About Eleanor



Eleanor Phillips Brackbill has made a living building sets with a summer stock theater crew, assisting the social worker on a VA hospital psychiatric ward, running behavior experiments on pre-schoolers, managing a team of volunteer art museum docents, and teaching three-year-olds, adolescents, and college students, but none of these jobs was as satisfying as writing about history, which she has been doing since 2003.

Eleanor embarked on a writing career after teaching and then serving as director of education at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York for three decades. Her most recent book, The Queen of Heartbreak Trail: The Life and Times of Harriet Smith Pullen, Pioneering Woman, is the first comprehensive assessment the Klondike Gold Rush pioneer who, despite landing alone in Skagway, Alaska, in 1897, became a successful entrepreneur, single-handedly hauling prospectors’ provisions into the Yukon where gold beckoned. Eleanor is Harriet Pullen’s great-granddaughter and grew up with myriad family stories about her remarkable ancestor, some of which were true and some not so.

Eleanor credits her parents for the dual gifts of appreciation for images and for history. Her father’s serious avocation as a photographer and her mother’s passion for history laid the groundwork. On long and regular road trips, he took thousands of photographs documenting the family vacations, which he would later present in slide shows, and her mother halted the family car regularly to read historic site markers by the side of the road, exclaiming, “Just think, it happened right here!” With an appetite for history, Eleanor turned her research skills to her home and in An Uncommon Cape: Researching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property created a kind of genealogy of a small New York property. With The Queen of Heartbreak Trail, she has disentangled fact from the many fictions that Pullen and others told about her life.

After earning an MA in art history at Boston University, completing a curatorial fellowship in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, and studying in the art history doctoral program at City University of New York, Eleanor began her career in art history and museum education. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has lived in southwestern Ohio, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York City and its Westchester County suburbs. She now resides near Portland, Maine, with her husband, the artist, writer, and educator Michael Torlen.

Photograph by J. Ormsby Phillips