Montana’s
Last
Best
Chance

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

by Kirby Lambert


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 54 Number 1(Spring 2004), 56-63; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2004

When Horses Talk War There’s Slim Chance for Truce (1915, oil on canvas, 24" x 36", previously known as When Horses Talk War There’s Small Chance for Peace)

When Horses Talk War There’s Slim Chance for Truce (1915, oil on canvas, 24" x 36", previously known as When Horses Talk War There’s Small Chance for Peace). When Charles M. Russell’s wife Nancy wrote Malcolm S. Mackay in 1915 about his interest in purchasing Russell’s When Horses Talk War, she asked, “Do you know that you have as good a collection of pictures, or if anything, better, than we have?” In 1952 the Mackays made this outstanding collection available to the people of Montana. (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena)

In June 1915 Nancy Russell wrote Wall Street financier Malcolm S. Mackay regarding his purchase of her husband’s recently completed oil painting, When Horses Talk War There’s Slim Chance for Truce. 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.”1
Since 1952 this outstanding group of Charlie’s “pic-tures”—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 Charlie himself, Mackay had left his eastern home as a youth, succumbing to the lure of the West where he permanently affixed his affections on the majestic mountains and rugged cowboy life of Montana’s big sky country.
Malcolm S. 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 his love for hunting, and for the country, that other trips soon followed, including one to Montana.
Mackay arrived in Red Lodge, Montana, in 1901, carrying with him a letter of introduction to Charlie Wright, a rancher who ran cattle between the East and West Rosebud Rivers, near the small community of Roscoe. Completely taken with the area, Mackay filed on a 160-acre homestead south of Roscoe, and 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 (it would eventually encompass seventeen thousand acres) and running cattle under the Lazy EL brand.
In 1907 Mackay married Helen Raynor, Charlie Wright’s niece. Born in 1888 in Pennsylvania, Helen frequently visited her uncle’s ranch and, for a short period when she was sixteen, taught school in nearby Roberts. After their marriage, the Mackays returned to the East where Malcolm worked in his family’s Wall Street firm, and the couple established a home in Tenafly, New Jersey. Malcolm’s heart, however, remained with his ranch, which he continued to manage through a series of foremen. Every summer the Mackay family excitedly returned to Montana.
Surprisingly, Malcolm Mackay and Charlie Russell first met, and became friends, not in their adopted state, but in New York City, where Nancy Russell arranged a series of exhibitions beginning in 1904. Never a favorite of Charlie’s, the eastern trips were conducted at Nancy’s insistence. Once befriended by the Mackays, however, the Russells, who often stayed at the Mackays’ home on Knickerbocker Road, found the trips much easier. 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 provided Russell with a much-needed respite. As one of his 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.”2
For Malcolm, Charlie and his paintings brought Montana home to New Jersey. As Mackay’s son Bill later observed, “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,” he continued, “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.”3
Although the tales shared by Russell and Mackay delighted listeners, the two men did not limit their activities to storytelling. One of Bill’s favorite memories of the two men’s antics involved a pair of Jersey milk cows that lived in a pasture behind the house. When the Russells visited, Malcolm 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.” As for the gardener who milked the cows, “He’d be standing in the barn door just a real sour look on his face.”4
Personal affection aside, Mackay was a discriminating collector who did not let his admiration for the Russells cloud his artistic judgment. (In return, Nancy did not let their friendship stand in the way of obtaining the prices she wanted.) The result was an assemblage of exceptional artwork. Mackay—who limited his collecting to Russell’s work—purchased his first painting, Jerked Down, in 1911. Unfortunately, this painting was later damaged. On the advice of the artist, who promised to replace it with a “better version,” Mackay sold Jerked By 1921, a decade after Malcolm began buying Russell art, the Mackays’ home collection had grown to the point that they converted a large room in their home into a log-lined Russell room. In the view of the room above, The Roundup occupies the center of the wall, surrounded by Russell pen-and-ink drawings. Framed photographs of Nancy and Charles flank his bronze, A Bronc Twister. (1920)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 Dr. Philip Cole, another New York collector with close ties to Montana.
By 1921 the Mackays’ collection had grown to the point that they converted a large room in their home into a log-lined Russell room decorated with paintings and bronzes, Indian artifacts, buffalo skulls, and big game mounts. When the Russells next visited New York, the Mackays held a special dedication ceremony. Years later 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 [Charlie], 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 a fire 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.5

Throughout Helen’s life, the memory of this intimate evening with the Russells remained strong.
The friendship between the two families endured. After Charlie’s death in 1926, Malcolm encouraged Nancy in her ongoing efforts to promote Russell’s work while continuing to build his own collection of Russell art. He also urged Nancy to produce a biography of Russell, a task she unfortunately never completed. “I have started a story of Charlie,” Nancy explained in a letter to Helen. “I am trying to do what Mr. Mackay wanted me to do—write the story. He said I had to do it . . . and when I 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.’ ”6

What’s in a name?

Although Russell’s works of art are unchanging, the names given to these masterpieces have often been altered over the years. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the absence of written records documenting original titles; failure of earlier owners to accurately pass on titles to subsequent owners; and authors, publishers, and exhibitors who have either intentionally or inadvertently changed titles based on the information available to them. Ironically, the more popular Russell’s work becomes, the greater the proliferation of labels.
In order to be true to history, the Montana Historical Society makes every effort to use Russell’s original titles. Traditionally, we have identified Russell’s tension-filled painting of a wary cowboy and his ill-tempered mount as When Horses Talk War There’s Small Chance for Peace. In the process of writing the article that appears in this issue, however, Brian Dippie discovered that this title was first used in a 1927 exhibition. Although an early alteration, it was not Russell’s title. According to Dippie’s research, Russell originally named the painting When Horses Talk War There’s Slim Chance for Truce (Chicago, Thurber Galleries, February 1915; New York, Folsom Galleries, February–March 1915; San Francisco, Gump Company, April 1915). Consequently, we have now changed our records to reflect Russell’s original intent and henceforth will return to the use of the painting’s initial name.

On an earlier occasion Malcolm had helped Nancy with another publishing project. When Nancy first visited New Jersey after her husband’s death, she was in the process of compiling a book of the illustrated letters Charlie had sent to friends over the years, and she had not found a title. As Helen later described the episode: “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 for 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.’ ”7
Nancy continued to visit the Mackays not only in New Jersey, but also at their summer home on the Lazy EL Ranch (a trip that Charlie himself never made), and Nancy and Helen remained close after Malcolm’s death in 1932. 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.”8
In the early 1940s Helen began making plans to 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 The Mackay family’s Lazy EL Ranch near Roscoe sparked a love for Montana that crossed generations. Pictured above are Malcolm’s son Bill and his wife Joyce. (MHS Photograph Archives)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 friends and acquaintances, since his death Helen had felt that the collection belonged where more people could see it, preferably in Montana. Coincidentally, the Northern Hotel in Billings was then planning the construction of a ten-story “completely modern and fireproof” facility. Helen and her children agreed that the new hotel might be an appropriate site to display Malcolm’s prized Russells. Bill had been overseeing the operation of the Lazy EL Ranch since 1935, and Billings was close enough for him to keep an eye on the collection. In November 1940 Bud Mackay, the Mackays’ eldest son, wrote to hotel manager G. E. McKay offering to loan the collection. “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.”9
Recognizing the benefit of the generous offer, McKay readily agreed, and he and the Mackay family began negotiating the details of the loan. In fall 1941 the Northern’s new manager L. W. Carter and his wife traveled to New Jersey to In the early 1940s, nearly a decade after Malcolm Mackay’s death, his wife Helen arranged for the family’s Russell collection to be displayed in the newly built Northern Hotel in Billings, Montana. The hotel’s brochure proudly declares the exhibition “a benefit to the people of Montana.”  (MHS Museum, Helena)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 of the exhibit and installation of the Mackay Collection in its new home.
When the new Northern Hotel opened amidst great fanfare in July 1942, it boasted eleven Russell oil paintings, six watercolors, seventeen pen-and-ink sketches, seven bronzes, one illustrated letter, seven Christmas cards, and six “personal photos and snapshots.” Helen retained only her favorite oil painting, Free Trapper, and seven small bronzes for display in her new home. Carter summed up his appreciation in a letter to Helen, concluding that the Russell works were “without question of doubt the finest inducement for tourists to stop of anything that has ever come to Billings.” The collection remained at the Northern Hotel for the next ten years.10
Nineteen fifty-two proved to be a watershed in the preservation of Russell’s legacy in Montana. That year the Montana Historical Society (MHS) was in the midst of constructing a new building across the street from the State Capitol. Plans called for a “Russell room,” even though MHS owned only a fraction of the artwork necessary to fill such a space. That same year the Trigg Foundation also mounted a campaign to raise funds to build a new Russell museum in Great Falls. And, most significantly, in 1952 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 the $125,000 necessary to buy Sid Willis’s famous collection that hung in the Mint Saloon in Great Falls. The collection left Montana for New York’s Knoedler Gallery where Texan Amon G. Carter soon purchased it. As historian Dale Burk noted, “Nothing could have done as much in one moment to elevate Montanan’s consciousness toward art and its significance. . . . Amon Carter . . . kindled fires in Montana that fanned into flames overnight.”11

More Charles M. Russell Paintings in the Mackay Collection

Malcolm Mackay shared Charlie Russell’s love of the Old West, and his passion for Russell’s art resulted in a remarkable collection that captures the many phases of a career that spanned more than forty years.

Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark (1896, oil on canvas, 251/4" x 34") (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena)

Lady Buckeroo (1920, watercolor and ink, 91/4" x 111/2")  (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena) Spread-Eagled (1925, watercolor and ink, 91/4" x 111/4")   (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena)
Indian Camp (1891, oil on canvas, 191/2" x 23")  (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena) Portrait of an Indian (1884, oil on canvas, 151/4" x 73/4")  (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena)

Indians and Scouts Talking (no date, watercolor, 19" x 31")  (Mackay Collection, MHS Museum, Helena)

 


In spite of the success of the Northern Hotel exhibit, the Mackay family knew that it was not the best permanent home for the paintings. As a hotel, it could neither provide the environmental controls and security necessary for the increasingly valuable collection nor was public visitation as large as it might be elsewhere. Consequently, the Mackay family decided to make the collection available to MHS for 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 [the 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.”12
Helen did find the idea agreeable and, with the blessing of the family, offered the collection to MHS. However, the Mackays did not 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 Montana should prove its commitment to such an undertaking by purchasing the Russell art. Helen insisted that the cost “should be small enough to make it worth while for the State” and set a purchase price of fifty thousand dollars, a fraction of the collection’s actual value.13
In May, K. Ross Toole initiated a promotional blitz and announced that MHS had until November to raise the fifty thousand dollars. He enlisted the support of the American Legion, Montana Bankers Association, and Montana Stockgrowers Association; established a speakers bureau; and bombarded the press with pleas for support. The campaign was unabashedly reprimanding in tone. Distraught over the indifference shown toward the Mint campaign, Toole promoted the Mackay Collection as the last chance Montana would ever have to own a significant body of Russell’s work. “We simply cannot afford to lose this collection,” he admonished. “We could never explain its loss to our children. We could never rationalize our apathy and selfishness.” In a brochure published by MHS, he explained: “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?”14
Toole also stressed the economic soundness of the purchase: “Various values have been placed on this collection, but a conservative estimate would place its value at about $3,000,000. . . . 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.”15 As further incentive, other collectors—notably Colonel Wallis Huidekoper of Big Timber and the Montana Stockgrowers Association—announced that they would donate or loan their Russell artwork only if the State were successful in obtaining the Mackay Collection.
Large donations came in from the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, Montana Power Company, and Conrad Kohrs Company. Toole also secured the thirteen thousand dollars that had been raised in the unsuccessful campaign to purchase the Mint Collection. Just as important, however, was the enthusiastic support of average Montanans. Donations ranging from fifty cents to fifty dollars poured in. Schoolchildren, the Jesuit brothers at St. Ignatius, and the Helena Duplicate Bridge Club took up collections for the cause. The Virginia City Players held a benefit performance, while ranchers sold calves at benefit auctions in Winnett, Lewistown, and Billings. Governor John Bonner declared May to be Charles M. Russell Month and urged all citizens to “respond generously” to the Mackay campaign.16
When the Mackays placed their collection at the Northern Hotel in 1942, they began to receive requests to buy individual pieces or the entire collection. They always politely refused these offers. Once efforts to purchase the collection became known, however, new offers—to outbid the State or to step in if the State’s attempts proved unsuccessful—rolled in. By June Bill Mackay was forced to issue a press release reiterating, “It is my mother’s wish that this collection belong to the state of Montana. No other offers are being entertained.”17
By November MHS had collected not only the purchase price, but an additional nine thousand dollars 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.”18
In 1974—in recognition of the Mackays’ benevolence and ongoing support—MHS renamed its Russell room the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art. Today, thanks to the Mackay family, the generosity of other donors and lenders, and the foresight of an earlier generation of Montanans, visitors to Mackay Gallery can still enjoy Russell’s vision of the West that once was. The words of a gallery catalog produced 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.”19

KIRBY LAMBERT is the curator of art at the Montana Historical Society and a regular contributor to this magazine. In 1997 he compiled the Charlie Russell Journal, a light-hearted chronicle of the Cowboy Artist’s observances in word and picture.

Lambert footnotes:
1. Nancy Russell to Malcolm S. Mackay, June 19, 1915, folder 1, box 1, Helen Raynor Mackay Family Papers, Small Collection 1983 (hereafter SC 1983), Montana Historical Society Library and Archives, Helena (hereafter MHS Library and Archives). This article is adapted from one that appeared in Russell’s West, 5, no. 2 (1997), 3–9.
2. Helen Raynor Mackay, “Good Medicine: A Gracious Lady Remembers CMR in Her New Jersey Home,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 7 (April 1957), 37; Fred Barton, “Man of Mind: A Veteran Cowman Analyzes the True Intellect of C.M.R.,” ibid., 8 (October 1958), 19.
3. Speech delivered by William R. Mackay Sr. at the dedication of the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art, folder 3, box 1, SC 1983, MHS Library and Archives.
4. William R. Mackay Sr., interview by JeV SaVord, 1978, Oral History 122, MHS Library and Archives.
5. Mackay, “Good Medicine,” 37–38.
6. Nancy Russell to Helen Mackay, September 24, 1938, folder 1, box 1, SC 1983, MHS Library and Archives.
7. Mackay, “Good Medicine,” 39.
8. Russell to Mackay, September 24, 1938.
9. Malcolm S. “Bud” Mackay Jr. to G. E. McKay, November 12, 1940, folder 1, box 1, SC 1983, MHS Library and Archives.
10. L. W. Carter to Helen Mackay, April 23, 1942, ibid.
11. Dale Burk, A Brush with the West (Missoula, Mont., 1980), 57–58.
12. William R. Mackay Sr. to Helen Mackay, January 21, 1952, folder 2, box 1, SC 1983, MHS Library and Archives.
13. Helen Mackay to William R. Mackay Sr., January 29, 1952, ibid.
14. K. Ross Toole, “The Russell Picture Fund,” radio broadcast, July 12, 1952, reprinted in Montana Stockgrower, August 15, 1952, 4–6; Montana Historical Society, A Plea to Montanans (Helena, Mont., 1952), copy in the records of the Montana Historical Society Museum, Helena (hereafter MHS Museum).
15. Montana Historical Society, A Plea to Montanans.
16. “Governor’s Proclamation,” March 17, 1952, copy in the records of the MHS Museum.
17. Helena (Mont.) Independent Record, June 17, 1952.
18. Helena Mackay to William R. Mackay Sr., December 9,1952, folder 2, box 1, SC 1983, MHS Library and Archives.
19. Montana Historical Society, The Charles M. Russell room: Featuring the Collection of Malcolm S. Mackay (Helena, Mont., 1953), PAM 936, MHS Library and Archives.


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 54 Number 1(Spring 2004), 56-63; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2004.