Jeanne Robert Foster
What Shall You Say
Do no say of me: She was
Beautiful or kind or good.
Say: There was an April song
Once - she heard and understood.
--- Jeanne Robert Foster, in Rock Flower
Julia Elizabeth Oliver (1879-1970), born in the town of Johnsburg, became known by her pen name Jeanne Robert Foster. She had a poor, hard childhood in the Adirondacks. As a girl, Jeanne heard a neighbor call her “homely.” Jeanne also heard her father comment, “Well, she can always be a hired girl.”
Jeanne was sent to live with various relatives during especially hard times. She tried to add to the family income in any way she could. She served as a guide to tourists wanting to climb Panther Mountain near Chestertown or Crane Mountain, near Johnsburg. She sometimes showed them the cave at the foot of Crane Mountain, or the yellow orchids or garnet outcrop. She earned twenty-five cents for her guiding services.
At the age of 15, she worked as a teacher. At 18, she married Matlack Foster, a 47-year-old insurance agent. He was able to give Jeanne a more comfortable lifestyle.
Quite unexpectedly, Jeanne’s life changed when she met the editor of Vanity Fair and he put her image in the magazine. The woman once called homely was now modeling for the top fashion artists, such as Charles Dana Gibson and Harrison Fisher. She even became the model representing the physical ideal of the American woman---the Harrison Fisher Girl of 1903. Besides Vanity Fair, she appeared in New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and other magazines.
She soon made the remarkable career transition from modeling to journalism. She contributed to newspapers in New York and Boston, using pen names, including Robert Foster, Jeanne Robert, and Jeanne Robert Foster.
She helped edit the ten-volume work The Photographic History of the Civil War and became a regular contributor to the prestigious American Review of Reviews. She also struck up a life-long friendship with painter John Butler Yeats, father of poet William Butler Yeats.
Throughout this busy time of her life, Jeanne kept returning every summer to Johnsburg. She had started writing poems and stories about Adirondack people and land. In 1916, a collection of her poems was published as Neighbors of Yesterday. In the Foreword, she wrote, “I have tried faithfully to set down certain things that come crowding into my mind when I remember the days of my childhood in the Great North Woods.”
In “Human Nature,” Jeanne observed farmers:
Up in the mountains
They farm in a rut just as they have farmed
For two hundred years, with no rotation
Of crops, or new seem or any science,
And their stock runs out and they get poor
Because they set their faces again change.
Jeanne found strength in the mountains. “I am passionately devoted to the Adirondacks; they are in my blood. I have seen many groups of mountains in various parts of the world but none so beautiful,” she wrote to a long-time acquaintance.
In the mountains, she sensed the interdependency of all things. She expressed this idea in her poem “Where You Shall Find Him:”
Unless you perceive Him in all things
You do not perceive Him.
His image is in the sky and on the earth
and under the earth.
His signet is on the every leaf, on each
flower of the field;
On every blade of grass...
Jeanne even had a “secret trysting spot with Crane.” It was found by walking from the old Putnam place toward the mountain, across the brook and into the woods to a place where the mountain rises almost straight as a wall. She would lean against the wall, facing it, with her arms and hands spread out. “There seemed to be a strong force passing through me, so untamed, wild and beautiful that there are no words for it,” she wrote. “But I know this force remained with me, helped me manage my difficult life...flowed as courage in my blood...and never left me---not even today [October 11, 1969].”