On a moonlit night, do you know what really makes that silvery pathway toward you across a lake or a river? Some people will tell you that it is just the reflection. of the moon, but there are others who know. All children do, and they have let a few grown people in on the secret. It is fairies' wings. Every night when the moon shines, the fairies slip out upon the water to dance. And it is their wings-all fluttering and glistening as they gaily tread their elfin measures --that make that entrancing pathway.”
The above quote was written by Fanny Y. Cory for St. Nicholas Magazine, May1915.
By Dave Walter
All illustrations courtesy of Bob Cooney
Fanny Y. Cory (Cooney’s) description of the full moon rising on a July night over the Big Belt Mountains as a trail of fairies' wings across the Missouri River's Lake Sewell, reveals at once her special gift. She was able to reach beneath and beyond the harsh realities of a central-Montana ranch and grasp the natural beauty and wonder of life.
Despite repeated personal tragedies, this nationally renowned artist and cartoonist never lost the curiosity and the optimism of children. Perhaps it was this faculty to meld successfully her two distinct artistic careers with her role as a ranch wife and mother that made her so remarkable.
Just over five feet tall, with sparkling eyes, Fanny could combine an appreciation of the natural world with a penchant for seeing the humor, the fantasy and the whimsy in life. Fanny Cooney brought this refreshing talent of enjoying life on several levels to her family, friends and her art. She remained throughout a modest, loving, sensitive, creative woman--characteristics derived from a life of trial, disappointment, re commitment and determination. Had Fanny been born 50 years earlier, she would have been hailed as the archetypal pioneer mother on the western frontier. Certainly Governor John W. Bonner believed her to be equally remarkable in the 20th century: He designated Fanny Cooney the Montana Mother of the Year on April 6, 1951.
Fanny Young Cory was born in 1877, in the town of Waukegan, Illinois, to Benjamin Sayre and Jessie McDougall Cory. She was the fifth of six children in this struggling Midwestern family. But, because her eldest and her youngest brothers died in childhood, Fanny was raised with only three siblings: two brothers, Jack and Bob (10 and 7 years her senior, respectively), and a sister, Agnes (five years older than Fanny). Her earliest childhood memory involved lying on the living room rug as a three year old, pencil in hand, drawing fanciful pictures, while her admiring family walked around or over her. Always her artwork was encouraged by her idol Jack, who also loved to draw. Yet life was not easy for the Corys, and Fanny was forced early to assume adult responsibilities. Her father, Benjamin, while charming, was selfish and alcoholic; he argued constantly with members of the McDougall family, who felt he mistreated their Jessie. As a traveling salesman, he often was gone from the household for long periods, and his job provided poorly for his family's needs. From this experience, the Cory children learned to rely on each other for support.
This strength proved vital when Jessie Cory died of tuberculosis in 1887. A devastated Fanny was only 10 years old at the time. She and 15-yearold Agnes had nursed their mother to the end. By this time the two older boys had been banished from the home by Benjamin. Jack was working as an illustrator for a Chicago newspaper. Bob--lured west by stories of mining fortunes made overnight had hired on in the Montana Territory mining camp of Wickes (north of Boulder, in Jefferson County). Since Benjamin would not permit Agnes and Fanny to live with their McDougall aunts, the girls tried to combine their schooling with keeping house for him.
After three years, the situation in Waukegan had deteriorated so much that Bob invited the family to join him in Montana. He had relocated from Wickes to Helena, secured a job as a teamster, and rented a small house on Beattie Street. This move sparked a great adventure for 13-year-old Fanny. While her father and Agnes remained in Illinois to dispose of the family's few belongings, she embarked alone on the six-day train trip to Helena. Fanny cradled her doll in her arms for the entire trip, and remembered hoping that other passengers would think she was a young mother with a baby.
These pictures are from the F.Y. Cory Fairy (Alphabet) Series. F.Y. Cory Publishers Inc. holds all copyrights to the Fairy Series illustrations and verses.
G is for gnome who is digging for gold, but the beetle does most of the work, I am told.
J for Jack Frost, a plump little fellow. He's painting the leaves all scarlet and yellow.
K is for kelpie, a wee water sprite, who giggles and laughs at a traveler's plight.
W stands for ... now let me see ... why will-o'-the-wisp --and this is he.
Fanny's adolescent days in Helena were somewhat more carefree. On picnic days she explored nearby hills and gulches, and brother Bob organized fishing and hunting parties for the two of them. School held little interest for Fanny (she never finished the eighth grade), but she read voraciously. She once said that, by the time she was 16, she had read every book in Helena's public library! And, in Mary C. Wheeler, Fanny found someone to appreciate and encourage her artistic work.
Wheeler was a local artist of some repute, who was just beginning her decades-long direction of the art program in the Helena schools. She immediately recognized Fanny's unusual talent for drawing and watercolor, and she urged the quiet girl to develop these skills-even if that meant going east to art school.
While Fanny, Agnes and their father were living with Bob in Helena, doctors diagnosed Agnes as afflicted with tuberculosis, possibly as a result of nursing her mother in Illinois. Fanny was told that Agnes might die of a pulmonary hemorrhage at any time. So again the young girl assumed adult responsibilities: She determined to become a professional artist and to support her sister and herself.
Brother Jack-by this time married and a newspaper cartoonist in New York City-provided the money for the train trip east. Since Bob was engaged to be married and held a steady job at the Helena post office, he seemed in safe hands. Thus, in the fall of 1895, Fanny, Agnes and their father moved to New Jersey, to live with Jack and Bertie Cory.
With Jack's encouragement and financial help, Fanny enrolled that fall at New York City's Metropolitan School of Fine Arts, with aspiring artists from throughout the nation. She worked diligently in her classes and quickly rose among her peers. The next year Fanny was accepted in the prestigious Art Students' League, but she never finished this program.
With Agnes' health deteriorating, she decided to leave school and go to work. Screwing up her courage-portfolio of sketches and paintings pinched under her arm-the 19-year-old wisp of a girl confronted the intimidating halls of New York's elite publishers: Harper; Century; Scribner; McClure; Holt. At the turn of the century, the field of magazine and book illustration was almost exclusively the domain of men. Still, after numerous rejections, Fanny Cory broke into the business with the Century Publishing Company.
She recalled: "I sat fearfully in the receptionist's room, thinking all the time of Mary Mapes Dodge, Louisa May Alcott, and the other great authors associate with St. Nicholas Magazine. Then I was ushered into the art editor's office, and he silently reviewer my samples. I was really taken back when he offered me $12 for one drawing, and I told him I thought that was too much. He kindly reduced it to $10."
So St. Nicholas Magazine gave Fanny the break she sought. By 1897 she was contributing illustrations regularly to such national periodicals as Harper's Bazaar, Scribner's, Century, Youth 's Companion, Saturday Evening Post, McClure's, Ladies' Home Journal and the original Life. These magazine illustrations brought Fanny immediate recognition and a series of contracts to illustrate books for the major publishers. In July 1900, the prestigious art magazine The Critic reviewed Fanny's work and praised her use of art nouveau decoration and puckish humor: "She has fancy, brightness, and quaintness; she has the faculty which is not to be underestimated of focusing these qualities into timelessness and practical use. Her best pieces depict charming children, whose sweetness is tempered by mischievousness. "
Throughout the blossoming of her artistic career, Fanny Cory cared for her failing sister Agnes. With her commission fees, Fanny rented a comfortable house for her sister and father, and she refused all social engagements --preferring to spend the time with her beloved sister. Her greatest pleasure was to bring Agnes little gifts that she desired; Fanny concentrated on spoiling her beautiful, invalid sister. And then the end: "In the night I was wakened by Agnes' tapping rapidly on the coverlet. I jumped up, struck a match to light the gas, and saw my own scared face in the mirror. I turned to find my darling vomiting great amounts of blood, her frightened eyes on me. I held her in my arms, praying to God, I think. It was not long-the frightened look died, the eyes grew dim, and I knew she was gone. Though I expected it, what a shock it was … It took many, many years before I got over waking and crying her name at night, thinking that she had called me. Nothing can quite fill her place."
With Jack's help, Fanny arranged for the funeral service in the parlor of their New Jersey home. She then accompanied the body on the train to Illinois, and she buried Agnes in the Cory family plot, beside their mother. Upon returning east, Fanny resumed her career in art, but the loss of her sister brought immense grief, which did not dissipate for years. Nevertheless, during this period, she illustrated several of the volumes written by Lyman Frank Baum, known best for his work The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). This book sequence often is cited by critics as "the high point in early 20th-century illustration" and includes The Master Key (1901), The Pete and Polly Stories (1902), Maisie and her Dog Snip in Fairyland(1902), The Enchanted Island of Yew (1903), and The Well in the Wood (1904).
Becoming one of the most prolific illustrators in New York (at the age of 25) could not assuage Fanny's grief. When, in 1903, brother Bob invited her to visit Montana, Fanny decided to return permanently to the site of her happier adolescence. As she departed the Century Publishing Company, the editor of St. Nicholas, William Faye Clarke, gave Fanny a copy of Owen Wister's recently published work The Virginian. His inscription called her "the Little Sister of the Century Company'" and suggested that she might find her own "Virginian" in the West. He could not have been more prophetic.
On April 12, 1904, Fanny Cory and Fred Cooney slipped away to the little church in Canton (near Townsend), where they quietly married. Happiness again reigned in Fanny's life, as she and Fred created a home on the 1,800-acre Cooney ranch, seven miles up the Missouri River from the small town of Canyon Ferry.
The Cooney patriarch, Thomas, had walked with three companions from Iowa to Virginia City in 1863 (a 3½ month journey) to try Montana's placer diggings. He had settled with his young bride along the Missouri in 1868 to raise cattle for the mining camp markets. The Cooney family grew to nine children, but the ranch was permanently altered by the construction of the first Canyon Ferry Dam (1898), which created Lake Sewell over much of their lush river bottom hay land. Fred, the fourth Cooney son, had taken over operation of the ranch for his parents, and the home to which he brought Fanny in 1904 was the "new" ranch house, reconstituted on the east shore of the lake. Fred ran hundreds of head of cattle as well as large herds of horses, which he sold to the federal government for cavalry mounts.
Even as a new bride, Fanny's highly successful career as a magazine and book illustrator continued. In addition to scores of magazine drawings, she completed illustration contracts for three books in 1903 and five books in 1904. In fact, her highly acclaimed depictions of young children and fanciful woodland creatures focused her determination to begin her own family. Against the advice of her physician, this small, delicate woman became pregnant in 1905. Then tragedy struck Fanny for the third time in her 28 years: The much-sought baby was lost in childbirth-a devastation that rendered her reclusive for more than a year. As she refused illustration contracts, Fanny's preeminence in that highly competitive artistic field quickly receded.
Slowly, with the tender assistance of Madeline Massa, an Italian nurse/companion secured by Fred, Fanny emerged from her grief. In fact, she rebounded with a staunch determination to become a mother. Despite the risks, this tenacity was rewarded in 1907, with the birth of a daughter, Agnes Sayre. Fred and Fanny completed their family with two sons, Robert (1909) and Ted (1910). For the opportunity to raise her children, Fanny willingly subordinated her career as an illustrator.
Between 1907 and 1913, she accepted only four book contracts: Our Baby Book (1907); Sunshine Annie (1910); Jackieboy in Rainbowland (1911) and The Fanny Cory Mother Goose (1913). The personal joy in which Fanny reveled while raising her infants is reflected in her art-her Mother Goose is frequently acclaimed as the premier work of her illustrating career.
The years of childhood and adolescence on the lakeside ranch were magical for the Cooney children and joyous for their parents. While Fred managed the ranch operation during the 1910s and 1920s, Fanny handled the chores of the ranch wife and mother: canning meats and vegetables; milking cows and gathering eggs; dispatching local rattlesnakes; keeping a large garden; helping with the late-winter calving; cooking for the family and the help; washing clothes by hand; ironing with flatirons off the wood cook stove. As much as possible, Fanny and the children were outdoors, immersed in the beauty of the Missouri River wetlands and its wildlife. And always, Sayre, Bob and Ted had the advantage of their mother's peculiar talent to experience life on that level of fantasy beneath its harsh surface.
One of the family's rituals was the evening storytelling, with the children gathered on the living-room floor around Fanny's rocking chair, warmed by the crackling woodstove. A kerosene lamp illuminated the cozy scene. Sayre recalled:
"Mother knew long passages of Sir Walter Scott's poetry, and she loved to recite them and teach them to us, at least the most thrilling parts of them. But mostly she would read from her favorite books-Little Women, Little Men, Under the Lilacs, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Ivanhoe, David Coppeifield, A Christmas Carol, The jungle Books, Captains Courageous. We would be spellbound, night after night, because she lived the stories as she read them to us. We felt so acquainted with Scrooge, and Oliver Twist, and Uriah Heap, and Robinson Crusoe and so many other colorful characters, that they became a part of our daily lives and play.
"But I liked it best when Mother would tell us episodes in the continuing saga of 'The Nine Little Green Men,' which she created as she went along. Bob and Ted and I would appear as central characters, with dialogue and actions that seemed to fit each of us.
"And how easily these tales tripped from Mother's lips. We would always beg for more poems, or stories, or adventures, and the time for our bedtime prayers came much too quickly."
When the need arose, Fanny would punish any misbehavior "in the good old-fashioned way," with her hand on their bare bottoms. What the children recall, however, is Fanny's more frequent approach to discipline: "When we really got after each other, Mother would give us her serious, motherly talk, which we knew she meant and which we never forgot (although we didn't always act on it). It was this: 'Do you know that love is the most important thing in this whole world? It is the very strongest thing in this whole world, too!" "At the time we couldn't quite see how this was true-but if Mother said so, it must be! Later, after we grew up, we knew she was right. Perhaps her teaching of love and forgiveness was her most valuable lesson to us all."
The schooling of her children was paramount to Fanny Cory Cooney. One year, when they were small, the Cooneys hired a teacher who lived that winter on the ranch. Later Fred rented a cabin in the town of Canyon Ferry, where Fanny and the children spent the weekdays, so they could attend grade school. When the children were ready for high school, the Cooneys took a house in Helena each winter, 25 miles from Fred and the ranch. By the early 1920s, Fanny and Fred realized that sending three children to college posed a serious financial dilemma. The Cooney ranch, like those all across Montana, was suffering from the agricultural depression, arid prospects for a recovery appeared dim. Although Fanny had abandoned her highly successful illustrating career to raise her children (she had not illustrated a book for more than a decade), she decided to reenter the field of commercial art to finance three college educations.
What she found, however, was that times had changed. The style of her earlier work had become dated, and many of her former contacts in this extremely competitive field proved fruitless. After numerous attempts to reestablish her career, Fanny secured only a single contract to illustrate a book, About Bunnies (924).
To the rescue of Fanny and her family came her brother Jack-then a noted political cartoonist for the New York World --who suggested that she try newspaper cartooning. Fanny had made an abortive foray into this field in 1916, with a daily strip entitled "Ben Bolt, or, The Kid You Were Yourself." With only this failure as background, Fanny (now in her mid-40s), prepare a test series that she called "Other People's Children." As its title suggests, the cartoon depicted the inherent confusions produced by a child's approach to an adult world. In 1925, when she sold the "Other People's Children" concept to the Philadelphia Ledger Syndicate, Fanny's second career in commercial art was launched. Soon the cartoon panels appeared in newspapers across the country. On the advice of Ledger Syndicate executives, Fanny then developed one of the characters in her cartoon series as a protagonist. He was a curly-haired, precocious imp of a boy by the name of "Sonny." In childish dialogue, "Sonny" comments on life from the perspective of a droll five-year-old. The single-panel cartoon "Sonnysayings" became an immediate success, was purchased by scores of newspapers, and gained a loyal following throughout the nation, as well as in Canada, Australia and Japan. Of the comic series, the Indianapolis Star raved:
Fanny Cory Cooney retired from cartooning in 1956. She had drawn 10,000 Sonnysaying by then.
Photo courtesy of Bob Cooney
"'Sonnysayings' is the most valuable feature of its size in any newspaper today. 'Sonny' has been adopted for keeps in every home that he enters. He is already a household pet in Indiana. Our women readers, every new father and mother, and even the grandparents, join in this chorus, 'Isn’t he cute! He's just like our baby!'"
In 1935 the huge King Syndicate purchased "Sonnysayings," and Fanny Cory Cooney's readership became even more extensive. At the Syndicate's urging, Fanny produced another daily cartoon strip, called "Little Miss Muffet." The series involved the adventures of an adolescent girl in an adult world and was designed as a direct competitor to the popular "Little Orphan Annie." This syndicated strip attained wide-spread success, but Fanny never enjoyed drawing it as much as she did he "Sonnysayings."
From the Cooney ranch near Canyon Ferry, Fanny Cory Cooney drew and captioned a panel of "Sonnysayings" (usually working about five weeks prior to publication) for each day of the year for 30 years! She also wrote and illustrated a book on Sonny Sayings(1929) and one on Little Miss Muffet (1936). By the time she retired as a cartoonist in June 1956, Fanny had created more than 10,000 "Sonnysayings" cartoons; and "Little Miss Muffet" had run daily for 21 years.
More important, Fanny's plan had worked. With the earnings from her cartooning career, the Cooneys' three children attained college educations: Sayre became an artist and a nurse; Bob began a distinguished career with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Ted became a physician who returned to practice in Montana. And two little tykes-"Sonny" and "Miss Muffet" made all that possible. What turned possibility into reality was Fanny's determination to give her children every educational opportunity. As Sayre once said, "Mother's big concern was to make her loved ones' lives as happy as she could, for as long as she could."
Surprisingly Fanny found the time to maintain her first love, the depiction of fairies, elves and other creatures of her fantasy world. During her cartooning decades, she also worked on a series of watercolors, which she called "A Fairy Alphabet." Each sylvan scene was accompanied by a short verse, tied to the respective letter of the alphabet. Although Fanny considered this series her best work, only recently have the pieces been made public (through the courtesy of the Cooney family), in the form of small prints and note cards. Fanny's assessment was correct: The watercolors are exquisite and the accompanying verses reveal her crisp humor and buoyant optimism.
With her retirement from a commercial art career in 1956, at the age of 79, Fanny decided to leave Montana for the warmer climes of Puget Sound.
In 1949 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had begun construction on the second Canyon Ferry Dam. By 1953 the enlarged reservoir covered the old town of Canyon Ferry, the original Canyon Ferry Dam and virtually all of the remaining Cooney property. Fred had died in 1946, so he never saw the eradication of the Cooney ranch. Alone, in the mid-1950s, Fanny moved to Camano Island, Washington, near Sayre and her family, where she purchased a cottage on the Sound. Despite slowly failing eyesight, she continued her watercolor painting and dabbled in oils for the first time in her life. That life ended quietly, on July 28, 1972, in Sayre's home. At the age of94, Fanny Cooney finally relinquished her deep sense of responsibility for her family-from her mother, to her brothers and sister, to her husband, to her own children. A fitting eulogy is contained in a description written by her children:
"Fanny Cory Cooney had more than her share of tragedy and heartbreak in her life. Yet she saw and appreciated the beauty in the world more than most of us-its sunsets, rainbows, bird songs, spring flowers, babies, crisp winter mornings, clouds, and breezes. Through her trials, she emerged with a sparkling laugh and a contagious sense of humor that could reveal the whimsy in the most mundane things. Her humor and her imagination always bravely came back to make life more joyful and beautiful for the rest of us. She brought sunshine from the shadows."
As a tribute to Fanny Young Cory Cooney --the artist, the wife and the mother --these words cannot be surpassed in sincerity or in accuracy or in depth of devotion. The Montana Mother of the Year for 1951 really was a Montana Mother of the Century.
The author wishes to thank sincerely the two surviving children of Fred and Fanny Cooney: Sayre Cooney Dodgson, of Camano Island, Washington and Bob Cooney, of Helena, Montana, who graciously provided photographs, illustrations, precious pieces of family documentation, advice and encouragement during the preparation of this piece. They are truly Fanny's children.
Dave Walter is research director at the Montana Historical Society Library, Helena
This site was created by Fanny Young Cory’s grandson –Bob Dodgson
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