Editor’s note: A year ago, I wrote and published an essay here titled “Don’t Fence Me In.” It juxtaposed the origin of a song about Western white people’s idea of freedom against the crosscurrent of racial oppression and lynchings of black people. Readers may find it worthwhile, in light of current events, to (re)read that essay first — in fact, I’d suggest it.
This followup post has a more modest goal: to tie up a loose thread of the story behind the song, i.e., how a collection of poems by Montana highway engineer Robert Fletcher somehow wound up in the hands of Hollywood film producer Louis Brock in late 1934. My original essay related how, after reading Fletcher’s work, Brock would write to him and ask him to compose what would become — with the style of Cole Porter and the voice of Bing Crosby — the hit “Don’t Fence Me In.” But how did Brock and Fletcher connect? This detail eluded me a year ago, and it was not plumbed by other researchers. But now, after renewed effort, I think I can offer a plausible scenario. – CHC
• 1 •
Jeremiah Collins (no relation) was born in Ireland in 1850; his family moved to the U.S. when he was a child. In his late twenties, journalist Jeremiah and his wife Letta settled in Montana Territory, where he would spend the next several years writing for, editing and publishing newspapers. In 1889, the year Montana achieved statehood, he established the Collins Land Company in Helena. His company bought and sold scrip for public lands and would grow to be one of the largest land scrip dealers in the United States.
Letta gave birth to their son Timothy E. (Ted) in 1884. Ted would attend academies in New England and New York and go on to study law at George Washington University. Rather than set up his own practice, he elected to return to Montana and work for his father’s company:
It has been the lot of Mr. Collins to find his place in the business world of the state already created for him by the enterprise of his distinguished father, Jeremiah Collins. However, Mr. Collins’ inheritance was not limited to material possessions, but he also is endowed with a goodly share of the initiative and the intellectuality of his progenitor, and he is one of the sons of eminent men who are not spending their days in the borrowed splendor of their fathers’ prestige, but are rather availing themselves of their increased opportunities to accomplish larger results. — Helen F. Sanders, A History of Montana, Volume 2
In 1909, the well-opportuned Ted married Frances Parker, the daughter of Florence and Willis F. Parker, a Montana engineer and lawyer. Within a year, Ted and Frances would themselves become parents of a daughter, Helen Fitzgerald Collins. Ted expanded his role in his father’s business as it branched out into insurance and real estate. Meanwhile, Ted and Frances were widely-regarded as “of the number of the best-known and most popular of Helena’s social circle.”
• 2 •
March 2, 1911. The Helena Independent noted that the local sewing club “met at the home of Miss Helen Word. The afternoon passed pleasantly with sewing and conversation, and delicious refreshments were served at the end of the afternoon. The members present were Mrs. Ted E. Collins, Miss Flora Davis, Miss Virginia Kennett, Miss Hannah Inkles, Miss Margaret Sibley, and Miss Bernice Sieben.”
Of those pleasant and conversant ladies, besides our Mrs. Ted E. (Frances) Collins, we are most interested in Virginia Kennett, daughter of banking commissioner Samuel Kennett; step-granddaughter of Samuel T. Hauser, millionaire banker, developer, and the seventh territorial governor of Montana; and grand-niece of Joseph K. Toole, the first and fourth governor of the State of Montana.
Given her background, Miss Kennett was accustomed to attending posh social gatherings, such as this one recounted in the Anaconda Standard in 1913:
On Saturday, March 1, Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Largey gave a house party to thirty of their Helena and Butte friends at Boulder Springs. The party left Helena in a private car attached to the Great Northern train and was entertained en route by Mme. Ericke’s seven-piece orchestra. Upon arriving at Boulder the private car was turned over to the Northern Pacific and was run direct to the springs, where it remained until Monday morning. At the springs a special dinner was served. After the dinner, dancing was indulged in until 1:30 a.m. when a Dutch lunch was served. Sunday, the party put in the day bathing and swimming in the big plunge; returning to Helena Monday morning, well pleased with their outing, and voting Mr. and Mrs. Largey royal entertainers.
Following is a list of the guests in attendance: Mr. and Mrs. A. C. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Tracy, Mr. and Mrs. Largey, Mrs. Sam Kennett and son, Miss Miner, Miss Stuart, Miss Raferty, Miss Hancock, Miss Kennett, Miss Johnson, G. H. Kennett. W. C. Sweeney, Frank Walker, Harold Blake, Ford Johnson, A. T. Hibbard, Robert Fletcher, Jack Fiske, H. P. Kennett, W. T. Pigott Jr., L. Greenaugh, J. M. Power, Mrs. L. Hancock, L. L. Largey, Mr. and Mrs. J. M. White and Dr. H. I. Ashlock.
This may have been the event where Virginia Kennett and Robert Fletcher first met — and spent their first weekend together. How Robert Fletcher, a surveyor for the Land Office, became known to the wealthy Largey family remains an open question. Perhaps it was a matter of Fletcher’s ancestry — his great-great-grandfather Peter served as a minuteman at the Battle of Concord in the Revolutionary War. Or maybe it was just that Helena was a small town (12,500 people in 1910) and most people knew everyone who should be known.
In any case, the 29-year-old poet and eligible bachelor Robert Fletcher and the 25-year-old Virginia Kennett — “one of the most charming girls in the city” — would marry the next year (1914) in an elegant wedding at the bride’s mansion, with the processional performed by none other than Madame Ericke (left) and her orchestra.
• 3 •
The Montana Club in downtown Helena was founded in 1885, the year Fletcher was born. It was a gentleman’s social club, where men of means could talk about important matters and drink something stronger than the claret punch at their spouse’s parties. There were no black members — rather, the club offered the four hundred blacks who lived in the city probably the most lucrative jobs they could get in Helena:
The exclusive Montana Club employed twelve black bartenders, as well as barmaids and checkroom girls… The Montana Club jobs were the best in town and paradoxically, the club never hired a white bartender.
City Engineer Robert Fletcher and Land Company magnate Ted E. Collins both belonged to the Montana Club, and each no doubt drank cocktails prepared by Julian Anderson, the club’s lead bartender from 1893 to 1953. A lifelong teetotaler, Anderson created special drinks and punches for his elite clientèle, and he was among the first African-Americans to publish his drink recipes.
Being a black man of modest means, Anderson was never able to join the Montana Club. He would, however, be the guest of honor at the Club upon his retirement, at age 90, after 60 years of bartending and listening to stories of privilege. That is what a “tip of the hat” meant to a person of color in 1953.
• 4 •
I have not been able to document a social bond between Messrs. Fletcher and Collins, but it is inconceivable that their paths did not cross at the Club. Fletcher was a gregarious sort and a prolific story-teller — we can imagine him holding court in the club lounge. We do not have to imagine, however, whether Fletcher and Collins interacted on civic matters; city council minutes show that the two men were members of a 1929 traffic committee and a 1932 citizen’s committee on the municipal water supply.
We know that the Mmes. Fletcher and Collins engaged with one other at social functions, such as this November 1929 fashion tea on the 2nd floor of Fligelman’s department store:
Yesterday afternoon, well known Helena women and children were grouped to witness the fashion revue and to enjoy the fashion tea given by St. Peter’s Episcopal guild [in the] large department store… A runway covered with oriental rugs was arranged down the center of the room on which the young women and girls, modeling the various gowns, coats and dresses, appeared… The store was thronged. Afternoon tea and cakes were served from 3 to 5 o’clock… So enthusiastic were the women that a second showing of the evening gowns, ensembles and velvet afternoon gowns was staged. The mannequins and models displayed the fashions to the best possible advantage… Mannequins, in charge of Mrs. B G. Toomey, were [a list of 7 women], Helen Collins, [2 other women], Mrs. Robert Fletcher [and 5 other women].
The relevance of the Fletcher-Collins relationships will become clearer once we take up the story of Helen Fitzgerald Collins, the now 19-year-old daughter of Ted E. and Frances, who served as one of the “mannequins” in that 1929 fashion show.
• 5 •
Helen Collins (pictured here) was a “charming Helena debutante” according to the Helena Independent society page, on which she regularly received mention. From September 1927 to June 1929, Helen attended the Chevy Chase School, an elite finishing school for young women about six miles from the heart of Washington, D.C. She spent her summer and winter breaks with her parents back in Montana.
After participating in the November 1929 fashion revue and the February 1930 St. Peter’s Hospital charity ball, Helen left Montana on March 6 for “an extended eastern trip” — her published itinerary mentioned visits to Chicago, Boston and Washington, followed by a stay of “several months” in New York and Long Island.
Her trip ultimately included an unannounced stop on March 24 to St. Margaret’s Church in Washington, D.C., where Helen married John P. Bergan, a stockbroker whom she met while at Chevy Chase. Helen’s grandfather Jeremiah, her aunt Lena, and her uncle Edwin witnessed the union. Her new husband John was 26; Helen was not yet 20.
In July 1930, just after Helen’s 20th birthday, she returned to Montana to spend part of the summer with her parents. In mid-August, Helen was feted by old friends at a formal dance party. But there would be no further published mention of Helen until December 5, when she rescued an injured bulldog on the streets of downtown Helena. The story refers to her as Miss Helen Collins, her birth name.
It is unclear when or whether Helen ever returned to Washington, D.C., or John Bergan. In June 1931, she attended (as Helen Collins) a “beautifully appointed” luncheon shower hosted by her older friend Ellen, daughter of the then-current Governor John E. Erickson. Three months later, the Helena Independent noted that Helen Collins had been awarded a divorce decree (for desertion and non-support) and that her birth name was restored.
Over the 18-month course of John and Helen’s marriage (March 1930 – September 1931), stock prices plunged 55 percent — as did John’s fortunes. It may be that Helena’s most charming debutante, no longer living a lifestyle to which she was accustomed, wanted out.
On October 25, 1931, Helen and friend Ellen Erickson took the Northern Pacific to Seattle; there, they boarded a steamship bound for Los Angeles where her uncle, the screenwriter Austin Parker, lived. Like thousands of other ambitious young women of the day, Helen had decided she wanted to be in films, and her uncle had connections.
• 6 •
It didn’t take long. In March 1932, “having successfully passed the screen tests” — and whatever else that entailed — Helen signed her first contract, ostensibly for a part in the Paramount film “Sinners in the Sun” with Carole Lombard. (If Helen did in fact appear in that film, it was as an uncredited extra.) Later that month, her mother announced that Helen had signed a second contract, this time “to appear in support of Eddie Cantor.” That film would have been “The Kid from Spain.” (Ditto the last parenthetical remark.)
By November 1932, Helen was appearing in RKO comedy shorts produced by none other than… Louis Brock. Brock was smitten; in December, he told the New York Daily News, “If things are as they are now, six months from now there probably will be a wedding.”
It wasn’t even six months. On February 26, 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Ted E. Collins announced the engagement of their daughter Helen to Louis Brock of Beverly Hills. The two were wed on March 16 in the chambers of Los Angeles Justice Frederick Valentine — the same judge who had overseen Brock’s two prior divorce proceedings. Louis was 40; Helen was 22.
Fast-forward to the summer of 1934. After making many more shorts together, including the Oscar-winner “So This is Harris“, Louis and Helen found a break in their schedule and embarked on a belated honeymoon to Paris. On their way home, they spent several weeks with Helen’s parents in Montana.
• 7 •
I do not have “smoking gun” evidence that Louis Brock was introduced to Robert Fletcher sometime during Brock’s 1934 visit to Montana. But here is the most plausible narrative:
Ted Collins wanted to show Louis Brock the Montana Club, and both men were ready to get out of the house for a while; and so Ted took Louis to the Club for lunch one Friday, where they ran into Robert Fletcher. Fletcher regaled Brock with tales of the early days of Montana, while making sure the producer got a taste of Fletcher’s own talents. As the afternoon faded, Fletcher and Brock downed their drinks and agreed to keep in touch. The men turned to depart, and Julian Anderson swept their empty glasses from the bar, bidding the trio a good evening.
And the rest is (my version of) “Don’t Fence Me In” history.
• POSTSCRIPT •
“Don’t Fence Me In“ celebrated the wide-open spaces of the West, a near-mythical realm where men lived free and followed their fortunes. In reality, many of those fortunes came courtesy of the U.S. government. Early ranchers didn’t own those vast expanses; instead, they “relied on the practice of what is known as open range, where they grazed large plots of unsettled lands, continually moving their herds to fresher pastures.” Ranchers viewed free access to grazing land as an entitlement and “believed they owned the land their cattle roamed on.”
Conflict arose after the U.S. Congress passed the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave away tens of millions of acres of Federal land in the West to prospective settlers. As the settlers began to fence off their claims, the open range was threatened. Ranchers fought back:
Ranchers deployed lots of tactics to make it difficult for homesteaders to file claims on their ranches. For example, they would file their own claims on the most attractive parts of the land (usually near waterholes) so that homesteaders would not want the land surrounding it. If they could afford it, ranchers would … take homesteaders to court. Ranchers usually won … as homesteaders rarely had enough money to pay a lawyer.
As we know, the open range was ultimately lost. But is a rancher’s loss worthy of song?
I don’t feel as charitable about the song that is the subject of this prequel as I did when I wrote its sequel. The more I explored the song’s historical and cultural origins, the more it brought to mind our long-standing social ills. Privilege, entitlement, inequality and greed. Exploitation of land and labor. How people of color are treated as if they exist only for the convenience of whites. How women are treated as if they exist only to pleasure men.
“Don’t Fence Me In” is a metaphor that was born of a myth. The metaphor may live on; but it is time for the myth to be buried and its founding truths to be confronted.
• EPILOGUE •
For those who would like to know what became of the principals, here are a few closures.
- Robert Fletcher, a planner for the Montana highway department, developed and wrote the state’s roadside historical markers and other promotional materials. In retirement, he authored an authoritative book on the history of Montana ranching. Fletcher and his wife left Montana in 1964; Robert died in 1972, Virginia in 1978. Their last home was two blocks from what would be my mother’s last home.
- Helen Collins and Louis Brock bore one child, Jeremy, in 1935. Helen appeared in a few other Hollywood features, then divorced Louis and moved to New York. In 1939, now using the stage name Helen Christian, Helen married her third husband, lawyer and newspaper publisher Robert Bishop. Robert served in the OSS in World War II and then joined the CIA. I could not determine how long this marriage lasted. But in 1961, Helen returned — alone — to her mother’s Montana home and died the next year, at 52.
- Austin Parker, Helen Collins’s maternal uncle, would write screenplays for several films, including “Something to Sing About” with James Cagney. Parker died suddenly in 1938 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
- Jeremiah Collins died in January 1934, at age 83. Ted E. took over the family business and managed it until his own death in 1956. Ted served on the board of directors of the Montana Club for 24 years, from 1929 to 1953.
- Frances Parker Collins ran the family business after Ted’s death. Frances died in 1968, preceded in death by her husband (1956), daughter Helen (1962), brother Austin (1938), and grandson Jeremy Brock.
- “The infamously profligate producer” Louis Brock produced 79 films from 1930 to 1953. According to critic Edwin Bradley, “his flops, Down to Their Last Yacht (1934) and Top of the Town (1937), cost him his career.” Brock died in 1971.
- John P. Bergan, Helen’s first husband, worked for an assortment of Washington, D.C., brokerage firms after their divorce. He remarried a few years later and would become president of a thrift promotion company (e.g., school savings and Christmas clubs).
- Ellen Erickson, Helen’s friend and the governor’s daughter, married George Whitcomb, a mining manager, in 1937. Whitcomb was shot in an after-hours altercation with police the following year and died. Ellen involved herself in service and charity work and was active in the Democratic Party, serving as a 1940 national convention delegate.
- Madame Marie Ericke Zimmerman was a noted violinist who “came to Helena in the early 1890s … when gold was plentiful and musical talent scarce.” Madame played in “the finest homes of the city where she and her noted orchestra furnished the music for the brilliant social affairs of those days.” Madame Ericke died in Helena in 1943.
- The Chevy Chase School (also known as Chevy Chase Junior College or Chevy Chase School for Girls) closed in 1950 — its properties at 7100 Connecticut Avenue were sold to the 4H Foundation, which occupies them now.
- The Montana Club still entertains guests in its elegant 1905 structure in Helena and now operates as a semi-public cooperative.
- Helena, Montana has about 1,600 people who identify as black — roughly one-half of one percent of its population.