Part III: The Life and Times of Billy McCarty-Cooper

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John Richardson, Douglas Cooper, and Pablo Picasso at La Californie, the artist’s Cannes villa, photographed by Picasso’s wife Jacqueline, 1959.

Today we complete the story of Billy McCarty Cooper and his life with Douglas Cooper and the history of the world’s greatest Cubist Art Collection.

Henry McIlhenny of Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, was a kind of salonist. He had a coterie of society men and women, decorators, designers, curators, antiquaires, authors, art historians and collectors who were part of his wide circle. The leitmotiv of the circle was a variety of men who were also homosexual. Gay men of McIlhenny’s generation, no matter how openly they lived, never in any way publicly (and rarely privately) acknowledged their sexual preferences. It was a matter of propriety and never discussed. For Henry McIlhenny, the world never changed. When Lady Sarah Churchill was divorcing her third husband in the 1980s, and she wished to subpoena her old friend Henry to testify that when she had met her husband, he was at the time, a “protégé” of Henry’s, McIlhenny was so outraged at the public inference she was making about him that he never spoke to her again.

Douglas and Billy at Canaletto, Gloria Etting’s cottage in Loveladies, NJ. Photograph by Gloria Etting.

He was an art collector/historian with a background that, although American was similar, in significant ways to that of Douglas Cooper. The two were contemporaries, always independently wealthy, lovers of art (McIlhenny owned a famous post-Impressionist collection and his town house was a repository of important Second Empire and Biedermeier furniture).

McIlhenny also liked the international high life. More than Cooper, he was a host par excellence in certain rarified social circles all over the world. He kept a castle, Glenveigh, in Ireland, on 30,000 acres. The world passed through its portals. Garbo, even, came to stay. They came to Philadelphia too, where McIlhenny offered a “racier” side to the sophisticated.

Like Cooper, McIlhenny’s connoisseurship and personal wealth made him attractive to society people as well as the cognoscenti whom he charmed with his lifestyle and social elan. It also attracted, as it was calculated to, a type of young man who is also socially and otherwise ambitious. As well as homosexual, who, like his heterosexual counterpart, an ambitious woman, was seeking to enrich and enhance his life through liaisons with very rich men. (Or women, for that matter). The characters of Proust, Henry James, Maugham, Noel Coward.

For those lovers of art history, for lovers of the good life, for lovers of the good time, it could be a very enticing world. Which is exactly what it was for Billy McCarty, the tall, long, brown-haired boy, an almost Tennessee Williams character from Miami Springs, F-L-A. He had come to Philadelphia to study architecture at Penn, and, it turned out, to seek his fortune.

A portrait of Gloria Braggiotti Etting by Emlen Etting.

Somewhere in there he made some connections with the local social people, namely Gloria Etting. She was a member of a large family from Boston whose mother was a Brahmin and whose father was an Italian aristocrat. Her elder sister married John Lodge, a one-time Governor of Connecticut and brother of Henry Cabot Lodge. More Brahmin and aristocratic than rich, Gloria grew up with the Cushing sisters and remained close friends when the sisters came to New York to make their way (Betsey married James Roosevelt and then Jock WhitneyMinnie married Vincent Astor, and Barbara (Babe) married William Paley).

Etting had married a Philadelphia society artist named Emlen Etting. For years they lived in a cozy four-story townhouse on Panama Street in the City. Etting was also homosexual. The unconventional nature of their marriage suited his wife who, it turned out, often preferred the company of homosexual men. It is a more sophisticated life on the face of it. Although possibly more emotionally problematic underneath.

Emlen Etting, self portrait.

A charming and warm woman with a very strong Italian accent on top of her American Brahmin-esque English, Gloria over time became a kind of hostess for Henry McIlhenny. She was therefore often a guest on the yachts he chartered in the Mediterranean every summer, and at Glenveigh with its house parties well-populated with titled Brits and Europeans, millionaires, courtesans, art collectors, and various and sundry types to spice up the mix.

Gloria, who had an appreciative eye for good-looking men, especially young ones, met young Billy McCarty at an art exhibit in Philadelphia. She was charmed by the young man who was curious, but with a natural self-effacing reticence that flattered the teacher. Gloria was the teacher.

She arranged that he be invited to one of Henry McIlhenny’s famous dinners. It was to be the dinner that Henry McIlhenny gave for Douglas Cooper on his arrival in Philadelphia. Cooper, still smarting and wounded by the departure of John Richardson from his life, was ripe to meet a pretty new face. And young Billy McCarty, as it happened, was that face.

He was an immediate hit not only with the guest of honor, but with everyone present. Douglas Cooper, in the word of an old friend who was present that night, being “the true connoisseur that he was, had found his perfect adorable boy.”

It is conceivable that the young man had an inkling of this on first meeting the irascible one. He was very taken by Cooper, who was a legend in his world. Cooper was also immediately smitten and on his best, charming, scintillating behavior. He was also rich and powerful in an important sense. Important to an imaginative and ambitious boy.

Henry McIlhenny at Glenveagh estate in Ireland.

The relationship between the two men was slow in developing. The world was now Billy’s oyster and for him it contained one big, lustrous, shiny pearl. Through his original connection to Gloria Etting and Henry McIlhenny, aside from his meeting Douglas Cooper, Billy was also introduced to the world. He soon found the society circuit infinitely more interesting than his curriculum. He left school and took a job with an architectural firm, and with his strong visual sense, was soon following a natural path to interior design.

A year passed before Billy was invited to Castille. But by then he had secured a job working in London for interior designer David Hicks. Eventually he was traveling every few weeks to Castille. He was a perfect Galatea to Cooper’s Pygmalion. And Douglas, for his “adorable” boy, was in flower. Another friend, the esteemed collector of Western European sculpture, Michael Hall recalled that “Billy was impressed by the glamour and the people.” Douglas had a first-rate intellect. He would often tease Billy drawing attention to his lack of it.

The more the young man saw his new mentor, the more he was exposed to his infamous outbursts and put-downs which were democratically directed at Billy as well. “He could be mean as cat’s piss,” Billy recalled kindly years after Cooper’s passing.

In 1965, Billy opened his own firm, William McCarty Associates in London. There were commissions forthcoming for Rothschild drawing rooms to Vidal Sassoon salons in Beverly Hills. He loved the hobnobbing. “It was nothing for him to drive two hours from Los Angeles to Palm Springs to lunch with Kitty (Mrs. Gilbert) Miller and then three hours back to Malibu for dinner with (director) John and Evans Frankenheimer,” recalled decorator Leonard Stanley who first met him with Douglas Cooper in the mid-60s.

Billy photographed for House Beautiful, June 1971.

His work gave him financial autonomy although Douglas Cooper had already bought him a flat in London (along with one for himself right next door). Whatever he was thinking, Cooper’s attachment to Billy provoked him to cement it financially. Eventually two more apartments were bought on New York’s Upper East Side, both in the name of Billy. Financial assistance was also provided in the form of access to a Swiss bank account for overdrafts up to $150,000. “Douglas felt immensely paternal,” Sir Frances Watson recalled. “He wanted to see that everything was done for his boy.”

In 1972, arrangements were made to adopt Billy. The proceedings took place in France, where by law a son is automatically entitled to at least one half of his father’s estate. Such an arrangement, where the adoptee is not an orphan, is not uncommon in the world of the arts and society. Cooper’s friend Jean Cocteau, for example, had adopted his young friend Eduard Dermit. In Cooper’s case, it was also a way of keeping his wealth from falling into the hands of his hated birth family.

Now in his sixties, the gray-haired and balloon-bellied Cooper, was hardly mellowing despite the frequent companionship of his adored one. His dyspeptic personality and his insatiable need for attention only intensified. Nevertheless, his collection continued to give him enormous power in the art world. The great museums in the United States and abroad were always making overtures for securing its final destination. Cooper delighted in playing along.

Meanwhile, the collection continued to go through changes and refinement. He put works on the market to finance Picasso’s wall at Castille. There were also sales at Sotheby’s and to private galleries in the late 60s and through the 70s. When the Prado in Madrid, made him the first non-Spaniard to sit on the patronato, “board of patrons,” he donated Picasso’s Still Life with Dead Birds (1912) and the palette the artist used while working on the Dejeuner sur l’herbe series. Gris’ Portrait of Josette Gris (1916) also went to the Prado.

“In the room with the Guernica, at the other end are Douglas’ two Juan Grises,” noted Sir Francis Watson. “In the middle of the room is a photo of Douglas and a photo of Picasso. He longed for public recognition and finally, in this, he got it.” He also promised his greatest treasure, Picasso’s Three Women Under a Tree (1907-1908) to the Musée Picasso in Paris — a donation made after his death and for which Billy was honored by the French government.

Throughout the jagged times of Cooper’s temperament, his “boy” remained patient. “The long suffering Billy,” was how Sir Francis Watson characterized him. It got so that he hated it and spent less and less time at the chateau. Another friend noted, however, that “he had the big picture about life. He was hanging in for the long haul.” Besides, he was, and always would be, the Beloved.

Picasso’s Three Women Under a Tree (1907-1908) given posthumously by Douglas Cooper to Musée Picasso in Paris.

The novelty of visiting the chateau had long worn off for a lot of people besides Billy. There could be times when Douglas was fairly alone. “You had to work to keep the interesting people around. It was living in the sticks,” recalled Michael Hall.

Then one night in 1974, while Cooper slept, thieves cut a wire fence, broke in through a window and stole 25 Picassos, a Braque, and a Gris. The art, worth almost a million dollars (undoubtedly tens of millions more today), was never found. There were a lot of theories as to “what happened.” One was that Cooper himself had engineered the theft to partially circumvent French laws asserting the country’s entitlement to art works on its own soil that would have prevented him from selling them.

Nevertheless, that finished Cooper with Castille. He put it on the market and bought two apartments — one for him, one for Billy — in Monte Carlo. Billy decorated them and Cooper moved in in 1977.

The move marked the beginning of the end of Cooper’s life. Billy found more and more reasons to be away from his side. He continued to be visited by all kinds of people interested in his collection and its ultimate disposal. Museums sent envoys who were bright and young and attractive and male to entertain and amuse him (and of course to secure the collection). But basically he was alone. There were no more pilgrims flocking to his personal Cubist cathedral.

In the early 1980s, Billy began a friendship with a young man he’d met in London named David Johnson. Cooper knew it. His response was to tell friends that he’d fallen in love with not one, but two good-looking young men he’d met in Monte Carlo.

Cooper’s Monaco apartment decorated by Billy McCarty.

But a lifetime of anger for Douglas Cooper had begun sputtering out. Some of his important pictures were put up for auction but failed to fetch the reserve prices he wanted and so they were withdrawn. His liver and kidneys were also beginning to do him in and he was becoming bedridden for periods of time. In 1983 he bought his last Picasso, Sugar Bowl and Fan (1909-1910).

On April 1, 1984, with Billy at his side, Douglas Cooper died in a London hospital, a month-and-a-half after his seventy-third birthday. The New York Times listed his “adopted son, William McCarty-Cooper” as his sole survivor. Cooper had otherwise succeeded in erasing his family, as well as any hope for legacy.

Everyone was speculating on how much the “boy” got. The naysayers said that his share had been drastically reduced at the end. This was concluded from another rumor that Robin Hurlstone, a friend in the recent past, was heir to a million, provided in a last minute codicil. Hurlstone was an heir, it turned out. (And at the time, coincidentally, the new paramour of actress Joan Collins). He received a Picasso worth $250,000, and some cash. Everything else: cash, stocks, gold, real estate, plus the collection, conservatively appraised at $34,563,530 went to his son William McCarty-Cooper.

Robin Hurlstone with Joan Collins. He was 25 years her junior. And smitten!

Until Cooper’s death, Billy never spent much money. If anything, it went mainly for plane tickets and cab fares. Never tied to possessions, his closets rarely had more than three or four suits. Even a year after he’d inherited Cooper’s New York apartment, it was furnished with nothing but a mat to sleep on, a television, a table, a lamp, and about fifteen million dollars worth of paintings. He continued driving around London in his VW Rabbit.

But the money began to have its impact. “He went from business class to Concorde,” one old friend put it. “Now he was a player in a society where he had only been one of the invited.” At first he wanted the money and the collection. But soon it became apparent the collection would have to go. He began selling large portions. A New York collector bought some of the most important pictures for about $25 million. Christie’s London sold 125 lots in 1988 for 230% more than their high estimates. Picasso’s 1914 Still Life with Peaches and Playing Cards, which Cooper had bought in 1937 for $125 was sold for $1.5 million. Léger’s Study for Mother and Child, Three Figures in a Landscape (1922) which Cooper had bought for less than $180 went for $280,000.

Braque’s The Studio (VIII), 1954.

Billy didn’t sell everything. He kept Braque’s Studio VIII (above) and Picasso’s Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, and began forming his own collection. He gave John Richardson an important Braque, Fire Bird (1954), believing that Richardson had been unfairly left out of the will. (He had also, in 1981, engineered a reconciliation between Richardson and Cooper.)

He also formed a Swiss corporation, Churchglade Ltd., as a holding company for remaining works in the collection. He hired a curator to oversee its cataloging. For the first time, under these auspices, Douglas Cooper’s collection would be seen by the world. After an exhibition at the Kuntsmuseum in Basel, the next stop was, ironically, the Tate in London.

Several objects from Billy’s collection of African tribal art.

Billy quickly adapted to his new life as millionaire collector, patron, party-giver and philanthropist. He slid into the roles as seamlessly as any parvenu could ever optimally imagine. Subscribing to the idea that Cubism had its origins in African tribal art, and because it was at the time affordable to him and different, he bought at auction with abandon. He also found himself bedazzling with his high figured purchases, a Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann bed for $125,000, a dining room table (after Ruhlmann) for $75,000. Millions more for African tribal art, Nanking china, Georg Jensen silver, china from the estate of Ann (Mrs. Jack) Warner (Royal Crown Derby, ca. 1820) and rare 17th- and 18th-century books on horticulture and architecture.

Like his mentor, he took to entertaining also. The difference was he did everything more extravagantly. After the Kuntsmuseum opening in 1987, he hosted a two-day string of dinners and lunches for 140 people, including Picasso’s son Claude and Juan Gris’ son, Georges Gonzalez. For his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, he hired Viscaya and spent $250,000 on the party. He spent as much again on the party to mark the opening of the Douglas Cooper collection at the Tate. When Jean Howard, a casual social acquaintance published her celebrated book of photographs, “Jean Howard’s Hollywood,” in 1989, he spent another quarter million on a dinner-dance in her honor at his house in Beverly Hills.

He hired the former private secretary of Earl Mountbatten (and Princess Michael of Kent), John Barratt as his ADC. Barratt, a pleasant sort of naval officer type later left Billy’s employ under the suspicion of having embezzled millions from his account. He also hired a curator for his collections, David Crownover, a McIlhenny friend from Philadelphia, as well as Judith Hoffberg as curator for his rare book collection. He contracted another friend to research a book on Cooper’s life. He also hired the best cook and English butler he could find.

Songye Prestige Stool. A superb example of Billy’s vast collection of African tribal art.

He sold the apartments in London and bought a town house in great need of refurbishing. In California, he took a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel ($5000+ a week) until he found the house on Oriole Lane which he filled with his new treasures, Cooper’s old ones, and the Sutherland portrait of Cooper that Cooper hated. The California house was a melange of 18th-century French, Art Deco, Biedermeier, African tribal art, Cubist art, 50s moderne — all juxtaposed in what appeared to be an uncalculated way. This was enhanced by a huge orchid collection, the views, and luxury everywhere. Even the guesthouse had its own pool.

If a sense of urgency seemed to pervade Billy’s spending and entertaining, only he and a handful of close friends knew what fueled it. In 1984, just a few months after he’d inherited Cooper’s fortune, he learned, following a routine physical, that he was HIV+. In those days, HIV’s ravages moved very quickly with little to quell them. He had a tiger by the tail and an albatross around his neck.

So his remaining years were defined by uncharacteristic extravagance. He kept himself surrounded by friends and interesting acquaintances. Friends would be flown in from half way across the world, first-class, and put up in The Four Seasons, all paid for by the host, just for a couple of nights of dinner parties. “He gave those parties,” according to Countess de Borchgrave, “not for his own elevation but to give pleasure to other people, which is rare.” (In one of his less visible acts of generosity, he subsidized the dinner parties given by the late New York decorator Brent Arnold, who had AIDS at the time, paying his monthly bills at Balducci’s for more than a year.) “Billy himself,” the countess added, “was a very humble person, so shy and yet so social, not dancing the night away but more of a spectator, like the Great Gatsby. He was exactly the same when he had no money.”

But fate called short to all that in the late fall of 1989. He was attending an opera opening in Dallas when he got a nosebleed caused by a tumor in the sinus cavities. The procedure to remove it involved the risk of losing an eye. Locating specialists to operate on someone with the AIDS virus was also not easy. He found them at Johns Hopkins. More than thirty doctors attended the operation that lasted almost fourteen hours. The eye was saved by cutting an opening through his skull. Five hours out of surgery, he was on the phone to his friend Lady Ampthill in London, assuring her that he was fine.

He wasn’t though. Undaunted, his head wrapped in a bandana, he was back in Beverly Hills by February 1990, looking worse for the wear but still vital. For the next few months, he continued his life full throttle, shuttling between Los Angeles, New York, Europe with side trips to the NIH in Bethesda for tests and observations.

But he was wasting away slowly, ravaged — as were many of his friends and acquaintances in the art and design worlds — by the epidemic. First went his senses of smell and taste, then his vision. Yet he mocked these developments. “I’m going off to Washington to have my brain fried,” he said of his treatments. “It’s like looking at life through olive oil,” he joked with Judith Hoffberg about his failing eyesight.

Then in February 1991, his health took a steep downturn. By March he was legally blind. On the first day of spring, too weak to get out of bed, he sent all his lady friends bouquets of lilies of the valley. In mid-May he suffered a stroke. And on May 30, at 10 p.m. PDT, resting comatose in his Ruhlmann bed, Billy McCarty-Cooper died, six years and two months after his mentor, “El Benefactor,” Douglas.

The estate he’d inherited had grown in value despite his spending and the softening art market at the time. He left the bulk divided into thirty-four equal parts to his brothers, sisters, nephews, parents and a handful of friends.

William McCarty in 1973 at Van Day Truex’s house in Provence by Gloria Braggiotti Etting.

His will provided for the completion of two separate gifts of $1 million each to Johns Hopkins and to the Dana Farber Institute in Boston.

There were a number of bequests ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 including those to Lady Ampthill, Countess de Borchgrave and Marguarite Lampkin Littman, all of London; Lise Ferrer, and Houston art dealer Sue Pittman, as well as to his staff (one year’s salary) and his curators — with funds to complete their cataloguing work.

Gloria Etting and John Galliher were left an annuity of $50,000 a year for the rest of their lives. His longtime companion, David Johnson, inherited the London house, a Juan Gris still life, the contents of Billy’s Beverly Hills bedroom and a substantial undisclosed sum.

Part of the African tribal collection was bequeathed to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; another part went to UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, and the Gaby Archive — illustrated letters and notes by Picasso to Gaby Lespinasse, with whom he had a short affair in 1915, was left to the Musée Picasso.

Many individual paintings from the Douglas Cooper collection hang in great museums such as the Metropolitan and the Prado, but there is no memorial to the collector, or to Billy. Eventually, after Billy’s death, everything was sold at auction, realizing millions more for his estate. Some have suggested that the dissolution of Douglas Cooper’s collection may have been the “son’s” ultimate revenge, the reward for sticking with Cooper, “for paying my dues,” as Billy once put it.

“Maybe Douglas’s temper tantrums were to keep the ball rolling, to keep a little theatre,” surmised a friend of both men after Billy’s passing. “But,” the friend also insisted that “Billy loved Douglas.” Perhaps that was the only memorial Cooper ever really needed.

For Part I, click here
For Part II, click here

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