The neighborhood west of Montrose Boulevard was once a peaceful place, with little more to distinguish it than the stodgy Lee mansion at the corner of West Alabama, saluting the world as it passed faster and faster each year. The Lee mansion became the University of St. Thomas, and then it became a foil for the modernistic fortress of a campus that sprouted behind it. Long black bones of skeletal arcades and severely edged pink brick boxes, built with their backs to the streets, mock the finicky angularity of the old house. Around the school the sidewalks still have a quiet, small-town feeling to them. But tucked into the center of the neighborhood is a circle of little cottages all painted the same distinctive deep gray, almost green, color, surrounding an entire block of mud. Bulldozers churn over the sidewalks here; red ribbons flag odd clumps of trees that are to be spared the ax. A few surviving houses are up on massive girders, waiting to be moved, with black plastic shrouds for windows and sorry piles of rubble for fireplaces and front stoops. An arty, minimalist fence has been put up. It is made of skinned posts, spotted with moss, into which three boards have been nailed, and it wouldn’t keep even the most timid dog out of trouble. All it says is “Look sharp! Something important is going on here.”
The initiated — a collection of lucky painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers, architects, photographers, scholars, and editors screened from a long list of applicants to rent the gray houses refer to this part of Montrose as Doville. “Do” is an affectionate nickname for Dominique de Menil, whose domain Doville is. Of course, most people never call it Doville, or her Do, to her face. That would presume an intimacy not befitting the relationship of courtiers to their patroness.
But the name has stuck, and it is a clever one, too. It sounds like “Deauville,” the fashionable seaside resort on the English Channel in northern France, which is for several months of the year as gray as the gray of these houses. Since Dominique de Menil is from France, the connection is not too farfetched. Then again, Doville also sounds like “Doughville,” for all the money one would have to have to own more than half a dozen blocks of property in a part of town that is reentering fashion. Being the daughter and niece of the men who founded Schlumberger, Ltd., Mrs. de Menil has a lot of dough — more than $100 million in Schlumberger stock alone — and as her husband, John, once told a friend, “If you think I’m rich from Schlumberger, you’re only half right. I am a much wealthier man because of our art.” Doville will soon come to be known as the site of a new museum in Houston that will display one of the most significant collections of modern art in this country — hers. The museum will be called, straightforwardly, the Menil Collection. It will easily be as important as the major museums in Texas and will rank nationally with the great private collections: the Frick in New York, the Phillips in Washington, D.C., the Gardner in Boston.
Mrs. de Menil is an extraordinary collector. Many wealthy people buy art only to give it away for the tax deductions, or they ask stylish dealers to sweep together instant, high-status collections or to find paintings to match fabric swatches. But the Menil Collection grew out of a real passion for art. Mrs. de Menil found out early in her life that she had “the Eye,” an ability to see past the commonplace, the temporal, to the ineffable quality that makes something art, that makes its creator an artist. She understood the importance of modernism long before most Americans did, and any sign of modernism in Houston today — the glass towers of the skyline, the abstract paintings in museums and galleries, the new music and dance in concert halls — is there largely because of the battle the de Menils waged to challenge and push forward the tastes of the city.
And Mrs. de Menil is as good at spotting talent in a person as she is in a painting. In a sense, the Menil Collection contains much more than art. It is full of people — devoted friends and flunkies, artists, scholars, politicians, filmmakers, architects — who are part of the vast and illustrious circle with which the de Menils have surrounded themselves. Their colony of people ranges from Philip Johnson, the best-known architect in the country, whom they helped launch and whose buildings now dominate the Houston skyline, to Congressman Mickey Leland, the highest-ranking black politician in Texas, to Laura Furman, one of the leading younger writers in Texas, who spent seven years working on de Menil projects and then wrote what many consider a roman à clef about them, to literally hundreds of others. They have had a profound effect on virtually every major cultural and educational institution in Houston — indeed, on the whole fabric of life in the city.
Mrs. de Menil also has an unusual single-mindedness. The urge to acquire is a deep, human one, but few people even dream of indulging it on the level that she has been able to — not only because of her wealth but also because she does not have to obey the physical or social bounds that restrict most people. And when you can meet anyone or have anything in the world, what, in the end, do you do with it? While the de Menils have been extremely generous with their fortune, it is said that the true collector never really wants to give anything away, and so it has been with them. Over nearly every gift they have given, they have wanted control. So they ended up collecting institutions along with everything else. The Rothko Chapel, the Rice Museum, the Media Center, the University of St. Thomas, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston have all been wooed by, wed to, or born of the de Menils — and have split with them over the issue of control.
Mrs. de Menil’s own museum is the ultimate expression of her generosity and possessiveness. For all she has given to the city of Houston, she will be remembered for what she has kept. Her collection will be made public in that it will be displayed in a museum. But it will be in her museum, run according to her wishes by her people trained in her style.
“What I admire, I must possess,” says Dominique de Menil, talking about how her collection came to be. “I call myself covetous. I have an enormous appetite for whatever turns me on.” As she talks, she caresses a nineteenth-century black Wedgwood inkstand, points to a striking red and mauve oil by Max Ernst, strokes the highly polished surface of an old and beautifully crafted zebrawood writing table. Her long white hair is pulled low in a bun at her neck; her clothing, of fine, soft wools and silks, is simple. At 75 years old, Mrs. de Menil is an attractive woman with startling blue eyes and delicately chiseled features. Her wedding diamonds are loose on her finger nowadays; a recent bout with pneumonia has left her looking fragile. Every once in a while a terrible cough rattles through her, and she clearly hates that sign of human frailty.
Unlike most wealthy people, she is fundamentally an intellectual, and most of the time her mind is faraway from the quotidian details of life. She is ethereal. In Houston in the fifties and sixties, she showed up at fancy art openings in the same black strapless gown time after time, wearing mismatched shoes, one green, one blue, because their mates had been abandoned in a closet in some other city. She wore her mink coat inside out because she liked the warmth of the fur against her skin. She would invite people to dinner, then greet them blankly at the door, asking, “May I help you?” and send them away with an invitation for another evening. She could be as absent-minded as she was alert, as abrupt as she was gracious, as close as she was generous. When bored, she would drop her chin to her chest and take a nap in the middle of a dinner or a concert or a lecture. “She could sleep standing up,” says one friend. “She was from another world.”
There is a portrait of the young Dominique de Menil painted by surrealist Max Ernst around 1934. The painting shows just her head, in three-quarter profile. Her short blond hair waves around her ears, her skin is pale and unlined, her eyes are focused on the distance, and an enigmatic smile plays about her small mouth. The head floats on a strange orange, red, and deep blue background, and ambiguous curled shapes hover around it; they look like edges of seashells or shards of crockery.
At the time the portrait was painted, Dominique de Menil was in her mid-twenties and newly married. She and John lived in an apartment in Paris. They were by no means art collectors; they were simply trying to decorate a large, empty wall in their dining room when a friend suggested that they ask Max Ernst to paint a mural for them. “We were told he did wonderful birds,” she recalls. “When I saw the kinds of birds this fellow did, I hated them. But since he was expecting something from us, we suggested he paint a portrait of me.”
Mrs. de Menil sat for Ernst several times in his studio and later went to see the results. “I did not like the painting at all,” she says. “I thought I looked very stiff.” She left instructions for it to be delivered; when many months passed and the portrait did not arrive, she wasn’t sorry.
Dominique De Menil was born Dominique Schlumberger in 1908 in Paris, the second of three girls. To avoid having to become citizens of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, her family had immigrated to France from their home in the border province of Alsace, where they had made a fortune in the textile industry. Her father, Conrad Schlumberger, was a physics professor at the Paris School of Mines; her uncle Marcel was a mechanical engineer.
Dominique’s father was obsessed with an invention that he worked on in every spare moment: a device that could identify minerals by their degree of resistance to electrical current and that he later refined to identify fluids, such as water and oil, by the amount of spontaneous electricity they generated. His experiments were fully launched after World War 1, when his father decided to finance them with the money he had made by selling his shares of the family textile business in Alsace. In 1927 Conrad and Marcel went into business selling the services of the measuring device to drilling companies.
Until the late thirties, the family held an exclusive patent on Conrad’s invention, a sonde that could be suspended by cables in a borehole to send up electronic, sonic, or nuclear analyses of the makeup of the hole. They were in a position like that of the Hughes Tool Company with its famous drill bit — anytime anyone drilled an oil well anywhere in the world, the Schlumberger company was called in. Within ten years of its founding, it was a huge global concern, and the Schlumbergers were on their way to accumulating another great fortune. Schlumberger now gets plenty of competition from Halliburton (which, with the help of Standard Oil, broke the monopoly in 1938) and Dresser Industries, among many others, but the process of well-logging is still called “running a Slumberjay” in the oil fields, no matter whose equipment is being used.
The Schlumbergers were sophisticated, educated, and hardworking people. Dominique received an advanced degree in mathematics from the Sorbonne. She rode her horse in the Bois de Boulogne every morning and vacationed every summer at the family chateau in northern France. But her parents did not spend money lavishly. “We had no fine rugs, no antiques, no rare books, no great art in our home,” she says. “Spending money was frowned upon. We entertained only once or twice a year, and that was only for family. My parents were very strict, puritanical Protestants.”
It was not until her marriage in 1931 to Jean Menu de Menil and her conversion to his Catholicism that Dominique began to leave behind the restrictions of her parents’ values. John de Menil (he changed his name to “John” and dropped all his names between “John” and “de Menil” when they took American citizenship in 1962) was an ambitious, charming, and driven young man who, having twice failed to pass his baccalaureate exams, decided to make a career for himself in banking. John’s father was a career army officer, the bearer of the title of baron thanks to Napoleon’s having conferred it on the family in 1813, but a man of very modest means. John, determined to make his own way in the world, for years resisted going to work for his wife’s family. But when Conrad Schlumberger died in 1936, he joined the company.
The young de Menils had moved into an apartment near the Schlumberger offices when one day, out of the blue, the portrait by Max Ernst was delivered to their door. As it happened, Ernst had sent his wife to the framer with the painting; she had left it there without supplying the name or address of its owner. The framer had hung it in his window, and there it stayed for years, until the parish priest, whom Dominique de Menil had visited only once, recognized her face in the painting and arranged for it be sent to her. Mrs. de Menil had unfortunately not grown any fonder of the portrait during its absence, so she wrapped it in brown paper and stuck it on top of an armoire.
She forgot to take it along when she and her family evacuated Paris at the start of World War II, so there it was when the Nazis burst in to ransack the house, looking for valuable drilling information. John de Menil had joined the Resistance and gone to Rumania, where he was sabotaging railroads and destroying Schlumberger equipment to keep it from failing into Nazi hands. He worked his way east through the Orient and finally took a steamer to South America. Mrs. de Menil and her three young children escaped from Europe on a steamer out of Spain to Cuba and then New York, where the family was reunited. From there they took a train to Houston, where Schlumberger had opened an office in 1935. The de Menils bought a saltbox house on the edge of the city, and John went to work supervising South American operations for Schlumberger. The Ernst portrait remained in the old apartment in Paris.
It was not until the late forties, when she returned to Paris to retrieve her belongings, that Dominique de Menil found the portrait once again. It was still on top of the wardrobe, wrapped in brown paper. In the years since she had seen it, she had learned a great deal about art. Two mentors — a Dominican priest in France named Marie-Alain Couturier and an Egyptian-born New York art dealer named Alexandre Iolas — had tutored the de Menils in the wonders of modern art and persuaded them to begin buying some of it, including works by Ernst. Mrs. de Menil was beginning to feel the Eye developing within her; she could judge a painting, appreciate it, feel its magic. Now, when she opened the package containing her portrait, her breath was taken away by the beauty of the painting’s colors and the originality of its composition. She suddenly realized, staring at the canvas — and she relates this with the fervor one might use to describe a religious awakening — “how much my eyes had been opened.”
It remained only for her to want to have as much as she wanted to see, and for that, Texas was responsible. “I would never have started collecting so much art if I had not moved to Houston,” she explains in heavily accented, graceful English. “When I arrived in Texas there was not much you could call art. Houston was a provincial, dormant place, much like Strasbourg, Basel, Alsace. There were no galleries to speak of, no dealers worth the name, and the museum…” she trails off helplessly. “That is why I started buying; that is why I developed this physical need to acquire.”
When the de Menils arrived, Houston was only a little over one hundred years old, with a population of 385,000. Very old Houston money was agricultural, like the cotton fortunes of Anderson, Clayton & Company and of William Marsh Rice (his funded the Rice Institute in 1912). John Henry Kirby, who started the Houston Oil Company and the Kirby Lumber Company in 1901, was the city’s first industrial millionaire. The families of the founders of Humble Oil (organized in 1917) were old oil money — the Blaffers, Fondrens, Wiesses, Farishes, and Sterlings. Those families were the first patrons of the arts in Houston; along with oilman and developer Joseph Cullinan they founded the Museum of Fine Arts, dedicated in 1924, and they formed the nucleus of support for most other institutions of culture in town. As for the other arts, Houston didn’t get a major theater company (the Alley Theatre) until 1947, or an opera company until the mid-fifties. In the late thirties the symphony rehearsed and performed in a dilapidated auditorium next to the fat stock show, and when the cattle came in, the symphony had to clear out.
As in any city, patronage of the arts in Houston was considered both a civic duty and a source of prestige within the ranks of the wealthy. Each family’s contribution was a challenge to every other guardian family of culture. When the de Menils came on the scene touting their incomprehensible art, the guardian families closed ranks. “Well,” says Jane Blaffer Owen, daughter of a Humble Oil founder, “if they thought they were going to teach us about art…”
“I remember John’s going to the Museum of Fine Arts and begging, pleading with them to let him hang some modem art,” says private investor Aaron Farfel, an old family friend. “He would have taken space anywhere; he begged them to let him have the basement even, but he was refused every single time.”
Nonetheless, benefaction was the natural course for the de Menils to follow, rich and cultured as they were, and follow it they did. In the span of fifteen years, they made major commitments, in rapid succession, to three important cultural institutions: the University of St. Thomas, the Contemporary Arts Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts. But with almost the same speed, they withdrew their largess whenever it became clear that they were not going to be able to run things their way. Perhaps, as many de Menil supporters suggest, Houston was not ready, or did not care enough, to join the big leagues of the art world, and that was why the de Menils were frustrated. Or perhaps the donor class was unwilling to let one family, Medici style, lord it over them. Whatever the reason, as benefactors they were extremely generous but never, over the course of twenty years, entirely satisfied.
In the late forties a small catholic university struggling to find a toehold in the secular city caught the de Menils’ attention — and held it for nearly two decades. Run by the Basilian Fathers, a Canadian order, the University of St. Thomas was founded in 1947 with a staff of eight teachers for about forty students. Classes were held in a mansion built in 1912, previously occupied by the Lee family; the school graduated its first class in 1951.
St. Thomas badly needed help if it was to survive. In order to become fully accredited, it had to find more faculty, more students, more space, and, for all of those, more money. That, the de Menils could provide. St. Thomas excited them as an untapped resource; it was young, unencumbered by an entrenched board, and as for its religious commitment — well, Catholicism could mean many things to many people. The de Menils approached the school with a plan of action that was beyond the fathers’ wildest prayers. Unlike most patrons, they were not content to donate money for a building or to fund a chair. They wanted to mastermind the university’s growth; they had a sustaining vision of all that the school could achieve-a vision, it would become clear, far grander than that of the Basilian Fathers themselves.
But that was later. For years the de Menils had the blessing of the university. Seeing that the school needed space to grow, they began to campaign among wealthy Houstonians for funds to buy land. They came away empty-handed and determined to press on by themselves. They drew up a detailed plat of the neighborhood around the Lee mansion and color-coded it to distinguish “For Sale” from “Under Negotiation” from “Not Available… Yet. “They began to buy plots one by one, buying their way slowly through the long blocks, until finally their chart began to take on one hue — the color of “Sold.” Once they had acquired enough land, they proposed to donate it to St. Thomas and cover an architect’s fees, if the fathers would approve their choice of architect. Their choice was Philip Johnson, the chief American disciple of Mies van der Rohe, the father of modern architecture. The fathers approved.
Johnson designed a campus that could grow in increments, a Jeffersonian mall defined by open-air walkways that would eventually make up a rectangle several blocks long into which buildings could be plugged over the years. Two were completed in 1958: Jones Hall, with a small lecture hall and a gallery, and Strake Hall, to be used for classrooms.
In 1959 Welder Hall, the student commons and cafeteria, went up. It was the jewel of the set: a beautiful, large, luxurious, open space with ceilings two stories high and a balcony on three sides. The de Menils installed in it enormous paintings and as a centerpiece hung a huge Alexander Calder mobile. They even began to talk about building a chapel in which they could hang more art, as their mentor, Father Couturier, had done in France.
The de Menils subsidized professors of theology, economics, and art history to staff the new classrooms. Within a few years St. Thomas grew to five hundred students. The Basilian Fathers began to have trouble getting anyone else to support the school, because everyone, with few exceptions, assumed that the de Menils had the territory covered; and after all, what more did the fathers need that they could not get from the de Menils? Their generosity was dazzling, their pride and enthusiasm contagious. They had led the school out of its childhood and were poised to fall into the role of overbearing parents at its first blush of adolescent rebellion.
When the de Menils tried in the late forties to get the only public institution in Houston to acknowledge the existence of modern art, they had been ignored. So when Robert D. Straus, a collector of American art, asked them to join a small group of people who had also become disenchanted with the Museum of Fine Arts, they were ready. In 1948 the Contemporary Arts Association (now the Contemporary Arts Museum, CAM) was chartered, and the de Menils were provided with an institutional vehicle for modernism.
The association was to be staffed entirely by volunteers. Members of the exhibition committee would suggest shows, the general membership would approve them, and volunteers would be called on to put them up in a new building on Dallas Street. Almost from the beginning there were disagreements. Should the association show art by local artists? Art by nationally or internationally known artists? Painting and sculpture? Or the democratic art of good design in mass-manufactured household objects? The de Menils always wanted to do things on an international scale; most of the other patrons of art in Houston preferred to be less grand and more attuned to what would please the local artists and public.
John de Menil took over the leadership of the board in 1950, and immediately exerted his influence. He put on one-man shows that featured non-Houston artists, like Lyonel Feininger and Christian Bdrard. A few of the founding members resigned in protest; one-man shows were a big risk and therefore a luxury, particularly when they gave short shrift to the local talent. The de Menils plunged ahead with the most ambitious show Houston had ever seen: an exhibition of the paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which at the time had been shown in New York, Chicago, and Paris alone. And the hit parade went on: Calder came to Houston to install his works in an exhibit with paintings by Joan Miró; Ernst came to Houston and made a drawing for the pamphlet that was to accompany his show. Another founding member resigned in protest. In 1953 the New York Times noted cryptically, “There is a schism within the CAA, based on many factors: personality clashes, fear of domination by an individual, differing philosophies of professionalism versus cooperative endeavor.”
The de Menils pressed on: now it was time for the CAM to hire a professional, full-time director. The Museum of Fine Arts didn’t even have a full-time director. It took three years and the resignation of a few more board members, but in 1955 the de Menils got their way — a director, chosen by them, her salary guaranteed by them, with the money and the freedom to put on shows the likes of which Houston would never see again.
Jermayne MacAgy came from the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she had been the youngest museum director in the country; she was known for her unusual and provocative installations. She immediately staged shows featuring surrealists, which inspired several Houston collectors to invest heavily in that period. She showed fifteen of the fuzzy, multicolored rectangles by Mark Rothko, who had up to then been shown solo only once, in Chicago. She put on an exhibition of contemporary portraiture and another called “Collage International: From Picasso to the Present.” In all her shows she placed works on high pedestals, hung them in windows cut out of mysterious walls that rose up out of nowhere, hung others at ground level. On a minuscule budget of $20,000 a year she created a staggering 29 shows during her four years as director and brought the little museum to national attention.
But that didn’t win her the friendship of the CAM board, in whose eyes she was too completely her own woman — or perhaps the de Menils’, but certainly not anyone else’s. “The problem in Houston was that everyone wanted to run the association,” Mrs. de Menil recalls. “The board would appoint a chairman for each show, and MacAgy would do all the work without credit. And she was constantly fighting to keep inferior works out of her shows, not always with success. Sometimes I would spot some terrible thing and ask her what it was doing there. She would tell me about Mr. So-and-so who had threatened to withdraw all his support if she didn’t indulge him. There were too many people in Houston who thought of themselves as great curators.”
MacAgy’s crowning success was the inaugural exhibit in 1959 for the cavernous Cullinan Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts, designed by Mies van der Rohe and donated by Nina Cullinan with the stipulation that modern art be exhibited there occasionally. Brought in as a guest curator, MacAgy put on a show called “Totems Not Taboo.” She gathered up more than two hundred rare tribal works and placed them on pedestals, some close to the ground, some soaring up into the hall; these were lined up along a balcony and staircases that were also covered with works. Tropical plants were everywhere. Still more works were placed on small islands of gravel. The staid museum was showing a little of the de Menil touch.
Just as the show opened, the Contemporary Arts Association announced that it would not renew MacAgy’s contract because of lack of funding. The statement was a marvel of thinly veiled diplomacy; in fact, MacAgy was being fired by those directors who were tired of the domination of the CAM by the de Menils and their like-minded friends. The de Menils were less upset than might have been expected; they had other plans for MacAgy. As Mrs. de Menil says, “In those days, we figured that since the CAM was such a difficult place, why not use St. Thomas?” Jermayne MacAgy was soon ensconced as the chairman of the art department. For years to follow, the shows held there outshone those at the CAM.
In the meantime, the de Menils had begun to turn their attention to the institution that had eluded them upon their arrival in Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). With the completion of Cullinan Hall, there was an opportunity to give modernism its due at the conservative museum. John de Menil had a seat on the board when it undertook the task of finding a director who could handle Mies’ intimidating open space. When he heard that James Johnson Sweeney had resigned his post as director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, John de Menil picked up the phone, and within a short time Sweeney was settled in Houston.
Well, almost settled there. Sweeney seemed to prefer spending time in New York or Paris or at his house in Ireland and therefore wasn’t in Houston as much as some thought a museum director should be. But the de Menils were Sweeney’s champions. They supported his extravagant expenditures in the name of quality, even when it meant he had to send to Manhattan to have his catalogs printed or his shirts laundered. Sweeney was in a hurry to move the MFA “out of the provincial ranks,” as Edward Mayo, registrar at the museum, puts it, and he brought in works by Picasso, Miró, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, and John Tinguely. But — fatal flaw — he could not bring himself to court the guardian families of culture.
The de Menils were in step with Sweeney; his ambitions matched theirs exactly, and so did his tastes. There began to be grumbling, just like the earlier grumbling at the Contemporary Arts Association, about how much control the de Menils were gaining, though as always the exercise of their power was accompanied by great generosity. During Sweeney’s tenure, they donated some of the museum’s most important gifts: a Calder mobile, a classical bronze figure of an emperor, and Jackson Pollock’s Painting Number 6 Other patrons continued to give — or at least tried to. And that was what cost Sweeney his job.
Museum policy had always been to accept gifts, some of questionable value, from the Blaffer family. In 1967 Sarah Campbell Blaffer presented the museum with a Fragonard, and Sweeney refused it, saying it was a fake. Blaffer, furious and insulted, took back her painting, and the Blaffer family turned their attention to the college of their choice, the University of Houston. Sweeney was fired.
With Sweeney went the de Menils. Clearly the next director, Philippe de Montebello, was not one of “their” people. He had the temerity to tell a reporter that one of the de Menils’ gifts, abstract orbs designed by Italian sculptor Lucio Fontana, could stay at the South Garden entrance because they made “good receptacles for chewing-gum wrappers.” The de Menils gave their last gift, Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan, to the MFA the year of Sweeney’s departure. From then on they would give some money, service on the board, and nothing else.
St. Thomas was left as the place in which the de Menils had the most at stake — the most to gain in terms of control and the most to lose in terms of how much time, money, thought, work, and love they had invested in it. They were not competing with other patrons for control of a board; in fact, they could not even sit on the board, since it was composed only of the fathers. But the board seemed completely receptive to its patrons.
In the late fifties, hiring Jermayne MacAgy was asking a lot of the Basilian Fathers, as she was a controversial figure in the city. Her first show in Philip Johnson’s gallery at St. Thomas, lit by candles for the opening, was a ravishing display of surrealist paintings by Yves Tanguy, Rufino Tamayo, Ernst, René Magritte, Mark Tobey, Léger, and others, which she had grouped with medieval sculptures.
“Two days later,” Mrs. de Menil says, “a nut walked into the office of the president and said, ‘Father, you must take the show down. It is communistic’. This man, a Houston citizen of the highest order, said so many crazy things. It was unbelievable — hammers and sickles hidden in the paintings, things like that.” The de Menils and the fathers protected MacAgy from such lunacy, and within St. Thomas she was becoming the object of near-adoration. But in 1964, while she was working on a show to be called “Out of This World,” she suffered an insulin attack (she was diabetic) and died of it. “I felt as if the floor had opened up under my feet,” says Dominique de Menil. “I finished her shows and tried to keep things going, and that was when I was led to my career, the installation of shows. MacAgy had never let me see how she was doing things; she always wanted the openings to be a surprise. I had to learn all the little tricks of installing, and there are plenty of them, for myself.” Mrs. de Menil took over the art department herself.
The de Menils became more deeply involved at St. Thomas than they had been anywhere else. They underwrote salaries, set up a fund for “faculty improvement,” and began pushing to hire more professors in the social sciences. More and more talented students were attracted to the school, and new buildings were added to the mall. Philip Johnson began designing a chapel, and Mark Rothko was commissioned to paint fourteen large, meditative canvases for it. At the end of every year the de Menils wrote a check to cover the school’s deficit. They hired St. Thomas graduates to work for them. They started a media department and screened trendy films in the student center, joking about what the nuns might think of the latest Andy Warhol picture.
The art department was truly their domain; it grew all out of proportion to the rest of the school. People muttered that its budget was bigger than that of the entire university. Mrs. de Menil started an art collection for St. Thomas and donated many fine pieces; her standards for it were so unbending that when Jane Blaffer Owen tried to donate a tapestry, history repeated itself. Mrs. de Menil refused the gift on the grounds that it was not of a high enough quality, and Mrs. Owen wrote an angry letter. “If a child brings a gutter flower to its mother, and tells her it is an orchid, should the mother throw the flower away because it isn’t?” she asked. Mrs. de Menil apologized, but as far as the tapestry was concerned, she was unmoved.
The de Menils started an extensive art library, and Dominique de Menil put on remarkable shows, publishing detailed catalogs with each. She often wrote lucid, straightforward introductions to guide visitors through the difficult works. She even taught an art history course, pausing now and then to leaf through a large dictionary looking for a word in English or pulling out of her handbag some priceless object to share with her students.
John de Menil, for his part, had decided that St. Thomas had to become a world-class institution. It had everything going for it: a home in a booming city, lots of money, land, and contacts. There was only one hitch, and that was the Catholicism. Though the de Menils were themselves devout, they were also fervent ecumenicalists, if that was not an impossible paradox. They believed excellence at an academic institution could be achieved only if it was open to the study of all faiths. John de Menil urged Father Patrick Braden, the university’s president, to put in place a board of laymen that would have the authority to elect St. Thomas’ presidents. But ecumenicalism was not the critical issue to the de Menils. Liberalism was.
In 1967 the Basilian Fathers decided to put lay people on their governing board. That did not solve the de Menils’ problems; they wanted control over who those lay people would be. The Basilian Fathers wanted their loyal former trustees on the board, and the de Menils wanted their own allies: people like Aaron Farfel, developer Gerald Hines, and a liberal Protestant Republican woman with oil money named Vale Ackerman. Or as St. Thomas’ current president, Father William Young, says, “They wanted a bunch of Northeasterners to come down and run the place like — Ted Sorensen [special counsel in the John F. Kennedy White House and since then a New York lawyer]: he didn’t know St. Thomas from a hole in the ground.” There were even rumors that the de Menils intended to ask John Cage (the modern composer) and Buckminster Fuller (the visionary engineer) to join their board and that John de Menil had his eye on the presidency.
It was finally all too much for Father Braden. He refused to go along with the de Menils and reaffirmed the school’s commitment to conservative Catholicism, and as a result the de Menils refused to go along with Father Braden. In 1969, after months of careful negotiation, the de Menils folded their tents and moved the caravan to Rice University. John de Menil had everything he had ever given St. Thomas reappraised, then wrote out a check to buy back most of the art collection and the art library. Even students and faculty followed the de Menils from St. Thomas to Rice. They gave the school some of the land they had purchased, but they kept most of it. That was when all the little cottages got their distinctive coats of paint, as if to show whose side they were on.
The divorce was painful for everyone. Today Mrs. de Menil will say only that it happened inevitably because they outgrew St. Thomas. She has never reconciled herself entirely to being cut off from the school. When several of the trees she had chosen for the mall recently began to die, she marched up to the president’s office in the Lee mansion, dragging a large dead branch up the staircase, and shouted indignantly, “Look what you’ve done to our trees!” Then she had an irrigation system installed.
The wounds healed slowly. St. Thomas was forced to develop a broader base of support, and it soon began to have financial troubles. In 1978 the fathers, unable to afford the luxury of a large student center, converted Welder Hall into the Cameron School of Business. Instead of paintings and mobiles suspended in an airy room, there are two floors crammed with offices. But what the fathers need more than anything else nowadays is not money but land, land for more housing, classrooms, parking, and a university chapel. And all the land west of their campus — the only direction in which they can grow — is owned by Mrs. de Menil.
The deal struck between Rice University and the de Menils was tailored to sensitivity on both sides about the debacle of St. Thomas. The de Menils’ reputation as dominating people preceded them to the bargaining table, but then again so did their reputation for generosity, at a time when Rice was struggling to establish an arts program. The negotiations were complicated and protracted. Eventually the de Menils created an entity called the Institute for the Arts, which would operate under the aegis of Rice (though not, of course, independently of the de Menils). They donated their art library to Rice (to this day many volumes are still stamped “Property of St. Thomas”); they paid the salaries of the art history professors who left St. Thomas for the Rice faculty, and started the Media Center with faculty members from St. Thomas. The Institute for the Arts would run the Rice Museum, which the de Menils would start and fund.
Rice did demand some concessions to its ordinary operating procedures, like job descriptions for everyone who came to the institute from St. Thomas. But that was not how things were done with Mrs. de Menil; her people did whatever needed to be done. Yes, the sculptor Jim Love was on the payroll, listed as a technician; no, he didn’t keep regular hours; yes, they paid him for the work he did whenever they needed a special pedestal or Wall constructed for an installation. Job descriptions? Cynics thought “minions” sounded about right.
Rice was building its own gallery, Sewall Hall, for which John de Menil made no secret of his disdain. He had grown increasingly incapable, over the years, of summoning up patience for the ponderous movement of academics. “John,” he would say to John OπNeil, the chairman of the art department, “go tell the president to stop construction on that hall. We could easily put up a better building than that.” Conversely, when the Rice people saw the plans for the de Menils’ art gallery, they were outraged. Designed in portable sections as a temporary structure, it was nothing more than a huge, shiny corrugated metal shed. Mrs. de Menil was in a big hurry to get it up because it was being built to accommodate a show that was coming to Houston from the Museum of Modem Art in March 1969. Rice stuck the building way off in a comer of the campus, and in eight weeks it was up. Homeowners nearby complained so much that it was painted a neutral color to cut down the glare. Now, fourteen years later, the temporary art barn and its twin, the Media Center, are still standing. The outstanding shows Mrs. de Menil created for them have traveled to major museums worldwide.
Then in 1974 the de Menils brought architect Louis Kahn to Rice to talk about building an arts center. There began to be rumors that they were going to donate their entire collection to Rice. But Kahn died having completed only preliminary sketches, and the project went into limbo. Mrs. de Menil didn’t trust Kahn’s office without Kahn. Meanwhile the City of Houston, in the persons of Mayor Fred Hofheinz and architect S. I. Morris, approached her about building a museum on city land near the Museum of Fine Arts, but she turned the offer down. It seemed by now that Mrs. de Menil had realized that the only way to get what she wanted was to create, and so, while she continued to give generously to local institutions, it became less and less likely that she would entrust the bulk of her art to someone else. She was a collector above all, and so she would have to find a way to hold on to her collection.
In the late sixties John de Menil, by now chairman of the board of Schlumberger, learned that he had cancer and that it would eventually take his life. In the time he had left he redoubled his odd mixture of efforts as an ultraliberal corporate executive — a man of great compassion for the unfortunate and great impatience for the failings of those around him. In June 1973 he died at the age of 69. Funeral services were held in the late afternoon at St. Anne’s, a large Catholic church near River Oaks.
The funeral became the occasion for a reunion of the entire de Menil circle — the people from the worlds of art, business, politics, religion, science, architecture, and education whom the de Menils had collected about themselves with as much urgency as they collected art.
The church was jammed with mourners. In the front pews sat the family and their closest friends. Behind them sat the rich and the powerful of Houston, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. Behind them were ranked the local members of the Black Panthers, in full uniform, holding their berets, and behind them were hundreds of friends and admirers from all over the world.
Six months before he died, John de Menil sent a memo to his children and his closest friends explaining, down to the minutest detail, how he wanted his funeral to proceed. And so, in accordance with his wishes, his son François, his young political protégé, Mickey Leland, and several other people found themselves, one hot summer day, driving to the Ross Mortuary on Lyons Avenue in the Fifth Ward to meet the proprietor, Burnett Ross.
“When Mr. Ross saw us walk in,” Leland recalls, “he thought he had landed himself some big pigeons, and he started showing us his top-of-the-line, pink tufted satin caskets with brass designs and things like that.” The group explained that Mr. de Menil wanted a simple wooden box; Ross was unable to find one (his clientele did not share Mr. de Menil’s simple tastes), so they had to troop out to the warehouse. They put rope handles on a pine coffin they found there and asked Ross to come around to the de Menils’ River Oaks home.
Back on San Felipe Road, John de Menil, rich oil executive, had been lying in state in his bedroom, wrapped only in a sheet, in the old peasant tradition. On the day of the funeral, his body was carried to St. Annes in a tan Volkswagen bus that had been used to carry de Menil art back and forth across Houston.
When everyone was seated and the music started, there was an audible gasp from the congregation. John de Menil had had quadraphonic speakers installed in the sanctuary, and they were blaring Bob Dylan songs — “Girl From the North Country” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” — so loudly that you would have sworn Dylan himself was in the choir loft. The funeral ceremony was then recited by a black Baptist preacher, a rabbi, and several lay readers including a Muslim who read from the Koran. A Lebanese Catholic priest performed a requiem mass — a fitting end to John de Menil’s lifelong devotion to world ecumenicalism.
It was pitch-black outside when the church doors were opened, disorienting at six-thirty on a summer evening. Suddenly the sky was rent by a violent streak of lightning, which lit up an enormous bank of clouds hanging low over the horizon. Then the rain came down, as heavy as anyone could remember rain being. Roberto Rossellini, the film director, turned to his companion and said, “So speak the prophets. This funeral is attended by the gods.”
The de Menils held court, if you will, for more than thirty years in a house they built off San Felipe Road on some land that had once been a pig farm. That house explains a lot about its owners, more than most houses do. It set the tone for the de Menils’ lives — you had to see it to understand their values, their tastes, their working style. The house wasn’t simply a backdrop for a collection of art: it became an integral part of the collection, in much the same way the people who collected in it did. The house on San Felipe, functional, simple, and yet beautiful, turned out to be a sort of laboratory for the museum that Dominique de Menil is building.
Philip Johnson took his first trip to Houston in 1948 when the de Menils called him. Together they launched into what would be the first of many episodes in which the de Menils would demonstrate — with infallible but idiosyncratic good tast — their uncompromising drive for control. Client and architect got along well, but neither was particularly easy to please. The de Menils instructed Johnson to design a house based on the assumption that half their lot would one day be sold and another house built on it. They also insisted that it be completely functional, for they were raising five children and intended to give them full range of the house. There was, at the time, no art collection to worry about. There was instead a tight budget — $75,000. Accordingly, Johnson came up with a plan whose pieces fit, like a Chinese puzzle, into a nice, neat box. Mrs. de Menil was delighted.
But she had one or two quibbles. Johnson designed a solid brick facade; Mrs. de Menil did not like having a windowless kitchen, so she punched a long row of high windows out of the wall. Johnson designed high ceilings, but not high enough; she raised them several feet. Johnson designed a terraced garden that he thought she could enjoy year-round (he was naive about the climate); she covered it over and turned it into a dense, unruly tropical atrium — a Rousseau garden, she calls it, after the jungle landscapes of Henri Rousseau. Johnson designed a dining room in front of the children’s quarters; she insisted that the children be able to use it as a playroom. He made the back wall of the living room entirely out of glass; she fretted for months about how exposed to the elements she would feel. He didn’t understand the kind of construction necessary for Houston’s humid climate, and the walls got moldy and the flat roof leaked; she hired two young local architects — Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry-who spent years patching up his errors. And, as a final blow to Johnson’s ego, she asked him not to design the interiors; she was going to have them done by her couturier, Charles James, an American whose elegant and dramatic costumes appealed especially to actresses and society women in the forties and fifties.
Against the austere lines of Johnson’s glass and brick box James’ designs were nothing if not eccentric. Curving sofas curled along the length of the understated blond-wood-paneled walls. James broke wide expanses of space into small conversation areas and punctuated them with nuttily dignified modular furniture. Instead of buying modern chairs, he helped Mrs. de Menil find unusual antiques, and these he covered in vibrant velvets and rich linens and silks. He did away with the doors between some rooms and instead draped heavy, plush velvet curtains in theatrical folds from ceiling to floor. He covered some walls with panels of red velvet, and next to those he stretched panels of flaming rose felt. Still other walls he painted a rust-brown color or the color of a mossy forest bed. In the dressing room off the master bedroom, James painted each of at least a dozen cabinet doors one of three colors — sweet, muted green, gray, or blue.
Everyone wanted to eyeball the weird new house, but very few were prepared for what they saw; some thought it looked like a crematorium. The entrance was nondescript in an oddly arresting way, standing as it did in the neighborhood of neo-Gothic and Tudor phantasmagoria that was River Oaks. The glass doors and row of windows carved out of the pink brick facade gave it a masklike mien. People driving around to ogle mansions didn’t venture too far up the de Menil driveway, and to this day truckers making deliveries don’t hesitate to pull right up to the front door, bewildered about service drives and disbelieving that this could be the entrance to a rich man’s house.
As it turned out, the house aged gracefully, accommodating the burgeoning art collection effortlessly. It is a warm and elegant place. But Philip Johnson, while eternally grateful to the de Menils for taking a chance on him and for steering many other commissions his way — he says they are “the most important people in my career” — 7 has repeatedly refused to include the house in any collections of his work; after all, neither did Frank Lloyd Wright include in his portfolios the houses whose interiors he had not overseen. Johnson insists that the reason is that he doesn’t like his design for the de Menil house; the front is “terrible” and the floor plan “simpleminded” because of the budget restrictions. “Mrs. de Menil is a very strong woman,” he says. “I was young then and easily pushed around. Now I am not so unprepared for the strong-minded.” He chooses to ignore the James interiors and says rather that the house is wonderful only because of Dominique de Menil’s perfect taste. “No decorator could do what she does, the way plants are everywhere, the way she leaves books and papers lying around all over the place. The strong and haunting sense you get from that house is a miracle.” Is he being catty? Or perhaps he is growing fonder of his house. Perhaps. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he asks levelly, “to strip the whole house down and see what it really looks like?”
The fifties and sixties were times of intense collecting for the de Menils; their treasure was added to almost daily. Most visitors to their home have a story to tell about the arrival of an unwieldy crate that contained a new sculpture by Ernst or a small pouch that held a little oil by Forrest Bess. The de Menils bought works by de Chirico, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Miró, Cezanne, Rodin, Rothko, Paul Klee, Legér, Braque, Tinguely, Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. They bought pre-Columbian art, African and Oceanic pieces, Egyptian art, ancient Near Eastern and Far Eastern art, and Aegean, Etruscan, Hellenistic, Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, Coptic, and Islamic art. They bought paintings from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries and sculpture, ceramics, glass, jewelry, collages, carvings, toys, and rare books bound in crumbling butter-soft leather. Sometimes they just bought things that were eye-catching or a pleasure to hold.
People scouted for them and sent word back to Houston about a treasure in this or that remote corner of a faraway continent. James Johnson Sweeney caught an interesting show of Tinguely pieces in Rome and wondered if he might pick out a few for them. “BUY WHOLE SHOW,” they cabled back. Leo Castelli, the famous New York art dealer, had an important Jasper Johns in his gallery; snapshots had to be sent to the de Menils. Alexandre Iolas spotted a Picasso that would fill in a critical gap; they bought it. The house and then warehouses and vaults began to fill up with art.
Even the children, by the seventies grown and with their own families and households, began collecting art. Adelaide, a photographer who lives in New York City, has a collection of Northwest Coast and Eskimo art. Philippa runs her own arts foundation in Manhattan called DIA, which sponsors enormous works — filling entire rooms or covering large fields — by artists such as Walter de Maria and, Don Judd, who is working in Marfa. Christophe is a patroness of avant-garde composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. François and Georges both collect modern art; Georges is an economist and Francois a sometime movie and theater producer.
The house on San Felipe was beginning to attract an astonishing collection of people as well. The staff did not stop with the usual assortment of governesses, maids, and cooks. Mrs. de Menil hired dozens of intelligent young men and women over the years to help her with her service to museum boards around the world and countless other projects. Her secretaries and aides-de-camp became devoted to her, often serving long terms of duty, and though the de Menils were a source of obsessive fascination to those in the inner sanctum, they guarded her — and their own reflected status — zealously. “We are custodians of her privacy,” says one woman who stayed with her for several years. “So many people want her for so many things. She’s got to be protected.”
The de Menils were Radical Chic long before it was considered chic in Houston. If anything, it was a complicated feat. While on one hand they were giving dazzling dinner parties for the likes of Magritte, Warhol, Oldenburg, Ernst, Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Norman Mailer, on the other hand they were trying earnestly to get their friends to begin to appreciate modernism. They started a print club, offering at cost — $5 to $200 — works by Roy Lichtenstein, Ernst, Robert Rauschenberg, and Warhol to their friends. They organized a group of twelve wealthy Houstonians (including Bank of Texas chairman George Butler, tobacco and real estate magnate Henry J. N. Taub, and Lloyd Bentsen, then with Lincoln Consolidated holding company) to participate in a partnership called Art Investments at $10,000 a share. As general partners, the de Menils used the money to buy nine works of art, which were distributed to members’ homes and rotated every three months. “I know that some people kept their art hidden in a closet during their three months,” says Aaron Farfel. People called from Dallas and San Antonio and even New York to find out how to start such a club, but no one else had the de Menils.
Editors and scholars and curators were enlisted all over the world to research arcane subjects for exhibitions, catalogs, and books. One, called The Image of the Black in Western Art, is a lavishly illustrated series that has been labored over by scholars, photographers, writers, editors, and translators for fifteen years; two volumes have been published, and another will appear in 1984.
The image series is an indication of a second great passion of the de Menils’ that grew along with their passion for art after they came to Houston and found its expression in similar ways: the history and the rights of blacks. As early as the mid-forties, Mrs. de Menil was giving luncheons to which she invited black businessmen, educators, and religious leaders along with her society friends; through the fifties and sixties many a dinner party erupted into arguments, some ending in fistfights, over “the race question.” The de Menils gave, with no fanfare, to the campaigns of liberals and blacks running for the then all-white and segregationist school board. Over the years they supported liberal candidates for other local offices, most notably mayors Fred Hofheinz and Kathy Whitmire. They gave generously to the American Civil Liberties Union and to Amnesty International. They set up funds to put black students through college and graduate school. They supported black radicals, such as Jeferree James and Lee Otis Johnson. When Johnson complained to Mrs. de Menil that the police regularly tried to frame him by lying about his activities, she hired a “witness” (whom he later married) to follow him around.
In 1971 Mrs. de Menil installed a show in the Rice Museum called “Some American History.” It was a collaborative effort, masterminded by artist Larry Rivers and meant to show scenes of black life in America by several different artists. Rivers himself created the set piece of the show, Lynching: four life-size plywood cutouts of black men stuck onto coffinlike boxes and dangled by heavy rope nooses. Sprawled beneath them on a bed, legs spread, was a construction of a very pink and blond heavy-breasted woman in black stockings, black garters, and pointy spike-heeled shoes. At the glittering opening of the show, Rivers walked around tape-recording the (mostly white) audience’s reactions. They were not altogether pleasant. “I really objected to that show, blacks being hung, Aunt Jemima with a machine gun, slave ships,” says Jane Blaffer Owen. “The de Menils were sympathetic with the poor blacks, but so were we. I was a Southerner, but my family fought the KKK. My daddy’s family had slaves, but he was kind and wonderful to them. That show was terrible.”
If rich white folks were suspicious of the black-power sympathies of the de Menils, so too, at first, were black radicals. One in particular, Mickey Leland, a 25-year-old who had dropped out of the Texas Southern School of Pharmacy to help run a black minister’s campaign for a seat on the school board, was taken completely by surprise when the de Menils began to befriend him in 1969. The de Menils had decided to open an art gallery in the Fifth Ward. They asked Leland to be a liaison between them and the ward leaders, who were incredulous of the whole idea.
They rented an abandoned, run-down movie theater, once the grand Deluxe Theatre, where Leland had gone as a boy. (In his mother’s generation in Houston, Leland recalls, black people were allowed to sit in the balcony of any picture show. In his generation, they weren’t even allowed to go into the same houses as whites.) The de Menils hired a painter named Peter Bradley to be the show’s curator. He gutted the interior of the Deluxe Theatre, put in new floors, walls, and lighting, and in three weeks turned it into a gallery. Bradley asked nineteen artists, among them painters Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons and sculptors Michael Steiner and Richard Hunt, to contribute work, with the proviso that they need not use it to make explicit political statements.
The Deluxe Show was an enormous success. People poured in from all over town; certainly it was the first time that most of River Oaks had ventured into the Fifth Ward. It was held over for months, and then the space was turned into a museum that stayed open for several years, to which the de Menils lent dozens of African objects, masks, and sculptures.
After the Deluxe Show, Mickey Leland’s relationship with the de Menils took on a new intimacy. Leland was exactly the sort of man John de Menil prized in his retinue; he was young and bright and cut an extremely dashing figure with the ladies. He would be a leader no matter what he did. Finding the young Mickey Leland was, in terms of the de Menil Eye, not too unlike spotting the unknown Max Ernst.
John de Menil began to counsel Leland on the course of his life. He urged him to finish school and donated $50,000 to Texas Southern for a program in clinical pharmacy so that his protégé could study it. Whenever the de Menils entertained someone who might someday be useful to Leland, they asked him to join them. When Leland needed a new car, they bought him one. When he decided, finally, to run for the Legislature in 1972, they were at his side with money and campaign advice. They were his Pygmalions.
“I was a rough and crude personality, and they polished me,” Leland says. “People tend to think in terms of what the de Menils have done financially; that’s not right. What the de Menils did for me was to turn me into a sophisticated human being who happened to make a career in politics. They did not know what I would end up doing, and they helped dozens and dozens of people the same way.”
When Leland became depressed about George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 and disillusioned about his own future in politics, John de Menil offered to send him on a trip to think things over. Leland suggested California. No, said de Menil, that wasn’t far enough. Leland suggested China. John de Menil sent him to Africa. The two set off together and went first to Los Angeles, then to New York, then to Paris. From there Leland went off on his own; he spent three months traveling all over Africa. When he returned, John de Menil was in the hospital, dying of cancer. He lived to see Leland win his seat in the Texas House but died during his first year in office.
In his office on Capitol Hill, Congressman Leland is surrounded today by reminders of the de Menils. The massive tomes of The Image of the Black prominent in his bookcase. On the walls are large color prints made from plates in the book; he proudly points out Moses with his first wife, Zipporah, an Ethiopian. “I can’t even begin to repay their kindness,” he says. “ But someday I will. I will.”
The generosity that the de Menils showered on Leland was not especially unusual for them, but most of their protégés were of the world of culture, not politics, and so the world into which they were drawn by the de Menils was much smaller. Leland had elections to win and other politicians to work with, but most members of the de Menil circle had only the de Menils. Architects Howard Barnstone and Gene Aubry, who were in the most intimate circles of the de Menil retinue in its early years, had never seen anything like them before. “The de Menils were so worldly, charming, wonderful, open, ambitious, free from prejudice and rigidity, and generous,” says Barnstone. But not everyone was taken by the de Menil charm, and not everyone was treated to it either. John de Menil in particular could be shockingly cruel and imperious. “I have seen him write a check for a quarter of a million dollars and ask someone to take it and get out of his life,” recalls a friend. “He believed that if you had a cancer, you should cut it out with a sharp, quick stroke.
For all the people who were hurt or bewildered by the de Menils, there were more who adored them. Life with them became a rich, dense mesh of professionalism and intimacy. People who worked for them became their closest confidants, drawn inextricably into the tangle of their many projects. Barnstone, for example, had been employed to correct Johnson’s oversights at the house, but he also house-sat when the de Menils went on summer vacations or took trips abroad. He designed the Schlumberger house organ, Intercom, for which John de Menil spared no expense. Barnstone could assign Eve Arnold or Inge Morath or Henri Cartier-Bresson to photograph Schlumberger operations. But then Barnstone and Aubry were expected to help the de Menils decorate their tree and wrap presents at Christmas — and willingly they went. Each year the de Menils set out beautiful gifts and gave the young architects pick of the lot before they started wrapping.
“Life with the de Menils was always so nice, so seductive,” says Gene Aubry, now a successful designer of big office buildings in Houston. “Mrs. de Menil’s generosity was astonishing, and everything she did was according to very high standards. The people around her were always referred to as her court, never to her face, of course. Their lives were completely wrapped up in her life, and in a way, to their detriment. I think they were subtly held back. The guys who really want to get ahead do not sit around waiting for the crumbs. I saw what was coming, and I got out. But still, life with her could never be awful.”
The paintings by Mark Rothko that the de Menils had commissioned in 1964 were intended for a chapel that would be a joint monument to modern art and modern religion; Mrs. de Menil was convinced that, as she wrote of the chapel later, “only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” When Rothko completed the paintings in 1966, a site for the chapel still had not been chosen. For five years it moved all over the St. Thomas campus and then to the Texas Medical Center and finally to the property the de Menils owned in Montrose. As it moved, it shrank. Philip Johnson, hired as the chapel’s architect, wanted it to have high ceilings and an 85-foot tower with a skylight at the top that would filter the light that entered, because Houston light was so much stronger than the light that filtered through the soot-covered skylight in Rothko’s New York studio. But then the ceiling height came down, and the tower was lopped off. No one now can agree on why that happened; some say Rothko hated the tower, some say Mrs. de Menil hated it, perhaps because it gave the chapel a traditional look that was unfashionable in the years following Vatican II.
If Rothko and Mrs. de Menil agreed about the tower, it would have been a rare moment. Gene Aubry, who was brought in to work on the chapel, says that Rothko made his paintings for a Catholic sanctuary, not a nondenominational place; he had intended that there be crosses and altars in it. Rothko had not wanted artificial lighting either. He wanted people to see his subtly mottled purplish-brown canvases as the sun came up, as it crossed the sky, and as it set, after which they would disappear into the gloom. But the de Menils intended to use the chapel for services and lectures on dark days and evenings, and Johnson thought it was simply ridiculous not to light the paintings. Round and round it went. Rothko wanted the walls to be painted a pale ivory, with a slightly yellow cast; Mrs. de Menil had them painted a soft gray color. Eventually Johnson, with Mrs. de Menil’s blessing, resigned from the project. Rothko died suddenly and mysteriously in his studio in New York in February 1970; he never saw his chapel.
Barnstone and Aubry were brought in to carry on when Johnson left. Aubry built a half-scale model of Johnson’s distinctive octagonal shape without the tower, painted miniature purplish-brown Rothkos, built small benches and guard rails, hung those paintings in the little chapel, and then crawled around inside studying the light.
“We drove ourselves to distraction over it,” Aubry says. “We made about eight miniature chapels, each time incorporating some new scheme Dominique came up with. She would have us set up these models, and then she would call in architects from all over the world to give her ideas on how to make it work. What a circus. . . . She had a romance with the idea of architects but not with the reality. I don’t know why she bothers to hire architects for her projects anyway. She certainly doesn’t listen to anything they say.”
The lighting in the chapel is a curse to this day. It was dedicated in February 1972, and the sunshine pouring through a skylight cast such a glare on the dusky colors of the canvases that they were invisible. Later on, a shield was constructed under the skylight, and now the paintings look murky because the light is so poor.
In front of the chapel, in a large reflecting pool, stands an impressive metal sculpture by Barnett Newman called Broken Obelisk. The de Menils had intended to donate the piece to the city with the understanding that it be dedicated to Martin Luther King. Mayor Louie Welch refused the gift because of that, and when a city official called for an alternative inscription, John de Menil suggested a quote from the Bible: “Forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The city was unmoved. And so the sculpture found its way to Montrose, where it adorns the first institution created entirely by the de Menils and thus perhaps the first to be entirely to their liking.
For years there had been talk in Houston, and all over the art world, about where the final resting place of the de Menils’ great collection would be. There were rumors that it was going to New York or Paris or Los Angeles or, broken up, to all of those places; on everyone’s tongues, the collection flew around and around the world. But as early as 1970 the de Menils were discussing with friends ways of keeping it in Houston. “Why bring coals to Newcastle?” says Mrs. de Menil. “What do New York and Paris need with another museum?” It would of course require its own institution: “No one could exhibit the collection the way I want it to be exhibited. No museum has the curatorial staff for the kinds of shows I want. “ A budget was drawn up — $10 million for construction, another $20 million for an endowment — and, after some artful hinting by the Menil Foundation that it was not absolutely set that the museum be in Houston, local donors, chiefly the Cullen and the Brown foundations, put up $5 million each. Walter Hopps, formerly director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Pasadena Museum in California, was chosen to run it. He adds up the museum to-be’s holdings at 10,000 pieces and says it is one of the five most important privately held collections of twentieth century art in this country.
Mrs. de Menil spent years searching the world for an architect to realize her vision of the museum. Pontus Hulten (who will direct the new Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, on whose board Mrs. de Menil sits) introduced her to Italian architect Renzo Piano, who with his partner Richard Rogers had designed the high-tech Pompidou Center — known as the Beaubourg — in Paris. In Piano Mrs. de Menil decided she had found her architect; she passed up everyone in Houston (Howard Barnstone felt the snub most keenly) and, for that matter, everyone in the United States, including Philip Johnson (who remarks cheerily, “She will get what she wants…. She is afraid that an architect might build a monument to himseIf. She knows, I guess, that Piano will do what she tells him to”).
What Mrs. de Menil wants seems to be as far from high tech as possible, at least in appearance. The model of the museum, constructed in the same workshop in which Barnstone and Aubry labored over their scaled-down Rothko Chapel, shows a long, low, unassuming building. It will range over about four hundred feet of a block in Montrose. Set back from the front and floating on columns will be a second story that will be used for offices and storage. The museum will be clad in wooden clapboard, as are most of the cottages in the area, and it may be painted what might as well be called Doville gray. It is in danger of looking a little like a lovable old beached whale.
If museums look like their owners or, rather, since Mrs. de Menil is in no danger of looking like a beached whale, if museums reflect their owners’ personalities — as do the austere, muscular Frick in Manhattan, the gentle, eccentric Isabella Gardner in Boston, and the gracious, bourgeois Phillips in Washington — then it is how the museum works that will capture the style of a woman who chooses to wear her mink inside out. She has never seemed to care much about appearance for its own sake.
The museum will be large, but inside it should feel warm, intimate. It is being designed to avoid giving its visitors museum fatigue. Some galleries will be large enough for many paintings; other rooms may contain only one piece of art and a comfortable sofa. Generally, very little of the collection will be on display at any one time. Galleries on the lower level will open onto a long promenade, so that visitors can go to any room without crossing through another. There will be gardens in glass niches throughout the building.
Mrs. de Menil has decided that heating and cooling units should send air up from the floors rather than down from the ceilings; an intriguing idea, theoretically, but her engineers have been stumped as to how to leave enough air space between the wooden floorboards for ventilation but not so much that women will be lurching around, their high heels caught in the cracks. This time around, there will be no skylights. Piano has devised a system whereby light will enter through a glass roof and reflect off the curved sides of immense concrete slats, or leaves, that double as beams to support the roof. The museum, happily, will also rely heavily on light bulbs.
The upstairs level of the museum will be what Mrs. de Menil calls her treasure house. It will be divided into several storage rooms, thematically organized, where the art will be densely displayed. A student of Ernst’s paintings, for instance, will find dozens of canvases stored on the wall, rather than in bins and vaults. Most of those who are able to gain access to the treasure house won’t have known its owner, but at that point they’ll be close enough to enter, in a sense, the de Menil circle and so be able to get a sense of her. Perhaps, looking at the mass of priceless paintings there, they’ll see that she was idiosyncratic, mysterious, elegant, and unpretentious, and that what pleased her more than anything was beautiful things, pure and unfettered-hers.