The granddaughter of William Keeney Bixby, an early 20th century icon who had a summer home on Millionaires’ Row along the Lake George shoreline, made her own mark in journalism and writing, including a 2014 biography of her grandfather, who passed down his love of the Adirondacks.
Bolton Landing resident Sally Bixby Defty, who died recently, was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and editor who was a trailblazer among women journalists.
A longtime reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she was promoted in 1976 to become the paper’s first woman executive city editor.
“She led with skill and grace, and always seemed amazed that others considered her a role model. But, of course, there was no one like Sally,” said Margaret Freivogel, a former colleague at the Post-Dispatch, now a Lee Enterprises sister paper to The Post-Star. “In addition to her achievements, I remember her wry sense of humor. She once said someone told her the key to success was good posture. She practiced it.”
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Defty was a “true friend,” said Martha Shirk, another former Post-Dispatch colleague.
“For the younger female journalists in the newsroom, she was a professional role model, demonstrating that you didn’t have to out-man the men to be taken seriously,” Shirk said. “And the food on election nights, which were all-hands-on-deck events, improved markedly when she became executive city editor. A former restaurant owner, she replaced pizza with gourmet tidbits that she made herself.”
Defty, who died June 29 at Elderwood nursing home in Ticonderoga, at age 89, had lived year-round at Bolton Landing for 14 years, and was a lifelong summer resident before that.
She was a longtime member and active volunteer at The Sembrich opera museum at Bolton Landing.
“She always had a smile on her face, and a story to share,” said Suzanna Bernd, the museum’s executive director. “She had an energy and spirit that filled the room. We will miss her.”
Glimpses of Defty’s early life can be found in society news in the archives of The Post-Star.
“Sally Bixby, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Bixby of Bolton Landing, has left on a six-week summer tour of Europe with college friends,” The Post-Star reported on July 5, 1951. “Sally is in her third year at Vassar, where she was elected president of her dormitory this spring.”
She majored in art history and, after graduation, for a time ran an art gallery, among other jobs, before going into journalism.
On Sept. 6, 1952, The Post-Star reported: ”Sally Bixby has been spending part of her summer vacation taking in the tennis tournament.”
The New York Times reported in 1956 about her engagement to Eric Defty of London, England.
Annual pilgrimages to Bolton Landing continued in her adult years.
“She loved lots of things but none more than Bolton Landing and Lake George,” said Robert Duffy, another former colleague at The Post-Dispatch. “Every summer, come hell or high water, she’d cram her three kids and piles of luggage into a VW bus and off they’d go.”
Spending summers in the area was an extended family tradition, dating back to Bixby Defty’s grandparents, William Kenney and Lillian Tuttle Bixby, who owned a summer mansion at Mohican Point on Bolton Bay.
In 2012, she wrote and self-published “Passionate Pursuits: William Keeney Bixby – Industrialist, Collector, Philanthropist, Traveler,” a biography of her grandfather, who worked his way from baggage clerk to head of the American Railcar and Foundry Co., before retiring at age 49 to pursue his passion as a collector of rare manuscripts.
“He was St. Louis’s foremost cultural philanthropist and built an Adirondack home in 1902 that is still loved and used by his 270 descendants,” wrote Defty, who at the time was the last surviving of 21 grandchildren.
Among other distinctions, Bixby, the grandfather, financed Charles Lindbergh’s transcontinental flight, inspiring the pilot to name his plane “Spirit of St. Louis” in Bixby’s honor.
In 1935, Bixby was one of three plaintiffs in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit seeking to force the U.S. government to pay its bonds in gold.
He was vice president of the Lake George Club and owned a luxurious Hacker-Craft boat, according to Post-Star reports.
Defty, the granddaughter, began work at the Post-Dispatch in 1965, reporting for the women’s section, the St. Louis Journalism Review reported in a Sept. 1, 1995, article.
She was promoted to executive city editor in 1976, but later returned to reporting because she missed the art of storytelling.
Defty was part of the so-called “Class of ’95” — a group of 15 Post-Dispatch newsroom employees that accepted early retirement buyouts that year.
Defty moved to Berlin, Germany, where her son lived, and for more than a decade wrote travel articles and edited an architecture magazine before retiring to Bolton Landing.
She was nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize, including once when she was a finalist for a series of articles she wrote about arson-for-hire in the St. Louis area, according to a St. Louis Public Radio report on Jan. 15, 2014, when Defty was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame.