When Jayne Wrightsman, art collector, society maven, trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a stiletto in a velvet glove, died at her home at 820 Fifth Ave. on Saturday at age 99, it was the end of an era.
Wrightsman may have been nouveau riche, but her taste and style were a calculated homage to an aristocratic way of life that she reinvented and then outlived.
One of the museum’s greatest benefactors, she gave it works of art and objects of decor that harkened back, as did she, to a time when taste was inextricably linked to great wealth. Her gifts — paintings by Delacroix, Vermeer, El Greco, Rubens, de La Tour, and Tiepolo, and 18th- and 19th-century decorative objects, many crafted for the kings of France — went from her homes to the museum’s suite of Wrightsman Rooms and reflected her ability to make herself and her surroundings over in the image of Bourbon France.
Brooke Astor, Jane Engelhard, Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis all predeceased her, making her the last of a breed. So it’s a little ironic to note that Wrightsman had no breeding to speak of.
She was born in 1920 in Flint, Mich., to Frederick “Fritz” Larkin, then a contractor, although later a State Department architect who may have been undercover for the OSS or CIA (it’s unclear), and his wife, Chuggy Larkin, a whiskey-voiced Southern-accented nightclub habituée. Chuggy brought Jayne to the unfashionable outskirts of Beverly Hills in the 1930s; the husband stayed behind.
‘These people know how to work their prestige and power…they run [the museum] to settle scores and control New York socially as much as to exhibit art.’
After high school, Jayne took the sorts of jobs a pretty girl could get in Depression-era Hollywood, working in retail and modeling, and nibbling at the edges of filmdom. Years later, she would entertain a dinner partner with the tale of a visit as a teenager to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, where his mistress, Marion Davies, took her to the bathroom to sip from a bottle of liquor she kept hidden in the toilet tank.
Jayne’s gossip-column mentions came fast and often in 1938. The column Chatterbox championed her, often running a photo of her with a toothy smile in a sombrero.
That October, her name and Charlie Wrightsman’s appeared in Chatterbox on the same day for the first time. The Oklahoma oil baron had just divorced his wife, Irene (giving her a paltry $ 100,000, though by then he had tens of millions), and begun making the columns himself as he started playing the field.
Jayne was close to two other eligible young women, Esme O’Brien and Lillian Fox, a former model — and the three had a bet as to “who would marry a rich man first,” says an LA girl-about-town. Jayne Larkin came in last in their marital horse race — more men intervened before she found her Prince Charming — but in the end, she won the richest prize.
At the time, Charlie was two-timing another girlfriend, the recently divorced wife of the actor Victor Mature. When Charlie was hospitalized with lip cancer in Palm Beach and summoned them both, Jayne, encouraged by the gift of a mink coat, glued herself to his side, while her rival hit the social circuit.
“Charlie needed someone to look after him,” a Palm Beach heiress remembered 50 years later. “He thought he was dying, so he married Jayne. Well, he didn’t die then. The poor girl.”
The Wrightsmans ended up in New York City by way of Palm Beach. Charlie had decided to storm the gates of society.
Collecting would be their ticket in; his wife should make that her new hobby. He played Pygmalion with the willing Jayne, hiring tutors to teach her French and proper English, table manners, interior decor, and art. He frequently slapped her down in public and warned her not to speak to others, lest she make a fool of herself. He brutalized her into becoming the wife he wanted.
Instead of revolting, she acquiesced, buckled down, and turned herself into a vision of culture and elegance.
She’d begun with imitation, then studied with many mentors. One was John Walker, the chief curator and then director of the National Gallery of Art. He met them in Venice during the 1951 Biennale at a Brandolini palazzo and afterward at cocktails on Charlie’s yacht. The slim, chic Jayne riveted him with her gray-blue eyes and quickly drew him out.
Jayne studied diligently and realized that connoisseurship would not only give her and Charlie the respectability they so craved, but also give her room to breathe within her privileged, suffocating marriage. Beginning in 1952, she not only spent Charlie’s money on what would become one of the great fine French furniture collections of her era, but sought out experts and read and memorized every fact she could gather on the subject.
Throughout the 1950s, the Wrightsmans’ treasure hoard grew — Jayne picking things out, Charlie negotiating their purchase. By 1956, Charlie had joined the Met’s board of directors.
By 1966, an inventory of their possessions, their makers, and their previous owners would have boasted such names as Louis XV and XVI, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Marie Antoinette, the duchess Marie Feodorovna, Meissen, Tiepolo, Vermeer, La Tour, Canaletto, Poussin, Lotto, El Greco, David, Renoir and Houdon.
Acquisitions didn’t equal respect, though, and the Wrightsmans remained slightly suspect.
Marina Cassini, daughter of the gossip columnist Igor, never liked the Wrightsmans, even though she was flown to Palm Beach on private planes for holidays with them.
She found Charlie “extremely cold,” she said. “He’d flip silver dollars in the pool and we’d dive and get them.” Jayne struck her as bizarre. “Very affected and always very subservient to Charlie, but also very poised and very controlled, very distant, very smooth. She never showed emotion, but then neither did he. They were cold, calculating, creepy people.”
Among the Wrightsmans’ Palm Beach neighbors were Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Although Charlie was a Republican, proximity, money (by then, he had $ 100 million) and dinners that started with a pound of caviar helped them bond.
In 1958, Charlie sent a letter to the interior designer Stéphane Boudin to introduce him to Jacqueline Kennedy, who had married Jack five years before. Although he said she was unlikely to be a major customer, Charlie added a postscript: “But who knows — she may some day be first lady.”
Thanks to John F. Kennedy, Charlie and Jayne were moving into the first circle.
“Each could help the other,” said Kennedy’s White House social secretary, Letitia Baldridge. “Charlie was a source of money for Jack’s campaign.” In return, the Kennedys gave the Wrightsmans an aura of “glamour and excitement,” she continued. “Jackie was a bridge” to real society, and “Jayne was thrilled” to walk over it.
Just after Kennedy’s election in November 1960, Jayne joined a committee to restore and redecorate the White House and would shortly donate $ 500,000 worth of tapestries and furniture to the effort. The Wrightsmans’ relationship with the Kennedys became broadly known in May 1961, when the president and Jackie were their houseguests in Palm Beach. In June, Kennedy, suffering from the back pain that had plagued him since he’d almost been killed in World War II, returned to the Wrightsmans’, saying he needed to swim in Charlie’s heated saltwater pool for therapy.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, Jayne helped Jackie find a new home at 1040 Fifth Ave., just a few blocks from the Met. Then the former first lady joined them on an August cruise of the Adriatic on-board a 188-foot, 690-ton yacht, Radiant II, rented from the Greek shipping tycoon Basil Mavroleon.
Passenger Thomas Hoving, the Met’s then-director, described its luxury in his memoir.
“To cruise with the Wrightsmans was to live in a floating, high-tech Versailles,” he wrote. “One was surrounded by modern technology but expected to play at an 18th-century pace, sedate and dreamy . . . There were so many maids that I’d leave a sport shirt on my bed for a 15-minute swim and by the time I returned, it would be laundered and ironed.”
Jayne was defined by her contradictions. In 1966, she and Charlie had been lovingly profiled by Vogue as the consummate collectors of their age. “Her face is beautiful. The clear, high brow, the serene gaze . . .”
Four years later, Cecil Beaton, who had photographed the Vogue spread, captured a remarkable change. “It is tragic to see how aged she has become,” he wrote, “shrunk and wrinkled, and one wonders whether it is worthwhile suffering for so much of her life. Yet if she left him, she could be penniless.”
Hoving’s widow, Nancy, tolerated the Wrightsmans, but only barely. After she asked them to give to her favorite cause, the drug-rehabilitation center Phoenix House, and Jayne replied that they didn’t give “to pauper institutions,” Nancy decided they were a “cold, greedy, selfish pair of racists and fascists” and never sailed on Radiant II again.
Theodore Rousseau, a curator and Hoving’s No. 2, considered Charlie an amusing poseur and Jayne a “brave and somewhat pathetic courtesan.” Behind her back, he nicknamed her the American Geisha, “both a contrivance and a caricature,” who had “sold out to wealth, power and what she realized was going to be the highest rank of society she would ever achieve. He gave her everything she wanted but paid her back constantly by forcing her to attend to his every demand . . . Jayne, slim to the point of anorexia with dark hair and a knife-like pretty face with crooked little teeth and a mouth slightly askew, had long before given up her fresh good looks,” crafting herself into a Jackie Kennedy clone, copying the first lady’s hairdo and her girlish, whispery voice.
Eventually, The Wall Street Journal would reveal that for years, Charlie had been writing off his $ 8.9 million art collection and all attendant expenses as an investment, including almost $ 17 million in insurance and a $ 10,000 loss on a never-delivered Goya. In July 1970, a federal court ruled that since the Wrightsmans clearly enjoyed and lived with their art, it couldn’t be a tax deduction.
In 1975, Jayne replaced her husband on the Met board. By the early 1980s, when Charlie had the first of a series of strokes that left him incapacitated, Jayne was already asserting herself. She hired nurses to care for him, sold the Palm Beach house and its contents, and began emerging from his dark shadow. As Charlie declined, she finally had the chance to shine.
Like Brooke Astor, she came into her own as a widow; when Charlie died at age 90 in 1986, he left her everything — reportedly $ 150 million.
By the 1990s, the museum was New York’s Versailles, its board a court run by Jayne Wrightsman and “her best friend,” Annette de la Renta, and admittance to it a mark of social arrival, said interior designer David Netto, then a prospective donor who “asked to be brought into their world” and discovered it to be a Mean Girls-style sorority — complete with hazing rituals.
“These people know how to work their prestige and power,” he said. “They run [the museum] to settle scores and control New York socially as much as to exhibit art.”
Inevitably, Netto was abandoned by them and his lingering admiration was tempered by that experience.
“Jayne earned it and cares so much about it, but she can’t enjoy it,” he said looking back, a decade before her death. But looking ahead, he predicted that “it” — i.e. New York Society — wouldn’t survive Wrightsman’s passing from the scene.
“One day, this won’t be the way it is anymore,” Netto said. “Really, it only exists in a few people’s minds.”
Adapted from “Rogues’ Gallery” by Michael Gross. Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Idee Fixe Ltd. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.