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She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the third child of the coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and Adelaide Howard Childs (1859–1931). She grew up at the family's Pittsburgh estate, Clayton, although the family later moved to New York City in 1905. She attended the Spence School there.
Her early life was deeply shaped by her father's wealth and reputation as a ruthless industrialist and union strikebreaker, and especially by the attempt on his life by Alexander Berkman. Her mother suffered from debilitating depression. Her father famously played favorites with his two surviving children, Childs Frick (1883–1965) and Helen. After the reading of their father's will, which favored Helen, the two siblings were estranged the rest of their lives.
Nonetheless, young Helen developed as a strong, independent and famously feisty young woman. She chose never to marry and, upon her father's death in 1919 when she was 31, she inherited $38 million, becoming the richest single woman in the U.S. She devoted her adult life to defending her father's public image from attack and continuing his tradition of philanthropy.
Helen Frick shared her father’s passion for the visual arts; she was a lifelong collector. She established the University of Pittsburgh Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Department in 1928, two art history libraries, and purchased many major art works for her private collection—the Frick Collection in New York—as well as for the University of Pittsburgh teaching collection and the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh. In 1965 she created the Frick Fine Arts Building to house the fine arts at Pitt, but a dispute eventually severed the relationship.
Yet Frick's philanthropy went beyond the arts. Her contributions included a vacation home for young female textile workers; two wildlife preserves; a public wilderness park, Frick Park; Clayton, a Victorian-era house museum; and West Overton, a pre-American Civil War historic Mennonite village. Interestingly, in the 1920s she donated 14 acres (57,000 m2) of land called "Frick Acres" in the Oakland district to the University of Pittsburgh so that Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman could build there his landmark skyscraper, the Cathedral of Learning.
She died at her Clayton home in Pittsburgh at age 96 in 1984. She is interred alongside her parents in the Frick family plot at Homewood Cemetery.
- Alberts, Robert C. (1987). Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787–1987. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-1150-7 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Sanger, Martha Frick Symington (1998). Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Abbeville Press. ISBN 0-7892-0500-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Sanger, Martha Frick Symington (2007). Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-4341-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].