Fanny Y. Cory Cooney, was one of the first artists to call Camano home. In 1948, she bought a six hundred and thirty square foot cottage to be near her daughter Sayre’s family during the summers. Her neighbors didn’t know this five-foot white-haired sprite-of-a-lady was a famous illustrator and cartoonist; that from her home on the bluff looking out on Saratoga Passage, two daily comics tumbled from her pen that were syndicated nationwide. Few neighbors knew my great-grandmother’s story or lived with her gusto.
Born in 1877 in Waukegan, IL, of Scottish immigrant stock, Fanny had a precocious imagination and prodigious talent, but also disadvantages: poverty, the death of her mother Jessie from consumption when she was ten, and a possessive and absent father who drank too much. At age twelve, Fanny and her older sister Agnes, who had contracted Tuberculosis caring for their mother, moved to Helena, MT. Fanny lived with their brother Bob who was carving out a life there, Agnes with friends of the family.
Fanny dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Before she quit, the art teacher, Mary C. Wheeler, who had studied at The New England Conservatory’s Department of Fine Arts and at the Julienne Academy in Paris, noticed Fanny’s true talent and encouraged her to stick with her art. Fanny’s break came when she got a letter from her brother Jack, a well-known newspaper illustrator, cartoonist and caricaturist for Pulitzer’s The New York World. It held one hundred dollars and a note inviting her to live with him and his wife Bertha in Manhattan and enroll in the Metropolitan School of Art.
New York City and Art School
It was the spring of 1885 when Fanny arrived in New York City. Though only seventeen, Fanny quickly rose as to the top of the class. She was accepted into the prestigious Art Students League where many of America’s finest artists were instructors. After a year, Jack’s ability to pay her tuition ran out. Fanny left art school, “…to make my fortune,” she said and did. By the time she was nineteen, she made enough to keep a home for herself, her sister and father. By 1900, F.Y. Cory illustrations graced the covers and pages of Scriber’s, Century, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, Liberty, Youth’s Companion, St. Nicholas, and the Ladies Home Journal. As an up-and-coming illustrator, Fanny was invited to parties, like when the literary giant Mary Mapes Dodge invited her to her country estate in the Catskill Mountains. Fanny turned them down. Years later she explained why.
“Soon I met Mary Mapes Dodge, the owner of St. Nicholas and chief editor. She was a lovely woman. She asked me to come to a lovely party she was giving for other young artists at her home in the country which I’ve no doubt was a beautiful place. And I couldn’t accept it. You see, at that time my sister was living, and I had to leave her alone so much that I didn’t like to do anything that was unnecessary. She was always watching for me in the window when I came home. I didn’t want her to watch in vain.”
Fanny had been warned that Agnes might die at any time of a pulmonary hemorrhage. When it happened in 1900 it devasted her. She didn’t speak of Agnes’ death until one summer evening decades later at the Dodgson farm on Camano. Fanny, her daughter Sayre and granddaughter Margaret were snapping pees. Then in the fading sunlight, she told them all: how she woke to hear Agnes’ fingers tapping the coverlet. “I jumped up, struck a match to light the gas, saw my own scared face in the glass and wondered ‘Is this it?’ and turned to find my darling vomiting blood in great globs, her frightened eyes on me. I held her in my arms, praying to God, I think. It was not long – the frightened look was gone, the eyes grew dim and I knew she was gone.”
After watching the light go out in Agnes’ eyes, Fanny sank into depression. Work didn’t lift her. Nor did the trip her best friend took her on to her family’s home in Texas. Her depression was so severe that her brothers Bob and Jack planned a summer trip in Montana for her. Camping and fishing outdoors renewed her spirit. She went back to Manhattan and her work. But Montana’s mountains had staked a claim in her heart. In 1902 she returned to Montana for good. She lived in a small cabin along Beaver Creek next to two the cabins where Jack and Bob ran “The Cory Brothers Mine.” Fanny threw herself into the operation as its main financial backer, raising money through her illustrations. They didn’t strike it rich.
When Fanny had left New York, William Fayal Clarke the editor of St. Nicholas, gave her a copy of The Virginian inscribed with note wishing that she might meet her “Virginian.” She did. He turned out to be a Montana rancher hewn from Irish pioneer stock. Fanny married Fred Cooney in April 1904. They made their home in a humble house a stones-throw from Lake Sewell near Canyon Ferry. Fred ran the 1,800 acre ranch. Fanny illustrated books and magazines. After her firstborn, a boy, died during delivery and a year of debilitation from that trauma, three darling children came: Agnes who went by her middle name Sayre, Bob and Ted.
Fanny threw herself into mothering. When it came time to put them through college, Fanny had lost her place to other talented illustrators. Encouraged by her brother Jack to consider cartooning, Fanny spun her wit and whimsy in a cartoon about a five-year old boy named Sonny. Launched in 1925, Fanny’s popular Sonnysayings ran daily until her retirement in 1956. In 1935, she was hired by King Features Syndicate for a second strip, Little Miss Muffet, to compete with the popular Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray. For her exploits, Fanny was dubbed the “First lady of the Funny Papers”. Fanny was named Montana’s Mother of the Year in 1951, traveling to Washington DC, to be honored with other matriarchs.
Move to Camano
A new dam caused the waters of Lake Sewell to cover the old ranch house. By then Fred had passed. Her kids had moved on too: Bob worked for the Montana Fish and Game Department; Ted was a doctor first in Helena, then Cut Bank, MT, and finally in North Carolina. Sayre busy with raising her family on the farm on Camano. Fanny moved permanently to Camano in 1953.
Fanny joined the ranks of her retired neighbors on Camano in 1956. She was seventy-nine when her daily cartoon strips ended. Like them she enjoyed the quiet and peaceful island, the warm weather of summer and only complained a wee bit about the rain. She set about making the cottage her home. Doc’s Dad, George Dodgson, could do anything. The house Fanny bought was attached to a shed, and well back from the bluff. Fanny wanted it closer to the bank so she could see the water. George unattached the house from an old shed, and put it on a new foundation closer to the bank. He built her the fireplace and fixed up the shed. She described her view out of the large window facing west:
“I live alone in a two-room cottage on the edge of an 80-foot bank above Puget Sound. The broad sweep of water before me – then Whidbey Island and behind that the peaks of the Olympic Mountains snow topped at most time. Mt. Olympus right directly across – then to my right if I face the Sound – the wood, lovely tall straight cedar, pine and fir – thick underbrush, no attempt at cultivation.”
Out the window Meetsy had a two large Douglas fir trees, one with a feature she called “the Pope’s nose.” It was a broken off branch a third of the way up the trunk. She often painted those trees silhouetted against the water. Like many Camano residents in those days, she named her new home – the woods with the long driveway, her cottage and the beach below, beach below – calling it “Montana Beach.” To her grandchildren who walked from the farm or visited from afar, she was the “Queen of Montana Beach.”
Fanny was famous, but to her family she was Grandma Meetsy. Meetsy was an abbreviation for “Sweet Meats”, the term of affection given her by her children. They called their dad, Popsie. Her home small and tidy, was always open and welcoming to them. Margaret, who was a junior at Stanwood High School when Fanny moved in in 1953, remembers the Dodgson children visiting their beloved Grandma:
“We could just walk down the road and turn to the right. There was a gate at the head of the driveway that was always open. You’d walk down the long driveway towards the Sound but you wouldn’t know it because the trees were so close together and tall. It was fun at night going without a flashlight. We found Meetsy’s house by looking up. The branches of the trees didn’t quite meet each other at the top, and the sparkling stars and moonlight on the clouds showed a path of light.”
Mom can’t remember not having her wonderful GrandmaMeetsy living across the road and down the lane from the farm. Meetsy spent hours reading classics to her grandchildren: Charles Dickens, the Tarzan and Mother West Wind series. Mom remembers clutching Robert’s shirt as they walked home at night after Meetsy read a few chapter of Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Her tiny house was big on hospitality. Meetsy baked bread and kept two cookie jars stocked. The grandkids could always find lemon drops and horehounds, a hard candy, on kitchen table. She liked tea later in the day. And she liked pretty things. For lunch they ate Campbell’s soup served in a pretty China bowl with roses around it. When Margaret came home from nursing school in Chicago, Fanny made her grandkids a big breakfast.
Fanny loved flowers and gardening, though her garden was simple compared to the one Betty Dorotik would nurture just south of Fanny’s cottage decades later. Always one to laugh at herself, in her seventies Fanny wrote this poem about “A Gardener”:
A gardener has many minds
As, where to plant this clinging vine?
~ Against the shed, perchance? ~ or wait ~ !
Against yon rustic swinging gate ~ !
A better plan perhaps would be
To twine it round about that tree!
I could, of course, construct and arbor ~
~A summer house? No, that’s much harder.
With digging holes I’m almost dead.
I’ll put it back against the shed.
A painting every day
When she retired, Fanny resolved to paint one painting every day. She used the 6” by 8” strips of Bristol board that she had drawn cartoons on, a Prang watercolor box from the Ten Cents store, and simple brushes. Her skill made the paintings sing. She painted at the round oak table in her kitchen. Many are from her view out the window: the firs, Saratoga, Whidbey and the Olympics beyond. The same scene, but each distinct, a moment and mood at that particular moment. She also painted birds on the picnic tables, and fairies she imagined in the flowers and leaves around her.
The Grunt and Groan Art Club
Fanny started the “Grunt and Groan Art Club” to nurture her grandchildren’s creativity. Margaret remembers the club’s early days:
“Whenever we went over to her [Meetsy’s] house to visit, we would sit around the big round oak table which looked out on a lovely view of Puget sound. There were always watercolor sets, brushes and Strathmore board small pieces sitting out and while we visited, we’d paint the view we saw. We’d ask each other how we were doing on the sky, tree, sound, mountains and usually the only answer would be a congenial grunt ‘um hah!’ Or one of the artists would exclaim over a less than perfect effect with a low ‘oh no!’ groan.”
Hence came the “birth of the ‘Grunt and Groan Club.’” Margaret was a charter member. Fanny and Sayre were the art club’s officers. Bud and Robert were charter members too, though not as committed as the girls. As the youngest, Mom worried about painting something worthy enough to get into actual membership. She finally achieved standing in the club when she was twelve!
The Grunt and Groan Art Club was a painting time, not an instructional time. Meetsy told Mom only two things about art: before painting, decided what is going to be the lightest light and darkest dark and the shape of the shadow tells as much as the object itself. She still treasures them. She also treasures the time that she and her grandma spent looking for fairies.
Fairies were a popular in Fanny’s early years as an illustrator. She was a master at drawing them, and in fairy lore too. “Fanny was a repository of all things about fairies,” Mom says. Mom remembers looking for fairies with her grandma Meetsy. “We looked for things that would be a good fairy hat in a flower, clothing, things they might want to wear. We pretended we knew what the fairies were about and doing.” Fanny would talk about Queen Mab who was the queen of the fairies. She was elegantly dressed and beautiful. Queen Mab didn’t have to do much but lounge around in the cup of a rose, and have things carried to her by worker fairies. Fanny had quite an imagination. She used fairy lore to nurture the imagination of her grandchildren. “The whole thing was fun,” Mom says.
There was a more serious side to fairies. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, as a “diversion” to her work as a cartoonist, Fanny painted a series of fairies, a fairy for each letter of the alphabet. She wrote a rhyme for each fairy. Fanny considered the “Fairy Series” her finest work. After her death they were published as the Fairy Alphabet. These exquisite watercolor paintings are kept at the Montana History Museum.
There was an old and steep trail that led down to the beach. For a few summers after Fanny’s move, her son Bob Cooney and his boy Ted, and Fanny’s son-in-law Doc Dodgson and his boy Robert, repaired it making swimming and playing there possible for the grandchildren. They even stored a rowboat that Bill Smith had given them there. Doc put a ditch in to drain his farm fields that went over Meetsy’s bluff. The flume broke in a storm caving off a big section of the bluff. After that no trail access was possible after that. So they went to Mabana Beach instead. Then there were no houses on Mabana, only cabins on the bluff above that were rented out. That’s where the college students who led the Daily Vacation Bible School at Mabana Sunday School stayed. With other youngsters who lived nearby, the Dodgson kids felt that “we owned it.” As a reward for being good, or after haying, on hot summer days they drove to Mabana. After parking the car, the kids walked over the driftwood and rushes to the sandy beach.
Back then Mabana was wide open to the public, a haven for parents to lounge and children to play. There were pilings going out into the water. Ships had once docked at the Port of Mabana to offload mail and other goods for Islanders. The tide flats stretched far out. The water warmed as it came in over the sand. Years later Bud remembers waking to the sound of trucks leaving Tinny McGrath’s place hauling dirt. He was taking dirt from his bank, hauling it down and dumping it on the driftwood logs at Mabana. A builder put houses in, and sold them for lots of money. A battle would have to be fought just to keep forty feet open to the public. But that battle was decades away.
Sayre, who was an accomplished swimmer in high school due to growing up on Lake Sewell, taught the kids to swim. Bud and Robert swam the breaststroke, backcrawl and Australian crawl like fish. They snorkeled and caught flounders by the tail. Mom learned to swim when she was six. Doc promised to buy her a swimsuit if she learned to swim. He happened to be at Mabana with the family one fall day. Mom swam the ten yards proving her ability. And he bought her the suit. It was so late in the summer that all the swimsuits had been put away; but he found one her size and brought it home.
Fanny would go with the family to the beach, usually watching or painting as they swam. Once a year she made the stalwart effort to go in. But it wasn’t the warm Lake Sewell she had loved. Like summer days turn into fall, those happy days on the farm and beach came to an end, the tide of time washed them away.
Dodgson Family Moved to Stanwood
In 1962, the Dodgson family moved from Seacrest, their farm on Camano, to Stanwood to be closer to Doc’s office. Their new home across from Stanwood middle school never felt like home to Mom. The farm was always “home” for her heart.
Meetsy kept a weekly correspondence via letters with her beloved Sayre, as well as her other children. She enjoyed regular social events and meals at the homes of friends. But in time Fanny’s eyes grew dim from cataracts. Her joy in gardening faded as her body grew older and fragile. It was equally hard for her to paint watercolors.
A Sacred Wedding
On Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966, Dad and Mom were married, after church in a small ceremony at Fanny’s home. Mom decorated her grandma’s home with pink currents tucked in green ferns, both in plentiful supply on the island. They filled the house with a fresh, wild smell for her wedding day. Fanny’s round oak table from the ranch, pushed to the side, held the home made wedding cake and cups for tea. A small gathering witnessed the simple ceremony. Mom figured that you either need a family wedding with just relatives or a big church one where everyone can come, and she didn’t see how a person could ever do a big wedding. They had the family one. Dad’s best man, Howie Elseth, and the officiant, Clarence Dirks, were the only non-family.
As they said their vows Dad and Mom could look past Mr. Dirks and through the two large windows looked out at the fir trees with the Pope’s nose, Saratoga Passage, Whidbey Island, and the far blue Olympic Mountains that Meetsy had painted so many times.
Mom was a month and thirteen days from being twenty and Dad was twenty-six. She was beautiful in the pink dress she’d gotten on sale at J.C. Penneys for five dollars, not knowing it would be her wedding dress, her brown hair caught up on her head and held in place by a wooden pin that Dad hand carved. Mom walked alone down the makeshift aisle. She says, “Daddy didn’t want to walk me to the ‘front’ because he said, he ‘didn’t want to give me away’ and so he never had to because he didn’t. Hah!” Walking to the front, Mom passed a beautiful Indian rug that hung on the wall in Meetsy’s home with some of her favorite photographs – reminding her of her years in Montana – on it, and a reminder that no earthly home lasts forever.
Meetsy lived in her cottage on the bluff for a few more years after the wedding. The McGrath’s who lived across from the Dodgson farm brought her mail, anticipating Meetsy’s (she was Meetsy to them too) joy to see them and the candy she gave them. An accident forced her to move. Her biographer writes,
“Eventually she moved from her little house on Camano Island to the Dodgson’s home in Stanwood, Washington. An emergency sparked the move; a neighbor found her unconscious and called an ambulance. Apparently, she’d suffered a stroke, though she healed rapidly without permanent paralysis. She joked that she’d always wanted to ride in an ambulance and that when it actually happened, she had no memory of the dramatic event. But the incident brought her independent living to an end and ensconced her in the loving home of the Dodgson family.”
The impact of Fanny on her children and grandchildren is chronicled by my mom, Ann Cory Dorsey. She tells of one of her final days with Meetsy, and a kind of “pact,” a passing of blessing and gifts from one generation to another.
The room was filled with photos of the past and school pictures of the present. There was a yellow painted chair beside the bed holding a large hand wound clock and several bouquets of flowers. The people walked softly and most avoided the room. Meetsy was dying. Certainly she was dying this time. We had thought she was three years before when a neighbor girl had found her unresponsive lying on her couch. The ambulance had rushed her into the room in this big yellow house that had been my other grandma’s while she had lived with us. Meetsy would joke afterward how she’d always wanted to ride in an ambulance but when her chance came she didn’t even know it. But nobody joked about it then. My father, a doctor, and my mother, a nurse, did everything they could. The house was in a state of “emergency” for weeks to help ease her labored breathing and physical decline.
But then, miraculously, Meetsy rallied. She wouldn’t be able to live alone again in her beloved cottage overlooking Saratoga Passage viewing the Olympics that arched up behind Whidbey Island on clear days. She was confined to a wheelchair because her legs were so unsteady but as she had been remarkable all her life her spirit remained remarkable under adversity. A routine of napping, writing letters or a log of the day’s events with a heavy felt pen and eating became more and more her way of life. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table with the morning sun glistening on her snow white hair. Although much of the time she could not hear, she would tell stories of her life that might well make a toad stool smile or, if she could think of nothing else she considered entertaining enough, she’d relive the characters and plots of anyone of a number of Dickens’, Scott’s or Cooper’s books. Very little happened in the kitchen about which Meetsy did not know from watching to make sure my mother had on her sweater to exposing the more grave infractions of a visiting great grandchild.
Meetsy seemed to be particularly interested when one of her grandchildren was, as she described it, “in a family way.” My mother said that when she told Meetsy that labor had started when the birth of our first child was imminent, Meets had just bowed her head in silent prayer. My mom had tried to remind her that all births were not as difficult as hers had been. Meetsy had agonized for hours with her first child but because she was so small and the boy was so big, Meetsy almost lost her own life and the baby did lose his. She had been an invalid for a year afterward and the doctor had told her never to have any more children, But, as my mom would say, “Meetsy just had to have someone to love” and she successfully gambled giving birth to three more children, one girl (my mother) and two boys.
From the time she had been 17 until well into her seventies Meetsy had been a well known artist and one of the first professional women in her field. Under her maiden name, Fanny Y. Cory, she had illustrated books, designed magazine covers and been under contract with King Features Syndicate for two comic strips, Sonny sayings and Little Miss Muffet. Much of her art work featured babies and children which she depicted with great insight. I remember remarking that she must have loved children to be able to draw them so beautifully “No, but I did love my own.” She also loved her grandchildren and great grandchildren. The proud day I laid our three-day old son Jason in her arms the years seemed to vanish from her face and the softness of motherhood filled the silence. She was remembering her own and smiling softly she said it had been so long since she’d held a tiny one.
Days flowed swiftly into months and seasons like a handkerchief chasing tears. But now Meetsy was dying for sure. After a fall she’d been bedridden and stayed so almost, it would seem, by choice. Indeed her evening prayers had often carried the petition that she be “released” and each night she faithfully kissed the small photo of her beloved sister, Agnes, who had died when she was twenty five in Meetsy’s twenty year old arms. Indeed it seemed Meetsy had grown weary of what had become to her a lonely, limited world. My dad often said in that last prolonged month when she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat and hardly swallowed even water that if she would try to get well as hard as she was trying to die, she would recover. I don’t know; All I knew was a brooding sort of sadness that wanted to run to Meetsy’s house once more like I did almost every day after school when I was a girl and eat her cookies, lemon drops and gum she kept for grandchildren. I would spend the time laughing, visiting, playing cribbage and listening to her read an exciting book until the sun set over the water and lights would start shinning one by one on Whidbey. Then we would finally bestir ourselves and break the spell for another day.
When my other grandmother had died the entire family had been there. I was still living at home that morning Daddy called me down to say grandma’s heart that had been weakening had given out and she was in a coma. She never awakened from it and the family watched and prayed as within a few hours she passed through the gates of eternal life. But, oh dear God, Meetsy lingered so. My mom and dad cared for her physically and when she had the strength at the beginning of that last sickness she would fight them vehemently for disturbing her rest. My dad felt bad for my mom and mom understood that it was not really “mother” anymore. I didn’t get too close to often because Meetsy seemed to sleep most of the time and I didn’t want to incur her wrath. But there were sweet times too during those endless days when she was herself and so happy that someone cared enough to visit her.
Still she got progressively weaker and we could only marvel that she lived at all. Her heart that had worked for 94 years seemed reluctant to let her go and so she stayed. She seemed only semi conscious much of the time but once in a while you could tell she saw and knew like the Saturday before she died when my sister rubbed her back and shoulders while visiting with her. You could tell that Meetsy was pleased. Later that same day when I was relieving my mom so she could get some groceries, I got up my nerve to go in all alone and just sit on the bed in the shade drawn room hoping that perhaps Meetsy might be comforted just sensing someone was there even if she didn’t know who it was.
We didn’t speak. She, of course, couldn’t and my heart was so full that all I was able to do was stroke her hair that was carefully brushed off her neck forming a white sculpture on the pillow, hold her hand and hope she saw only my smile and not the tears because, oh God, she knew it was I. Meetsy knew I had come. She observed as I went to get our three-month-old baby who was crying and when I brought her in Meetsy reached out and watched April try to touch and slap her hand. As the three of us were together I felt a voiceless identity with eternity. It was as though one small piece of it had been given to me in those precious few moments that hung like pearls being knotted on a necklace. I was with a woman whose involvement with me hung heavy with fulfilled love and dreams –and I held a baby who gurgled with sweet promises. They both belonged to me in a special way and though the two were so different, they were somehow the same as I bonded them to each other. I sensed a pact was made that day between the three of us –a pact of love that transcends years and mortal life itself. My grandma knew, April didn’t know and it had been put in my trust.
Soon Meetsy wearied and slept. April and I slipped out of her presence quietly as though she had been delirious with fever instead of age. A few evenings later while my mother was caring for her Meetsy’s breathing became further and further apart until it at last ceased. Meetsy’s prayer had been answered. She was released. Her soul had lost the confines of her small, frail body and soared to her Creator and the long anticipated rendezvous with her beloved Agnes, husband and infant son.
Stories of love like this make me realize that the unmatched beauty of Camano Island, is more than transcended by the beautiful love of her people, parents love for children and children’s love for parents, grandparents love for grandchildren and grandchildren’s love for grandparents.
This video by Robert Dodgson, grandson of Fanny Y. Cory Cooney shows old video footage of Meetsy’s home in Montana and then on Camano Island, her family working on her fairy cards, and other family video based at her Camano cottage.
Interested in learning more of this early Camano artist. Check out the documentary FANNNY: THE ARTIST WHO MADE AMERICA SMILE that shares more of the life and legacy of Fanny Y. Cory.