Introduction from Dr. Larry Len Peterson
Kentucky born Nancy Cooper Russell (1878-1940), five feet and seven inches tall of magnificent womanhood, possessed beautiful eyes that could sparkle at a joke or become tender at a recollection. She was a survivor and very ambitious. Abandoned as a youth, her troubled childhood made her as tough as steel when most would have given up on life well before adulthood. Charlie was smitten with her from the first time he set eyes on her at the Ben Roberts’s home in Cascade, Montana. Nancy and Charlie were married there on September 9, 1896. She wore a blue wedding dress and recalled that Charlie had only fifteen dollars to his name, ten dollars of which he gave to the preacher. The team that would make Charlie Russell a legend had just been formed. The newlyweds moved into Charlie’s studio in Cascade, a modest twelve-by-twenty-four foot room with a lean-to kitchen at the back. From then on Nancy handled the business end of selling his art, and she was brilliant at it. No one had a greater impact on the Russell story than her. She was the bread for Charlie’s journey.
Even so, there were other women who played oversized roles in creating the legend of Charlie Russell. For example, some of the credit for his attraction to living and working in the West should be given to a family lineage rich in real life Western adventure. Lucy Bent—who married James Russell and was the grandmother of Charles Marion Russell—was the sister of famed frontiersmen George, Robert, Charles, and William Bent. Years later, Nancy Russell recalled Charlie telling her that as a child he used to stand in front of a portrait of William Bent at Oak Hill, imagining him in buckskin and “Conquering the West.” His mother Mary encouraged his artistic passions.
After moving to Great Falls in 1897, none of the Russells’ friends meant more to them than the Triggs. Albert Trigg who Charlie first met in 1891 was an Englishman with a demeanor befitting royalty. He had settled in Great Falls with his wife, Margaret, and daughter, Josephine, after spending time in Canada and Michigan. He ran the Brunswick Bar and eventually lived next door to the Russells. While Nancy had no time for Charlie’s other bar friends, the Triggs were always welcome guests at their home. Charlie wrote the Triggs more than anyone else when he was traveling, often lamenting his time away from the home crowd and vilifying life in the big city. Josephine would be the Russells’ life-long friend.
While Nancy championed Charlie’s art throughout their marriage, that didn’t end after his death in 1926. Through the remaining paintings, writings, and bronzes—that she could order on demand—she continued as if Charlie was still alive. Above all, she was a promoter and tough businesswoman who looked to the future with confident determination. Still relatively young, Nancy was now on her own, but she was a woman with clear goals in mind, and for the rest of her life she was determined that Charlie and his art would not be forgotten.
With declining health, in 1938 Nancy directed her energies toward placing her collection in a major institution as a legacy to Charlie. Nancy wrote Josephine Trigg about the possibility of combining their collections: “But I know there is a place in these United States where they would be loved and appreciated. When I make that contact, and it’s going to work out agreeable, I am going to turn my collection over now.” That plan never came to fruition. Instead, the C.M. Russell Museum was made possible after Josephine Trigg died in 1953 and left the Trigg collection of 175 paintings, models, sketches, illustrated letters, and other works of art to the people of Great Falls. By 1953, the C.M. Russell “Gallery” had opened.
The leading authority on Russell of his generation was Great Falls native Fred G. Renner. His wife Ginger K. Renner carried on the torch after he died, until her death in 2011. One of Ginger’s most important contributions to Russell scholarship was her essay in the autumn 1984 Montana: The Magazine of Western History titled “Charlie Russell and the Ladies in His Life.” She pointed out that Russell had created “over 300 oils, watercolors, drawings, and models” in which women were the “primary subjects.” Renner’s revelations inspired the 2018 landmark publication by the C.M. Russell Museum titled Charles M. Russell: The Women in His Life and Art, edited by Joan Carpenter Troccoli with stellar contributions by Joan, Emily Crawford Wilson, Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney, and Thomas A. Petrie. There was an accompanying exhibition at the Russell Museum, which also traveled to the Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West in Scottsdale, Arizona. But who inspired Ginger? It was Joan Stauffer. Ginger and Joan were close friends, and certainly Joan influenced Ginger’s interest in the women in Charlie’s life and art.
By the time this article was penned in 1994, Joan Stauffer (1930-2015) had been performing her one-woman stage presentation of the life and times of Nancy Cooper Russell over a hundred times for more than a dozen years throughout the country. In 1990 she published Behind Every Man: The Story of Nancy Cooper and dedicated it to her husband Dale, “the world’s greatest researcher,” to Fred and Ginger Renner, and to the Russells’ son, Jack Cooper Russell, who said on his first meeting with Stauffer, “My mother deserves a book.”
Joan was born in Oklahoma City and was the daughter of longtime Oklahoma Congressman Jed Johnson, Sr. Before graduating from the University of Oklahoma, she attended Oxford University in England. Soon after graduating she married Dale Stauffer. In time she served as chairman of the board of directors of the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1992 Dale and Joan were honorary Chairmen of the C.M. Russell Auction in Great Falls. Her last performance as Nancy Russell was in 2010 at the Gilcrease. She died in Great Falls. Historic interpreter Mary Jane Bradbury continues Joan’s legacy with her captivating period impersonation of Nancy, performed throughout the West.
In 2007 the University of Oklahoma Press reprinted Stauffer’s book in paperback. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, William H. Goetzmann wrote, “This splendid biography of Nancy Cooper Russell tells the story of Charlie Russell the way it should be told. This is an inspiring tribute to the nobility of two human spirits.” Ginger K. Renner added, “Joan Stauffer has brought Nancy Russell to life on stages across the country. Now, she captures in her book the multifaceted talents and complex personality of a fascinating woman who was ‘liberated’ long before that term became a buzzword.”
There are a lot of good women in Charlie’s story who have not been given the credit that they deserve. By bringing Nancy Russell to life, Joan Stauffer joined that list. The good news—more are on the way.
Portrait of Nancy Russell
Russell’s West, Vol 2, No 1
In March of 1981, dressed in a costume that exactly duplicates the 1912 William Krieghoff portrait of Nancy Russell, I began performing a monologue depicting Nancy’s life from the time she met Charlie Russell until his death. After each performance, people would ask, “What happened to her after Charlie died?” My curiosity became aroused. Thus began the process of combining my coast to coast performances with research and writing. My husband Dale joined me in this new endeavor. We visited courthouses in Kentucky, Montana and California, have read hundreds of letters in historical societies and museum archives, and I believe we have interviewed everyone alive who actually knew Nancy.
We went to primary resource material and unearthed previously unknown details about Nancy. That original information is included in my book, Behind Every Man, which is the culmination of those years of research. The manuscript has the same format as my monologue: it is in the first person, as if I were indeed Nancy Russell telling her own story.
It is a fascinating story of a girl, raised on a “dirt poor” tobacco farm in Kentucky, who worked in the fields almost from the time she was old enough to walk. She was left with her grandfather when her mother remarried. After his death and her reunion with her mother, Nancy’s stepfather uprooted the family and took them to Montana in search of gold. After the panic of ‘93, the stepfather left Nancy, her mother and half-sister in Helena while he chased rainbows. When her mother became ill, the burden of caring for the family fell upon the fifteen-year-old Nancy. Her mother’s death brought her stepfather back to Helena to claim Nancy’s half-sister. At sixteen, Nancy was left alone to fend for herself. Her courage and indomitable spirit were evident from an early age – she found herself a job as a hired girl at the Roberts’ home in Cascade. There she met Charlie.
Nancy was by then seventeen and Charlie was thirty-one. She was beautiful and he already had a reputation as an artist. From the beginning she absolutely believed in him; he in turn made her feel special. A year later they married and thus began a thirty-year partnership and a journey on the road to worldwide recognition and success.
Nancy, with little education, put together every one of Charlie’s contracts, was his agent, his PR man and his manager. No one is ever known to have gotten the better of her in an era when women didn’t compete in that arena. They were supposed to stay home and give teas if they were to be accepted in Great Falls society. But Nancy Russell was driven by ambition. She had one goal in life and that was to make Charlie famous. Everything she did was from that one perspective.
Nancy’s story is of the metamorphosis of a naive girl who sold her husband’s paintings for a few dollars, to a mature, calculating, and manipulative woman. In 1926, she sold a two-panel frieze by Charlie to oil baron Ed Doheny for $30 ,000. It is the story of the Russells’ first big break in 1906 when Charlie was given a one-man show in a Brooklyn church, followed by shows in Chicago, Washington, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Calgary, and London.
Nancy and Charlie were the toast of 57th Street, entertained by royalty in England and France, rubbed elbows with the movie stars in Hollywood. They adopted a son. They had a beautiful lodge on Lake McDonald. It seemed the perfect story. Everything that she worked for was coming true. She and Charlie were planning a big home in Pasadena when he became ill.
After Charlie’s death in October 1926, Nancy was even more obsessed with keeping his name before the public. In 1929, she published Good Medicine, a book of his illustrated letters so that he would be recognized as a philosopher as well as an artist. Nancy built their home in Pasadena as a gallery from which to sell his work, and redoubled her efforts to put together exhibits in his memory. She traveled from one end of the country to another to meet with his patrons. If Nancy was driven to make Charlie famous before his death, she was relentless afterwards to keep his memory alive.
I think she truly loved their adopted son, Jack, and thought she was the perfect mother for giving him everything that money could buy. What she didn’t have was time to spend with him. Her number one priority was always what was best for Charlie’s career and reputation. She even turned down two marriage proposals after Charlie’s death, one from a famous movie star. Nancy had to remain Mrs. Charles Marion Russell. The last three years of her life she was incapacitated by a stroke and was bedridden. Even from her bed she carried on her life’s work to increase Charlie Russell’s prestige, reputation, and fame.
Her dreams came true. Just look at what a Russell painting sells for today.
Joan Stauffer resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her husband, Dale. She is a lifetime Director Emeritus and former chairman of the Board of Directors of the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art. Joan is the author of Behind Every Man – The Story of Nancy Cooper Russell. Her book, the result of a decade of research, provides insights into Nancy Russell, a complex and fascinating woman, and is grounded both in literal fact and facts of the heart as seen through the author’s imagination.