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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 …