had just fallen apart.
Wilson Follett had been spending less time at home and more time in New York. He’d become involved with another Knopf employee, a woman twenty years (to the day) his junior—Margaret Whipple, who was my grandmother. In March 1928 Wilson moved out of New Haven for good and into an apartment with Margaret on Perry Street in Greenwich Village.
Barbara had been devoted to her father, and his desertion was a terrible blow. But such was Barbara’s passion for life—not only for nature and adventure but for writing—that the crisis did not dampen her spirit altogether. She persuaded her mother that an adventure at sea was their best recourse, and Harper & Brothers was keen to publish her writing about it. And so, leaving young sister Sabra in the care of a guardian, they sailed from New York to Barbados in September 1928. From there—with no itinerary in mind nor any idea when they might return; with few belongings—a suitcase and two portable typewriters; and very little money (Helen expected Wilson to support them while they were away, but no money ever came)—they explored Caribbean islands for several months.
They then sailed through the Panama Canal to Tahiti, Fiji, the Tonga Islands, Samoa, and finally arrived at Honolulu in May 1929. By then Wilson’s desertion had taken its toll on Barbara’s health, and she suffered, in Helen’s words, a “smash—emotional and nervous” in Tahiti. Helen wrote to her best friend, Anne Meservey:
Barbara has gone to pieces. Her writing job is not anywhere near finished. She has lost interest in things, in living, in writing. She says, herself, that she is “homesick.” She is in critical condition, and likely to do anything from running away to suicide. And my advice is not what she wants, She must have a man to help her.
A little comfort was in store, however. They secured passage to the coast of Washington on the five-masted schooner Vigilant, which had as her second mate a 25-year-old sailor named Edward Anderson. Anderson and Barbara became very close during that voyage; and soon Barbara had fallen in love. She wrote later:
I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea-trip in her. And it lasted even during that week in port, when I took over the cabin-boy’s job… Life was beautiful then.
It must have been terribly hard for Barbara to leave Anderson after the week in port, where they explored the old growth forests of Hoquiam and held “cherry and ice-cream parties” on board the Vigilant. She and Helen caught a bus to Pasadena in southern California, where Barbara was left in the hands of a wealthy, deaf friend of Helen’s, Mildred Kennedy, who had arrived from Boston to help out. Helen returned to Honolulu to begin writing the first of her two books about their time at sea, Magic Portholes, and to earn some money at a job she’d lined up at Bishop Museum. Meanwhile Barbara was enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, her first exposure to formal education, and began seeing a “psychiatrist,” Ture Shoultz—who in reality was not a psychiatrist but a masseur of Hollywood stars with a history of fraud, including his claim to be a Swedish count. Alarmingly, Schoultz had been convicted ten years earlier in Tennessee for “attempt to violate the age of consent and by offering indecent exposures and proposals to high school girls.” (Whether or not he made any advances toward Barbara, I don’t know.)
Barbara hated college and in mid-September ran away to San Francisco. She booked herself into a hotel in the Tenderloin under the name “K. Andrews.” Mildred suspected that San Francisco was the girl’s destination and contacted the authorities. On September 19, Detective Sergeant Clarence Hurwitz found Barbara in her room, and she tried to jump through the window. The jump might have been a suicide attempt or simply a desperate dive for freedom. Either way, she was restrained and detained in the Juvenile Detention Home until the Los Angeles probation officer could figure out what to do with her. Barbara refused to live with Mildred any longer, so a new home was needed while her mother made the long journey back to California. Fortunately, old friends of the Folletts who were now living in Pasadena—Alice Dyar Russell and her family—offered to look after the teenager. After Barbara left California six months later, Alice would become one of her two most important correspondents (the other was Anderson).
That the girl who’d famously written The House Without Windows when she was twelve had now been arrested was too juicy a story for the press to pass up. Dozens of articles quickly appeared in newspapers nationwide. With Helen still at sea, Wilson and Margaret drove across country from their rented farmhouse on the Maine coast, where my grandfather had been trying to write a novel. But before they left Maine, none other than Ture Schoultz came to visit! I suspect he was trying to ingratiate himself with this new couple who, given the chaotic whirlwind Barbara had been living in since her father’s desertion, might soon become her legal guardians.
After a court hearing behind closed doors to keep the press out, and with Helen still away, Barbara moved in with the Russells. She wrote to Anderson, who came to Pasadena to support his young friend as soon as he was able.
In late October Helen arrived at last, and the two parents and their lawyers fought each other for custody. The court left the decision up to Barbara. For a short time Helen also lived with the Russells, but with Wilson and Margaret visiting often and ratcheting up the tension, she moved to a hotel and didn’t see her daughter for a month. Wilson and Margaret continued to visit but it was all for naught. In November, Barbara chose Helen over her father, whose disdain for Anderson was a contributing factor. Meanwhile, the stock market was crashing—it was the dawn of the Great Depression.
After wintering in California, Barbara and Helen began their journey back east by sea, while Wilson and Margaret moved to Hollywood to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer as script readers (fellow readers included Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman). Barbara and Helen boarded the S. S. Marsodak on March 4, 1930—Barbara’s sixteenth birthday—and steamed through the Panama Canal and up the coast to Washington, D.C. There they stopped for two months to work on Magic Portholes and to decide where to go next. The fatherless house on Armory Street in New Haven was too painful to contemplate. They decided to try New York City for their new home. Less expensive than Washington, New York offered more job opportunities during these early months of the Great Depression and was home to many publishers. They arrived in June 1930. Helen stayed in Midtown while Barbara moved in with her friends George and Alice Bryan in Pelham, a few miles to the north.
Barbara quickly found work writing synopses of “putrid novels” for Fox Film Corporation. She was also making a little money by editing and retyping the manuscript for her friend Dr. J. Harland Paul’s book, The Last Cruise of the Carnegie. When Barbara and Helen left New Haven in September 1928, their idea was to try to follow the course of the Carnegie, whose crew they had befriended earlier in the year. It was to be the schooner’s last cruise because, while anchored in Apia, Samoa on November 29, 1929, a barrel of gasoline exploded, igniting other barrels and destroying the ship. The disaster took the lives of Captain James P. Ault and Tony Kolar, the cabin-boy.
Barbara also enrolled herself in the Packard Commercial School to learn shorthand and other business skills. While attending classes she landed a part-time job as a secretary at the Personnel Research Federation on West 39th Street; after graduation this job switched to full-time. By now she was reunited with Helen and sister Sabra in a tiny apartment on West 122nd Street, near Grant’s Tomb. She had a little more time than usual during this busy summer since her frequent letters to Anderson were on hiatus. He had signed on with the C. S. Holmes, a trading schooner that sailed from Seattle to Barrow on Alaska’s North Slope, a four-month return trip.
In May 1931 Anderson returned to Alaska on the Holmes and Barbara began to write her third book, Lost Island. She wrote to Alice Russell in June:
I’m writing a book. A good book. The one about wings. The first chapter is done, and the second is well under way. The plot is mapped out rather clearly—in my head. It begins rather dismally, but soon acquires some sun. There will be sea (naturally), and a romance (?), and a satisfactory amount of misery. The plot is exceedingly old and trite, but it’s going to be handled in a new way. It’s about a shipwreck, an island, and so on. But it doesn’t turn out very well. It leaves you a little poised in mid-air.
And on July 4:
There are three chapters of my book in existence now—pretty fairly good I think. Its title so far has been “Lost Island.” Does that sound intriguing? The few persons whom I have so far confided in have liked it—also have been enthusiastic over the outline of the story. I am having a good deal of fun wrestling with it.
But oh, oh, in N. Y. the moths feed on the wings of your soul. This is probably an unhealthy attitude, I know. But I do think the world is rather horrid. Most of my dearest friends seem to be in deep trouble, and I can’t do anything about it.
Perhaps that’s why I cling for dear life to A. He, with no tools and no material, has nevertheless made something most beautiful and real out of life. I don’t know just how. But he is a rock and a shelter. I’ll never forget or forgive WF’s attitude toward him. That was mainly what caused the sharp and sudden break between him and me. It was unwarranted and ridiculous and mean. My respect for WF did its loudest blowing-up over that…. A. is a treasure.
Eager for a break from the city, Helen and her daughters rented a log cabin in the Vermont countryside for July and August. The cabin was on a hillside overlooking woods sheltering Barbara’s beloved hermit thrushes—across the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire, where she’d been born seventeen years earlier. She wrote to Alice on July 14:
I certainly don’t think there is much to be said for this so-called civilization. It’s barbarous, that’s what it is. The primitivest of the primitive were never capable of such outrages as this Jinx civilization. That’s one of the things “Lost Island” is about—sort of a fling, a kick, a dig at the world. Not a nasty one, just a grieved one. I wish we were back to the cave days. Even nowadays there are some tribes that are happy. Look at the Polynesians, for instance. Naturally we can’t be happy in their surroundings, but that’s not the fault of the surroundings. It’s our fault—and civilization’s. Damn, damn!
But lest you think I’m becoming very despondent myself of late, let me assure you that this is my normal state of mind, when I allow it to come to the surface. That is, I always am grieved at the world. But I usually don’t allow it to come to the surface. I sink it. And I do love listening to those hermit-thrushes. They are divine. And there are a few beings whom I love a great deal, and who make most of what there is of Good in life. But I don’t believe in God. God got discouraged and gave up long ago, and I don’t blame him, I’m sure!
I spent much of 2019 reading and pondering Barbara’s story while writing my long afterword for Lost Island (plus three stories and an afterword) (Farksolia, 2020). From my perspective, Lost Island is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s. To put it crudely, Barbara’s lost island is a metaphor for our lost world—one that’s being destroyed by homo sapiens. It’s about preserving beauty within oneself despite external forces that don’t care a whit about beauty; about a couple estranged from the modern world that’s speeding pell mell toward an ever-increasing profit margin, whatever the cost to human spirit.
While in Vermont Barbara made three new friends, one of whom had just graduated Dartmouth College: Nickerson Rogers. Just as Lost Island‘s Jane Carey is based on Barbara’s real life, and Davidson’s on Edward Anderson, there’s a lot of Nickerson in the character of John, Jane’s childhood friend from Maine. These four drove 350 miles northeast to Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. Katahdin (or, as Barbara liked to spell it, Ktaadn) was a mountain she’d longed to climb with her father before his desertion. The party camped a few nights on Chimney Pond and explored the great mountain and its trails. In 1933 Barbara would write about her Ktaadn adventures in a thrilling short story, Rocks—one of the three other stories in my edition of Lost Island.
Back in New York, Barbara’s job kept her increasingly busy. There was good news on the book front, however: Magic Portholes had finally found a publisher in the Macmillan Company. There was even talk of serializing it for the radio. But as the year drew to a close she became more and more restless, and increasingly mysterious in her letters to Alice, whom she wrote to in November:
I want to see you, very much. Who knows? The world is fairly small, when all’s said and done, and I’ve an odd presentiment that I shan’t be sitting at this desk for more than a certain amount of time—another year, say. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that, but I just have a small, dim suspicion, that’s all. If the world has any justice (I never believed it had much), or a shred of happiness in it, or even the most erratic tendency to keep its promises—well, I shan’t, that’s all. And if that sounds vague and mysterious and so forth, it’s just because I don’t dare to do more than vaguely, dimly hint that things could take a sudden turn. (Sudden???) And if the world so much as suspected that I was in danger of telling you anything about its secret mechanisms, it would swoop down on me at once and cut off my head.
So far she hadn’t mentioned Nickerson and the two others she’d met in Vermont—Dinny and John. Over the winter these four met several times in New York to discuss a grand adventure they had in mind—a walk along the 2200-mile-long Appalachian Trail. She wrote to Alice in March 1932:
You are right when you surmise that I have been rushed and busy—more so than ever, since the beginning of 1932. My life is getting almost crowded, in fact. The job, of course, takes eight hours a day straight out, and everything else has to be jammed into the fringes. Since I can’t satisfy mind, soul, or body with the job, I have to jam into the fringes almost as much as another person would put into an entire day. […]
I’ve gotten together a party of four congenial brave souls—of which I am one (I hope)—and we may add two more members. Then, starting about the middle of July, we’re going to Maine—Ktaadn—Thoreau’s country—and from there we’re going down the Appalachian Trail, two thousand miles, Maine to Georgia, camping out, and carrying upon our sturdy backs the necessities of life. It will take between three and four months, and be the greatest release imaginable. […]
The party consists of an amiable lad with occasional unsuspected depths whom I met last summer when H. and I were living in the Vermont cabin; a pal of his, who has a remarkably good head on young shoulders; and a girl who is really a grand scout, with whom I get along quite beautifully. In fact, we all get along with each other beautifully. No friction anywhere, as far as we have been able to discover.
Well, that’s the general idea. It may crash completely. Nothing is certain about it. But we’re all hoping, and pulling together. We’re all slightly rebels against civilization, and we want to go out into the woods and sweat honestly and shiver honestly and satisfy our souls by looking at mountains, smelling pine trees, and feeling the sky and the earth. […]
All this time I haven’t so much as mentioned A., have I? Well, I’ve had him in the back of my mind—in reserve, so to speak. Luckily, the C. S. Holmes job holds. I guess he’ll be going north again next summer—the third time. There really isn’t anything else to do, with conditions as they are all over the world, especially along the waterfront. His life is odd and stern—verging on tragic, at times. He feels that now and then, and has down-spells, during which I am hard put to it to be cheerful and cheering. I am pretty sure, though, that next fall we shall actually be together, and discuss everything from moths to meteors, including money and mice and merriment and misery and—but that almost exhausts the m’s I can think of at this Moment. That discussion will doubtless decide a good many points about this universe and the nature thereof. Right now he is a little sad, and alternates between letters about the futility of life with humorous epistles about politics in Seattle and other things.
How different Barbara’s life would have been had she married Anderson, a possibility she hinted at in her list of m’s! Barbara’s long March letter continues:
I have a philosophy of life—one which has been evolving for many years, but which has suffered interruptions and repressions and smashes. Now it has taken root again—or, rather, I realize that its roots are not dead, but just beginning to be powerful. If it grows and thrives and survives the vile climate of trouble and difficulty and set-back, it may take me to almost any part of the old earth where I want to go. What is this philosophy, you ask? Well, I’m testing it warily, leaning on it cautiously, exploring it tenderly, thinking about it profoundly; and if I come to the conclusion that it’s any good, I’ll tell you sometime. Not until it has proved itself a little, though. I’ve lost faith in a number of things—or, rather, I’ve withdrawn from them the crushing weight of my faith. My philosophy aims now to stand upright. Tree-like….
I expect the next year to decide a number of important points. Beginning this summer. I think this summer will tell me a good deal. Being in the woods, standing on mountain-peaks—time to meditate and dream and get a perspective on life. There is nothing more soul-cleansing than to stand on a mountain, when you are inclined to feel hopelessly sure that the world is 99 100ths mankind, and see that vast tracts of it are blankets of forest and trees, after all! Mountains affect inward matters in the same way—reassure one about inward things in the same way as they do the visible things. So I expect to find out several things during the Appalachian Trail expedition—assuming and praying that it works.
Then, coming back from that to this—the complete contrast, the need for instantaneous adaption, and the fresh perspective on this—these things are also going to tell me a good deal. I mean, I shall be ready then to make certain decisions, about philosophy and about life.
Then I’ll remedy the inner workings of the universe!
Barbara elaborated her philosophy to Alice in May:
I have decided that there are a good many big and fundamental things wrong with the world, and that nothing can be done about it; furthermore, that one must revolve quietly along with the world instead of trying vainly to buck it. If you compromise enough—to outward appearances, at least—and if you fully realize what a messy world it is, and are reconciled to certain facts, such as continual change and permanence in nothing—why, then you can have a surprisingly good time. That’s what I’ve discovered anyway. I’m having a better time of it these days than I’ve had for ages—almost approaching gaiety sometimes, in fact.
By late May Barbara had almost finished Lost Island and continued to prepare for the Trail. Adventure’s call was increasing in volume. She wrote to Alice:
Yes, Anderson went north again. He is now first mate of the schooner, and rather happy about that, of course. He is doing awfully well, considering everything. I MAY see him next fall—but don’t you breathe a syllable about that, even to yourself! I’m keeping it a very strict secret from myself. If you know what I mean. I mean there are some things in this world that don’t happen if you so much as admit that they’re possible. Perhaps they sometimes happen if you keep your eyes tight shut and don’t think at all.
With Lost Island complete and on Eugene Saxton’s desk at Harper and Brothers, Barbara quit her job and left New York at the beginning of July, then camped with Nickerson on an island in Squam Lake, New Hampshire for two weeks, where she swam and paddled and strengthened her city muscles (Dinny and John decided not to join them after all). The pair then hitchhiked to Katahdin. A year later Barbara would write Travels Without a Donkey, a delightful account of their month-long journey by foot and canoe from Katahdin to Lake Umbagog on the Maine-New Hampshire border (Travels is included in the new Lost Island). She hoped to publish it and so portrayed Nick as her husband; to do otherwise would have been too scandalous for the 1930s.
Barbara had letters waiting when she and Nick passed through Oquossoc in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine sometime in August. These included a note from Saxton saying he was passing on Lost Island. Undaunted, she wrote to her mother:
N. wears well. I don’t know anybody else in the world (at least, of the male sex) whom I would want to be thrown together with so closely for so long through so many variegated adventures. We haven’t even scrapped at all, which is rather remarkable, considering how constantly and intimately we’ve been together since July. I’ve never had such an enjoyable and satisfactory relation with anyone. We’re going to chuck it, clean, when we feel like it, but now it promises to hold out ad infinitum, and it’s grand.
She also wrote to Alice:
I’ve jumped the whole structure of what life was before: I’ve jumped the job, jumped my love, jumped parental dependence, jumped civilization—made a pretty clean break—and am happier than for years and years. I’ve a new, and I think a better, structure of life, though time alone can tell that!
The couple continued their long walk through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, crossed the border into Vermont, and walked down the Long Trail to Massachusetts, where their journey ended in Williamstown. By now—early or mid November—it was becoming too cold to continue living outside comfortably. They thought about wintering in Florida, but decided on something more exotic: Spain. Barbara’s letter to Alice shortly before sailing in December explained her plan:
You wanted to hear from me promptly—right away, return air mail and all that. But, you see, in the rather odd kind of life I’m living right now, such things can’t be done. When your letter was forwarded to me, I was—well, where was I, anyway? Williamstown Mass., I guess—just in from a week’s stretch of Green Mountains. The next day we pulled out, hitch-hiking. I’m in New York now, at the apartment, but only till about tomorrow. Then I light out again.
Now I’m in Brookline, Mass., clearing up a few earthly details before sailing for a little island off the coast of Spain—if you can believe that! No wonder you are puzzled. The reason I didn’t try to go into any sort of detail in my first letter was that I wanted—well, to sort of feel around first, if you see what I mean. […]
I don’t enjoy going into terrific detail about myself, by mail. It seems so rather brazen and cold-blooded. And I’ve been writing fewer letters than ever. But to put it briefly, New York irked me past endurance, and I had an opportunity to quit it all. I thought about it pretty hard for a while, and then decided that in spite of certain complications, “obligations,” and whatnot, I would chase them to the four winds and take my chance. So I did. I and a comrade escaped to the Maine woods (Katahdin, in fact) and then started off tramping south down the footpath that runs intermittently all the way from Maine to Georgia—the Appalachian Trail. It was a tremendous summer. There were mountains and forests, rivers and fields, sunlight and starlight, fir boughs and birds singing. But it was not only a summer. It will go on.
Those are the brief facts—which, of course, are not a satisfactory offering. You see how hopeless it is to give you a good idea of what it’s all about, and why. Besides, it’s all based on such subtle intangible things—except the boat to Spain, which is fairly tangible. I’ve tossed a lot of things to the winds, of course. I mean, I’m gradually getting to be a fairly “shady” character, but it’s worth it. When it isn’t worth it any more, I’ll change it some how. There’s always a way out, if you have courage—there was even a way out of New York!
Sometime my devious paths will lead me to you. I know that. Then there can be a real discussion, and real understanding. Right now I’m living in kind of a golden ethereal mist, and I haven’t typewritten for a long time, either! So I’m handicapped, more or less. Besides, the things I want to say are too new. They are still seething and surging around in my heart, but they haven’t been able yet to take their shape and wings and fly into the sun. It’s all pretty experimental, anyway. This I know—life is better than I thought. It can continue being good, if one only knows how. I’m trying to learn. I am learning, a little.
Helen has both backed me up and condemned me. Of course, it’s hard on her. A very subtle and complex question of ethics is involved—whether ’twere better etc. I’ve found this out—you can’t arrange your life so that everyone is satisfied, including yourself—unless you are a very uninteresting person. And the break had to come. I’m not claiming I’m right (how foolish it is for anyone ever to claim that he’s right about anything!), and God knows I may end up in an awful mess. Still, all I can do is follow the best I know—take the greenest and most verdurous trail that I can see. If it ends in a desert or a swamp, maybe I can go back and try another one. And that makes a cosmic adventure of it all.
Their steamship, the S. S. Rex, arrived in Gibraltar around Christmas. They spent a few days in Morocco, then sailed to Spain. They visited Malaga looking for walking opportunities and, finding nothing suitable, sailed to Palma in Mallorca where, pretending to be married, they spent the rest of the winter meeting locals and fellow travelers, practicing Spanish, working in a pension for room and board, reading and writing in cafés, and the like. In spring they shouldered their packs and walked for ten days around the coast from Palma to Port de Sóller. Barbara kept shorthand notes during the walk, and typed them up for Helen when they got back to Palma, via train from Sóller. These notes comprise the third story of the new Lost Island.
Mallorca proved enough of Spain for the travelers. After their long walk they spent another week in Palma, transcribing notes and stories on a borrowed typewriter. The stories included the aforementioned Rocks and another New England mountain tale, Mothballs in the Moon. Then they sailed to Barcelona where they caught a train bound for Grenoble, the French town nestled below the Alps. While waiting for the train Barbara wrote to Alice, who was no doubt left bemused by Barbara’s previous letter from Brookline. Who was this mysterious Dartmouth graduate whom Barbara had spent almost a year with, day and night? And where did his existence leave Anderson? Here’s the middle part of Barbara’s letter of May 4, 1933:
You are absolutely right, my dear, in resenting my not having taken you more into confidence. Try to believe that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to tell you all about it, as that I was all up in the air myself, not sure just what was happening and not knowing where to start or what to say in any event. It is bewildering to completely change one’s life all in a minute. Do forgive me.
In brief, here is the story: I met this “mysterious figure N. Rogers” summer before last, when H. and I were living in that little cabin in Vermont. Then he showed up again that winter in New York, and we became good friends. He helped me through some trying times. We liked mountains—laid plans for getting away together the following summer. It was with him that I took that trip down the Appalachian Trail through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It was all so good that I decided to stick to it. In August I wrote [Walter V.] Bingham, giving up my job. This—all this—is a continuation of that adventure.
That is very brief. It doesn’t tell you anything about the delicious little island in the middle of a New Hampshire lake that we camped out on for two weeks in a tiny brown tent. It doesn’t say anything about the things we have been doing in Mallorca (which we just left last night), such as living in a cave out on the coast and swimming in magic blue-green water. And it doesn’t say a word about the mysterious figure himself. Well, that’s difficult. A picture may help a little. I just know that I have never “hit it off” so well with anyone or known a more congenial comrade. We’ve been together day and night for upwards of a year now, and no prospects of splitting up. Sometime we’re going out to explore the great North-West; and we’ll come to see you, if you’ll have us.
It all happened like a shot, you see. I was sorry to do this to E. A., but when crises arise things change. Besides, I think that was drawing to a close; and this was obviously right because it was so damn natural. I believe in nature. We have to follow the best thing we know—the thing that is at the time best.
Helen writes that she expects to come over, with Sabra, in June. We shall join up with her somewhere, and I shall help her with another book [Stars to Steer By]. As for my book, Lost Island, I haven’t ditched it at all. I finished it about a year ago, and I suppose it is now wearily going the rounds of publishers’ desks under Helen’s guidance. I still think it’s a pretty good book. I haven’t written much since—a little short stuff.
The couple spent a week in Grenoble, then crossed the Alps by foot through Switzerland and into Germany’s Black Forest, reaching Freiburg in early June—a walk of about 260 miles. There they met up with Helen and Sabra. The party found accommodation on a farm in nearby Hinterzarten where they worked in the fields in exchange for room and board. With Barbara’s help, Helen worked on Stars to Steer By, the second book about their travels at sea.
Helen and Sabra returned to the United States in September 1933, while Barbara and Nick continued to explore Germany before sailing back to New York from Hamburg, arriving in November. Instead of staying there with her family, however, Barbara moved to Boston to be with Nick. She rented a room in a boarding house in the city while he lived with his parents on Perrin Road in nearby Brookline. I don’t know where Barbara’s first room was located, but by February 1934 she had moved to a “still cheaper” room ($3.25 per week) at 26 Cumberland Street, near Symphony Hall.
Letters in the archive are scarce following Barbara’s move to Boston. There are only a few short ones to her mother before the next concrete date in the timeline: Barbara’s marriage to Nickerson Rogers, on July 7, 1934, in Brookline. The bride moved into the Rogers’ large house on Perrin Road, a quiet cul-de-sac near the Brookline Reservoir. They lived there through 1935 before moving to 125 Charles Street in Beacon Hill, around the corner from her secretarial job at the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at 14 Beacon Street. As for Nickerson, he and his younger brother Howard were working for Edwin Land at his brand new company, Polaroid. In a few years Howard would become a key figure in the invention of instant photography.
Barbara had also reunited with her father, who married Margaret in 1933. Helen had at last granted him a divorce in exchange for the house in New Haven, which she quickly sold. The Folletts were living with their two-year-old daughter Jane (my mother) on a farm in Bradford, Vermont. Barbara even began corresponding with my grandmother, but regrettably those letters are lost.
In 1937 it’s clear that marriage wasn’t as thrilling as Barbara would’ve liked. She wrote to Alice in April:
I’ve had one or two fairly high adventures, and am convinced that they are worth all kinds of sweat and pain and other troubles: in fact, they are the only things really worth suffering for. My greatest worry now, when I have time to stop and think about it, is that I am in a rather difficult position as far as Adventure is concerned, where that evasive spirit may have trouble locating me! Life right now is a very quiet adventure, though pleasant, at that.
In the same letter Barbara mentioned her new interest in interpretive dancing. She had begun taking classes with Mary Starks and her Dance Workshop Group of Boston. Starks, three years older than Barbara, had trained with Martha Graham and Mary Wigman and would soon open a studio in West Roxbury. Meanwhile, Nick’s job at Polaroid was keeping him increasingly busy and traveling.
Cracks in the Rogers’ marriage widen in Barbara’s letters to Alice in 1938. Nick’s job at Polaroid was keeping him increasingly busy as “a sort of special salesman” and Barbara took her summer vacation without him, to his consternation. She wrote to Alice in early October:
I am at the same job, doing much the same things as before, and liking it just well enough to hang on; or, rather, not disliking it quite enough to leave. If I had any bright ideas about what to leave it for I might actually leave. Nick, on the other hand, is coming up in the world a little. They have made him a sort of special salesman for Polaroid. That isn’t really what it sounds. His job is to go about to various companies who are already interested or have inquired by mail, and give little informal lectures and demonstrations; or suggestions to people who are already using it and want to know more about it. It means he will skip around a good deal over the country—often by airplane, which he loves—will meet lots of people and sort of see the country a bit. I think it’s fine, and so far he hasn’t been away from home enough to make me object—much! By the way, did you see his comely mug in Life, Sept. 12, in connection with an article on Polaroid? And did you recognize him? (The young man whose rear view shows in the picture above is Nick’s brother Howard.)
I had a pretty good summer, the only hitch being that N. and I had no vacation time which coincided at all. I had a month off, part of which I used in a very exciting and wonderful canoe trip with two friends in the wilds of Canada—when I say “wilds,” I mean it, too; there was one stretch of four days when we didn’t see or hear another human being, though we were on the move all the time. We fished, swam, sunned, and paddled and paddled and PADDLED from one lake to another, one river to the next, each one being lovelier and wilder than the one before. We camped on idyllic little islands and beaches.
Part of my vacation—almost a week, in fact—I spent with Follett and Margaret at Bradford. I had one heavenly day there, during which I helped F. get caught up on his gardening. We worked together till we dropped, and it was lovely. After that things kind of petered out. They were having a financial crisis at the time (just for a change!) and that was weighing them down. There was a bad spell when they thought they were going to be thrown out of the house for non-payment of rent; but that passed, and there seem to be articles coming in the Atlantic now. Margaret goes through occasional very bitter spells, and then recovers. The children seem to thrive. I hear that their house survived the storm all right, although the yard and garden are a tangled mess of fallen trees so that they don’t know how to begin to clean it up. When M. wrote a few days ago, they had no light or water.
In 1939, Barbara’s participation in the Dance Workshop Group gathered steam with concerts performed in Boston and beyond. It’s likely she was one of the dancers performing with the Group in Burlington, Vermont, on March 25. Two days later the Burlington Free Press covered the recital:
Miss Mary Starks and her group of six girls from Boston presented their demonstration of modern dancing before an appreciative audience at the University of Vermont’s Southwick Memorial building Saturday evening.
Miss Starks opened the program with four of the elementary dance studies in which she demonstrated the correct “walking” movements used in the modern dance. The five solo dances which she presented included several light compositions and her two most popular dances, “Working Gals’ Blues” and “Alien City” which were more dramatic and portrayed a deeper sentiment. The costumes were very unusual.
Miss Marjorie Houser, pianist, collaborates with Miss Starks in composing and arranging the various dances. The girls taking part in the demonstration are all professional women, and they dance together voluntarily after their working hours, purely for the love of dancing. By presenting these recitals, they earn extra money.
In late June, Alice received an unexpected letter from Linwood, Utah. Barbara was driving across country with Marjorie Houser and Marjorie’s younger brother, Lee. Barbara was to attend the summer session of the Bennington School of the Dance, held that year at Mills College in Oakland, California, from July 1 through August 11. Meanwhile the Housers were planning to go camping in Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Barbara told Alice to expect to see them all soon after the dance session ended.
I am loving Mills College. The campus is perfectly beautiful, more like a rich man’s estate than like any institution I ever saw. And we, being summer students—and pretty special at that!—are subject to no rules or regulations that even I could object to. The work is thrilling, as we have courses with several of the “big shots” of the modern dance. My “major” is with Hanya Holm, whom I have long admired.
Other big shots included Martha Graham (who hired one of Barbara’s classmates, Merce Cunningham, for her company), Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. An evening at Lisser Hall saw John Cage and his percussion ensemble perform while students danced. (The Summer 2019 issue of Mills Quarterly published some good photographs, including one that might possibly include Barbara.) Near the end of the session a fifteen-person film crew directed by Ralph Jester shot footage for a short film, Young America Dances. The film was supposed to be distributed by Paramount Pictures but Bennington College refused to allow its name to be used, and the film was shelved. By the time the crew arrived, however, Barbara had injured her leg and was unable to dance. Instead she left Oakland a few days early; she and the Housers arrived at Alice’s house about August 9. Barbara was planning to stay for several days, but a letter from Nick turned her world upside down. He wanted a divorce. He mentioned no third party in the letter, but Barbara suspected another woman was involved.
Shocked and bewildered, Barbara quickly made her way back to Boston by bus, arriving at the Rogers’ latest apartment at 574 Huntington Avenue on August 15. She found the place empty and some of Nick’s belongings missing. She started telephoning anyone who might know where he was, and tracked down a Polaroid employee who told her he was in New York, giving her the name of a hotel. The hotel had no one there under Nick’s name. The coworker thought Nick would be back in Boston the next day, but he didn’t come home then, either. She wrote to Alice on August 17:
I got home on schedule Tuesday night, after a trip which was of course pretty strenuous, and even horrible at times, but not as bad as I had expected, really. I managed to get some sleep, though not much; and I kept pretty well relaxed and calm and controlled, and busied myself with imaginary conversations which wouldn’t have worked out, etc., etc. The last day was the tensest of all; I think that one day was longer than all the other four days and nights. It was so terrifically tense that I thought I would simply fly apart. But I’m pretty well put together, and I remained in one palpitating piece! When I got home I was shaking like a leaf, of course.
That Tuesday night Barbara also called a doctor friend, Charlie Dunlap, who lived nearby on Longwood Avenue.
He came right over to me, bringing (a) three large, juicy and delectable hamburgers; (b) a bottle of whiskey; and (c) some sleeping dope. Well, the combination of those things, plus a good talk with him, just fixed me up. I slept well, and woke up yesterday quite relaxed and almost confident and hopeful. I spent the day very slowly and quietly doing domestic things, and time passed fairly quickly. I read and listened to the radio, and got to sleep last night under my own power without benefit of dope.
Nick returned on Friday morning. The following section of Barbara’s August 22 letter to Alice shows just how uncomfortable the marriage had become. It also confirms her suspicion that there was another woman.
The first thing we did was go away for the week-end in Vermont, where Nick had had a previous invitation. Well, Alice, all I can say is that what we conjectured was truer than true—I mean, that about the hell only beginning when I got home—not ending. I am glad I had thought it over so hard. I am glad I realized the importance of self-control. You see, the thing is really worse than I had thought possible. There IS somebody else. Just how serious I don’t know, and I’m not asking any questions. That’s part of the self-control. I haven’t uttered one single reproach, or anything that could be construed as one. I’ve just dug my nails into my palms and held on, and held on, till now I think I’m getting to be quite a woman of iron and steel.
Well, I think there is hope for my side—some hope. I know it will be a long, patient process that will take all my strength and all my intelligence for a great many months. I think it is worth it, and I am going to make the fight. I don’t blame him in the least. He really thought I didn’t care; only, instead of saying anything about it so that I could have done something about it before, he just kept quiet and everything slid and slid. But it’s really my fault; I had it coming to me, I know.
I think I’ve persuaded him to give me my chance. He is a very kind person, really, and hates to hurt people. He hated to write that letter; that’s why it sounded so awful. I think that, if I can really prove that I’m different, why maybe things will work out. He still doesn’t quite believe, as he says, that a leopard can change its spots! He thinks that in a month things will be all wrong again. So I say, at least let me have that month! I think I’ll get it, and I think I can win if I’ve got the strength. I think he is a steady enough person, and a kind enough person, and also enough of an easy-going person, so that he won’t go making drastic plunges if he doesn’t have to; and if I can make a pleasant sort of life for him, I think he’ll hang on. That’s what I’m banking on, and I’m putting heart and soul into all the little things.
Faced with a skeptical husband who was having an affair, Barbara tried to save her marriage. At first things looked promising. She conveyed her “progress report” to Alice on August 28:
I will hastily make a progress report on my situation—or, rather, my Situation. Right now I’m on an up-beat, so to speak, so I shall quickly write and mail this letter before the next down! We are just back this morning from a week-end that really was very pleasant, considering. We sailed, swam, had a party with some friends, and explored quite a lot of Cape Cod, alone together, looking for some nice country in which some time to have a summer place. Of course, whether I am included in that pleasant picture, or somebody else, is an unknown quantity; but I was at least there for the exploration!
We talked a good deal about things, and at one point the conversation got to a point where it was logical for me to ask right out whether he wanted to make a go of things. I had had the feeling up till then that he definitely did not want to. So imagine my amazement, my almost hysterical delight, when he said yes, he wanted to make a go of it. Right away he qualified it, of course. He said: “Don’t get too excited about that; I’m not sure that I can.” I said if he wanted to that was more than half the battle; with both of us wanting it so much, and pulling as hard as possible, I don’t see how there can be any failure, really. Well, Alice, what he said gave me enough heart to keep up the struggle. I had hit a very low point just before that—a point at which it just seemed impossible to keep it up any longer. Now I feel that I can; and I feel that if I handle it right for the next difficult few weeks, or maybe months, I can still win this game.
In late August, Nick gave Barbara the task of finding a new apartment—a task she had completed by October, when they moved from Huntington Avenue to 48 Kent Street in Brookline Village, about two miles away. We have no way of knowing how she was faring in September and October since all writing from that period has been lost, including a September 11 letter mentioned below.
The next letter in the archive is dated November 4, 1939. “E” stands for Elizabeth—she and Phoebe were Alice’s daughters. It’s the last letter Barbara wrote to Alice, and might be the last letter she wrote to anyone.
I’m sorry you should have been caused to worry by me, when heaven knows you’ve had enough to worry about right at home! I’m glad E is coming along all right—but what a shocking experience—just as shocking as Phoebe’s automobile crash. I do agree with you that the Russell family seem prone to accidents. I guess it’s because they live so fully and have no fear and no caution! And I think they are right. And they take the consequences gallantly.
As for me. Have I really not written to you since September 11? That is shocking. Well, the above is the new address. It’s a very big, old-fashioned apartment, with two fireplaces and a full-sized kitchen. Nick’s brother is rooming with us now, until he gets married, in January some time. Yes, I’m working, sometimes half-time, sometimes full-time; and I’m dancing too; the dancing will go on until Christmas. After that I don’t know what I’m going to do in a dancing line. I must get some additional training somewhere, and so far I don’t know where.
But that isn’t what you really want to know, of course. In my last letter I told you things were going well, and I thought they were. They continued to go well for a time—at least I thought so, and I was happy, and decided that the worst part of the ordeal was over. But that was too easy. No such luck! I don’t know what to say now. On the surface things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong—just as wrong as they can be. I am trying—we are both trying. I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one; but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!
Marjorie said the other day that she was thinking of you and had owed you a letter for a long time and would be writing one of these days. I don’t see much of her these days. She is very busy, and having a lot more dates, etc., than last winter. She dashes in town to play for the dance group, and then dashes away again, usually before I am even dressed! She is having a fine fling for herself, and I’m very glad. I’d like one too, but don’t quite know how to go at it, under the circumstances!
Best love to you. The reason I haven’t written so long is that I hate to write when things are just up in the air—loose, kind of. I keep thinking Something will happen—must! But anyway, I’ll try to do better from now on.
On the evening of December 7, 1939, after an argument with Nick, Barbara left the apartment on Kent Street with about thirty dollars and a notebook, and no one knows for sure where she went.
Nick waited for his wife to return. After two weeks he reported her missing to the Brookline Police Department. It doesn’t surprise me that he waited that long; Barbara was a strong, independent woman—or at least had been until recent months.
Nickerson Rogers 48 Kent St. came to the station at 10 P.M. and reported his wife Barbara N. Follett Rogers same address missing from home since December 7th. She is 25, 5’7”, 125.
I don’t know what the police did to find Barbara. Apart from the logbook and a few letters from 1952 between Helen and the authorities, it appears that all records concerning the search have been lost or destroyed. Initially, Nick declined the police’s offer to publicize the case, which isn’t surprising given Barbara’s history with the press, particularly when she ran away in 1929. Apart from visiting the city morgue, I don’t know what Nick could’ve done to find her, although I’d like to know if he checked the farmhouse near Squam Lake, assuming it was a place they were still renting. If Barbara wanted to disappear, it’s hard to imagine another woman who’d do a better job of it.
In fact Nick did do something more—at least according to one of his daughters who spoke to Laura Smith on the telephone (Laura wrote The Art of Vanishing, published in 2018 by Viking—I recommend it highly). At some point, perhaps after receiving a threatening letter from his former mother-in-law in 1953—All this silence on your part almost looks as if you had something to hide concerning Barbara’s disappearance. I hope not since I have always trusted you to the point of believing you were doing all you could to solve the mystery—he hired a private investigator to conduct a search, but nothing came of it.
There’s very little in the archives at Columbia from the time immediately following Barbara’s vanishing—no notices from the police, no letters to or from Nick nor from Barbara’s family or friends. The next thing we know for sure is Nick’s return to the Brookline Police Department on April 18, 1940. This time he requested publicity, and four days later a bulletin was sent by Officer McCracken to eight states.
Brookline. 139 4-22-40 3:38PM McCracken Missing from Brookline since Dec. 7, 1939, Barbara Rogers, married, Age 26, 5-7, 125, fair complexion, black eyebrows, brown eyes, dark auburn hair worn in a long bob, left shoulder slightly higher than right. Occasionally wears horn rimmed glasses.
Nothing came from this bulletin. Using “Barbara Rogers” can’t have helped; no one will have known that the missing person was the girl who’d made a splash with The House Without Windows thirteen years earlier. (I don’t think the name “Barbara Newhall Follett” would appear again in the press until 1966, when Helen and Harold G. McCurdy published Barbara: The Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius.)
When I wrote the final chapter of Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters in 2015, I didn’t know that Edward Anderson had died in 1937 (a story described in detail in my Lost Island afterword). I thought it quite possible that Barbara had gone to him. He had helped her a great deal in 1929 and by writing to her in New York. He had saved her life and then married her in Lost Island. Before Nickerson he was her bulwark, her oasis. Nor did I know about the remains of a body found in the woods near Squam Lake in 1948.
Daniel Mills, a Vermont-based writer of gothic fiction and podcaster of These Dark Mountains, was intrigued by Barbara’s disappearance (see his essay A Place of Vanishing: Barbara Newhall Follett and the Woman in the Woods, Los Angeles Review of Books, April 5, 2019). He thought it possible that Barbara had committed suicide and might have gone to her sanctuary, Squam Lake, to do so. Even if the Rogers were no longer renting their farmhouse (and I think it likely that they were, given its tiny rent), Squam Lake and its surroundings were hugely important to Barbara. What better place to end one’s life—to commingle with the pine trees and hermit thrushes and forest critters she loved so much? Daniel consulted local newspapers for reports of mysterious deaths in the area circa December 1939 and later. It didn’t take long to find such a report.
On November 25, 1948, a deer hunter named Harold Huckins came across human remains entangled in tree roots beside Durgin Brook in the woods of Mount Prospect, which overlooks Squam Lake. Most of the skeleton, including the skull, had been scavenged by animals and washed away by the brook during snowmelt, but there were sufficient bones left to determine that they belonged to a woman of about twenty-five and that they had been there for several years—at least since 1939, said Dr. Alan Moritz, the pathologist who’d arrived from Harvard Medical School to supervise the examination. Dr. Moritz took the remains back to Boston and conducted a thorough review. He typed up a report with many photographs and, despite a few discrepancies, the New Hampshire authorities concluded that the remains belonged to Elsie Whittemore, a girl missing from nearby Plymouth since 1936.
What were the discrepancies? Horn-rimmed glasses were found with the remains, whereas Elsie didn’t wear glasses; a retrieved shoe was size 7 while Elsie wore a 5 or 5½; none the belongings, including the purse, could be identified by Elsie’s family. At no time did the Whittemores accept the finding that the bones were their daughter’s; nor would the family receive the remains for burial; nor was a death certificate released. Moritz used Krogman’s Table to estimate the woman’s height at only 62 or 63 inches, shorter than Barbara’s 5′ 7″. But Krogman’s Table has been superseded: today the length of the found tibia puts the height at Barbara’s 67 inches.
Daniel consulted maps and town records for the time period, trying to find the farmhouse Barbara and Nick might have rented and whom it belonged to. He found a likely candidate in the White House on Pulsifer Hill, under a mile from where the remains were found in the woods. In the 1930s the White House belonged to the Pulsifers themselves; they were a farming family who owned much of the land in the area. The 1930 census shows the Pulsifers renting the White House to a Milford Morgan for $5 a month; and the 1940 census indicates that by then Mr. Morgan had bought property nearby and moved out. Therefore the White House would likely have been left, in Barbara’s words, “in quite reputable condition” when she and Nick drove by it in October 1937, and not abandoned and dilapidated like other farm buildings in the area. Furthermore, Barbara and Nick were asked not to disclose the small rent they were paying, possibly because it was only half of Morgan’s rent and the Pulsifers didn’t want him to hear about it.
Note: In 2021 Daniel found clippings confirming that the White House was indeed the farmhouse Barbara and Nick rented. Here’s one from the Plymouth Record (July 9, 1938):
The White House, which is still standing and is now a lovely property indeed, was about five miles uphill from the Plymouth railway station—an easy distance for a strong walker like Barbara. The Boston & Maine railroad provided a direct link with Boston’s North Station, itself easily reached by tram from Brookline Village.
So I think it possible that on December 7, 1939, Barbara took the train to Plymouth, arriving late at night. She either walked the five miles to the White House and spent the night there, thinking things over, or she walked the five miles to her final resting place beside Durgin Brook, where she hugged a favorite pine tree for the last time, took powder from her medicine bottle with water from her flask (both such items were recovered from the scene and Dr. Moritz concluded that suicide was the cause of death), and listened to the singing of the brook while the cold night carried her away.
You may wonder why I don’t compare my DNA with DNA extracted from the remains. That’s because—like Eepersip, Elsie, and Barbara—they have vanished. Daniel Mills, Laura Smith, and I contacted every agency in New Hampshire that might have records of what happened to them, as well as Harvard Medical School, without success. Any trace of the remains’ final resting place has disappeared.
In the last chapter of A Life in Letters, I tried to convince myself that Barbara had once again escaped an intolerable situation and had started a new life. To reunite with Anderson (whom I thought still living in 1939) or to strike out on her own with a new name would be a grand adventure—perhaps the grandest of them all. Eepersip had escaped her family and the visible world itself in The House Without Windows. Barbara had escaped in 1928 when she persuaded her mother to leave her home and five-year-old daughter and go to sea. She escaped in 1929 by running away to San Francisco, and again in 1932 when she quit her job and her love and took to the mountains and woods of New England and Europe with Nickerson.
In 1939 Barbara tried to save her marriage but couldn’t. Her husband was almost certainly continuing his affair with Anne Bradley, whom he would marry in 1944 (they stayed together until Nickerson’s death in 2000). A journalist interviewed Anne shortly before she died in 2008 and relayed to Laura Smith the fact that Anne and Barbara had met each other in the 1930s, and that Anne had found Barbara “charming,” so we know she was in the picture when Barbara was living in Brookline Village.
Surely, I thought, the likeliest explanation for Barbara’s disappearance was leaving an unfaithful husband and starting over. Surely a young woman as vibrant as Barbara wouldn’t commit suicide. A common theory among Barbara’s followers online is that Nick murdered her, but there’s nothing in her writing or anything I’ve read about him that lends any credence to that idea. It’s true that Helen semi-accused him in that letter I mentioned earlier. However, I think it very unlikely that Nick killed Barbara or covered up her accidental overdose, which was jkel’s theory in his Astral Aviary blog. (Astral Aviary makes for fascinating reading, but there are a great many factual errors and flights of fancy.) Rather, I think that Helen, who was having heart trouble in 1953, desperately wanted the mystery solved before she died (happily, she pulled through and lived until 1970).
If Barbara had once again escaped an intolerable situation in December 1939, however, the question of why she left no clue for her family and friends that she was alive always lurked in my mind. How could she be so devastatingly cruel? Did she want to punish Nick so badly that she kept him and everyone who knew her in the dark about where she went and how she was faring? That question never left me, and when I read the results of Daniel’s research, my heart fell into my stomach. Writing this eighty years after her disappearance, I think it very likely that the remains found beside Durgin Brook were Barbara’s, and that she chose to die there on her own terms. But I’ll probably never know for sure.
24 Replies to “Biography”
You did a very good job on this Stefan. You have really nailed the high points and brought the whole story into focus with a minimum of words. The best synopsis of Barbara’s life I have read.
High praise! Thanks very much, Bruce.
Stefan, This is such a good summary of Barbara’s life. I can hardly imagine the worry and upset of those close to her after she disappeared. It is heartbreaking to think that the mystery of her disappearance may never be solved. Do you know, by any chance, what type of work her mother was doing in New York at the time of the disappearance?
Thanks, Maryka. I don’t really know what Helen was doing when Barbara disappeared. She was probably writing and planning her next trip abroad (she had recently spent a lot of time in the Black Forest). She would also give talks about her travels and I think continued to promote the typewriter as a tool for child education.
Well, Stefan, good job. I want to ask a bit more of her poems. I will be very happy if you can post more of Barbara’s poems.
The abilities of young Barbara are incredible. What a pity she couldn’t develop them further and enrich literature with more works. Her face is also fascinating – in her eyes and the whole expression there is something unusual which makes me wanna look at her. When I first saw her face I immediately thought: this is not an ordinary person. Thanks a lot for this website!
Goodness, reading Lost Island and then this biography, it appears she really did live her own work as she was writing it. The love she wrote about, the one that really brought her to life, that was the sailor; when she couldn’t have him, she took this Nick fellow, who’s John to the hilt. And attempting to live the world’s happily ever after, she might well have withered until she didn’t even know herself.
One wonders, then, what became of the sailor, and if one found him, would any better answers as to the fate of B. Follett be forthcoming?
Wherever she went, I hope she had happiness, even briefly.
Many thanks for writing, Mari, and sorry for not replying sooner. I tried hard to track down Anderson while researching my book, and failed miserably. Maybe one day someone will succeed; I hope so since I’d love to know what happened to him.
My impressions based on reading your account of Barbara’s life, doesn’t seem like she was suicidal and her husband Nickerson Rogers doesn’t sound like he was capable of putting away his wife, although that seems plausible given his delay in reporting her missing to the police. The idea of not declaring Barbara’s maiden name. that too sounds disturbing, but may just be circumstantial.
But on a more positive note, As brilliant as she was, Barbara Follett had many options and seemed very resourceful even with $30.00 in her pocket as she left the Brookline apartment. Her imagination could have taken her anywhere and it probably did. In that final departure, in her mind she determined to finish a chapter in her life’s book at the age of twenty-five with a vision towards starting a new Chapter with a whole new set of actors. It wouldn’t surprise me to find she is published under a discreet pseudonym in the years following 1939.
It occurred to me, too, that Barbara may have adopted a new identity and penned some work under a pseudonym. I thought it most likely that she would have gone back to writing children’s books, since she’d had success with that but none of her adult stories. So I dug around trying to find anything about a writer of children’s books during that period–somebody whose identity may have been a secret or mystery–and could find no one that fit that description.
It was December of 1939 and the War was raging in Europe. She knew how to sail. Cut her hair short, assume a male name, the British won’t ask many questions about Able Seamen willing to ship aboard a tramper for the North Atlantic run. Wild? Perhaps, but she had the skill, and the imagination. I don’t see it as any less likely than a murder for which there’s no proof either. In a strange way, she lived her art… Vanishing as the world descended into war into a moment of infinite potentials. I hope she came out to a good one.
I have read a lot about Barbara and it really sounds like there may have been foul play on Nick’s part. It sounds like he felt trapped in a marriage while in love with someone else. I am not sure if anyone knows where that cabin rental is located, but since it was December, that would be the first place I would start looking.
Barbara was an incredible woman. It is so sad that her life was cut so short.
Possibly a silly question but have you ever considered a DNA test? Very unlikely that anything would come of it but might be a way to see if she ever started a family somewhere else?
I’ve considered the idea but have decided not to.
Recently I stumbled onto Barbara’s story I have been captivated by her writings. I have read lost Island. A house without windows and now the book of letters.
Great to hear, Carolyn. Thank you.
$30 in 1939 was the equivalent of about $ 600 today. For an incredibly resourceful young woman like Barbara, that would be enough to start a new life., which she may have wanted as divorce was associated with a lot of shame back then. She simply doesn’t seem like she was suicidal, so I am discounting that. Have you looked into the possibility of murder? Let’s say Barbara did go up to the Lake to get away and on a hike, she met with foul play. I’ve just finished an excellent book “Clueless in New England” which documents 3 suspicious disappearances (one body later found) in the same general vicinity., including Connie Smith who went missing in 1941. The author raises the possibility of a serial killer in that area.
Thanks for commenting, Susie. It took me a long time to come around to the idea that Barbara was suicidal in 1939, and that she hadn’t vanished to start a new life. But a very close reading of her last letters + the discovery of a young woman’s remains matching her description and found a very short walk from the house she was renting, in a part of the world that meant so much to her, led me to my sad conclusion that she ended her life there. Don’t forget there was barbiturate residue and a flask found with the remains.
I am, sadly, in agreement with Stefan about Barbara’s tragic life. I would like to believe she escaped to some island paradise and returned to her first love—writing stories to delight herself and children. I searched and searched for any children’s books that may been written under a pseudonym but could find no likely titles. You may be interested in my recently published novel about Barbara, The Point of Vanishing.
I think I came here first in 2014 when researching for an English language exam and one click led to another…
Since then, I come here every once in a while. I find both Barbara’s life and the bygone era she lived in so fascinating.
One sentence in her last letter to ADR made me wonder already back then: “I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one; but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!”
After all these years and new info surfacing about E.A. and the body in the woods, I think that there we had the clue all along. 🙁
I’ve always had some questions and got answer at least to one of them today: where the name Newhall comes from. It’s here:
You might want to reference to this page, Stefan, it contains a few nice puzzle pieces.
Another question: have you been in contact with Sabra’s kids? Has she ever spoken to them about Barbara? Not about where she was, but you know how she remembered her, sisterly stuff.
And also intriguing, how come that her private letters ended up in the archives, do you know that?
Thanks for keeping her and her work alive!
Cheers from Sweden
Hi Susanna, sorry to be so long in replying. I agree about the clue in Barbara’s last letter (or the last letter that survives, more accurately). Regarding Sabra’s sons, they appear to prefer not to be reminded of Barbara or her story. It’s not particularly surprising given my grandfather’s abandonment of his daughters in 1928 and Barbara’s abandonment of her sister in 1939 (and they had not been close since 1928). I imagine that Barbara was rarely mentioned at home, as was the case when I was growing up (my mother was sure that Barbara committed suicide and she tended to avoid talking about painful subjects). As for her letters, Helen recognized their historical value and therefore secured a permanent home for them at Columbia, after retrieving them from B’s chief correspondents.