The Passing of Jayne Wrightsman, A Story of the American 20th Century

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Tulips along Park Avenue. 11:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 22, 2019. It was a mainly sunny weekend here in New York with the temp (in the Sun) hitting the high 60s. Rain was forecast but little stopped by the Big Town.

In the neighborhood. Jayne Wrightsman died on Friday at her home at 820 Fifth Avenue. The media referred to her as a socialite, philanthropist and collector of art and 18th century antiques, along with her late husband Charles Wrightsman.

I never met her although I often heard about her, I saw her very occasionally at public events. By then she was a woman in her mid-70s, always smartly dressed with a certain restraint. She was a small woman, very slender, chic but plainly dressed and with a presence that was modest in bearing. In other words, if she were “modest” or not, you might not notice her in the crowd because of her diminutive size, and that “presence.”

Mr. and Mrs Charles B. Wrightsman pictured at the Everglades Club, Palm Beach, Florida, 1960s (Photo by Bert Morgan/Getty Images)

The obituaries about her focus on her enormous collections which she and Mr. Wrightsman donated to the Metropolitan Museum. Entire rooms of 18th Century French furniture including many pieces that belonged to the Kings, Louis XV and his grandson Louis XVI as well as Louis XVI’s wife Marie Antoinette. But the real story was one of a shrewd and disciplined self-creation as the figure that will be remembered, and even in art history.

I’d first heard about her, along with the rest of the world, back in the early 1960s when she and her husband, whose fortune came from oil were hosts to President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie at their house in Palm Beach. The Wrightsman Palm Beach villa was said to have previously belonged to Mona (Mrs. Harrison) Williams who after her husband died, became the Countess Bismarck.

It was said by those who knew Mrs. Wrightsman, and by those in the interior design business who also saw her residences as prime examples of great natural taste, accented by treasures that were made for palaces.  In other words despite the abundance of gilt, it was never reduced gaudy or c’est trop.

Although she was written about many times in magazines and newspapers, her private life was regarded as sophisticated, cultured, chic, and the last word in elegance. There were often rumors attributed to her husband’s harsh and cold arrogance. You could get the feeling from them she put up with a lot from the guy, to get to where she was. Nevertheless she was a prime example for the socially ambitious of her time. It was said that there were women here in New York over whom she exerted great influence as a connoisseur, teacher, and advisor.

Charles Wrightsman’s father, who was born in the last half ot he 19th century had made a huge fortune in the Oklahoma oil fields at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the man credited for thinking up the “oil depletion allowance” for which he is gratefully (wrong word but right idea) remembered to this day by any and all in the mineral deposit and timber business. The tax law allows the owners of such to regard it as a “wasting asset,” allowing the wasted part to be reasonably depreciated against income. He left his son Charles a hugely rich man, who was head of the Standard Oil Kansas company.

Mrs. Wrightsman was born Jane Larkin in Michigan. She moved with her mother to Los Angeles when she was in her youth. Despite its world fame as the center of the movie industry, L.A. was still very much a small town of neighborhoods and areas where people “knew” everybody. When I lived out there in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it had become a metropolis, and  the Wrightsmans were a topic of conversation among the wealthy people in upper echelons of the film community.

Jayne Wrightsman with Deborah (‘Debo’), the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and Annette de la Renta in 2002.  The trio poses in front of John Singer Sargent’s 1902 portrait of the Acheson sisters.

There were many who still knew her when she first met Mr. Wrightsman in the early 1940s. It was often remarked that she met her husband (who was 24 years her senior) when she was working behind the gloves counter in the Broadway department store on Wilshire Boulevard. (The New York Times  reported that they met at a dinner part of some mogul in the movie industry, which is possible of course. Although the point of those who knew her was that she came from a modest, working class background.

Jayne Wrightsman at the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, 2007.

Her mother owned, or a ran a local bar, and lived on Horn Avenue just above Sunset on the Strip. Mother Larkin was remembered as an older, well known figure in the neighborhood, often recalled as “walking around the neighborhood in her ‘bunny’ slippers and announcing from time to time: ‘I am the mother of The Mrs. Wrightsman.’”

It sounds like a colorful embellishment of a simple fact (“Mother,” “Wrightsman”), and did come out of the land of the movies. Nevertheless, it established that the international socialite was once just one of the girls next door until she met Mr. Moneybags.

Obviously things changed for both wife and husband. Obviously they shared certain common interests. One of them was undoubtedly a certain “status” among the socially (and financially) select.  Their developed and  deep interest in the 18th century French art and lifestyle among the aristos and the royals expanded into collecting furniture and objet.  After the French Revolution, throughout the 19thcentury, the works of the designers, craftsmen, and artisans whose clients were the Bourbon royals, were considered a blotch on France’s glorious history, left by the deposed King and Queen and their princely subjects. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century when Elsie de Wolfe, a tastemaker of her time, later Lady Mendl, and Consuelo Vanderbilt – whose mother had famously married her off to the 9th Duke of Marlborough,began popularizing it by collecting it for their own use.

By mid-20thcentury when the new couple (he’d been married before) began developing their interest as collectors, 18thCentury French furniture and objethad become de rigueur in the private residences of what was then called Society. The difference between those who were furnishing their drawing rooms with what was “proper,” and Jayne and Charles Wrightsman was the Wrightsmans were buying real history and making history socially with it.

Jayne Wrightsman with Mercedes Bass at the the American Academy in Rome’s annual Awards Dinner in in 2008.

Coincidentally or not, Charlene Wrightsman, a Wrightsman daughter from his first marriage, was married to Igor Cassini who was then the most important and influential social columnist in New York, writing under the nom de plume Cholly Knickerbocker for the Hearst newspapers. Charlene was first married to a well known movie actor named Helmut Dantine, later married Igor (GhiGhi) Cassini, brother fashion designer Oleg Cassini.  Our late beloved Liz Smithgot her start writing the columns for Cassini as well as acting as a reporter covering the social nightlife for him.

Charlene and her husband were at the center of the social world to which her father and stepmother were establishing themselves. One night in 1963, while watching television, Charlene, who was only seven years younger than her stepmother, overdosed on more than two dozen sleeping pills.

Aside from the obvious passionthat Jayne and Charles Wrightsman shared for art, antiques and interior design, and the great knowledge and expertise they achieved, it also was their ticket to society which by mid-century had completely loosened to what an earlier Cholly Knickerbocker, Maury Paul called “Café Society.” Furthermore, besides collecting, and furnishing their domiciles with gilted fauteuil , etc., they began donating important pieces and paintings to the Metropolitan Museum. And entertaining the crème de la crème with President Kennedy and his beautiful wife under their roof. It also led to being members of the board of directors of the museum.

Today the Wrightsman Collections at the Met are vast. It demonstrates how unlike today, where people on the rise pursue status and acknowledgement via the various forms of social media, Jayne and Charles Wrightsman pursued it through style and connoisseurship and left a lasting legacy to the world. The little girl from L.A. departed a legend in her lifetime.

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