Jenny and Frank Phillips
Jenny and Frank PhillipsThe Boston Globe

An accomplished documentary filmmaker, activist, and therapist from Concord apparently drowned Monday evening after jumping from her small sailboat to swim to shore in Nantucket.

Jenny Phillips was about a quarter-of-a-mile out at most when she began her swim, said her husband, Frank Phillips.

It was not an unusual move for her, according to her husband. She went to the gym every day and was an experienced swimmer.

Her body was found on a Wauwinet beach around 6:30 or 7 p.m., he said.

“She was full of energy,” said her husband, the Globe’s State House bureau chief since 1991. “She was driven by her passions.”


Those passions included human rights and racial justice, which were reflected in her work as a documentary filmmaker.

One of her films, “The Dhamma Brothers,” looked at the changes a meditation program triggered at a maximum-security prison in Alabama.

Another of her films, “Beyond the Wall,” followed a group of formerly incarcerated men who try to rebuild their lives outside prison; much of the filming for that project took place in Lowell and Lawrence.

Retirement wasn’t something that interested Phillips, who was 76, according to her husband.

She still saw patients on a part-time basis as a therapist in Concord, and she was in the middle of working on another film project focusing on programs that have reduced recidivism rates in Louisiana. She was working while on vacation in Nantucket, said Phillips, showing him clips of outtakes from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Frank Phillips met Jenny King during an orientation for an overseas program for college students in 1964. They exchanged letters and dated but had somewhat lost touch when they ran into each other during the final stages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.


“She said that’s when she fell in love with me,” he said. “It was because we both had the same passion for social justice.”

They were married in December 1966. The couple lived in Concord for almost 50 years and have a summer house on Nantucket. They have two children and two grandchildren.

In 2001, the couple’s trip to Cuba would spark a historic initiative between that country and the United States over a trove of Ernest Hemingway’s documents. While touring Hemingway’s house on the island, which had been turned into a museum, Jenny Phillips asked to see any letters between the legendary writer and her grandfather, Maxwell Perkins, who was Hemingway’s close friend and editor. She was told she wasn’t allowed access to the building’s basement, where a trove of Hemingway documents were kept.

“You don’t get between Jenny and what she wants,” Phillips said. “I’ve been there. It’s not a good place.”

Frank and Jenny Phillips soon got the ball rolling on making the trove of Hemingway documents available to the public.

The couple overcame political objections and were ultimately successful in allowing access to 3,000 letters and documents, 3,000 photographs, and 9,000 books. One biographer called the cache of documents a “CAT scan of Hemingway’s brain.

A digital collection of the Hemingway documents was brought to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester.

At one point, the couple found themselves meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which included a five-hour lunch and a discussion of Hemingway, JFK’s assassination, and politics, said Phillips.


Phillips said his wife was driven to make the world a more just and humane place.

“That passion took her from the worst prison facilities in the United States to the dining table across from Fidel Castro,” he said.

Material from The New York Times was included in this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com.