BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Jayne Wrightsman. The perfect answer to the question (even for a woman of a certain age still trying to decide): “Who would you like to be like when you grow up?” Connoisseur, beauty, mentor, friend to the most famous first lady, patron of the arts, trendsetter and a woman with a fascinating past, Wrightsman enters elegantly into focus as her private collection is up for auction online at Christie’s now through October 15, with the live auction in New York on October 14. Proceeds will be directed to charity.
Just before the pandemic began in early March, Cathy Busch, Managing Director of Christie’s Midwest, invited guests to hear more about this scholarly swan and chatelaine: “An autodidact with great enthusiasm, she quite simply singlehandedly revived French decorative arts. It was said that her mind was as well dressed as her body. She was praised by Vogue’s Hamish Bowles as not only a best-dressed style icon but also as a sly wit.”
For four decades the wife of Charles Wrightsman, head of Standard Oil in Kansas, Wrightsman died in April 2019. During her life, she gave the Metropolitan Museum of New York the astonishing Wrightsman Galleries filled with French furniture and other treasures which she purchased outright for the Museum.
Busch describes Wrightsman’s personal treasures at auction as a “collection of global importance, like the Rothshchild, Reagan, Rockefeller, Audrey Hepburn, and, locally, the Alsdorf and Mayer collections.” Among the items in her private collection—estimated by Christie’s to total $8,000,000—is a diminutive version of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Odalisque” that sat on her dressing table.
A Midwesterner born in Flint, Michigan, and a graduate of Northwestern, she moved to Beverly Hills with her family as a child. Wrightsman’s first job was selling gloves at a department store there, with trips to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon Castle for weekend soirees.
“She was shy but made many friends, including developing a close friendship with her Palm Beach neighbors Jacqueline and John Kennedy, for whom she would later consult with on White House’s Blue Room and served on the First Lady’s Arts Council,” Busch says.
Included in the sale is a gold and blue egg form locket given to Wrightsman by the First Lady. It has a handwritten message inside: “For dearest Jayne on Easter 1963 with memories of many happy egg hunts with Love from Jackie, Caroline, John.”
We asked Christie’s Bonnie Brennan, who has spent almost a year working on this collection, to tell us more about the sale and to share Wrightman’s qualities that made her unforgettable. “She loved to entertain and wanted her dinner parties to have, above all, fresh and fascinating conversation,” Brennan says. “Her seating was always beautifully arranged, with people together who hadn’t known each other well previously.
She continues, “She was so good to the next generation, mentoring people like Mercedes Bass and Susan Guttfreund. She personally knew all the key curators and mastered how a museum was run. She not only headed the board at the Met but also their Acquisitions Committee.”
For many years the Wrightsmans owned Blythdunes on North County Line Road, the previous home of Mona Bismarck Williams who was once voted the best dressed woman in the world. Wrightsman worked with Stephane Boudin of Paris’s Maison Jensen to turn its style to French, and it soon became a great place foe entertaining. “One guest pointed out that she had never been there when there wasn’t a house party going on. Jayne knew everyone’s favorite flowers and put them in their rooms,” Brennan shares.
But it was the Wrightsman’s home at 820 Fifth Avenue that showed her brilliance as a collector: “One of her favorite things to collect, and there are several pieces in the collection, is Egyptian porphyry. Porphyry is the Greek word for purple, the color of the hard stone loved by the Romans and Egyptians and later by the Medici and Cardinal Mazarin, who loved the purple color.”
Philippe de Montebello, Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was a friend of Wrightsman for four decades, writes in the auction catalogue: “Jayne’s insistence, always, on acquiring absolutely the best in every category, the most exquisitely designed, the most beautifully wrought, is not a whim or fancy; that comes from deep within a person.”
De Montebello relates that one curator who visited her New York apartment remarked, “Not a single object, painting or drawing was ‘ordinary’ or uninteresting.”
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