Introduction from Dr. Larry Len Peterson

There are many gems to be mined in the treasure state of Montana, but two of the finest are the Malcolm S. Mackay Collection of Charles M. Russell art and Kirby Lambert. Their legacy resides at the Montana Historical Society (MHS) in Helena. While the Mackay collection has thrilled visitors to much fanfare since 1953, Kirby’s arrival almost four decades ago from his home state of Texas to assume the position of registrar for the MHS museum was less auspicious. My friend holds a B.A. in history and a M.A. in museum science from Texas Tech University.

Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney, senior curator at MHS, wrote in her tribute to Kirby in my 2019 Blackfeet sculptor John L. Clarke biography, which I dedicated to Kirby, “Like Charlie Russell, another one of his favorite artists [referring to Clarke], Kirby saw Montana, and fell in love. Kirby has quoted John Steinbeck saying, ‘Montana seems to me what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.’ Kirby embraced the history and culture of his new home, and has put his wit and wisdom to work for the people of his adopted state ever since. Among Kirby’s many talents is an ability to take scholarly material, distill it and make it accessible to the general public. He has accomplished this throughout his career, in the countless exhibits he has curated and in his numerous publications. The skill has continued to serve him well in his current position as program manager of Montana Historical Society’s Outreach an Interpretation Program…  I consider it a privilege to be able to call Kirby my friend. And all of us at the historical society are lucky to have Kirby as our treasured colleague. Just as with Charlie Russell, Montana fell in love with Kirby, too. In 2015 he was awarded the 2015 Governor’s Humanities Award which honors excellence in the humanities in Montana. Not bad for a former Texas boy!” Kirby is certainly my favorite Montana author.

MHS Staff and Dr. Larry Len Peterson

Bruce Whittenberg, past director of the Montana Historical Society (MHS); Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney, senior curator MHS; Kirby Lambert, director of the Outreach and Interpretation Program MHS; and Larry Len Peterson in Great Falls, Montana for the Russell auction, March 17, 2018.

Yet there is much more. He also organizes the annual Montana History Conference. Anyone who loves the state’s history and rich culture should attend this amazing educational forum. He and Jennifer co-authored the finest book on Russell ever by Montanans, the grand 2014 Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society. Sandwiched between his arrival in Helena and their masterwork is this informative 1997 article, documenting the odyssey of the journey of the Malcolm S. Mackay collection of Russell art. In 1921 it was first showcased in a converted room at the Mackay mansion in Tenafly, New Jersey that they called the “Russell Room.” Still, in time the family looked for a new venue in Montana so the public could enjoy it. After a devastating fire in 1940, the Northern Hotel in Billings built a new ten-story “fireproof” structure. The Mackay family discussed the possibility of moving the collection there. By July 1942 the hotel had its grand opening, and the collection had a new home for the next decade, until it was eventually moved to its permanent home at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.

Northern Hotel brochure

Northern Hotel advertising brochure, Billings, circa 1940s, courtesy of Steve A. Eckhart, in C.M. Russell, Legacy (1999) by Larry Len Peterson

Another lasting tribute to the friendship between the Mackays and Russells is Malcolm Mackay’s 1925 243-page Cow Range and the Hunting Trail. Illustrated with three Russell pieces, it is an account of his adventures in Montana and the West. The images were reproduced as one black-and-white halftone: Quick Shooting Saves Our Lives, the frontispiece; and two line engravings: The Odds Looked About Even and Like a Flash They Turned. With Russell in poor health and his fine art commanding tens of thousands of dollars, Nancy Russell allowed illustration work only to her most favored clients and friends, which included Malcolm.

Cow Range and Hunting Trail (1925) by Malcolm S. Mackay, dust jacket

Cow Range and Hunting Trail (1925) by Malcolm S. Mackay, dust jacket, courtesy of Steve A. Eckhart, in C.M. Russell, Legacy (1999) by Larry Len Peterson

The journey continues as the Mackay Collection will be housed in the Charles M. Russell Gallery when the Montana Heritage Center—the new world class home of the MHS—opens in 2024. In 1865 when the MHS was founded by a group of visionaries in Virginia City, not much Anglo history had unfolded, but they understood that history is more about the future than the past. Indeed, history is bread for the journey. All Montanans should be proud of the fact that the MHS is the longest continuously running historical society in the West. And under the strong leadership of director Molly Kruckenberg, we will have a grand showcase to tell the stories of Montana for future generations.

Sadly, at the end of December 2021, Kirby will be retiring, leaving behind a legacy of scholarship unsurpassed in the history of the Montana Historical Society. He will be greatly missed, but never forgotten. The first time I set my eyes on the completed Montana Heritage Center, the first one to come to mind will be my Texas friend. Montana, the Montana Historical Society, and Kirby—the last of the big time splendors—just get more splendid with age.


Montana’s Last Best Chance

The Malcolm S. Mackay Collection of Charles M. Russell Art

Kirby Lambert
Russell’s West: The C.M. Russell Museum Magazine, Volume 5, No. 2

In June of 1915 Nancy Russell wrote Wall Street financier Malcolm S. Mackay regarding his purchase of Russell’s recently completed oil painting, When Horses Talk War There’s Small Chance for Peace. In her letter she asked Mackay, “Do you know that you have as good a collection of pictures, or if anything, better, than we have? And a lot finer than any other person.” Since 1952, this outstanding gathering of Charlie’s “pictures” – forty-three oils, watercolors, bronzes, and pen and ink sketches – has formed the nucleus of the Montana Historical Society’s world-class Russell collection.

Although Nancy addressed her letter to Mackay’s New York office, his ties to both Montana and the Russells were strong. Like the Cowboy Artist himself, Mackay had left his eastern home as a youth, succumbing to the lure of the West where he affixed his affections permanently on the majestic mountains and rugged cowboy life of Montana’s big sky country.

Malcolm Mackay was born on September 5, 1881 in Englewood, New Jersey. His father, Donald Mackay, was a member of the New York Stock Exchange and founder of the firm, Mackay and Company. An avid outdoorsman, Malcolm made his first journey west at the age of sixteen, traveling by train with a group of his father’s friends on a duck-hunting expedition to Nebraska. Such was Malcolm’s love for the sport, and for the country, that this first trip was rapidly followed by others. He heard that the Red Lodge area offered excellent big game hunting, so he headed to Montana where he discovered that the Treasure State had more to offer than just big game.

When Mackay arrived in Red Lodge in 1901 he carried with him a letter of introduction to Charlie Wright, a rancher who ran cattle between the East and West Rosebud Rivers, west of Red Lodge near the small community of Roscoe. Completely taken with the area, Mackay filed on a 160-acre homestead of his own (from these unassuming beginnings the Mackay ranch would eventually encompass 17,000 acres). Mackay and Wright formed the Rosebud Land and Cattle Company, a partnership that lasted until Wright established a purebred Hereford ranch east of Red Lodge a few years later. After Wright’s departure, Mackay stayed on the Rosebud property expanding the ranch and running cattle under the Lazy EL brand. 

In 1907 Mackay married Helen Raynor, Charlie Wright’s niece. Born in 1888 in Pennsylvania, Helen was a frequent visitor to her uncle’s ranch, and for a short period when she was sixteen, she taught school in Roberts, Montana. After their marriage, Malcolm returned to work in the family’s Wall Street firm and the couple established a home in a pastoral setting in Tenafly, New Jersey. Much of Malcolm’s heart, however, remained with his Montana ranch. He continued to expand the cattle operation, managing it through a series of foremen. Although their primary residence was in New Jersey, in the summers the family anxiously returned to their beloved ranch south of Roscoe.

In spite of the time each spent in Montana, Mackay and Russell did not meet in their mutually adopted state. Beginning in 1904 Nancy Russell arranged a series of exhibitions of Russell’s works in New York City; it was there that Malcolm became interested in Russell’s art, and the Mackays and the Russells became good friends. Never a favorite of Charlie’s, the eastern trips were conducted at Nancy’s insistence. Once befriended by the Mackays, the Russells were always welcomed at their twenty-acre Tenafly estate. As Helen Mackay explained, “(our) friendship with Charley and Nancy Russell was a most happy one. They would withdraw from the noise and confusion of New York City to our quiet place in Tenafly, New Jersey, every chance they had when they were back East.” 

Escape to the Mackay home on Knickerbocker Road provided Russell with a much sought after respite from the tribulations of the big city. As one of Russell’s admirers noted: “Most eastern people were foreigners to Charlie and he had little in common with them, even after his fame was established. One outstanding exception to this was the grand gentleman, Malcolm S. Mackay … “ 

For Malcolm’s part, Charlie and his paintings brought Montana home to New Jersey. As Mackay’s son Bill observed in 1974,

[My father’s] love of Montana was deep and abiding. He loved the open spaces, he loved the Big Sky, he loved the friendly people and the free and easy way that Montanans have. …Living in Montana was a particular way of life and it was easy to see why the paintings of Charles M. Russell immediately caught Dad’s fancy. We, his children, can remember the visits of Charley and Nancy to our home in New Jersey; we can remember the delight that both Dad and Charley had in swapping stories of both their experiences in Montana, the land they both loved best; but we cannot remember the time when there were no Russell paintings in our home.  

Although the tales shared by Russell and Mackay delighted everyone within earshot, the two men did not limit their activities to storytelling. One of Bill’s favorite memories involved more physical antics:

There was two Jersey milk cows out there (in our pasture) and they (Dad and Charlie) would take down their ropes and start roping those cows, chasing them from one end of the pasture to the other. Whooping and hollering and just agoing to beat hell and chasing those horses and going after those milk cows. and the gardener, who had to milk those cows, he’d be standing in the barn door just a real sour look on his face. 

Mackay was a discriminating collector who did not let his admiration for Charlie cloud his artistic judgement. (In return, Nancy did not let their friendship stand in the way of obtaining the prices that she wanted for Russell’s paintings.) The result was an assemblage of artworks of exceptional quality. Mackay, who limited his collecting to the work of Russell, purchased his first painting by the Cowboy Artist in 1908. Unfortunately, this painting, Jerked Down, was later damaged. Upon the advice of Charlie who promised to replace it with a “better version,” Mackay sold Jerked Down as part of the insurance settlement. Charlie died before fulfilling his promise, and Malcolm’s favorite painting eventually ended up in the collection of Philip Cole.

In 1921 the Mackays converted a large room in their home into a “Russell Room” to showcase their growing collection of Charlie’s art. They lined the walls with logs and decorated the room with Indian artifacts, buffalo skulls, and big game mounts. When the Russells next visited New York, the Mackays held a special dedication ceremony for the new room. Years later, the warm memory still strong, Helen described the ceremony:

That first evening in the new Russell Room we sat around the fireplace, which as yet had had no fire, to dedicate it. The squaw of the Medicine Man (Nancy) sat far left, then the Medicine Man (Charley), then two Braves (family friends), then the owner of the teepee (Malcolm), and finally his squaw (Helen) next to the fireplace on the right. With great ceremony the squaw of the owner of the teepee made afire and lighted it. Then the Medicine Man talked to us for over two hours in Indian sign language, with his squaw interpreting. I can never forget the pleasure and the magic of that evening. We were completely transported into the past. Later Charley and my husband heated branding irons and burned as many brands as they could remember all over the logs.

The friendship between the two families continued long after Russell’s death in 1926. Malcolm provided encouragement and support to Nancy in her ongoing efforts to promote Russell’s work, while continuing to build his own collection of Russell art. He encouraged Nancy to produce a biography of Russell, a task she unfortunately never completed. As Nancy explained in a letter written to Helen six years after Malcolm’s death: “I have started a story of Charlie. . . . I am trying to do what Mr. Mackay wanted me to do – write the story. He said I had to do it… and when l would think I couldn’t write the story and do the thing right, I would think of Mr. Mackay and the way he said ‘you have just got to do it – it is your job … .’ ” On an earlier occasion Malcolm had helped Nancy with another publishing project. Helen described the episode:

On Nancy’s first visit to us in New Jersey after Charlie’s death she was very much pre-occupied with the work she was doing in collecting from Charley’s friends some of the many illustrated letters he had written them during the years. She wanted to publish copies of these letters in color and she had not found a suitable title. I can see her and my husband, sitting on the davenport before the fire – a few sentences of conversation and then silence for a long time – each of them seeking a name for this book which has meant so much to many of Charley’s friends and admirers. Finally my husband said, “Nancy, why don’t you call it ‘Good Medicine’? Charlie used that expression so often.”

Nancy continued to visit the Mackays not only in New Jersey, but also at their summer home on the Lazy EL Ranch (a visit that Charlie himself never made). After Malcolm’s death in 1932 Nancy and Helen remained close. In 1938, while recovering from a lengthy illness, Nancy wrote her friend: “These past months I have lived pretty much in memory and one of the bright spots is the home ranch on Knickerbocker Road with its charming hostess. . . .I hope we will meet again in the not too distant future. I would like to rub off some of your philosophy of life.”

In the early 1940s, Helen was making plans to sell the Tenafly home and move to smaller quarters in nearby Englewood, New Jersey. Since the move would obviously include the contents of the Russell Room, which had been maintained just as Malcolm left it, Helen was faced with the question of how to best deal with this important collection. Although Malcolm had always been eager to show the room to his friends and acquaintances, since his death Helen had felt that the Russells belonged where more people could see them, preferably some place in Montana.

In 1940, after a devastating fire destroyed its old building, the Northern Hotel in Billings, Montana, was planning for the construction of a new ten-story, “completely modern and fireproof” facility. Helen conferred with her children and the family agreed that this new hotel might be an appropriate site to display Malcolm’s prized collection. Bill had been living on and overseeing the operation of the Lazy EL Ranch since 1935, and Billings was close enough to Roscoe for him to keep an eye on the collection. In November 1940, Bud Mackay, Helen’s eldest son, wrote to Mr. G.E. McKay, manager of the Northern Hotel, offering to loan the collection. Bud wrote:

As you may already know, this collection of paintings is one of the three best collections of Russell’s work in the world, and we regret that so few people have been able to enjoy seeing them at their present location, and felt that they should be made available to those people who have known Charlie Russell, as certainly the people of Montana did. We therefore thought that in view of the fact that you are in the process of constructing a new, modern and fireproof hotel, you might be willing to make some appropriate place for this collection.

Recognizing the incredible benefits offered to the hotel and to the city of Billings by such a generous proposal, G.E. McKay readily agreed, and he and the Mackay family began negotiating the details of the loan. In the fall of 1941 the Northern’s new manager, L.W. Carter, and his wife traveled to New Jersey to view the collection. On the way home they stopped in Chicago to order furnishings and equipment for the hotel. While there, Carter also arranged with the interior decorating department of Marshall Fields and Company to handle the design and installation of the Mackay Collection in its new home.

In July 1942 the new Northern Hotel had its grand opening and the Billings Gazette devoted a special feature section to this gala event. The newspaper reported: “In speaking of the various features to be presented by the Northern Hotel, manager Lester W. Carter declares: ‘I believe I take as much pleasure in announcing the Charles Russell paintings which are to be exhibited in the Northern as I do anything else about the hotel.’ “ 

At the time of the opening the hotel exhibited eleven oil paintings, six watercolors, seventeen pen and ink sketches, seven bronzes, one illustrated letter, seven Christmas cards, and six “personal photos and snapshots.” Plans were under way to add the Indian artifacts that had adorned Malcolm’s “Russell Room” as soon as appropriate cases could be built. Helen retained only her favorite oil painting, Free Trappers, and seven small bronzes for display in her new home. The collection was exhibited in a specially constructed foyer at the entrance to the large second-floor ballroom, and the public was welcomed to view the works at any time. In writing to Helen, Carter summed up his appreciation for the Mackays’ generosity by concluding that the Russell artworks “certainly are… without question of doubt the finest inducement for tourists to stop of anything that has ever come to Billings.” The collection would remain at the Northern Hotel for the next ten years.

The year 1952 proved to be a watershed in the preservation of Russell’s legacy in Montana. The Historical Society was constructing a new home across the street from the State Capitol. Plans called for a “Russell Room” in the new building, although the Society’s collection contained only a fraction of the artwork necessary to fill such a space. The Trigg Foundation mounted a successful campaign to raise funds to build a new Russell Museum in Great Falls. And most significantly, a four-year effort on the part of the Charles Russell Memorial Committee came to a dismal conclusion as the group acknowledged defeat in its effort to raise enough money to buy Sid Willis’ famous Mint Collection and keep it in Montana. Since 1948, the group had raised only $13,000 of the $125,000 asking price. The Mint Collection left Montana for New York’s Knoedler Gallery where it was soon purchased by Amon G. Carter, of Fort Worth, Texas. As noted by author Dale Burk, “Nothing could have done as much in one moment to elevate Montanans’ consciousness toward art and its significance… Amon Carter… kindled fires in Montana that fanned into flames overnight…. “ 

In spite of the huge success of the showing of Malcolm Mackay’s collection at the Northern Hotel, the family knew that it was not the best permanent home for the paintings. As a hotel, it could neither provide the proper environmental controls and extensive security necessary for such an increasingly valuable collection, nor was public visitation as extensive as it might be in other locations. Consequently, the Mackay family decided to make the collection available to the Montana Historical Society for inclusion in its new Russell Room. In January 1952 Bill Mackay wrote his mother: “You said something to me about the possible offer of the Russell collection to the State. If you decide that such a move is agreeable I think perhaps we should make the offer official… The Mint Collection at Great Falls has been lost as far as the State is concerned and Ross Toole (director) of the Historical Society told me the other day that the only chance for a fine collection to be owned by the state is your collection.”

Helen did find the idea agreeable, and in concurrence with the rest of the family, offered the collection to the Hisrorical Society. However, the Mackays did not want to simply loan their Russells, nor did they believe that it was in the best interest of the collection to make it an outright gift. Rather, they felt – and justifiably so in the wake of the lost Mint Collection – that the State should have to prove that it was seriously committed to such an undertaking by purchasing Malcolm’s outstanding assemblage of Russell art. Helen insisted that the costs “should be small enough to make it worth while for the State,” and a purchase price of $50,000 was set.  This amount represented only a fraction of the actual value of the collection.

In May, K. Ross Toole initiated a promotional blitz and announced that the Society had until November to raise the $50,000. He enlisted the support of the American Legion, the Montana Bankers Association, and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. Toole established a speakers bureau and bombarded the press and the airwaves with pleas for support. The tone of the campaign was unabashedly one of reprimand. Distraught over the indifference most Montanans had shown towards the Mint campaign, Toole promoted the Mackay Collection as the last chance the state would ever have to own a significant body of Russell’s work. He admonished: “We simply cannot afford to lose this collection. We could never explain its loss to our children. We could never rationalize our apathy and selfishness.” In a brochure published by the Historical Society, he elaborated:

If Montana has contributed one thing to the heritage of the whole west, it is Charles M. Russell’s paintings. No man ever translated this country in which we live into terms more immediately appealing or understandable to the Montanan of today than Russell. No man ever will. This is our last chance. We produced Russell. It was Montana that inspired him; it was Montana that he painted. Our apathy has lost us most of his work. Are we awake enough to save this last and finest collection? 

Toole also stressed the soundness of the purchase as an economic investment: “Various values have been placed on this collection, but a conservative estimate would place its value at about $300,000… A recent issue of the New York Times quoted a standard Russell oil as being worth … $25,000. And the price is going up steadily.”  In addition, as further incentive for a successful campaign, other collectors – most notably Colonel Wallace Huidekoper of Big Timber, and the Montana Stockgrowers Association – announced that they would donate or loan their Russell artworks to the Society only if the state was successful in obtaining the Mackay Collection.

Large donations to the campaign came in from the Anaconda Company, the Montana Power Company, and the Conrad Kohrs Company. Toole was also able to secure the unused $13,000 raised by the Russell Memorial Committee in its efforts to purchase the Mint Collection. Just as important, however, was the enthusiastic support generated by average Montanans. Donations ranging from 50 cents to $50.00 came in from private individuals all over the state. School children, the Jesuit brothers at St. Ignatius, and the Helena Duplicate Bridge Club took up collections for the cause. The Virginia City Players held a special benefit performance and calves were sold at benefit auctions from Winnett to Billings. Governor John Bonner declared the month of May to be “Charles M. Russell Month, with the specific purpose of urging all citizens of Montana to respond generously” to the Mackay campaign.

When the Mackays placed their collection at the Northern Hotel in 1942 they began to receive requests to sell specific pieces or the entire collection. These inquiries were always politely refused. Once the Society’s efforts to purchase the collection became known, however, new offers – to either outbid the State or to step in if the State’s attempts were unsuccessful – poured in. By June, Bill Mackay was forced to issue a press release: “The state of Montana, and only the state of Montana, has the opportunity to purchase my father’s collection of Charles M. Russell artwork. . . It is my mother’s wish that this collection belong to the state of Montana. No other offers are being entertained…” 

By early fall it was obvious that the Society’s efforts would succeed. Montana’s citizens did respond generously as Governor Bonner implored, and by November the Society had collected not only the purchase price but an additional $9,000 to be used for the care of the artwork and for future acquisitions. When Malcolm’s treasured collection arrived in Helena in early December, Helen wrote her son Bill: “I must say I am very happy about this for (I) feel the pictures are just where they should be and that it would be a satisfaction to Dad. Certainly everything has gone through so pleasantly, I feel they go with a blessing.” 

In 1974, in recognition of their original benevolence and ongoing support, the Historical Society renamed its Russell Room The Mackay Gallery of Russell Art. Today, thanks to the Mackay family, subsequent donors and lenders, and the foresight of an earlier generation of Montanans, visitors to the Historical Society’s Mackay Gallery can still enjoy Russell’s vision of the West that once was. The words of a gallery catalog produced for the Society’s new Russell Room in 1953 still hold true: “Montana is terribly proud of her adopted son, ‘Charlie’ Russell. No one has ever painted her portrait so vigorously or so well. No one – in word, picture, or by any other device – has yet captured the pioneer flavor of her formative years more vividly. . . We hope that the paintings in this gallery will constantly increase … so that the world may share Montana’s pride and appreciation for The Cowboy Artist.”

Kirby Lambert is the Curator of Collections for the Montana Historical Society Museum. He has been with the Society for 12 years, serving as curator since 1989. Lambert holds a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Museum Science, both from Texas Tech University. He has curated a number of exhibits interpreting such diverse topics as the history of medicine in Montana, the art of Blackfeet sculptor John L. Clarke, and the impact of horses on the state’s material culture.

Cover of Russell's West, vol 5, iss 2

Read the original text with images and footnotes by clicking the image above.