Art Collector Jayne Wrightsman
Intensely private and utterly controlled, Jayne Wrightsman inhabits the pinnacle of
October 3, 2001.
The opening-night concert of the Carnegie Hall season was about to begin. That music would resume, that the Berlin Philharmonic had not canceled-these were hopeful symbols to a city still shattered less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The late arrival of Peter Jennings seemed to cause a collective sigh of relief: reassurance, perhaps, that there would be no late-breaking crisis that night.
No seat remained empty;
After the audience joined in an emotional chorus of "God Bless
Among those who rose, in
Galleries of French decorative arts in her and her late husband Charles's name remain among the treasures of
"As a collector, she's very high up in the pantheon, in the league with Paul Mellon and Norton Simon," says banker Jacob Rothschild, a close friend. "She has given her life to the Met." In Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello's words, her contribution to the museum has been "substantial-and, in the aggregate, colossal." Recalled the late J. Carter Brown, a former director of
To her old friend British publisher George Weidenfeld, Wrightsman exemplifies the last of a certain breed-"a code of behavior that is dying out," he explains, "that code being American patrician with a blend of the French aristocratic, with an emphasis on aesthetics and a fastidiousness in terms of interests and people."
Many elements contribute to the Wrightsman mystique, not the least of which is her membership in that exclusive club of those who have owned one of the world's 24 extant Vermeers and lived with furniture made for the Kings of France. There is her moated life, laced with curators
Lacking a formal education, she has nevertheless become known as an expert on French decorative arts and European painting. Born to a modest family, she has become one of the undisputed leaders of
"In that group of power and money," says a European observer, "if you've made it, you have to be close to Jayne."
The life of Jayne Wrightsman is a uniquely American saga of power, patronage, sublimation, and self-invention. To former Metropolitan director Thomas Hoving, who observed her as an extraordinarily responsive and meticulous wife, she was "the quintessential American geisha"; another observer, citing the studied mix of her circle and her role as mentor to certain ambitious society women, calls her a "Proustian figure, like Madame Verdurin."
"She's not Jay Gatsby-but she's not far from it, either," says a longtime veteran of the board of the
"She is an extraordinarily disciplined person," emphasizes her close friend Henry Kissinger, adding, "Whatever she seeks to achieve she does so unobtrusively." A vivid contrast, in other words, to one of
Privacy and control loom large in Wrightsman's life. This is partly inherent in one who is by nature formal and armored, and partly owing to her anger following a flippant 1991 profile by Khoi Nguyen in the now defunct Connoisseur magazine, which portrayed the Wrightsmans as social climbers and claimed that her mother had run a nightclub. (When I wrote to Mrs. Wrightsman last spring offering her a chance to correct any inaccuracies in that article, she responded, "The article was almost entirely wrong-in particular about my early life, my mother and my marriage-so that I would hardly know where to start correcting it.") Only when her friends had been given her approval did they slowly and very reluctantly agree to speak. "If we are protective," says Barbara Walters, "it is because her shyness and sense of privacy are genuine. She is truly self-effacing." That said, she is not without a certain steeliness and can also be "terribly grand and aloof with people," says the European observer. Notes one normally loquacious quote giver with a nervous laugh, before refusing to talk, "If you're a friend of Mrs. Wrightsman, you mind your p's and q's."
In response to my written request for an interview came a note, typewritten on cream-colored Cartier paper engraved with "Mrs. Charles Wrightsman" in notably unshy red ink, its signature in an even hand devoid of finishing-school flourishes. The tone is practiced, polite, and, at times, arch. "I feel over-honoured," she writes, "but it has been an ironclad rule of mine never to grant interviews either about friends or about myself. I cannot make an exception, even for you.
"So please understand and forgive this eccentricity of mine."
"I think she learned rather a lot from Jackie Kennedy," says a friend of both. "The less you're available, the more exclusive you become." But, for many others, her reticence is due to Wrightsman's fear of an issue she is doubtless familiar with from the art world: provenance-in this case, her own.
"People who are self-invented-such as [art historian] Bernard Berenson-don't like to think of themselves that way," says a museum expert. To a woman of Wrightsman's generation especially, self-invention is not necessarily a phenomenon to be celebrated-even Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy felt the need to give her simple French roots an aristocratic gloss.
The idea that Wrightsman-with her aristocratic aura, connoisseurship, and quavering, carefully cultivated voice-was not to the manner born seems to pique the curiosity of many in the upwardly mobile, rootless world of
Ask her friends if she ever discusses her past and the response is invariably the same: "Never."
"Never," reiterates her stepgrandson Dana Dantine, when asked the same question. "That's the big mystery. Where did she come from?"
She was born Jane Kirkman Larkin on October 21, 1919, in
With the onset of the Depression, life in
Around 1933, Jane attended a
Jayne-who added the fanciful y in her name as a teenager-went on to attend
A series of mundane jobs followed high school. Some recall her working as a model and a merchandise manager, others as a bit player in movies. South American heir Nelson Seabra, now living in
The lack of a debutante background did not seem to prevent Larkin from being much in demand with the Hollywood in-group of socialites, playboys, and aspiring film stars who frequented press baron William Randolph Hearst's castle San Simeon, the Brown Derby restaurant, and the beach clubs along the Santa Monica strip. Her innate style and preternatural poise distinguished her, even then. The late artist Tony Duquette often spoke admiringly of her glamour. "He always remembered her at the beach in a one-piece white bathing suit against her tanned skin, long red nails, and diamond rings," says a friend of Duquette's. "The men used to lose at cards to her, on purpose!" Among those cardsharp losers were producer Delmer Daves, actor Randolph Scott, Cary Grant, and Townsend Netcher, a
"I knew her way back-in '37 and '38," recalls
By the early 1940s a dashing new player and potential "catch" arrived on the
He had been born in Pawnee,
There are suggestions of early physical vulnerability: Wrightsman was asthmatic as a child; at age six, according to his later friend and doctor Emanuel Papper, Charles had a tonsillectomy on the kitchen table, performed under ether, which left him with a lifelong fear of anesthesia and a terror of being smothered.
Wrightsman's was a privileged upbringing in most ways, with schooling at
Ruthless, restless, intolerant, and fascinated by technology in all forms, Wrightsman was the epitome of the aggressive tycoon. ("What other kind is there?" he once wondered.) "Charlie regarded money as a lubricant," writes British art historian John Pope-Hennessy in his 1991 memoir, Learning to Look. "Everything is for sale in the end" became the Wrightsman dictum.
"He was not construed to be a gentleman," said the late Mollie Wilmot, the niece of man-about-town T. Netcher, a fixture on the Los Angeles social circuit, "at least as I remember Cary [Grant] talking about him. Apparently they all liked him because he had a lot of money and he picked up the bills."
The warm climate of
How he met Jayne Larkin is unclear. Mollie Wilmot claimed that her uncle introduced them. An interview with Jayne from Good Housekeeping-a relic from the period in the 1960s when the couple did permit some carefully controlled publicity-recounts they met "at a dinner in
Wrightsman continued to see other women at first-including Martha Kemp, a socialite-though a
In the meantime, "Chuggy" Larkin continued to live on
Another neighbor, Victor Cusack, an architect, rented his guest cottage to Katherine Larkin, Jayne's reclusive younger sister, who seldom ventured from the house. "Both mother and sister were faithfully supported by Jayne and her husband in the years that I enjoyed their acquaintance," he recalled. He elaborated to me that the sister's rent was always paid by checks with Wrightsman's name.
Armed with a new, younger wife, Wrightsman was able to give full rein to his social ambitions. "He decided there were two ways to break into society," says a
He employed tutors and curators to transform her into a polished chatelaine who would be at ease in the drawing rooms of international society. "In the rough-and-tumble world of oil and gas, he was comfortable," says Dana Dantine, the son of Charles's daughter Charlene and the actor Helmut Dantine. "In the social world he was fearful. Jayne was his conduit." Thus the Pygmalion period began-an intricate pavane of hired mentors, in all realms, that would continue for decades. "Jayne could be molded, and she was willing to be molded," observes Dantine. "He had her taught everything," says a friend of many years.
In the process of transforming his wife, Charles was often brutally demanding of her. "If she didn't do everything perfectly," says a friend, "he made it clear there would be consequences." Another remembers dinners when "Charlie would say, 'Jayne, that picture doesn't hang straight!,' and she would stand up, take off her shoes, and adjust it, then and there." "He was terrible to her in front of other people," says a longtime acquaintance from the art world. "He would say things [to her] you couldn't conceive of saying, let alone at the dinner table."
At the same time, though, "he was very proud of her accomplishments," says Dr. Papper. "When she spoke French he thought it was like a miracle."
In the beginning of their married life,
For the first few years the couple was satisfied to live within the confines of the Williamses' taste-white-on-white Syrie Maugham interiors, then considered le dernier cri. But exposure to a wider world made clear there were others to emulate. During the decades that followed, from the 1950s through the 1970s, the Wrightsmans embodied the rapacious, acquisitive energy of gifted arrivistes-a phenomenon discernible from the Medici to J. P. Morgan.
Despite his wealth, Wrightsman was a shrewd spender-his budget may have been immense, but there remained a budget nevertheless. (In the 1960s, he was estimated to have spent about $16 million on furniture and paintings-a huge amount at the time.) "Charlie would always negotiate, and very often got his price," said the late Sir Francis Watson, the former head of the Wallace Collection in
Around this time Jayne met the elegant Stephane Boudin, head of the French design house Jansen, who was known for having advised the Duchess of Windsor and the Shah of Iran, among others. Jayne quickly absorbed his teaching, passing from the accessible realm of mere decoration into the challenging realm of connoisseurship, and, in particular, to the highly refined world of 18th-century French furniture, with its arcane distinctions and vernacular.
"Boudin was so adorable," she told art historian and friend Rosamond Bernier for an article in House & Garden. "We both loved him. He made a laugh out of everything. He found everything for us-the furniture, the boiseries, the porcelain, the parquets." (Four of the rooms in
Some say that Jayne "hated" the entrenched Old Guard society of
Whereas Jayne's fascination with the decorative arts may have begun as a diversion, it soon became a way of establishing her identity vis-a-vis her controlling husband, and yet also a consuming passion that would bind husband and wife. "Jayne recognized that his oil business could be managed without drudgery, that he was too old for sport, that gambling did not interest him, that yachting could never be a full-time occupation," wrote former National Gallery of Art director John Walker in his 1969 memoir, Self-Portrait with Donors. "What should she do to help him avoid his major problem, boredom? Why not dedicate themselves to art, to learning about it, to seeing it, to collecting it?" Carter Brown told me, "Charlie indulged Jayne. He knew these were appreciable assets and also that they were a social asset. And Jayne has a fabulous eye."
The Wrightsmans' social ascent was achieved not solely through collecting, but also with the creation of exquisite settings where important friends were entertained lavishly. In addition to the
Jayne concentrated on courting cultural figures. Carter Brown recalled John Walker and Jayne being "thick as thieves.... Jayne used John to meet Bernard Berenson. Berenson loved intelligent young women, particularly if they were rich." Early in her friendship with the fabled art historian she herself photographed the entire collection of the National Gallery-a project that involved several thousand slides-so that the elderly "B.B.," who had never been there, could scrutinize the paintings from I Tatti, his villa outside Florence.
The Wrightsmans spent extended periods in
The Wrightsmans were also early venturers to the
During the winter months in
The Dulles papers at
"The first time I went on a trip was in 1966, with [philanthropist] Mary Lasker," recalled Deeda Blair, sitting in her serene, light-filled
"Everyone would go down the ladder to swim, in order," she recalled, adding pointedly, "except for Tom Hoving, who would do a swan dive from the deck."
Carter Brown recalled this anecdote: "After dinner, the butlers would present two carafes, one with real coffee, another with decaf. You'd be asked which you wanted. One night Charles tossed and turned, didn't sleep, and bawled out Jayne, complaining about 'those stupid waiters.' He was rough on servants. The next day Jayne craftily instructed the staff to fill both carafes with decaf-so that, whatever happened, Charles would get what he wanted."
Blair, however, denies that Charles treated his wife harshly. "That doesn't mean that there wasn't a sharp, abrupt comment: 'Where's the car? Where's Moustafa [the guide]?' But he was devoted to her. Once Jayne had an appalling toothache. She was in great pain and was flown to
I ask whether she recalled any deviation from the schedule. "Once," she said, smiling slightly. "No. Twice."
By the 1960s the Wrightsmans' social position was secured when they became linked with the young John F. Kennedys. "The Kennedys made them," says a friend simply. As a Republican, Wrightsman had viewed his
It is not hard to see the affinities between Jackie and Jayne-both romantic historicists with a European bent, caretaking daughters of alcoholics, and survivors of tough, complex marriages that would in retrospect be re-invented.
"Jayne was a very good member of Jackie's White House [fine arts] committee," recalls Letitia Baldrige, Jackie's social secretary during the Camelot years. "She contributed a great deal and impressed everyone. Not pushy like some of the others.... Jackie later sought her friendship in
A Vogue story from 1964 features Jayne in front of the Georges de La Tour painting The Penitent Magdalen, which she and her husband had just acquired. The article details the "pleasurable obsession" of their apartment, where the rooms were maintained at a "72i temperature with the humidity at 55 percent" to accommodate the artworks. "Finally," the article concludes, "a simple historic document rests on a mantelpiece in Mrs. Wrightsman's bedroom-an invitation to a masked ball in honor of the marriage at
Photographed by Cecil Beaton in a Balenciaga gown covered in pink ostrich plumes, Jayne is described in a 1966 Vogue profile as a "coolly amused, prompt, accurate woman," and her scholarship is emphasized. The article includes this rhapsodic but no less evocative description of the interior at 820 Fifth Avenue: "The coral-tangerine velvet of certain chairs, for instance, the faded Antwerp blue and ivory of others, or the daffodil yellow of toile-de-Juoy curtains are demure foils for the lustrous enamelled boxes and gleaming candelabra; the brilliantly coloured Meissen porcelain birds by Kaendler placed in niches on the walls of the library in the New York apartment add to this atmosphere of levitation."
The surface of the Wrightsmans' lives, as polished as the veneer of a Riesener commode, deflected attention from the turmoil and tragedy that continued to haunt Charles from his first marriage. "I do remember that Granddaddy didn't want any more children," recalls Stephanie Wrightsman, the daughter of Wrightsman's elder daughter, Irene. "Because, in his mind, Mummy and Aunt Charlene had been devastations to him." Charles's first wife, Irene, drank herself to death in 1963; a month later, Charlene overdosed on sleeping pills and died, at age 36; and two years later, in 1965, came the death from pills and alcohol of Irene, at 40.
Many blamed Wrightsman himself, among them young Irene's onetime suitor actor Kirk Douglas, whose career and Jewish background were disapproved of by her father. "He was one of the richest men in the country, and one of the meanest," writes
"There were a lot of levels-like a Bronte novel," reflects Dana Dantine. He and his half-brother, Alex Cassini, both now living in
"She made an effort," remembers Dantine. "I don't think she has a maternal bone in her body, but she was not unkind. She acted very honorably.... She got stuck with all the dirty work. Running their lives, cleaning up after him, straightening up things." His grandfather, he believes, was "a scared man. He attempted to build a bastion of wealth to protect himself. And of course he was very controlling.
"When I would stay with them [as a teenager] in
The two men show none of the bitterness of Stephanie Wrightsman, the eldest grandchild, now living in
"I spent a lot of time in the servants' quarters," she reminisces ruefully. "They had swell digs. And there were dogs."
The tragedies did not, however, arrest the couple's restless social ascent, nor that of their splendid furniture, objets d'art, and paintings, which continued their inevitable progress-from the Palm Beach house to the New York apartment, and, finally, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gilded boiseries from the Hotel de Cabris, in
In 1975, Charles retired as an active trustee of the Met and was designated a trustee emeritus. The same year, Jayne was appointed a trustee in her own right, presaging her period of intense involvement with the museum that continues to this day. The 1970s began that "golden age for acquisitions" which John Pope-Hennessy recalls in Learning to Look. "Mrs. Wrightsman's leadership with Tom Hoving and John Pope-Hennessy will always be remembered as a great period," observes Barnabas McHenry, a longtime trustee and conservationist. "A lot of people then followed."
The Wrightsmans were among those with whom the famously stringent Pope-Hennessy worked well: some credit "the Pope's influence in shifting their focus to paintings from decorative arts. "Never in its history can the Department of European Paintings have received a succession of gifts of such high quality," Pope-Hennessy wrote of his tenure as chairman, which began in 1977. The list of paintings the couple donated is, indeed, staggering: a Tiepolo, a Poussin, a de La Tour, a Jacques-Louis David (the immense portrait Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife), an early El Greco, and a Vermeer, Study of a Young Woman, which had previously hung in the
By 1983, Charles's health had begun to fail; a series of debilitating strokes prompted his wife to take over his business affairs, as well as the running of the homes and the supervision of the collection. Even so, the meticulous way of life continued unabated. "Charles married this seemingly fragile bird," says a current friend, "but she wasn't fragile at all."
Visitors-interior designer Robert Denning and Susan Gutfreund, wife of banker John Gutfreund, among them-recall the exquisite lunches at home, with Charles immaculately dressed in Duke of Windsoresque plaids, attended by a coterie of Irish nurses. "She was the best wife of all time," recalls Denning, who was also struck by the fact that "the nurses were all middle-aged and efficient and looked like her."
"Every day the table would be set for lunch beautifully," recalls Susan Gutfreund, who had become a Jayne Wrightsman acolyte. "The perfect flowers, the perfect food. That extraordinary discipline and elegance." Many today still cite the classic French cuisine. A trademark of the house was an hors d'oeuvre made of small globes of foie gras, covered with a fine layer of glazed black truffle. One guest, who attended a dinner on Saint Patrick's Day, recalled a dessert fashioned as a "piece montee of spun sugar, in the shape of an Irishman's derby."
In 1984 the Wrightsmans placed the house in
Few saw Charles Wrightsman in the last years of his life. "When he was dying, I wrote Jayne and asked to see him," recalls Dana Dantine. "We were sitting in that little room-on
He died on May 27, 1986, leaving his entire estate to his wife in a will that was never contested. "From my point of view," says Dantine, echoing the attitude of the other grandchildren, "it was perfectly just. Jayne certainly worked for it."
Thus, in 1987, a new era began for Jayne Wrightsman. "A blossoming period," George Weidenfeld calls it. "In a sense, Jayne's life began when her husband died," muses another, "rather like Brooke [Astor]." A close friend observes, "American society is run by women, not by men, and especially by widows with great fortunes. Jayne is part of that old regime."
Two other widows from the "old regime" would remain her friends-Astor, 17 years her senior, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had continued to live at
The continuing friendship with Onassis was based on the shared history of the White House restoration-the former First Lady never forgot Wrightsman's contribution. Onassis also viewed Wrightsman with compassion, several friends recall. "I knew her when she was married to that awful man," she would say. The relationship never deepened beyond a purely social level, perhaps because Onassis's interests had continued to evolve after the White House years. "Jackie was a real intellectual," says one person who knew them both. "Very hip, very literary, interested in everything-including pop culture." And yet Wrightsman was among those few friends called to Onassis's deathbed, and, with Bunny Mellon, helped organize her funeral.
If Onassis shared her friend's sense of privacy and distrust of the press, Brooke Astor represents the opposite: a canny extrovert who, according to a friend, "casts a very wide web." The difference extends not only to their style but also to the charities they sponsor. While Wrightsman focuses on the arts, Astor's reach extends to literacy and
To many, however, Wrightsman's involvement with the arts and her highly visible role at the
Yet Wrightsman can be prickly in bestowing her favor. The close mentorship between Wrightsman and Susan Gutfreund became part of Upper East Side lore; so did its eventual cooling, which one friend attributes to Gutfreund's eagerness and the fact that Wrightsman "hates being possessed by people." The rift has generated its own mythology, even reaching the shores of the
The portraits of Wrightsman by those within her circle and by those beyond it can only be likened to seeing two contrasting profiles in a diptych. Barbara Walters calls her "sweet and funny"; others mention her dry, occasionally self-deprecating wit. Still others say she is "warm," even "girlish," and unfailingly generous in her thoughtfulness, which extends to her constant gifts. Yet many beyond her inner sphere view her as cold and even "excluding." ("'Cozy' is a word that will never be associated with her," says an art-world expert wryly.) Still others criticize Wrightsman for the hermetic, "stiff" quality of her circle (the de la Rentas, the Basses, the Kissingers, Jacob Rothschild, Barbara Walters, Lady Grace Dudley and her companion, New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers). "It's like a game of musical chairs-everyone's afraid to take his eye off his chair, as if someone else might get it," says an acquaintance.
No one, however, disputes the diligence, focus, and intelligence that she applies to her museum work. "There's nothing of a dilettante in Jayne," says fellow trustee Annette de la Renta, who succeeded Wrightsman as head of the
Such largesse is not without its privileges, among them the ability to organize and control a rarefied world of connoisseurship and divertissement. During the past several years, the personae in Wrightsman's set-including Everett Fahy, Philippe de Montebello, and the de la Rentas-have accompanied her on several trips to
It was January, the deep of winter, when the silver birches are skeletal and the bronze, lion-paw-footed jardinieres along the colonnade are mounded with snow. The cold was impenetrable, as Oscar de la Renta recalls it: "Jayne had organized our ride, on sleds. It was unbelievably cold. Finally we came to the Rose Pavilion, and she said, 'Let's go inside.'" The group entered the interior, with its feminine, rose motif. "It was about 11 in the morning," he continues. "To our surprise it was heated, and there was Russian music, as well as some food-little piroshki and some vodka. She had it all organized, you see ... " He pauses, searching for the right words. "But in a very gentle way. Almost invisibly."
COPYRIGHT 2003 All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of The CondÃ© Nast Publications Inc.