The dark blue kitchen cabinets and the gold and burnt orange art deco décor inside Frances Rich’s Payson home belied the whimsical core beneath a sometimes gruff exterior. The gruff Rich fired many a household helper on her first day. The gruff Rich was stern, a sometimes isolated genius of an artist who sculpted the seven-foot Army-Navy Nurse Monument that sits in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
In 2007, Rich died in Payson at the age of 97. She would have turned 99 on Jan. 8.
The daughter of a famous and beautiful silent film actress, Rich created her own name through art, although she also starred in some 1930s films. Rich brought with her the mystique and glamour of that era, intoxicating those who became her friends with her charisma, her charm, her worldliness.
Friends recall how she was a great friend of Katharine Hepburn, and how Rich sculpted a terra cotta statue of Hepburn for a Shakespeare film festival in Connecticut. They talk about the places Rich’s sculptures occupied around the world — places like the Boston Public Library and at the University of California, Berkeley. They tell about the namesake art school that will open at the American College of Greece.
They also undoubtedly appreciated the good graces of a woman who knew who she liked as much as she knew whom she didn’t.
“We took her to France, and she would speak French. We took her to Italy and she would speak Italian,” said friend and attorney Robert Allen. “She had done so much in her life that she was just fascinating and loaded with charm.”
However, “If she didn’t care for people, they found out very quickly. It’s hard to say more. I wish you could have met her.”
Rich revealed her mysteries in glamorous tales she told caretaker and Payson resident Joni Marshall, stories and names of the art world — anonymous names for outsiders, but weighty with importance for insiders.
Joni, along with her husband Larry, cared for Rich after her mind began to succumb to Alzheimer’s and she could no longer care for herself.
Larry gave to Rich his constant devotion, a task which neither he nor Joni imagined when Joni first became Rich’s personal assistant and housekeeper in the late 1990s, when Rich was 88.
“My first impression,” said Joni, “she was a very difficult personality.” Allen hired Joni, who made her acquaintance through a friend, and he warned her of possible failure.
“He was concerned that I would be hired on day one and fired on day one,” Joni recalled. “She was very stern in the beginning.”
Joni attributed Rich’s initial coldness to potential past abuses. “She had probably been taken advantage of many times.”
Allen, however, thought differently. “Fran, being a sculptor, was so tuned into the appearance of someone’s face that she knew every bone and muscle in your face,” he said. “She would look at a face and if she didn’t care for that face, that was it.”
The face allowed Rich to assess one’s character. “I think she was quite accurate,” Allen said.
Was it that Joni, with her impeccably blown-dry, chin length hair, appealed to Rich’s aesthetic sensibilities?
“Perhaps, the truth of it is that Fran liked men,” Allen said. “Larry is quite a good looking young man, and I think as much as anything she came to enjoy Larry, and Joni, she came to love Joni.”
But Allen, now 83 and 12 years younger than Rich, says Rich’s crush on Larry, if she had one, was harmless. “She did for me, too. Sometimes she thought she was 30 years old,” Allen said. “She just related to men.”
Rich, even in her 90s, would work ceaselessly inside her studio. “She wouldn’t stop working to eat or take care of herself,” Joni said, and she eventually began taking food to the then-distant woman.
During the meal times, the two women began talking, and Rich would charm Joni with stories.
“She was a hoot, a riot,” Joni said. “It was a very privileged life that is just completely out of the ordinary. The life that she lived, and the stories that she told. It seemed like it was make believe or fantasy, but it really did happen.”
Indeed, asking someone close to Rich about what kind of a person she was initially results in a resume-like answer of who she knew and who she worked with.
Her mother, Irene Rich, starred in films with Will Rogers, and Rich grew up with Rogers’ children. She lived in Paris and Rome, studied with the renowned sculptor Malvina Hoffman, and worked with the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, a former student of Auguste Rodin’s.
When Rich died in Payson in October 2007, The Washington Post published her obituary.
A Roundup reporter featured Rich in 2000, and he, too, was seemingly enamored by her youthful zeal.
He punctuated her sentences with exclamation points and quoted an inscription by a “distinguished art dealer” which considered Rich’s soul “alive with the great gothic vibration.”
Joni says, “She never bragged about herself. She would almost make it as if it was no big deal. She was working and doing what she loved and it was no big deal. But it was.”
Although by day two, Joni said she no longer worried about Rich firing her, “it took months and months to find out more about her.”
At one point, Rich told Joni, “I know I can trust you.”
“But you barely know me,” Joni recalled replying. Rich showed Joni a closet in a room adjacent to her studio filled with letters and journals and other personal affects.
“I knew what that meant when she showed me that. She was preparing me for something,” Joni said.
For the last year of Rich’s life, after she began succumbing to Alzheimer’s, the Marshalls cared intensively for her.
Joni at first did not feel she could handle taking care of both Rich and her own family. Allen attempted hiring a professional caregiver who moved to Payson from California for the job, but Rich fired her the first day.
Larry felt compelled to quit his job at Safeway and become the caregiver. “There was more purpose in it — helping her,” he said. Rich had never married and never had children.
Larry took Rich to art museums, and they traveled widely, including two Europe trips with Allen and Allen’s wife, Karolyn.
Rich’s body stayed strong. “She was strong as a horse,” Joni said. “She was aware enough to know that she needed help,” which frustrated her at times.
Allen recalled, “She recognized us all the time. About the last time we saw her before her dying day, she held hands with Karolyn and me and she kissed us both. It was just very sweet and almost heart-rendering.”
With Rich gone, Joni and Larry now devote themselves to archiving photographs of each sculpture, which is then sent to Greece where it will be displayed at the American College where a school of art will open in her name. The continuing effort was undoubtedly what Rich knew she wanted left in the Marshalls’ devoted responsibility.
They catalog her letters and photographs so future generations of artists and any other inquiring minds can research Rich’s life.
Outsiders might be struck by the two-bedroom, two-bath guesthouse on the Marshalls’ property that they built for Rich after she could no longer care for herself. They oriented the house so Rich’s bedroom window peered out over the yard of the barn they also built, filled with Nigerian goats, Angora sheep and wild turkeys that still roam the property.
Crates of photographs fill the Marshalls’ house. Larry is making a multi-page timeline of Rich’s life that includes descriptions of sculptures created, people known and places traveled.
Joni’s voice almost shakes when she talks about Rich and the people who decorated the woman’s life. She is shocked when outsiders aren’t aware of the art world’s most illustrious names, the people and places Rich splashed into her lively stories. She tears up at times, the once-stern boss now a dearly missed friend.
As time goes on, Rich’s resume and a few quirky stories will likely color with legend and outlive the finite timeline carefully inked on many pages.
Exactly who she was, only a few people can say. But if one listens to the stories enough, they too are intoxicated.