20 February 2009

Mrs. Charles B. Wrightsman

Jayne's World.

Art Collector Jayne Wrightsman

Vanity Fair

January, 2003

Intensely private and utterly controlled, Jayne Wrightsman inhabits the pinnacle of New York society as one of the late 20th century's greatest art collectors. But even friends know little of her life before she married Charles Wrightsman, who left her his vast oil fortune in 1986. From Wrightsman's turbulent youth to her bond with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to her impact on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, FRANCESCA STANFILL charts the making of a grande dame

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; New York's elite filled the hall: music as elixir, but also as social draw. ("I hate opera, but I love my wife," financier Saul Steinberg once famously remarked.) The mood was highly charged, though the audience itself looked subdued, with few of the glittering necklaces and important brooches that signify, in that rarefied world at least, the ebb and flow of affluence. In their stead: the severe, driven chic intrinsic to a certain echelon of New York society and which seemed, that night, more than usually appropriate.

After the audience joined in an emotional chorus of "God Bless America," it leapt to its feet to applaud Daniel Rodriguez, the Police Department tenor who had sung it onstage.

Among those who rose, in Box 45 of the first tier, were three reed-thin, dark-haired women, dressed in column-like black. Two would be familiar to many in the audience-or, indeed, to anyone who knew the highly chronicled beau monde of New York City: on one side, Annette de la Renta, philanthropist and elegant wife of the designer Oscar de la Renta, and, on the other, Mercedes Bass, second wife of Texas billionaire Sid Bass. The fragile-looking older woman whom they flanked-and who continued to clap in her singular slow, intense way-was a far less familiar figure: rarely photographed, intensely private, deeply shy, wary of publicity, seemingly chilly and excluding to those beyond her protective inner sanctum, Jayne Wrightsman is nevertheless considered by many to be the grande dame of New York society and one of the great art collectors and museum patronesses of the last part of the 20th century.

Galleries of French decorative arts in her and her late husband Charles's name remain among the treasures of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. A close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with whom she shared a love of France, an elusiveness, and an ability to keep secrets, she served as the First Lady's mentor during the 1961-63 restoration of the White House-while "giving Jackie all the credit," according to Washington philanthropist Deeda Blair, who knew both.

"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 Washington's National Gallery of Art, several months before his untimely death in June of last year, "I always championed her, because so few who have money also have the taste and the smarts. She really understands, and she really loves art."

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 and Fifth Avenue luxury; her marriage of over 40 years, to Charles Wrightsman, a brilliant but brutal wildcatter born in Oklahoma; and her enigmatic beginnings in the Midwest and in Hollywood.

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 New York society. "She has vaulted ahead of the people to whom she once aspired," says an art-world insider.

"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 Metropolitan Museum.

"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 New York's other and far more visible grandes dames, the still-saucy 100-year-old Brooke Astor, with her expansive range of causes and acquaintances and flair for publicity. Though the two women are friends, another art-world insider confides, "The only one Brooke used to be jealous of is Jayne."

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 New York. Part of it is jealousy of her unassailable position; part of it is the age-old fascination with the rags-to-riches story. Theories about her early days, and her early jobs, abound, yet these, paradoxically, only enhance the legend. "What I was always told," said Carter Brown, "was that she had a job as a bathing-suit model at a department store in Los Angeles. Charlie saw her and said, 'I want that-the girl, not the suit.'"

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 Flint, Michigan. At the time, the city was thriving, fueled by the booming automobile industry. From the town's historical records we know that her father, Frederick Larkin, was president of the Realty Construction Company; her mother, Aileen, was born in Alabama. The family included an older brother, Frederick junior; another brother, Lawrence (who is still alive, but declined to speak for this article); and a sister, Katherine. In the 1920s the Larkins lived on Garland Street, in a prosperous neighborhood. What happened in the years that followed is not clear. According to city directories of the time, by 1931 Frederick senior was living at the Durant Hotel; perhaps there were marital problems.

With the onset of the Depression, life in Flint grew more difficult: like many of that generation the Larkins, minus Frederick senior, went west, to balmy Los Angeles, where life looked more promising. The film industry was in its golden age, and the city itself seemingly immune from midwestern grimness.

Around 1933, Jane attended a Los Angeles public junior high school, John Burroughs. A classmate recalls her as being impeccably turned out, "outgoing and friendly. Her dresses were perfectly ironed-better than everyone else's." Says this friend, "It came as a shock to learn later that she had a turbulent home life. What I was told was that her mother neglected Jane." The whiskey-voiced Aileen Larkin-nicknamed "Chuggy"-was spending much of her time, it seems, frequenting Cafe Gala, a fashionable nightclub much in vogue with Hollywood's arty set. "Chuggy came alive at night," says a Cafe Gala acquaintance, who remembers her raucous deep-southern accent, and how startlingly different she was from her daughter.

Jayne-who added the fanciful y in her name as a teenager-went on to attend Los Angeles High School, according to a classmate. (Her name does not appear in the yearbooks, however.) "The boys called her Little Egypt," says the classmate, remembering her dark hair, which she wore in a pageboy, and her sophisticated use of makeup, especially eyeliner. "She was always ahead of the curve." According to telephone directories of the time, by the late 1930s the Larkins were living on Spalding Drive, and then on Robbins Drive, in the less fashionable area of Beverly Hills, south of Wilshire Boulevard.

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 Paris, remembers her as "a very pretty girl who worked at Saks in the glove department."

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 Chicago department-store heir. "Whenever we needed an extra girl, we called her," says Seabra.

"I knew her way back-in '37 and '38," recalls Palm Beach, Florida, resident Charles Amory, an assistant movie producer at the time. "I remember the mother was sort of pushing the daughter. I took Jayne to San Simeon a couple of times, where we sat with old man Hearst." In 1941, Larkin was said to have been smitten with Phil Kellogg, a producer more intent on chasing the gorgeous young heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who was visiting Hollywood that summer. Larkin also met Slim Hawks (later Slim Keith), the wife of the director Howard Hawks. "Slim used to say that Jayne was the only extra girl who was respectable," recalls a friend. "Men liked her, and she always behaved impeccably." Adds Slim's daughter Kitty Hawks, now an interior designer in New York, "My mother admired two things about her-the things she learned and her discipline."

By the early 1940s a dashing new player and potential "catch" arrived on the Hollywood scene-the recently divorced oilman and crack polo player Charles Bierer Wrightsman.

He had been born in Pawnee, Oklahoma, on June 13, 1895, the son of Charles John Wrightsman, a lawyer, and his wife, the former Edna Lawing. The elder Wrightsman made a fortune in Oklahoma oil and was credited with helping to devise the oil-depletion allowance, a tax break meant to encourage the development of new oil wells. An avid investor in the stock market, he lost and won his fortune several times-hence, many say, certain of his son's insecurities and distrust of securities. ("Charlie never owned a single share of stock," says Deeda Blair.)

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 Phillips Exeter Academy, Stanford, and Columbia. "He was well educated, but, at the same time, he grew up carrying a pistol," says Everett Fahy, who would become a close friend, and who is now the chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum. After serving as a navy pilot in the First World War, Wrightsman, at the age of 23, began a career in oil exploration by conducting a survey of Russian oil fields, later going on to develop oil properties in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and California. By 1932 he had been elected president of the reorganized Standard Oil Company of Kansas, where he would make his first millions. His life was not without glamour: he earned a reputation as a tournament polo player and owned championship ponies that competed internationally.

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 Los Angeles and the availability of starlets were clearly a draw for Wrightsman, who had, by 1942, divorced his first wife, the pretty, genteel, but fragile Irene Stafford. An alcoholic, she was the mother of Wrightsman's two daughters, Irene and Charlene.

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 California."

Wrightsman continued to see other women at first-including Martha Kemp, a socialite-though a Los Angeles friend recalls the first sign of the growing seriousness of his liaison with Larkin: a full-length mink coat. Around that time, when Wrightsman developed lip cancer, the die was cast-during his hospital stay in Palm Beach, Kemp focused on her social life, while Larkin remained at his bedside and steadfastly attended to his every need. They were married on March 28, 1944, in St. Augustine, Florida.

In the meantime, "Chuggy" Larkin continued to live on Horn Avenue in West Hollywood. A neighbor at the time describes this chiaroscuro scene: "I got one of Aileen's letters by accident and delivered it to her one day," he recalls. "I went inside, to see a small group in the back, playing cards. Looked like a group of old actresses and actors. Aileen was a character, with a deep, crackling bourbon voice, very loud and telling jokes. A heavy smoker and a night owl who slept all day. There were many large photographs in silver frames. 'That's Jayne, my daughter, the Mrs. Wrightsman,' she would say. 'She doesn't want me back there on the East Coast with her highfalutin friends.' She wasn't resentful about this-just flatly making a statement."

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 New York art dealer, "horses or art. He chose art."

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, Palm Beach beckoned-an attractive venue for the Wrightsmans, one perhaps less daunting to a Texas oilman than fortresslike New York, where the couple lived at the Pierre. A visit to the home of Mona and Harrison Williams-he a prominent utilities executive, she a famous green-eyed beauty and Mainbocher-dressed woman of style-greatly impressed the Wrightsmans, who soon expressed a desire to buy the estate: six manicured acres of oceanfront, with a Spanish-style house designed in the 1920s by Maurice Fatio. As it turned out the house became available in 1947, when the Williamses' financial difficulties prompted them to sell to Wrightsman.

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 London and, along with the Louvre's Pierre Verlet, a crucial early adviser. As so often happens with collectors, price and availability influenced direction. The stolid English antiques fashionable in postwar New York had become difficult to find and inordinately expensive, whereas French furniture of great quality was still cheap.

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 Palm Beach had parquet floors from the Palais Royal in Paris.) The result was a chateau by the sea with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper in the drawing room that, today, seems curiously incongruous with spirit of place.

Some say that Jayne "hated" the entrenched Old Guard society of Palm Beach, which she viewed as provincial and philistine. "There were not any kindred spirits who could talk Louis-Louis," said Carter Brown wryly. Celebrated friends were imported. "It was like staying at a grand house in England," recalls Everett Fahy, "always a house party, all the bedrooms filled. At every meal, there were people like [art historian] Kenneth Clark, Cecil Beaton, [hostess and Democratic Party supporter] Marietta Tree."

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 Palm Beach house, they bought European collector Renee de Becker's Manhattan apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue, which was eventually filled with great paintings and much of the furniture that would come to appoint the Wrightsman Rooms at the Met. The couple worked ceaselessly in their home offices, not only cataloguing the art collection, but also keeping up an extensive correspondence with the right people. In January 1953, Charles wrote to Allen Dulles, who had been his lawyer for many years, "Heartiest congratulations on being made head of the Central Intelligence Agency. You and Foster [Dulles, Allen's brother, who was Eisenhower's secretary of state,] will make a fine team.... However, don't work too hard and don't forget to pay us a visit in Florida."

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 London, where they bought an apartment in St. James's Place, overlooking Green Park. In Paris, where Jayne frequented the couture houses, they stayed at the Ritz, and in Venice they held court on a chartered yacht. Writer Nancy Mitford met them in Venice and announced that Charles spoke "exactly like Hector Dexter in my book" (her 1960 novel, Don't Tell Alfred, which featured an overbearing American businessman). The Wrightsmans were, in fact, among the few Americans the acerbic Mitford ever liked. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh she writes, "Old Chourlie [sic] is the 7th richest man & about the 4th nastiest but I love him, he makes me scream with laughter. Yesterday he announced sadly that the Ritz is an undeveloped area. [Wrightsman had a theory that undiscovered oil lay beneath Paris.] He is always rather sad. Weighs himself twice a day." She describes Jayne as "Head girl of N.Y. charm school, not bad at all."

The Wrightsmans were also early venturers to the Soviet Union, first in 1956 and then again in 1967, when they were accompanied by Thomas Hoving. "They were absolutely the prince and princess," he recalls. "They came with lots of American cash and lived as well as you possibly could. They were loved by the people in power. Charlie said [the Russians] had the best education. The best police." He adds, "Charlie just wanted to do business there. They knew every curator in the Hermitage and would entertain them immensely well."

During the winter months in Palm Beach, while Wrightsman conducted his oil business and surveyed geological maps, he also made up the exhaustive itineraries for what would become his famous yacht trips, which featured a glamorous mix of cafe society and curators. Nowhere are his precision, mania for detailed planning, and curiosity more apparent than in these astonishingly crafted schedules. A friend recalls the itinerary and an extensive reading list, which were delivered months in advance in a red leather dossier.

The Dulles papers at Princeton University include the itinerary of the 1951 "Cruise of the Elpetal" (length, 247.6 feet precisely, with a weight of 1,108 tons), from June 4 until October 18. The 8,864-nautical-mile, four-month trip began at Gibraltar and, after circling the Mediterranean, ended at Naples. No detail is omitted from the itinerary, including timed breaks for swimming. Even such splashy resorts as Cannes were dignified with sober historical context-"Twice destroyed by the Moors and nearby where Napoleon landed on his escape from Elba in 1815."

"The first time I went on a trip was in 1966, with [philanthropist] Mary Lasker," recalled Deeda Blair, sitting in her serene, light-filled Washington, D.C., living room early one afternoon last spring. She leafed through an extravagantly large, linen-covered photo album, lined with endpapers of Florentine marbled paper. The album was devoted to Wrightsman's cruises-"1966-Voyage into Antiquity" announces the itinerary of a cruise aboard the Radiant. Like others, Blair remembered the sumptuous details of the trips: the daiquiris made by Hampshire, the butler; the "mattresses from Claridge's and the heated towel racks"; the perfectly organized meals; and the cast of characters that included Thomas and Nancy Hoving, Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, and Cecil Beaton-"in Carnaby Street garb-green one night, then pink, and, another night, mauve....

"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 London for two days. He was in agony while she was away." She pauses, adding, "But Charlie was very exacting."

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 Palm Beach neighbor Joseph Kennedy with some skepticism, but through the Boudin connection Jacqueline Kennedy had become a friend and admirer of Jayne's-evidence that Jayne, increasingly, was fulfilling the role her husband had planned for her as a facilitator of advantageous relationships. The Kennedys were frequent guests at the Palm Beach house-after the birth of John junior, Jackie spent time there. The immense saltwater pool, heated to 90 degrees, was a boon for the president and his bad back.

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 New York-they were not warm, cozy friends, exactly. But Jackie wasn't like that with anyone." Jayne's pivotal role in the White House restoration included acting as liaison with Boudin and Sister Parish, its designers, as well as contributing funds for the Blue Room redesign. This ushered in the period of carefully controlled publicity for the Wrightsmans, during the glamorizing era of Diana Vreeland's Vogue.

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 Versailles of the Monseigneur Le Dauphin in 1745."

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 Douglas in his 1988 memoir, The Ragman's Son. "He was cruel and selfish, and demanded that his two beautiful daughters be ornamental and obedient.... If they did not please him, he would just cut them off without a cent. So he kept them in a constant state of turmoil." As for Jayne's role, says a New York social figure, "she tried to help with the girls, but Charlie would have nothing to do with it."

"There were a lot of levels-like a Bronte novel," reflects Dana Dantine. He and his half-brother, Alex Cassini, both now living in California, recall their grandfather with a wistful sadness. Cassini describes him as a "complex character" and an "enigma ... What he was haunted by, I do not really know. Jayne was very pleasant with me, but there was never much of a relationship."

"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 New York," Dantine continues, "he would always have me followed. When I went on an escapade, he would tell me about it the next morning.... That muscle-trust-didn't develop in him. He couldn't just ask what someone had done-he had to have him followed."

The two men show none of the bitterness of Stephanie Wrightsman, the eldest grandchild, now living in Palm Beach. "We were brats from another marriage," she says edgily. "Granddaddy viewed my mother and aunt as failures. But the marriage with Jayne definitely worked. She became the kind of wife he always wished for. I would have resented it if someone said, as he would [to her], 'Take this down.' But it didn't seem to faze her.

"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 Grasse, which had lined the couple's New York dining room, were among the treasures donated to the Met beginning in the mid-1960s, as was a red lacquered desk commissioned by Louis XV for his study at Versailles. Everett Fahy tells the story of a Savonnerie carpet, which had been installed at the Fifth Avenue apartment. "We were having lunch one day," recalls Fahy. "And someone-I can't remember who-dropped a cigarette on it. Peter Wilson [then head of Sotheby's] was alarmed and said, 'That's a $2 million carpet!' Charlie had it brought to the Met the next day." The galleries devoted to French decorative arts-named for the couple-were begun in 1966 and continually honed during the following 15 years.

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 New York apartment. In 1986, Jayne added a Northern Italian painting by Lorenzo Lotto-the work Pope-Hennessy most admired-to the collection, the subject of which seems a curious choice for a woman who has been described by one good friend as being "almost Victorian in her prudery." "It shows a naked Venus lying on a blue cloth spread on the ground," writes Pope-Hennessy of the Lotto. "[The Venus] wears a gold-jeweled diadem and, with her right hand, holds up a laurel wreath through which a naked Cupid playfully urinates."

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 Palm Beach up for sale, with an asking price of $12 million. Sotheby's subsequently auctioned the contents in early May of that year-the first of the spectacular "lifestyle" sales that would fuel the possession-avid 80s and 90s. The Wrightsmans, who in 1951 had sat on their yacht in Venice as society flocked to the de Beistegui Ball, to which they had not been invited, were now widely viewed as Old Money. At the auction many clamored for objects and furniture with the Wrightsman imprimatur; even seashells collected by Jayne on her beach walks were sold for 10 times the estimate, at $1,650. Among the most enthusiastic buyers were Detroit tycoon Alfred Taubman, then the new owner of Sotheby's and now in prison for price-fixing, and his flamboyant second wife, Judy. The sale, originally estimated to fetch about $2 million, totaled more than $4 million. (The house itself, bought by the Limited C.E.O. Leslie Wexner, was eventually razed to make way for a new mansion.)

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 Fifth Avenue. He had a nurse, and he said to the nurse at one point, 'Come on, honey, I want to give you a Texas squeeze.' We were looking at an art book together, though he was drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point, he took Jayne's hand. She was wearing a beautiful ring, and he said, 'Isn't that beautiful?' Not in a boastful way, but in an appreciative way-he appreciated the beauty of the ring, on this finger, on this hand. He stroked her hand, and I felt the glance between them."

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 1040 Fifth Avenue, in an apartment Jayne had found for her in 1964. "There they would be," recalls Letitia Baldrige of Onassis and Wrightsman, "two women of great wealth having hamburgers at [the now defunct Manhattan society haunt] Mortimer's."

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 Harlem. "Mrs. Wrightsman does not have anything to do with unpleasant things," says an observer, "aids, for instance, or cancer." (One source, though, says that Wrightsman gives anonymously to many causes-especially medical research and libraries.)

To many, however, Wrightsman's involvement with the arts and her highly visible role at the Metropolitan Museum serve only to corroborate her impregnable social status; indeed, her taste and expertise have come to represent a sort of apotheosis at a time when it is no longer sufficient merely to be an able hostess. Many have tried to compete in the ne plus ultra realm of decor-Susan Gutfreund and Mercedes Bass among them-all much younger women, with husbands who indulge the desire for a splendid setting. These aspirants have tried to absorb the Wrightsman alchemy: how one dresses, entertains, selects jewels, and creates an enviable room. And to a fortunate few, Wrightsman herself imparts the lessons-a role she seems to enjoy.

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 Mediterranean. In Palermo recently I met an antiques dealer who, at the mention of the Wrightsman collection, felt compelled to inform me confidentially, "I hear Mrs. Wrightsman and Mrs. Gutfreund are no longer close."

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 Metropolitan Museum acquisition committee in 1997. Wrightsman has come to a point in her life, says Swiss art consultant Alain Gruber, a frequent traveling companion, where "she wants to admire things. But she does not want to possess them." Gruber-who also describes Wrightsman's temperament as coming from "the North"-is among those who have helped to propel her to a new involvement with Russia. Some say it is prompted partly by her fondness-even "passion"-for the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and his opera productions at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Others mention her respect for Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, an archaeologist who is now director of the Hermitage. "She's better than a czarina," says Piotrovsky with an appreciative chuckle, going on to discuss Wrightsman's key role, by donating money, in the restoration of the General Staff Building, the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs, opposite the Winter Palace, which has been developed into a museum for the decorative arts.

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 Russia, "in the heat and in the snow," says Annette de la Renta. (These are latter-day versions, perhaps, of Charles's yacht trips.) Oscar de la Renta recalls such a trip several winters ago. One morning the group traveled to Pavlovsk, the neoclassical summer palace of the czars, recently restored to its former splendor, in a project of 45 years.

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 Condé Nast Publications Inc.


  1. raymond ffoulkes18 September, 2012

    What truly terrible people...

  2. I met Dana Dantine many years ago as a young girl. We vacationed in Shahola, Pa. At a place called Rockview Manor. He would be their with his governess. His father would come and visit and the mothers would all be excited about getting his autograph. This was around 1952,1953.