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Vanishing Act

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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.

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  • Sincere thanks for writing this thoughtful story about my aunt Barbara. The younger woman Wilson left Helen for was my grandmother, Margaret Whipple. Their first child was Jane, my mother, who was also something of a child genius. On her second birthday, Wilson compiled a 126-page list of words Jane knew the meaning of and could use in speech: words ranging from "abominable," "accommodating," and "apostrophe" to "zealous," "zenith," and "zephyr."

    A small correction to the photo caption. It should read "Barbara Newhall Follett," not "Barbara Wilson Follett." (Editor's note: Thanks, we've fixed it!)

    Posted by Stefan Cooke on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. I read The House Without Windows at twelve years of age, and it expressed my dreams--I felt the author had to be a soul mate. I knew some of the details of her life (that she vanished at age twenty-six, for instance, I knew), but not of her struggles against poverty. Will your work and interest maybe result in reissues not only of The House Without Windows but her other work? That would be marvelous.

    Posted by Francesca Forrest on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • When will Barbara's writings be re-issued?

    Posted by Carolyn Perkins on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • Barbara's writings simply must be re-issued. Upon reading the few excerpts in this article, I couldn't help but get emotional at the beauty and poignancy of it.

    Posted by Roxanne Wodarczyk on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • So wonderful that Wilson abandoned his first daughter and played loving dad to your mom, Stefan. Not sure your comments are respectful of Barbara's memory, given the damage Wilson did to his former family. But men are quite selfish creatures, aren't they?

    Posted by Margaret on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • @Margaret - I intended no disrespect at all to Barbara's memory.

    Wilson Follett did play "loving dad" as best he could — to both Barbara and to his and Margaret's three children, in my opinion. Sadly he felt the need to abandon Helen, Barbara, and Sabra (B's younger sister), just as he later left my grandmother and the kids on a farm in Bradford, Vermont, to try to earn a living in New York City. I have the correspondence between Wilson and my mother and they loved each other dearly.

    Posted by Stefan Cooke on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • Stefan -- Thank you! I'm especially glad to hear that you like the piece. One of BNF's letters mention meeting Miss Whipple -- Barbara was, as you'd guess, pretty sharp with her. But her letters show her reconciling with her father and stepmother a bit in her final years, though apparently Wilson never did know what to make of Nickerson Rogers. By BNF's account, he regarded Nick as some sort of mountain man. (These things are relative... Nickerson went on to teach at Phillips Exeter.)

    Margaret, fwiw, it is indeed hard to read BNF's files without feeling a shock and great sadness, and even indignation. But -- unlike the people in this story -- we have the advantage, or perhaps the burden, of reading these things while knowing all along what it was leading to. One can hardly blame someone's descendants for their affection. And Mr. Cooke did, after all, lose his aunt too.

    Posted by Paul Collins on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • great story. very interested in reading this now - what an unfair tease, as these books are not available anywhere in the library or for sale (except for $150 paperback). any plans for reissuing?

    Posted by jean weiss on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • what an interesting story. fwiw there are several copies for sale, at collectible prices, and over 50 libraries have copies so borrowing through interlibrary-loan via your local library may not be impossible

    Posted by Fiona on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • I heard Paul Collins' commentary on Barbara Newhall Follett on NPR this morning and found myself utterly entranced. Her story is so sad, strange and beautiful that I am left with this powerful urge to speak to her. I would like to give a copy of her book, The House Without Windows, to a friend for Christmas but available copies sell at three to eight hundred dollars. Where can I find more information about this fascinating person? Did Mr. Collins collect his research from The Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius? Are there any photographs of her other than her picture in the snow accompanying the article?

    Posted by John Horan on Sat 18 Dec 2010

  • I am mostly at a loss for words at the moving and superbly rendered honoring of Barbara's work and personal history that you Mr Collins have so deftly brought to life for us.

    I can not thank you enough Mr Collins, it has caused me to reflect on my own family's complex, and as all human stories, difficult at times history and circumstances, and as well on my own part and participation in a received family history and legacy.

    For myself, it is often difficult for me to make sense of the happenstances, choices, and history of my own family. In many ways similar, I am left as a reader of Barbara's story, and now Mr Stefan Cooke's living story that he was so gracious to share some deeply important details of, feeling a sense of having to accept that some questions simply will have no answers.

    I also wish to thank with great sincerity and respect you Stefan Cooke for having the wherewithal and self-restraint and courage to provide the information and responses you did to Mr Collins' story. You have in fact done your family, and your Aunt Barbara, and yourself if I may say, great honor Mr Cooke.

    The retrieving of the memory, and these very deeply human details, from the mists of long past history will only serve to bring Barbara's work and the life she lived forward into the present where it will quite likely now be re-read, re-approached, and become a living experience and memory for many.

    What a profound opportunity and outcome - thank you Mr Collins, and thank you Stefan.

    How timely, how utterly beautiful in it's truth and pathos.

    Posted by Adam Cassel on Sun 19 Dec 2010

  • Thank you, LQ...what a beautiful and tragic story.

    Posted by Joe Montanaro on Mon 20 Dec 2010

  • _House without Windows_ may be suitable for reissuing by New York Review of Books Classics, which has a children's collection.

    Posted by Elizabeth Foxwell on Mon 20 Dec 2010

  • I, too, have been haunted the last several days by Barbara's story. I've managed to find a reasonably priced copy of Barbara's autobiography, which I look forward to reading. And I hope her books will be reissued now that her story is perhaps reaching a new generation of people. Thank you for the article.

    Posted by Tim B. on Wed 22 Dec 2010

  • Profoundly moving story. I came upon Barbara N. Follett quite by accident while I was looking up another author and was so very pleasantly surprised by this great writer.
    I echo the sentiments of others when I say, when will The House Without Windows be re-issued?
    Mr. Collins, it is a joy to read you, your strong flow and tidy facts enhance the story of Barbara N. Follet and make her even more intriguing in retrospect.

    Posted by Katie Dierks on Wed 22 Dec 2010

  • Thank you for this amazing essay - I read it rivited and emotional. I felt her drive and passion for writing, like a living thing. Her double abandonment was almost too much to bear. Sincere thanks again for bringing her life, her words, to our attention.

    Posted by Suzy Rigg @radiantlady on Thu 23 Dec 2010

  • A fascinating story! I've never heard of this young woman, and I have no idea why.

    Posted by Audrey on Wed 29 Dec 2010

  • Thank you for this haunting piece.

    I join others in hoping for republication of her work and share with you this piece from "The Voyage of the Norman D" that I found on another blog:

    "Oh! Then was the sea like a living creature -- cold, but with a mighty, throbbing heart. I was walking on the heart of the sea; I was sleeping on it; and I could always, night and day, feel it beating beneath my feet, or beneath my back. Or perhaps it was the life, the heart, of the ship that I felt. For now I knew that our schooner was superbly alive. She carried, amid the snow of her sails, a living heart and soul."

    Posted by rainey on Sat 1 Jan 2011

  • Fascinating article!
    And that missing description is absolutely heart-rending.
    I'm curious about reports that copyright renewals were filed in her name in years after her disappearance ... is it possible to hope that she escaped to an island of her own?

    Posted by Sara on Sat 1 Jan 2011

  • An entrancing tale. Thanks, Lapham Quarterly and Paul Collins for offering up what may only be the beginning of the story. Meaning, is there any indication from her writings and efforts of self-expression that she would just disappear without a trace? Or (and the dreamer in me prevails), could she have pressed on in another guise or another incarnation upon whom can only speculate to be her enduring works?

    Further, it causes me to wonder: how many more talents are similarly out-of-print - works of authors just begging to be re-discovered and lives of authors to be mythologized...?

    Posted by Matt on Mon 3 Jan 2011

  • After reading her biography, I offer up a theory about what happened to her. In her letters to her friends at the end, she talks about the dissolution of her marriage and her attempts to save it. Her husband (despite his story that there was another woman, who he never actually named) told her that he wanted to save the marriage, but wasn't sure it could be. Barbara blamed herself for the lack of connection in their marriage.

    All this was happening a few months before she disappeared. I think what happened was that on Dec 7th, her husband told her he wanted to end the marriage. Understandably upset, she left the house in a hurry, with only $30. This explains why her husband took so long to report her missing... as far as he knew, the marriage was over and she left. But when two weeks went by and she still didn't turn up, that was when he reported her missing.

    What I think happened was that she decided to head out into the wilderness to clear her head. This is completely consistent with her prior life. She was at heart a woman who loved nature, and that's where she felt most comfortable. But this being early December in the Northeast, it wasn't a particularly safe time to be out. She most likely was caught in a storm, avalanche or deep freeze, and died.

    Her body might have been found years (even decades) later, but of course no one knew who it was (and there probably wasn't much left of it). This being 1939 after the Depression, I'm sure homeless bodies were found all the time out in the wilderness, so it wasn't all that unusual.

    I would love to believe that she changed her identity and had a happy life after that, but when you read her letters, it's clear this wasn't someone who was shy about writing to people. She clearly needed to communicate her feelings to the friends in her life. It would be very out of character that she would go completely silent and start a new life.

    As for the "foul play" theory, based on her letters, she consistently describes her husband as gentle, though sometimes moody (given that the marriage was falling apart, not surprising). There's nothing to indicate any capability for violence.

    Anyway, thank you again for this fascinating tale. I hope that her books will be reissued, and she will "live again," even if only through her writings. Perhaps someone will even collect her poems and unfinished books and publish those someday.

    Posted by Jack D. on Mon 3 Jan 2011

  • Thank you, Paul Collins, for a fascinating article. I have two questions:

    You wrote that in 1929, Barbara ran away to San Francisco and hid in a hotel, "But she'd been reported as a runaway, and when police burst into her room, they narrowly kept her from escaping through the window." An article in the Boston Globe, June 6, 1994, states that she ran away, "and when tracked by detectives to a San Francisco hotel, tried to kill herself by jumping out a window." I haven't seen the original 1929 news stories. Do they make it clear whether she was attempting suicide or merely escaping?

    Second question: have you heard if any publishers are considering new editions of her books?

    Posted by David B. on Fri 7 Jan 2011

  • A strange coda to her disappearance:

    http://collections.stanford.edu/copyrightrenewals/bin/detail?fileID=462679417X

    The House Without Windows's copyright was renewed in 1954 by someone identified as Barbara Follett.

    Posted by Wilson Koh on Fri 7 Jan 2011

  • Thanks for the comments! I noticed the copyright renewal in the name of "Mrs. Nickerson Rogers" when I first came across the subject in 2000, and went about contacting "Mrs. Nickerson Rogers" -- only to discover the then still-living second, not the first, wife of Mr. Rogers. (Though our conversation was itself well worth the search.) Nickerson Rogers divorced his first wife (in absentia) in 1943. The renewal appears to be pro forma, for what I've found since then was that in fact a great many "author renewals" were in fact done as a matter of course by publishers whenever the old 27 year term came up.

    Still, I suppose one can hope!

    Posted by Paul Collins on Sun 9 Jan 2011

  • A wonderful and touching story.

    Posted by Narwe on Thu 10 Feb 2011

  • This is really beautifully written. I came upon this article through artsandlettersdaily.com. What a treat! Thank you.

    Posted by Ryan Buckley on Thu 10 Feb 2011

  • Those interested in Barbara's story may also like to read about William Sidis, a tale best told by Samuel Rosenberg in his Confessions of a Trivialist. It's a story about the son of a professor who believed geniuses were made not born, and before William's disappearance, was home schooled and entered Harvard at twelve. Other parallels are uncanny, equally as tragic, and he lived around the same time.

    Posted by Bob Smith on Thu 10 Feb 2011

  • My goodness. How horible. How wonderful. I want to read her books. I shiver to think what might have happened to her.

    Posted by Kate Strand on Thu 10 Feb 2011

  • One of the most haunting pieces I have ever written. Thank you. A friend sent it to me saying that Barbara was like Mary MacLane, and I do see the likeness.

    Posted by Michael R. Brown on Thu 10 Feb 2011

  • I just want to say that Zerah Colburn was not a math prodigy in the sense that he was actually good at mathematics--he was just profoundly good at summing numbers. Also, I think many, many people do dwell on Bobby Fischer; they just all happen to play chess.

    I don't mean to be annoying and picky, (The article was great!) I just felt moved to comment on those two points.

    Posted by Bryce Wilson Stucki on Fri 11 Feb 2011

  • .
    How many times you must have heard this by now: Still I must inflict it on you again. HARPERS went so delitescently and popularly partisan (and certainly inferior in the editing) after you left - that the HARPERS that I used to read in my son's subscription became something so corrupt that I wished no longer to touch it at all.

    I have rediscovered you here. I hope to write you once before you die.

    [[Evlynar Johanson on FB]]

    Posted by Evlynar Johanson on Sat 19 Feb 2011

  • I didn't make clear my comment was meant for Lewis Lapham and not Paul Collins.

    [[ I had just come across this site - and did not know Lewis Lapham was still editing ]]

    Posted by Evlynar Johanson on Sat 19 Feb 2011

  • Thank you. I feel as if someone opened a chest filled with summer vintage dresses and dressed this late, gray and rainy afternoon with a touch of wonder and the smell of violets.
    She did trust violets, I am sure. Some time all a human being needs to feel better is a cup of tea and words like these.

    Posted by Allegra Smith on Fri 15 Apr 2011

  • Very fine piece only wrong, as the new bio shows, in the words about Bobby Fisher and his mother...

    Posted by Mark Kohut on Fri 10 Jun 2011

  • Thank you so much for writing this article..What an extraordinary story about a very young gifted writer. I would just love to read some of her works!

    Posted by K. S. Fester on Tue 30 Aug 2011

  • Thanks for this well written story about a child author. In your recollections of other child authors of the day, there is one glaring omission. Opal Whitely was celebrated in youth, and ended up in a mental institution as an adult, after enduring accusations that her childhood novel had been faked.

    Posted by Lawrence White on Sat 17 Dec 2011

  • For anyone interested in reading The House Without Windows, it's available for download here:

    http://sites.google.com/site/thehousewithoutwindows/

    Posted by Chippy on Sat 31 Mar 2012

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Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, appears on NPR as its “literary detective,” and is the author of the upcoming The Murder of The Century.

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