In March 1926, the great Albanian adventure began. Much of the information about this period comes from William Holtz’s biography of Rose Wilder Lane ‘The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane’. A big question for modern readers is probably “why go back to Albania of all places?” Holtz explains the motivation for the trip this way: “[t]he initial European experience had in fact alienated them from their homeland, which in the boom years of the 1920s struck them as hectic, provincial and crassly commercial. Albania with its Mediterranean climate and its climate and its people still unspoiled by modern ways, began to glimmer in their imaginations as a Shangri-la.”
Helen and Rose sailed on the S.S. Ausonia. On arrival in France they stayed in Rose’s former Paris apartment. They enrolled immediately in the Berlitz School for study in French, Italian, German, and Russian. They planned to learn more languages before they realized they had taken on too much!
The summer of 1926 was a somewhat dangerous time to be an American in France on account of French resentment about war debt repayment: Helen was attacked in a taxi on Bastille Day. The same summer when Helen and Rose bought a car, a model T Ford that they called Zenobia, after a Bedouin Queen. Helen later published a comic account of the bureaucratic steps involved in registering the car. Once the registration was accomplished, Helen and Rose set off with Yvonne, their reluctant French maid, for the two week journey to Albania. The route took them via Monte Carlo and Italy and by sea from Bari.
In Albania, the living costs were cheap. Helen and Rose planned to gain their living as writers, sending their work to the US for publication. But regular dividends from their George Q. Palmer investments with helped subsidize their lifestyle. They thought they would build a house (and in fact Rose drew up elaborate plans), but at first they rented a large home in the capital, Tirana. Helen and Rose – freed by their servants of domestic chores – spent their time writing, gardening, walking, and enjoying their leisure time. They socialized with Albanians and the expat community. With the purchase of a Victrola gramophone, their large living room became the site for dances frequented by friends – including Albanian government ministers. They travelled: to Northern Albania, Budapest, Vienna and Venice. However, all was not rosy in their new Albanian life, since earth tremors and the political situation brought instability of all sorts into their lives.
After an exciting 15 months, Helen and Rose decided to return to the US. According to one account, Helen saw a picture of a baked potato and was homesick. More convincing explanations lie in Rose’s guilt at being away from her parents, and also dental/work issues. As they were preparing to leave, a telegram arrived from Laura Ingalls Wilder, which led to their immediate departure. They sailed first to Greece, and then on February 2, 1928 boarded the S.S. Saturnia, arriving in New York thirteen days later. After a brief stop in New York, they went their separate ways: Helen to visit her family and consult with her publishers, and Rose to her parents in Mansfield, Missouri.
Back in the US
In June 1928, Helen rejoined Rose in Missouri. Rose was full of enthusiasm to build an “Rock House” for her parents, with the idea that she and Helen would live in the (modernized) farmhouse that was currently the family’s home.
As for Helen, her book “War Sister” had been published in 1927 and she had decided to be a freelance writer. Helen had inherited more money, and was not totally dependent on her writing. Until the new house was built, she wrote in a green tent on a hill but also enjoyed riding about the countryside on her horse, Governor. She was also called on for some nursing duties, including delivering a local baby. Life was going well: until the stock market crash of 1929.
Helen (and Rose and her parents) were heavily invested with George Q. Palmer’s company. For years, the investments had performed well, and after the initial shock of the crash – Rose said that Helen was at first “nearly insane with depression” – there was hope that the market and their investments would recover. For about two years, there were continuing payments from Palmer, but finances were very tight. Money was even scarcer because magazines were buying fewer and fewer articles. Helen and Rose even briefly considered cattle-farming as a way to make money. Then in November 1931 came the terrible news that the Palmer income had stopped permanently. Helen was still determined to be a short story writer, but financial need forced her back to her father’s house in New Hampshire; and in the interim she apparently went back to nursing. A letter in her Red Cross file suggests that she continued to travel around Europe until about 1935, perhaps doing similar work to Kitty Van Buskirk, but I have found no travel records to support this.
Helen made some useful contacts with some prominent women in the arts which helped her. Sadly, Rose Wilder Lane was jealous of the way that Helen always seemed to fall on her feet.
In 1933 Rose wrote a bitter portrait in her journal: “A letter from Troub says she has Ida Wylie‘s Connecticut house rent free for the summer, with use of a Buick convertible coupe and Eva Le Gallienne‘s riding horses…. a crowing triumphant letter. There is a woman well into the thirties, with no more sense of responsibility than a spoiled child – lazy, untidy, careless, self-centered,short-sighted, and completely insensitive, with the New Englander’s curious pride of intellectuality based on nothing- no achievement, no effort toward achievement. And she always gets what she wants…. It is true that she doesn’t want much and has no pride to interfere with any easy means of getting it. She doesn’t want more life, but less: she cares only to get through each day with as little effort or discomfort as possible, and like a child she will be happy with a feather or a colored pebble. She will have a happy, carefree summer in Connecticut, spoil Ida Wylie’s house a little, probably ruin the car, and somehow land nicely on her feet for next winter in New York.” It probably did not help that Rose owed Helen money at the time.
The actress Eva Le Gallienne (and presumably her horses) lived in Westport, CT, and another source confirms that this was where Helen spent the summer of 1933. In October, Helen visited her parents, giving a reading of her work there. For despite Rose’s unkind words, Helen was writing and also getting published, including The Forum article with the account of the purchase and licensing of Zenobia. And in fact a story about a horse, published by Harpers Magazine in 1933. But Helen was still unsettled: in a form in her Red Cross file dated August 15 1934 she wrote that she was planning to move to Arizona for a year, and she duly appears in the 1935 Tucson City Directory living on “Campbell Avenue cnr Indio”.
Sue Barton and Carol Page
From 1936 on, Helen’s writing career took off. She published a Sue Barton book each year – Student Nurse (1936), Senior Nurse (1937), Visiting Nurse (1938), Rural Nurse (1939) and Superintendent Nurse (1940). The first two books, though set in the 1930s, were in fact largely based on her own experience at the Massachusetts General Hospital twenty years before. The first book’s October 1936 copyright record has Helen living in Tucson, but this is another example of records implying that Helen was living in multiple places at the same time. She is also listed in the 1935 Weston Connecticut directory as living at Cobbs Mill (probably this place), with Margaret Ayer Cobb (1877-1965) a former singer and widow of the newspaper writer and editor Frank Irving Cobb), her daughter newspaper columnist daughter Jane Ayer Cobb (later Berry), and son Hubbard who also beginning a career in the newspaper world. The dedication of Sue Barton – Senior Nurse is to Jane Ayer Cobb, giving thanks for her “criticism and knowledge of modern young conversation have been invaluable, both in this book and in the volume preceding it”. Jane was a 20 year old in 1935, while Helen was 40. Intriguingly, the Cobb-Berry family suggest that Jane was actually co-author of Sue Barton books. Jane’s 1979 obituary states that she was a ‘silent collaborator’ on the Sue Barton and Carol Page books, and that the Carol Page books were actually ‘originated’ by Jane. Further, a 2010 online post about the Sue Barton books seemingly written by Jane’s son Ben, states that “Jane Cobb Berry did the dialog and other writing, while troub (my late godmother) did the nursing parts.” Jane and Helen certainly later collaborated on other works: they authored 7 articles for the Atlantic Monthly together between 1946 and 1950.
The location for Sue Barton – Visiting Nurse was the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Lillian Wald, the founder of the Henry Street Settlement, had retired to Westport, 5 miles from Weston, in 1933, and she too was writing.
Unsurprisingly, she and Helen met, with Sue Barton: Visiting Nurse being the result. Wald appears in the book and Boylston describes her as a “woman of middle height, with greying hair and a strong rugged face – the kindest face that Sue had ever seen, but yet a face of power and determination”. Sue herself says “She has a kind of power- but it’s more than that – it’s a – a kindness- in her face, in her voice, in her eyes. And you feel that she couldn’t possibly be petty, or small. She’s the first person I ever met in my life that I know couldn’t do a mean thing!”
Helen did some direct research by visiting the Settlement: in the book’s dedication she thanks some of the administrators (including Katherine Faville) as well as Margaret Feagans and Ella Murningkeit “who tramped the districts with me day after day, gladly sharing with me their knowledge and experience.”
Sue Barton – Rural Nurse (1939) and Sue Barton – Superintendent Nurse (1940) were set in New Hampshire, where Helen had grown up. With Sue married and pregnant, Boylston planned that the Sue Barton series would end.
Through the years, the social columns in Portsmouth Herald record Helen’s regular visits to her father and stepmother. Helen often gave public readings during her visits. In August and September 1939, Helen, her stepmother and a Miss Adams of Westport went on a road trip to the West Coast including the Grand Canyon. Following the trip, her stepmother gave the readings from Helen’s diary at the YWCA in Portsmouth. Although Helen was making her living as an author, she continued to list herself as a “writer and nurse” in city directories until 1963. And she put her skills into practice: there is a 1938 newspaper account of how she gave assistance to the victim of a wasp sting whose screams of pain led the driver to swerve into a ditch.
In 1940, Helen’s play “The Keys” was adapted for radio, and appeared in 1941 was in a collection of “non-royalty radio plays”. This “drama for women” about life in a mental health institution in California, was produced multiple times over the next few years, including in Canada, and the Philippines and several times in the US.
In about 1940-41, Helen had a new project: she had received a 6 year contract to write a series of books, this time about a budding actress, Carol Page. Her Westport friend, Eva Le Gallienne provided some help and information, and in 1941 Helen lived for a time in New York doing research. She was apparently still keen to travel: a letter from Katherine Faville to the Red Cross superintendent suggested that Helen might write something about Red Cross to aid in recruitment for nurses during the war, especially if it involved some reporting from abroad. But the Red Cross did not take up the offer, and instead during the war Helen wrote the Carol Page books: Carol Goes Backstage (1941), Carol Plays Summer Stock (1942), Carol on Broadway (1944) and Carol on Tour (1946).
The Second World War gives us a quick glimpse into the life of Helen’s classmate Connie Hoyt Powell. She had given up nursing after her marriage to raise four children. But when war came along, as described in a 1944 letter to the Nursing School at MGH, she began nursing again, at first teaching Home Nursing for the Red Cross, but later, “I decided it wasn’t enough—that I would really go back and work at a hospital. I started out working one day a week, but soon changed to five days a week, working from 9 to 4, as a floor nurse at the University Hospitals, Cleveland, on the Gyn. service —and I love it, and proved what I always believed—that a nurse never really forgets and I soon felt like a veteran.”
Somewhere between 1943 and 1946, Helen Boylston moved out of Cobb’s Mill and into her own home nearby at 21 Georgetown Road. With the war over, she turned away from Carol and back to Sue, publishing Sue Barton – Neighborhood Nurse and Sue Barton – Staff Nurse in 1949 and 1952 respectively. The former was dedicated to Margaret Ayer Cobb. Then in 1955, she returned to the Red Cross and published Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross, a biography written for young adults.
There is very little information available about the last thirty years of Helen’s life. She lived in her house on Georgetown Road until about 1972, but by February 1973, Helen’s dementia meant that she was incapable of managing her own affairs. With no family to help, Helen had a conservatrix to manage her affairs, a lawyer named Virginia Boyd. According to a letter by Boyd written at the time, Helen had suffered a crushed vertebra and was living in a nursing home in Weston. Despite her successful writing career, Helen needed money, so her lawyer wrote to the Red Cross asking if former nurses received pensions. She wrote that Helen “is not indigent but her income is not sufficient to pay for the nursing home care which she will need for an indefinite period.” She was told that they did not.
In 1979 Helen was living at St. Joseph’s Manor, a nursing home in Trumbull, Connecticut, presumably as a result of her declining mental abilities: when William Holtz interviewed her there in 1980 he described her as “deep in senility”. In 1983, shortly before she died, ‘‘Travels With Zenobia,” was published by the University of Missouri Press. The book, edited by Holtz, consisted of letters from Helen and Rose Wilder Lane to their friends and relatives in the US during their travel to Albania.
Helen died on September 30, 1984, aged 89, leaving no known relatives.