A Private Life : Background and Family



            Frances Parkinson Keyes (FPK) was born on July 21st, 1885 in Charlottesville, Virginia into a privileged family. Her father was John Henry Wheeler, and her mother was Louise Fuller Johnson Underhill Wheeler.  She was born in the James Monroe house, where the former president of the United States lived. Frances was named after her grandmother from her father’s side. Frances spent lots of time with her grandmother in North Woburn Massachusetts. Grandmother Frances Parkinson Wheeler attended Mt. Holyoke College as a special student and taught Frances how to read and gave her lessons in Latin, French, and Mathematics. Frances Parkinson Keyes’ early life was characterized by lots of emotional and physical changes, brought on by what followed from the death of her father.

James Underhill to Mother

This is a letter from James to his mother 

Louise Fuller Johnson first married James Underhill (Sr.), and they had a boy who was also named James from that marriage who will be Frances’s half brother. James Underhill Sr. and Louise were divorced, and then Louise was re-married to John Henry Wheeler who was the head of the Greek Department at the University of Virginia. They were married for six years before Louise gave birth to Frances. John Henry Wheeler then met an untimely death in 1887 at the age of 36. Just before he died, the family moved to Newbury Vermont to the Johnson family house called the Oxbow.  Louise then married Albert E. Pillsbury but had no children with him, and they eventually got divorced. 

James Underhill to FPK, December 1, 1915

The first page of the letter from James Underhill to FPK written in December of 1915

Frances’s relationship with her mother was one of the rockier relationships in Frances’s life. This may have been caused by all of her mother’s marriages, or just that her mother seemed to be very controlling and overbearing. Correspondence between Frances and her half-brother show that neither approved of their mother’s multiple marriages, and James felt that his mother did not approve of his marriage to his wife Lucy. They talked about this in their letters from 1915 in October and December.  By this point, James was living in Colorado and working as an engineer.