Caroline Bancroft (1900–85) was a prominent author, journalist, organizer, and socialite in twentieth-century Denver. Bancroft’s extensive writings on Colorado’s local history established the importance of the genre and served as an example for generations of historians who followed in her footsteps. Today, her legacy lives on through her writings and as the namesake of the Denver Public Library’s annual prize for history writing.
Despite their family’s inclusion in Mrs. Crawford Hill’s inaugural and infamous “Blue Book”—the social register of well-to-do families in 1908 Denver—Caroline and her sister, Peggy, attended public schools instead of private academies due to their parents’ erratic income. The two sisters were a study in contrasts: Caroline was dark-haired, large-framed, outspoken, and independent. She ran away from home at age seventeen and got a job as a showgirl understudy in the Manhattan-based Ziegfeld Night Follies, never taking the stage before her horrified mother sent a batch of relatives after her. Peggy, on the other hand, succeeded where Caroline failed. The blonde, blue-eyed, petite beauty quit high school to escape her parents’ constant arguing and, following her older sister’s example, fled to Manhattan. Peggy became a showgirl in nightclubs and the Follies, later marrying the wealthy Robert LeBaron of Washington, DC. She only returned to Denver to attend family funerals.
From girlhood, Caroline’s father, George, shaped her attitude toward men. Bancroft identified the defining moment of her relationship with men by recalling a time when she was riding horses with her father. They had crossed a mountain stream infested with thickets, and her father’s horse became stuck. He beat and whipped the horse against Caroline’s ardent protests, and Caroline later credited the incident as the moment when, in her words, “I decided never again would I trust a man.”
Her parents divorced in 1923 after a court battle that was widely covered in Denver’s newspapers. In a culture that scorned divorce, her mother, Ethel, became the target of gossip after court testimony exposed George’s philandering and failure to provide adequately for his family. The rumors grew uglier, and eventually George filed a lawsuit against Ethel, charging her with the “unmotherly, cold-blooded, mercenary” acceptance of money from a “certain man living in Troy, New York.” The court dismissed the suit because the money in question came from Ethel’s cousins in Troy, who paid for Caroline’s education because Ethel could not. Nearly bankrupt, George died in 1945.
Caroline graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1923 and stayed on the East Coast, since her “idea of Denver was that it was in the sticks.” She taught in a Connecticut elementary school because she needed a steady income and liked the position’s summer option to chaperone student tours on board the Holland American Line in return for free passage. She took advantage of the opportunity: “Once we landed, I was on my own. I tried to go somewhere different every summer.” She roamed Europe and Asia, going as far as the Holy Land, Egypt, India, and Tibet. Traveling alone when most women of her stature did not venture far from home, Bancroft considered herself “liberated” long before her gender owned that term. As she told Rebecca Norris of the Granby, Colorado Sky-Hi News in 1982, “I’ve been liberated all my life. Anybody who’s got guts and brains can be liberated.”
Bancroft taught for four years, then quit to do research for popular magazines and began freelance writing. Her essays appeared in The Denver Post and the New York Evening Post. On a travel assignment to Europe in 1929, Bancroft interviewed novelist John Galsworthy in London, playwright George Bernard Shaw in Ireland, and Dorian Hendrik Van Loon in Holland for the Evening Post. She spent six months in Paris when it was a global center for talented expatriate Americans. At Bancroft’s request, her patron, Mrs. Crawford Hill, recommended her to Frederick G. Bonfils, the wily and infamous co-publisher of the Denver Post. According to Bancroft, Bonfils owed Hill a favor after the doyenne of Denver society had successfully steered his membership to the Denver Country Club around the protests of indignant club members. Bancroft was confident of being hired, and “sailed in F.G.’s office and announced that it was time he had a book editor on his staff, a position that might improve the paper’s image.”
The Post offered her a weekly salary of more than twenty-five dollars and a byline. By promoting her column through Blue Book audiences such as the Monday Literary Club, the Tuesday Book Club, and the Junior League, Bancroft could maintain her society connections with such friends as Mrs. William W. Grant, who lived in the Richthofen Castle in Montclair, and Mrs. George Berger. The Post’s managing editor, William C. Shepherd, frequently “forgot” to sign her paychecks, and Bancroft panicked. He did not read her columns because, as Bancroft later explained to Where magazine, “a book page was the last thing he was interested in. Shep read sports, sex, and society columns.” Each time she was not paid, Bancroft complained to Bonfils, who then ordered Shepherd to sign the check. The paycheck crisis became a seminal moment in Bancroft’s career when Bonfils suggested a way to convince Shepherd to read her work. Bonfils pointed out that Bancroft had entrée to prominent old-timers that ordinary Post reporters did not have. He told her to interview and then write about Colorado’s aging generation of first settlers. Bonfils’ strategy worked; from then on Bancroft was paid promptly, and the old-timer stories were Bancroft’s first venture in writing about Colorado history.
Bancroft quit the newspaper in 1932 following Bonfils’ death, leaving with an appreciation of Colorado history and a goal to write its stories. She enrolled in graduate school at the University of Denver, and by 1943 she had earned a master’s degree in Western History. Her thesis on Central City became the source for her 1958 book Gulch of Gold. The 354-page publication established the format for her booklets: an all-knowing narrator, undocumented dialogue, characters the author felt were “consistent” with her original research, hand-drawn maps, and vintage photographs. Despite its flaws, Gulch of Gold was the first book to detail Central City’s evolution from mining town to mountain resort.
In 1946, Bancroft purchased a miner’s house on Castro Hill in Central City, down the gulch from the famed Central City Opera for the price of $125. Gradually, Bancroft parlayed her 1946 success into a full-time career by researching, writing, and self-publishing her local histories, filling orders from her Downing Street home in Denver. She and her mother drove the state’s tourist circuit to restock hotel, drugstore, and curio-store shelves with Bancroft’s publications.
Bancroft’s second-most popular booklet was The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown. Published in 1956, its subject was Margaret “Molly” Brown, the spunky Westerner who saved a boatload of people during the Titanic disaster in 1912 by rowing a lifeboat away from the sinking ship. As Brown rowed, the story goes, she sang lustily to quiet hysterical passengers.
Writing, publishing, and marketing her work exhausted Bancroft, who led an equally exhaustive social life. Despite a robust appearance, she battled tuberculosis and cancer several times. In 1967 she turned over her self-publishing rights to Johnson Books, a decision that enabled her to continue receiving royalties while tapering off her own writing. Bancroft stopped writing booklets in 1969. She soon sold the Bancroft home and moved to the Cheesman Park neighborhood, where she lived for more than ten years. Bancroft died in 1985 and was buried in the family plot in Fairmount Cemetery.
Adapted from Marilyn Griggs Riley, “Sin, Gin, and Jasmine: The Controversial Career of Caroline Bancroft,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 22, no. 2 (2002).