With gusts of snow that bring Arctic isolation to mind swirling outside my window, I feel the compelling need to return to the top of the world again today. This time, however, with a happier and far more life-affirming story. Here is the tale of a woman who went to sea for fun, fell in love with the Arctic, and made it her life’s work to study a place that most people to this day shudder to think of.
Louise Arner Boyd was definitely unusual in her own time. In ours, when heiresses seem bent on contributing nothing more than pictures of their underwear (or lack there of) to E! Online, she would be an absolute white elephant. Her story is one of tragedy, determination, and triumph of will, but it is also one that illustrates how thoroughly an individual can add value to the world in their lifetime. The shameful part of Miss Boyd’s story is that she is all but forgotten by the average American.
Born in 1887 to the gold rush millionaire John Franklin Boyd, Louise was her parents’ third child and their only girl. She grew up on the family estate in San Rafael, California, now part of beautiful (and exclusive) Marin County. Her brothers, John Jr. and Seth, were her constant companions and not surprisingly she took on the role of tom-boy, riding horses and playing baseball with the guys. It seemed that Louise would grow up happy, marry another nouveau riche California gold heir and host fundraisers and balls. For Louise, life was not at all what it seemed.
In 1901 both of her brothers died. The cause of their deaths was heart failure due to rheumatic fever. The family was devastated and local rumors said that neither of Louise’s parents ever recovered from the shocking loss. In 1920, with Louise still unmarried, her parents passed away within a few weeks of one another. Louise, buffeted by tragedy and now supremely alone in the world, inherited her family’s vast millions.
At first she did most of what was probably expected of her – hosting charity events and dinners – but in 1924 she took it in her head to travel. She headed to Norway and booked a luxury cruise that included the coast of Greenland. While taking in the icy landscape with its unique wildlife, dazzling fjords and blue glaciers, Louise became enchanted. As she would later write:
Far north, hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice are lands that hold one spellbound.
Where others saw nothing but grim desolation, Louise saw beauty she had never imagined.
In 1926, after a year in Europe that included her presentation to the King and Queen of England, she chartered Hobby, a supply ship that had previously travelled to the far north. Louise planned to see Greenland up close, hunt, take photographs and poke around for flora and fauna to collect and bring home. Though not a college graduate, Louise was a quick study and soon became a crack shot, capable amateur naturalist and compelling photographer. Her success aboard the ship she had chartered, crewed and provisioned with her own money brought the attention of the worldwide press. By 1927 pictures of Louise in parkas and with massive polar bears that she herself had brought down were being run with captions like “Arctic Diana” and “The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic”
Now 40 years old, Louise was hardly a girl and her accomplishments were only just beginning. She funded more cruises to Greenland including a search for the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen had been lost trying to rescue his Italian counterpart Umberto Nobile but was unfortunately never found. Louise’s heroic efforts, however, were recognized by the government of Norway; they awarded her the prestigious Cross of the Order of Saint Olaf. She was the third woman and the first American to be so recognized.
In 1931, Louise collected scientists to join her in her exploration of Greenland. She would mount expeditions again in ’33,’37 and ’38, funding them with her own money. Any of the professionals who accompanied her, however, needed to understand who was in charge. No scientist, no matter how capable, would be asked back if they underestimated this woman who not only paid for everything but joined them in their efforts. She hiked every terrain, carried her own photographic equipment, collected samples, shot game and stayed awake on deck during storms to ensure the safety of her ship and its crew. As Elizabeth Old notes in her biography Women of the Four Winds:
[Louise] became a true leader, a presiding patron of scientifically trained personnel, a sponsor of science.
Louise continued her trips to the Arctic, even after nearly being trapped in pack ice in the ship Veslekari in September of 1933, and published a book entitled The Fiord Region of East Greenland in 1937. By that time she had the sponsorship of the American Geographic Society. She detoured to Poland just before World War II and documented that country’s agrarian society before it was crushed under the Nazi boot in a book of photographs, Polish Countryside.
When the Nazis conquered Holland and by default Greenland in 1940, Louise’s intimate knowledge of the vast island’s coastland became a strategic asset to the U.S. military. Louise was recruited by the National Bureau of Standards and funded an expedition for them in 1941 aboard the ship Morrissey, again paying for the venture herself. This trip to her beloved Greenland secretly involved gathering information on magnetic phenomena effecting radio waves in the Arctic. She would be commended by the U.S. Army for her work when the war ended. Her third book, The Coast of Northeast Greenland, which had been held back for security reasons, was finally published in 1948.
By 1950 Louise was in her sixties and travelling to the Arctic was no longer a realistic pursuit. She returned to San Rafael and did some of those things one might have expected a belle epoch heiress to do. She did charity work, hosted fundraisers and joined the executive committee of the San Francisco Symphony. She received an honorary law degree from the Cal Berkley and a Bachelor of Science from Mills College. In 1960, she became the second woman to receive the Cullum Medal from the American Geographic Society and she was also elected to their board.
Though how, exactly, Louise managed to lose her fortune remains a mystery, lose it she did some time after 1960. Most researchers put her late-in-life poverty down to bad investments which, as Old points out in her book, seems odd given Louise’s prior capacity as a savvy money manager. Regardless, Louise Arner Boyd, the “Arctic Diana” who trudged through hip-deep snow but never travelled anywhere without a lady’s maid and a flower pinned to her parka, died in 1972 in a San Francisco nursing home. She had long since sold all of her inheritance, including the San Rafael estate, and her rent was paid by caring friends. She was cremated and though she had asked that her ashes be scattered over her beloved Greenland the cost of such a last reward was prohibitive. Instead, her remains were released to the wind over Alaska where, as Old points out, “…at least there is ice.”
I personally understand Louise’s love of the cold North where, within a matter of minutes, nature can change from hostile to glorious. As I look out my window now the blizzard is gone, the sun dazzles off the new snow and I imagine Louise is happy here, too.
Header: Louise Arner Boyd