Nancy Ann Frankel, 92, was a renowned sculptor who reportedly mentored numerous young women over the years, some of whom she took into her home for periods of time. Now, one of them is charged with first-degree murder.
At around 8:20 a.m. Wednesday morning, Montgomery County police were called to Frankel’s home in Kensington, Maryland to investigate a report of a dead body. When they arrived, Julia Birch, 26, allegedly told officers that she killed Frankel. Cops located Frankel’s body, gathered evidence—which they say “supported Birch’s statement”—and took Birch into custody. In a follow-up interview at police headquarters, Birch allegedly admitted again to killing Frankel, explaining that she then called 911 to report the death.
Birch had been living in Frankel’s suburban Maryland home for the past seven months, according to police.
“It’s my understanding that she was paying rent to Ms. Frankel,” Montgomery County Department of Police spokesperson Shiera Goff told The Daily Beast in an email, adding that Birch moved into Frankel’s house in January and was “an acquaintance of the victim’s family members.”
Julia Yost, who lives a few doors down from the crime scene, remembered Frankel as “very friendly and compassionate,” and “non-confrontational and talented.” But she said she always had a strange feeling about Birch.
“[Frankel] was exposed to several women mentors while she was at Columbia University, and I think she was trying to repay that by mentoring young women,” Yost told The Daily Beast. “There were other people living there on and off.”
Yost, who teared up several times while speaking about Frankel, said she regularly displayed her sculptures in her yard. They talked almost daily, during Frankel’s afternoon walks through the neighborhood, according to Yost, who said Frankel was very active, and was spry and vibrant for her age, even shoveling her own snow during the winter.
“She was a wonderful person,” said Yost.
However, Yost wasn’t as enamored with Birch, who she described as unfriendly and aloof.
“I only saw that girl maybe three times, but when I saw her, she seemed, like, disconnected,” Yost recalled. “Here, everybody says, ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,’ but I said, ‘Hi,’ and she just looked at me and kept going.”
Goff, the police spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on Birch’s “mental state.”
“If there are any issues, I’m sure it will be discussed during her court appearance,” she said.
Birch does not have a lawyer listed in court records and was unable to be reached. Her parents did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.
Birch allegedly suffocated Frankel, according to court filings reviewed by The Washington Post, which reported the two families met through the Catholic Worker Movement.
The “about the author” section of the 2018 book Nancy @ Ninety: Seven Decades of Sculpture by Nancy Frankel (Catalog One) provides a bit of context about Frankel’s life.
“Nancy's early life began as a waiter in the borscht belt each summer earning her college tuition as an art student at the Temple University and later Columbia,” it says. “As a young bride, she accompanied her husband to Germany where she continued her studies with Hans Hoffman at the Munich Art Academy. Sadly, Nancy's husband died prematurely after their return to the U.S. leaving her with two small children to support. Her peace-activist daughter and architect son have each learned from this formidable mother and produced a number of grandchildren who lean on her for the counsel and support only grandmothers can provide.”
Friends of Frankel “love her for her modesty, intellectual honesty, and spiritual authority,” the book’s Amazon page explains. “She really is something of a ‘wise woman,’ and lends her opinion at bible study at the crack of dawn each Thursday morning before returning home to teach.”
The undated bio said Frankel planned to be “‘roommates’ with her friend Lizzy at the Columbarium at St. Columba Episcopal Church and despite the friends who have dropped off the planet lately, she remains committed to life’s pleasures.”
Frankel’s children were unable to be reached. Her daughter-in-law did not respond to a request for comment.
Frankel’s “love of nature and architecture” informed her sculpture work, which she defined in an artist’s statement for the gallery that represented her as having been “one long meditation, an effort to get past the surface aspects of reality to find deeper meaning.”
“Whether large or small, dynamic or serene, an explosion of forms, or a gentle curve answering another within a single piece, I hope my work communicates a sense of joy and wonder,” Frankel wrote. Studio Gallery director Kelly Bresnowitz said she and others in Frankel’s artistic circle are planning a memorial “in celebration of what a wonderful person and artist Nancy was.”
“She was a great contributor to our artistic community here at the Studio Gallery, and she’ll be missed greatly,” Bresnowitz told The Daily Beast. “Our last show with her was this past January, and having her work here was amazing.”
An autopsy is scheduled to be conducted Thursday to determine the cause and manner of Frankel’s death. Birch is being held without bail and is set to appear in court on Aug. 27.