A washed-up performer at nineteen, he arrived back in Vermont and knocked on the door of his former home. “They inquired of an elderly woman who was at the door, if she knew where the widow Colburn lived? She replied that she was the woman his own mother was as ignorant of the child she had nursed and provided for until he was six years old, as if she had never seen him before.”
Zerah Colburn had also disappeared—so thoroughly that he couldn’t reappear even when he wanted to.
Nick waited two weeks to go to the police, and another four months to request a missing-persons bulletin: he claimed he was waiting for Barbara to return. Nobody in Boston’s morgue matched her, and the bulletin, issued under her married name, went unnoticed by the press:
Brookline. 139 4-22-40 3:38 pm Maccracken. 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.
It wasn’t until 1966, when Helen coauthored a slim academic study on her daughter, that the press realized Barbara Newhall Follett was missing at all.
In the intervening years, Wilson Follett wrote a peculiar anonymous essay for The Atlantic—“To a Daughter, One Year Lost,” in May 1941—which expressed muted guilt and amazement: “Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days ”
Helen, belatedly discovering how little Nickerson Rogers had looked for Barbara, spent 1952 urging police to seek someone now missing for thirteen years. “There is always foul play to be considered,” she hinted to Brookline’s police chief. To Nickerson, she was blunter: “All of this silence on your part looks as if you had something to hide concerning Barbara’s disappearance You cannot believe that I shall sit idle during my last few years and not make whatever effort I can to find out whether Bar is alive or dead, whether, perhaps, she is in some institution suffering from amnesia or nervous breakdown.”
She never found her.
Extraordinary young talents are all the more dependent on the most ordinary sustenance. But instead of a home and a college education, what Barbara Follett got was author copies and yellowing newspaper clippings. This girl—who should have been America’s next great literary woman—was abandoned by the two men she trusted, and her fame forgotten by a public that she never trusted in the first place. Her writings, out of print for many decades, only exist today in six archival boxes at Columbia University’s library. Taken together, they are the saddest reading in all of American literature.
Then again, her work always was about escape. Her mysterious disappearance echoes with the final words of The House Without Windows, when the lonely Eepersip finally vanishes forever into the woods.
“She would be invisible forever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see,” Follett wrote. “To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature—a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods.”
Image: Barbara Newhall Follett as a young teenager. Columbia University Archives.