Skip to Content

Helen Adam Collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: PCMS-0079

Scope and Contents

This collection contains professional and personal documents from the poet and visual artist Helen Adam.

Series I. Early Life and San Francisco consists of material from the Adam's family's life in Scotland, Helen and Pat Adam's time working in London, and work and papers produced in San Francsico. Included are papers from Helen Adam's professional career, including manuscripts and related material from published and unpublished work, poetry and school notebooks, scrapbooks, collages, and clippings saved for the production of scrapbooks and collages; additionally there is a section of correspondence and manuscripts sent to Adam, a series of photographs taken during Adam's time in San Francisco, a series of personal documents, family documents, and a series of professional work and personal documents belonging to Pat Adam; there are a few objects from Adam's home and a series of artwork owned, but not produced, by Adam as well.

Series II. New York consists of material brought to New York City with Adam or produced during the remainder of her lifetime. Series includes papers from Helen Adam's professional career, including manuscripts and related material from published and unpublished work, poetry and school notebooks, scrapbooks, collages, and clippings saved for the production of scrapbooks and collages; additionally there is a section of correspondence and manuscripts sent to Adam, a series of photographs taken during Adam's time in New York, a series of personal documents, family documents, and a series of professional work and personal documents belonging to Pat Adam; there is a series of artwork owned, but not produced, by Adam as well.

Series III. Ida Hodes consists of material from the collaboration between Hodes and Adam. Series includes correspondence and manuscripts, as well as documentation of their collaborative work, Kiltory.

Series IV. Louise Gikow consists of material related to the collaboration between Gikow and Adam. Included is correspondence, poems, a book of sheet music, and a taped recording.


  • 1890-2009
  • Majority of material found within 1914-1987


Language of Materials

Collection material is mainly in English with some Spanish, French, and German.

Terms of Access

Helen Adam Collection is open for research.


Copyright of papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the holder(s) of copyright and the Poetry Collection before requesting photocopies and/or publishing quotations from materials in the collection. Once permission is obtained, most papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures unless otherwise specified.

Biographical Note

Helen Douglas Adam was born on December 2, 1909, in Glasgow, Scotland, to the Reverend William and Isabella Adam. Isabella taught Adam and her sister, Pat, traditional Scottish ballads and folklore, and by two-years-old Adam was composing poetry of her own. She published her first book in 1924 when she was 15; The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told By Pixie Pool was met with great success in Great Britain, and its American reprint was reviewed in Poetry magazine by Harriet Monroe, who commented mainly on the poems’ “pretty” qualities of rhyme and iambs. Adam released a follow-up, Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar’s Pack (1924), and a third book, Shadow of the Moon (1929), but grew to dislike this early output, and stopped writing altogether until her arrival in the United States in 1939.

Although Adam’s father was a minister for the Church of Scotland, his devotion (Adam believed) was to golf, rather than to his family or his congregation. He died in 1931 after being struck in the head by a golf ball. For the Adam sisters, the family’s old friend Gilbert Watson, nicknamed “Teg,” was their true father figure.

Two years after their father’s death, the Adam sisters with their mother to London. The sisters wrote a society column, “Jottings from London,” for The Weekly Scotsman, and Helen found additional work as a journalist, while Pat worked as an illustrator. In 1939, the Adam family moved again, traveling to Connecticut for a cousin’s wedding. They decided to remain in the United States as war broke out. Adam worked odd jobs in New York City and spent summers in the land army, picking fruit near Lake Erie. Their mother’s ill health compelled the sisters to move west to Reno in 1948, where they bought a camper and tramped around the west. By 1953, they had landed in San Francisco, where they were to remain for over a decade. They never returned to live in Scotland.

Adam quickly assimilated into the Bay Area poetry community, on the verge of what is now known as the San Francisco Renaissance, joining Robert Duncan’s 1954 workshop at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State College, as well as workshops led by Jack Spicer and Allen Ginsberg. Fiercely loyal to her new friends, Adam was quick to anger at critics’ mistaken evaluations of their work. Raging against a “cheap, trashy, brainless rat” who dared criticize one of Duncan’s books, Adam threatened, “If I ever meet this character I am going to put a spell on it to rott [sic] it’s [sic] bones.”

Duncan and Adam, along with Duncan’s partner, the painter Jess, and poets Eve Triem, Madeline Gleason, and James Broughton, formed the informal group “the Maidens” (a name chosen from Marianne Moore’s poem, “The Virgin Muse”). The Maidens held extravagant dinner parties during which they discussed art and literature while dressed in flamboyant costumes. Her creative spirit revitalized, Adam published her first book of poetry since her childhood years, The Queen of Crow Castle (1958), which contains illustrations by Jess.

Adam loved San Francisco, frequently taking her favorite cat, Kilty, on walks in Sutro Forest. Other favorite places included Stinson Beach and the sphinxes at the entrance of the De Young Museum, where Adam took many snapshots of friends. At the same time, the Adam family had numerous financial and health complications. Adam pieced together odd jobs, working as an office bike messenger, as a file clerk, and at a pizza parlor. “If it is true that one creates the external world from within,” Adam mused in a letter, “I would like to know what deep perversity in our natures makes Ida & Pat & I create around us the abominable fantasy of the business world.”

San Francisco inspired Helen and Pat’s collaborative ballad-opera San Francisco’s Burning, a 3-hour long production involving 27 characters, set just before the 1906 earthquake. The play was produced by the Playhouse, a local theater owned by James Broughton and Kermit Sheets, but the Playhouse “changed much that [Helen] thought essential,” including the music. Nevertheless, the play was enormously successful, completing a six-month run. Adam followed the play with the film Daydream of Darkness, which was produced between 1962 and 1963 in collaboration with painter William McNeill. In October 1964, Adam displayed her series of photo-collages—photographs of San Francisco friends alongside captions of poetry—at the Buzz Gallery’s Poets Show. Adam’s portraits sometimes enjoyed a wider audience; Donald Allen used one of her photographs of Jack Spicer in his anthology The New American Poetry (1960), which also included her ballad “I Love My Love.”

Even after the initial Playhouse production of San Francisco’s Burning, the play continued to dominate Adam’s life. Adam believed two characters that had been cut for the Playhouse production, Puss and Anubis, wished to exact revenge on her for leaving them out. She admitted in 1961 that she was “terrified of them,” attributing her illness and Kilty’s death to her “being false to them.” This paranoia portended Adam’s mental collapse and suicidal ideation, leading to multiple stays between 1962 and 1964 at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital, where her treatment included shock therapy. During this period, in 1963, Isabella passed after a long illness. Nevertheless, in late 1964, the success of San Francisco’s Burning tempted the sisters to move back to New York City in order to produce it off-Broadway. This plan took years to gain traction, and left the Adam sisters financially stuck in New York, a city Adam bitterly referred to as “Mordor.”

In New York, Adam became involved with the East Village experimental theater scene, acting with the New York Poets Theatre, and attempted to produce San Francisco’s Burning through the Judson Poets’ Theatre, where Al Carmines wrote music based on folk tunes and Adam’s own music. Yet just as the play began to gain a foothold, the Village Voice published a review by Michael Smith that slammed the production. In retaliation, Adam sent Smith the Ace of Spaces she had used during the show, with the line “From the Worm Queen to Michael Smith, January 1967.” The curse, however, did little to help San Francisco’s Burning, which floundered.

Despite this setback, Adam continued widening her artistic community in New York and Europe. Adam read in Berlin, Amsterdam, and Munich during a trip in the summer of 1977, and the sisters worked with the young German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim, who intended to make a documentary about Adam. In the same year, Lita Hornick’s Kulture Press published Adam’s book of poems, Turn Again to Me; a year later Helikon Press published her Selected Poems and Ballads; and in 1979 Hanging Loose Press published her book of short stories, Ghosts and Grinning Shadows. In 1983, Adam appeared in Ron Mann’s Poetry in Motion documentary, singing several ballads and giving an interview.

The Adam sisters lived together their entire lives. While Pat entertained suitors as a young woman, Helen discouraged these relationships in favor of familial bonds; the sisters never married. When Pat entered a Bronx nursing home in early 1986, and passed away in early 1987, Helen was unable to recover, shutting out all friends and well-wishers. She died a ward of the state in 1993.


85 Linear Feet (92 full manuscript boxes, 9 half manuscript boxes, 3 oversize manuscript boxes, 37 oversize boxes, 2 carton boxes, and 1 rolled object.)


Helen Adam (1909-1993) was a poet and visual artist of the San Francisco Renaissance. Born in Scotland, she garnered acclaim at a young age for her collection of poems titled The Elfin Peddlar. After attending Edinburgh University for two years Helen and her sister and frequent collaborator Pat Adam worked as journalists in London before moving to the United States with their mother in 1939.

The family made their way to San Francisco, at the beginning of what would become the San Francisco Renaissance. Here her artistic career flourished, and she published a number of poetic and visual works. Following the success of her play San Francisco's Burning, the sisters moved to New York City where they remained for the rest of their lives.

The material in the Helen Adam Collection contains over 100 collages, 119 scrapbooks, manuscripts for several books of poetry and individual poems as well as production material from Adam's dramatic work such as San Francisco's Burning and Daydream of Darkness. Also included are personal documents, artwork, and ephemera.


The collection is arranged in 4 series:

1. Early Life and San Francisco 2. New York 3. Ida Hodes 4. Louise Gikow

The bulk of material is arranged in series according to its acquisition into the collection.

Acquisition Information

Material was received in multiple acquisitions between 1985 and 2016. The first major acquisition was in a donation by Helen Adam in 1985, which consisted of material that was stored in San Francisco following Adam's move to New York in 1964.

The second acquisition, which came in 1997, comprised of some of the material from Helen Adam's apartment in New York City. Following her death in 1993 the contents of the apartment were auctioned off, but numerous boxes of Helen Adam's books and papers were purchased by chance by Jed Hershon, owner of 12th Street Books in New York City. Papers and ephemera were purchased by the Poetry Collection.

Further acquisitions of material came from two collaborators of Adam's: Ida Hodes and Louise Gikow. Hodes' material arrived in two separate acquisitions, one circa 2000 and one in 2016. Gikow's material arrived in 2016.

Accruals and Additions

No further accruals are expected to this collection.

Separated Materials

Three family bibles were removed from the collection and added to Helen Adam's personal library.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Elliot McNally, Sarah Akers, and Alison Fraser.


Finding Aid for the Helen Adam Collection
Finding aid prepared by Sarah Akers and Alison Fraser.
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared Using Local Best Practices
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the The Poetry Collection Repository

420 Capen Hall
Buffalo New York 14260-1674 US
716-645-3714 (Fax)