Unsung: Barbara Follett, Vanishing Wonder

Jul 11, 2019

Barbara Follett became an overnight success when she wrote The House Without Windows in 1927, with one review calling it “almost unbearably beautiful.” Barbara was a star... at just 12 years old.  


Barbara Follett was Stefan Cooke's mother’s half-sister. Stefan says he hadn’t heard much about Barbara as a child. When he started a genealogy project a few years ago, the plan was to research the whole family. But it was Barbara’s story that really grabbed him. And then found her papers archived at Columbia University.

"And then reading them. Re-reading them. Absorbing them. That’s how it changed my life. Just, I’d never been invested in any one life. Any other life," says Stefan.

Barbara was born in Hanover, New Hampshire. She was homeschooled, and given the freedom to pursue anything she wanted. First, a bestselling novel by 12. Next at 13, the high seas.

"And [she] basically bullied her parents into allowing her to sail on this ship up to Nova Scotia. A two-week cruise," says Stefan.

Barbara’s second book, The Voyage of the Norman D., was published shortly after Barbara turned 14. It was a memoir of her time at sea, and immediately successful. But life soon began to hit back. Not long after the second book was published, Barbara’s father left for a woman half his age.

Barbara's now 15. She's never been to school.  Mother and daughter are not really sure what to do next.


They sailed to the Caribbean and the South Seas, and then settled in California. Once on the West Coast, Barbara’s mother tried enrolling her in school. It was too late for that. Barbara was an entrenched adventurer. 

"We don’t know how many days this experiment lasted. Very few, I’m sure, because she quickly ran away to San Francisco leaving a note to say, I’m not going to tell you where I’m going but one day we’ll meet up again," explains Stefan. 

Police found Barbara holed up in a boarding house -- remember, she’s still just 15. She tried to flee out a window. Eventually, mother and daughter moved to New York. Barbara started a new book, this one about a young woman who wanted to escape the city.

Life imitating art, Barbara soon fled New York for the Appalachian Trail with a Dartmouth grad, Nickerson Rogers, who she’d met the summer before. They fell in love. By the time she was 21, they were married. But the adventure didn’t last long.

"Nick writes her a letter saying, Barbara, I want to get a divorce. And Barbara is just flabbergasted, she has no idea why Nickerson wants to divorce her," says Stefan.

Barbara set her mind to fixing the marriage, despite finding out Nick was having an affair. But the writing was on the wall, apparently, for Barbara.

On December 7th, 1939, Barbara slipped out of the apartment she shared with her husband in Brookline, Massachusetts. The family waited to hear from her. Weeks, months, years. 

Eventually,  Barbara’s papers went to Columbia. Her books went out of print.

An article published this year speculates about remains discovered in 1948, in Holderness, New Hampshire: bones, pieces of an overcoat, a pocketbook, cash, horn-rimmed glasses. Barbara loved New Hampshire. The mountains, the escape. Police declared the remains to be those of another disappeared woman, Elsie Whittemore. But Elsie didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses. Barbara did. It’s in the police report that Nickerson filed two weeks after her disappearance. 

Barbara Follett lived a life of evasion, leaving few clues in her wake. Her legacy is in her books, her letters, her adventures. Wherever she might have gone -- to the Carribean seas or the mountains of New Hampshire -- Barbara Follett has gone down in history on her own terms.