Author Martie Sanger ’56 Explores Family History, Tips for Writing Nonfiction in Virtual Visit

Long before author and historian Martha "Martie" Frick Symington Sanger ’56 walked the halls of 105 Tuscany Road, her great-grandfather, Henry Clay Frick, was a powerful and controversial figure in America’s Gilded Age.
A prominent industrialist, philanthropist, and union-buster, Frick is known for his sour partnership with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, his aggressive response to workers on strike, and his extensive art collection, which later became The Frick Collection. After his death, Helen Clay Frick inherited the bulk of her father’s fortune and spent many years growing his collection, supporting causes related to women and children, and creating the Frick Art Reference Library.
In her biographies, Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait (1998) and Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress (2007), Martie delves deep into her family history to shed new light on her ancestors’ lives. She shared some of her findings and offered tips for writing nonfiction this month during a virtual alumni talk.
“You want to be ruthlessly honest,” she said during her visit. “This is nonfiction, and your research has to be absolutely thorough, and if you don’t know someone’s motivation for doing this that or the other thing, you say so.”
In addition to being impartial, Martie says, writing about family history requires new biographers to be courageous – they have to push for the truth even when there are obstacles. In writing her books, Martie has repeatedly faced challenges from family members and had to fight for access to archives and research.
Bravery and determination, she says, are essential to identifying important stories.
“In all families, there are no-talk rules and there are family secrets, and when you begin to get down into those things, you have to expect a lot of blowback. The interesting thing about a family secret and these no-talk rules is that that’s where the energy is, and that’s where your story is,” Martie said.
In Henry Clay Frick, Martie draws parallels between her great-grandfather’s personal life, including the haunting death of eldest daughter Martha, and the artwork he purchased for his collection, among other connections. In Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress, she reveals the many accomplishments of her great-aunt Helen, who was often dismissed by the family.
“The story lives within and beneath the facts,” she said to alumni. “As you do your research, a boring fact suddenly comes alive.”
In 2001, Martie published The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era. The book is filled with beautiful imagery and architectural information. It features four of the Frick family’s former residences, including the building that houses The Frick Collection in New York City.
Martie debuted her most recent work, Maryland Blood: An American Family in War and Peace, in 2016. A departure from her Frick research, the book follows the Hambleton family through more than 350 years of American history, beginning with pioneer William Hambleton’s arrival on the Eastern Shore in 1657.
Since then, members of the Hambleton clan have participated in every major American conflict and found success across banking, business, and civic leadership. For nearly 400 years, the family has maintained a base in Maryland – and Martie has a personal interest in their story. She is an eleventh-generation descendant of William Hambleton.
Today, Martie is constantly writing and researching, exploring new sides of the Frick story, and learning more about her father’s family, the Symingtons. While she is not ready to announce a new project, she “never puts the pencil down.”
Click here to view our full discussion with Martie Sanger ’56.
Calvert School is a coed independent lower and middle school.