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Noel: Helen Bonfils' gifts built quality of life in Denver

Published June 10, 2006 at midnight

Helen Bonfils has a rich legacy in the Mile High City, including the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The Denver Post, and Holy Ghost Church.

Some say she did all these good works trying to get her father, Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, into heaven - or at least purgatory. Fred Bonfils co-founded, co-published and edited The Post.

It is very hard for newspaper editors (or any editors, for that matter) to get into heaven. If they ever got in, of course, they would want to tighten up the Bible, rewrite the Lord's Prayer, fiddle with all the hymns and turn heaven itself into a hellish mess. But then editors prefer bad news to good (my own editors at the Rocky are, of course, a happy exception).

Helen Bonfils probably got to heaven, despite ugly relationships with her older sister and second husband, because of all her philanthropy. She had plenty of money to give away after she inherited what was the most popular and profitable newspaper in the Rockies.

Helen had attended Denver's Miss Wolcott School, then finishing school at the National Park Seminary in Maryland. As a child, she put on little plays in the basement of her family's Cheesman Park mansion. She grew up addicted to the Tabor Grand Opera House and Elitch's Theater, where she began an acting career. Helen met Elitch's director, George Somnes, a Shakespearean actor also active in New York City.

Strikingly handsome with piercing eyes, Somnes looked like a twin of Helen's father, who had died in 1933, followed the next year by Helen's mother, Belle. Parentless at 46, Helen married the suave, sophisticated Somnes.

"Miss Helen" followed her father's wishes and took charge at The Denver Post, where she brought in talented executives to run the paper. When the Newhouse chain tried to take over the Post, she fought like a tigress to keep it under her local control.

While owning the Post, Helen also became a serious philanthropist. She donated generously to, among countless other causes, the Belle Bonfils Memorial Blood Center, Central City Opera, University of Denver, Denver Zoo, Denver (now Colorado) Symphony Orchestra and the Dumb Friends League (Helen loved dogs and cats, filling her house at 707 Washington St. with strays).

A tall, slender, blonde with bright blue eyes and a husky voice, Helen was theatrical, energetic and a millionaire. Bejeweled and befurred, she toured the town in her Pierce Arrow with Colorado license plate No. 1. She would be accompanied by her chauffeur, favorite poodle, and spiritual adviser, the Rev. John Anderson, who shared her interest in philanthropy.

In 1946 Helen took charge of Elitch's Theatre and in 1953 built the $1.25 million Bonfils Theatre on East Colfax Avenue at Elizabeth Street (now undergoing renovation as the new home of Tattered Cover Book Store).

Helen Bonfils and her husband also began spending time in New York City, acting under her stage name, Gertrude Barton, and producing plays on Broadway. That's how she met a fellow producer, theater lover and lawyer, Donald Ray Seawell. After George Somnes died in 1956, Helen, as Seawell recalls, "began consulting me, as her lawyer, on personal and business matters, primarily The Denver Post."

Helen Bonfils greatly improved the Post by hiring a new editor, Palmer Hoyt, in 1946. Hoyt, a successful editor at the Oregonian in Portland, established an editorial page and instructed reporters to separate news from opinion, a notorious shortcoming of the Post during her father's era. After her death in 1972, Helen was buried at the Fairmount Memorial Mausoleum next to her parents and George Sommes.

Helen Bonfils is profiled in Marilyn Griggs Riley's just released book, High Altitude Attitudes: Six Savvy Colorado Women (Boulder: Johnson Books, 2006. $16). Riley, a local literary luminary who taught English in Denver Public high schools, says she was inspired to give Helen Bonfils her own story because Helen once declared:

"I haven't done much or accomplished much. I'll always live in my father's shadow."

Riley disagrees and provides a compelling story, suggesting that Helen is, indeed, in heaven.

By the book

What: High Altitude Attitudes: Six Savvy Colorado Women, Johnson/Big Earth, $16

Details: A book that includes profiles of Helen Bonfils, Mary Coyle Chase and others.

Reach Tom Noel at www.colorado /dr-colorado

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