Virginia Campbell King Frye: The Legacy Lives On


By Frances Patton Statham, Atlanta Branch

Jennie Campbell King Frye, seen here in her younger years, was a lifelong active member of the League.

When genealogist Dabney Denbrock Corbi of Akron, Ohio, took a trip to Washington, D.C., several years ago with her mother, Nancy Beecher, she decided to do some research on a member of her own family—her great-grandmother, Virginia King Frye, who had been one of the 17 charter members of the National League of American Pen Women.

Welcomed at the Pen Arts building, Corbi found a treasure trove in the archives concerning this outstanding relative, who had been the first elected NLAPW treasurer in 1897 and later, the organization’s eighth president. And when the office manager at the time discovered that Corbi was a published writer, she encouraged her to become a member herself. Impressed with the League, Corbi joined as a member at large, continuing the legacy begun by her great-grandmother.

Virginia Campbell King Frye (1861-1939), known as Jennie, was an established writer of short stories, magazine articles, and poetry. She had just been offered the position of editor of Mother’s Magazine when her husband was transferred to Washington, D.C. Like so many women who are forced to choose between career and family — even today — she turned down the offer and moved with their six children to D.C. And yet, her creativity flourished in her new environment.

The original League charter, framed, is displayed in the Pen Arts library. Dues were originally set at $1 per year.

In June 1897, Frye gathered with 16 other writers, journalists, and illustrators at the home of Margaret Sullivan Burke, the first woman to be admitted to the Press Gallery of Congress, along with Alice Longfellow O’Donoghue, to form a literary club. According to an article by Frye, the group became affiliated with the National Editorial Association and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Although the officers at first were to be residents of D.C., membership in the Pen Women organization was open nationally.

Numerous articles on Frye appeared in various Washington newspapers, such as the Washington Herald. She was interviewed while attending a prize-winning play with her “charming children.” One of them was a son, Bernard Campbell Frye, who later became the father of Nancy Beecher.

Beecher remembered her grandmother’s visit to Akron in 1936 when she was 10 years old. She described her grandmother as being elegant and dignified, with snow-white hair. The one remembrance that stood out had to do with a near collision when her 2-year-old sister came barreling in to the living room on her tricycle and was  headed straight toward her grandmother. So 10-year-old Nancy quickly diverted her sister. In her mind, it wouldn’t do for such an elegant lady to be knocked over by a tricycle.

Other forces were much more respectful of the talented Frye. When she was a delegate in April 1899 to the convention of the International League of Press Clubs in Baltimore, Maryland, the Baltimore Herald gave her a glowing assessment: “Mrs. Frye is being made particularly welcome by Baltimoreans because she boasts descent from Lord Baltimore. Mrs. Frye is more than an ordinarily handsome woman and is suggested by many of her friends for first place on this basis.” However, her literary skills were not ignored. She was the recipient of many awards for her work and was commended for her “native dignity, inventive mind, and her kind, friendly manner.”

She was an honored guest of Grover Cleveland’s Congress and in 1920 participated in the National Editorial Association’s convention in Boston, with a tour of eastern Canada. According to her remembrance of various cities in Canada, the delegates were met by the “mayor and outstanding citizens of each city who provided autos for sightseeing” for the group.

The NLAPW archives also revealed the highlights of her 1906-1907 year as the eighth president of Pen Women. Meeting in the study room at the Public Library, one of their discussions concerned  “ways and means to secure a permanent headquarters in Washington.”

In addition to business sessions, five social meetings took place that year in various homes of the members. In the final meeting of the year, Vinnie Ream Hoxie, the sculptor of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in the rotunda of the nation’s Capitol building, invited the group to her studio, where she was working on a statue of Gov. Cornell for Cornell University.

Then: Jennie King and William Frye, circa 1930.

Frye died in 1939 after a distinguished career. She was one of the pathfinders so important to creative women everywhere. And her legacy lives on in her great-granddaughter, Dabney Denbrock Corbi.

Knowing the value of keeping history alive, genealogist Corbi has been arduous in her research in a time when the questions of “who am I and who are my ancestors?” are of such importance. That’s why she has elected to record the fading monuments of yesterday before they disappear and to construct the individuals’ biographies. Although she holds a full-time position in another area, Dabney regularly contributes her genealogical research to, a website that has an international following of those who are seeking their own legacies.

As members of Pen Women in our 120th anniversary year, we all have reason to celebrate the 17 charter members, including Jennie King Frye, for their dedication and vision.