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Odd Man In

Odd Man In

by Suzanne Muchnic

In 1931, at age 24, Norton Simon invested $7,000 in a bankrupt juice bottling plant. This investment grew into Hunt Foods, which soon ruled California's canned tomatoes empire. With a rare ability to transform laggard companies into highly profitable enterprises, Simon went on to amass a huge fortune. Then, in his late forties, he turned to art collecting and


In 1931, at age 24, Norton Simon invested $7,000 in a bankrupt juice bottling plant. This investment grew into Hunt Foods, which soon ruled California's canned tomatoes empire. With a rare ability to transform laggard companies into highly profitable enterprises, Simon went on to amass a huge fortune. Then, in his late forties, he turned to art collecting and built one of the greatest private collections since World War II. Suzanne Muchnic has written an intimate and very readable biography of Norton Simon and at the same time provides a thoughtful overview of Los Angeles culture in the postwar years.

The tycoon-turned-art-collector was accused of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, but he pursued art with passion. A shrewd negotiator, obsessed by power, Simon astonished the art world with acquisitions ranging from Old Masters to Impressionists to rare Indian and Asian artworks. Searching for an appropriate home for his 12,000-strong collection, Simon courted (and disappointed) numerous California museums before eventually taking over the floundering Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon Museum.

Simon's influence extended beyond the business and art world: as a University of California regent he challenged funding cutbacks, sympathized with student activists, and opposed the firing of Angela Davis. His personal life was equally tumultuous and included a difficult divorce, his 31-year-old son's suicide, a whirlwind courtship and marriage to actress Jennifer Jones, and a run for the U.S. Senate.

Simon died in 1993, and during his last ten years Suzanne Muchnic was the only person to whom he granted an interview. Odd Man In reveals a man very much of his time—brilliant, anxious, powerful, and caught up in the rapid change and cultural ambiguity of Southern California in the second half of the century.

Editorial Reviews

Milton Esterow
A first-rate biography of a complex man.
Library Journal
This is an unimaginative biography of an exceptionally disagreeable man with impeccable good taste and a magnificent artistic legacy: the collections of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. In early adulthood, Simon took over an enormously lucrative food-processing conglomerate through brilliant, ruthless corporate maneuvering. Muchnic, the Los Angeles correspondent for Artnews, notes that Simon would tout the "three Ps"--power, publicity, and paranoia--as the keys to his accomplishments as a capitalist. He carried his competitiveness into art collecting, which grew into a consuming passion. Simon's life story is not wholly uninteresting, and Muchnic's version does come alive at times--notably during her too-brief account of his early financial triumphs and her description of the bizarrely bitter politics of Los Angeles museums. But her flat prose leaves us with little sense of what lay behind Simon's arrogance and egotism. Recommended only for collections specializing in art history or Californiana.--Douglas F. Smith, Oakland P.L.

Product Details

University of California Press
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I have not finished bidding.

Los Angeles Times, 20 March 1965

Norton Simon strode into Christie's auction house in London on 19 March 1965 hell-bent for victory. As he entered the lobby of the elegantly appointed building on King Street he knew this would be a day to remember. His plan of action would be all set as soon as he had touched base with Peter Chance, Christie's chief auctioneer. But there was no time to spare. It was 10:40 A.M., only twenty minutes before Chance was scheduled to open a highly publicized sale of old master paintings.

    When Simon emerged from Chance's office a few minutes later, the sale room was teeming with dealers, collectors, and members of the international press corps. Clients and privileged spectators were finding their reserved seats. Reporters were positioning themselves to observe the impending competition. The top lots were five pictures from a renowned collection begun in the late nineteenth century by Sir Francis Cook, who had made his fortune as a textile manufacturer. Simon took his seat on the second row beside Dudley Tooth, a courtly gentleman and longtime art dealer in London who had become his adviser and confidante.

    The outcome of the sale remained to be seen, but one thing was certain: some of the most discerning eyes in the art world were fixed on the London auction that morning when works by Dürer, Hogarth, Rembrandt, Turner, and Velásquez from the Cook collection went on theblock, and Simon intended to give them something to watch. If events followed his planned scenario, he would be bidding anonymously, under a special agreement with Christie's, for the most coveted item in the sale, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Boy, Presumed to be the Artist's Son, Titus. But everyone who counted would soon know that the renegade California industrialist who already had established himself as a major force in the art market had won the prize at Christie's.

    As Rembrandts go, Titus is not particularly favored by scholars. Painted in 1650 in a rather sketchy style, the portrait of a goldenhaired boy is charming but appears unfinished. Portraying a single individual, it is less complex and challenging than are the artist's monumental paintings of figure groups. The sweet subject makes it less prestigious than are works with weightier themes, such as Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, the Rembrandt masterpiece that Simon had lost in an auction four years earlier to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Still, he knew the public would love the captivating image of an angelic youth. Not merely the progeny of a great artist, the boy is also a child left motherless when the painter's wife, Saskia, died. Although dressed in a seventeenth-century Dutch plumed hat and a tunic with a lace collar, the boy fulfills timeless popular fantasies of innocent beauty and beloved sons.

    As Simon perused the morning sale's agenda, he felt confident that he would not be outbid by bigger spenders, as he had been in the auction of Aristotle. In 1961 he had naively plotted his bidding strategy with his corporate attorney and loyal friend, Harold M. Williams, only to be cut out of the competition as soon as it began. On that occasion, for the first time in history, Parke-Bernet's auctioneer, Lou Marion, had opened the bidding at $1 million—the highest price that Simon had been prepared to pay, and one that he had expected to work up to gradually. Instead he had only been able to watch in amazement as the price soared to $2.3 million and James Rorimer, the director of the Metropolitan, purchased the picture for his venerable institution. Williams himself got his education in the high cost of fine art much later, in the 1980s and 1990s, while serving as president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. But by 1965 Simon had already become a player in the art market. In the competition for a Rembrandt that was about to begin in London, he knew he was in the game.

    In his pocket, he had a handwritten copy of his bidding agreement. Signed by both Simon and Patrick Lindsay, an assistant to Chance, the unorthodox pact stipulated that Simon would be considered to be bidding on the Rembrandt as long as he was sitting down, whether he gestured openly or simply sat quietly, but that if he stood up, he had declared himself out of the bidding. If he sat down again, however, and raised his finger, he was back in the competition.

    Bidding on the Rembrandt began at about three hundred thousand dollars and quickly rose to $1 million, with Simon and two London dealers, Geoffrey Agnew of Thomas Agnew & Sons and David Somerset of Marlborough Fine Art, pushing the price higher and higher. Simon entered the fray early but confused Chance by bidding verbally. This was permitted in the written agreement, but Chance had understood that Simon would not be bidding aloud. Thus, later in the auction, when Simon fell silent, Chance assumed that the collector, although still sitting down, was no longer bidding. Getting no further signals from Simon, Chance struck his gavel on the podium and sold the Rembrandt to Marlborough for $2.1 million.

    As applause broke out, Simon leaped to his feet, shouted, "Hold it, hold it," and protested that Chance had broken their agreement. Chance held his ground, insisting the painting was sold fairly to Marlborough. Convinced that he had been wronged, Simon exploded in a tirade and confronted Chance with his sheet of instructions. "I have never seen such a look of cold anger on anybody's face," said Geoffrey Agnew's son, Julian.

    As the press corps rushed to the front of the room to hear the heated exchange and members of the audience struggled to figure out what was happening, Dudley Tooth read the written agreement aloud. Shaken, Chance apologized and announced that conditions of sale regarding disputed bids at Christie's required him to continue the bidding. Over Somerset's protests, he reopened the sale. The Rembrandt was sold to Simon for $2.2 million.

    Simon had his trophy, and—after negotiating for two months to get an export license from British authorities—he took the painting on a victory trip across the Atlantic Ocean. He made a public appearance and exhibited Titus at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and returned home to southern California, where the painting went on view several months later at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

    Rembrandt's Titus was not Simon's greatest artistic catch, nor was it the most expensive. But the international brouhaha surrounding the sale defined the image of a self-made multimillionaire and world-class amateur expert in art who played to win by his own rules. Just as Simon had flourished in business—parlaying a seven thousand dollar investment in a bankrupt orange juice bottling plant into Hunt Foods & Industries, Inc. and using a company known for tomato sauce and catsup as the foundation of a diversified industrial complex—he had triumphed in the rarified sphere of collecting art. Previously known primarily in business and art circles, Simon became a celebrity in the popular media after the Titus affair, and the story was told and retold in the British and American press. London's Daily Express ran a cartoon by Osbert Lancaster on its front page, showing a woman's legs straight up in the air in front of an art auctioneer's podium, the caption reading, "Don't forget that by private arrangement Lady Littlehampton is still in the bidding as long as she is standing on her head!"

    Press photographs and reports at the time portrayed Simon as a restless competitor whose all-too-visible rough edges seemed to reflect inner conflicts. Seen by the camera, he was tall, lean, and vigorous. Droopy eyes gave his long, deeply lined face a sad appearance, but he was so intense that he usually appeared to be either on the attack or fiercely defensive. News pictures often portrayed him as if caught in midsentence, in the heat of an argument with his mouth wide open, or pursing his lips while impatiently listening to an adversary. When shown smiling, he seemed to be merely indulging the photographer or reveling briefly in victory before charging off to his next battle.

    The pictures didn't say it all, but they offered insight into a brilliant but perpetually agitated man who thought of himself as a beleaguered outsider. The very personification of conflict, he was secretive and insecure but driven to succeed and hungry for recognition. Although he was soft-spoken and polite, he wore down his adversaries by relentless questioning and unsettling interrogation techniques. Simon was leery of the press but desperate to be respected if not appreciated, so he would go to great lengths to protect his privacy, then reveal himself in public outbursts. A connoisseur who had exquisite taste but no pretensions, he lived comfortably below his means while seeking advice among the highest echelons of experts about building a collection that would appeal to the masses. Never satisfied, he pushed others almost as hard as he pushed himself. He was aggressive, manipulative, and ruthless but capable of expressing great tenderness to friends and employees—and thus able to inspire their intense loyalty.

    Even the closest observers, though they were privy to his perceptions of human behavior and his mode of operation, rarely agree on what drove Norton Simon. He often told them that life is controlled by "the three Ps: power, paranoia, and publicity." By that measure, he succeeded on a grand scale. Endowed with extraordinary creativity and intelligence, he gained power in the worlds of business and art by amassing a fortune and using it shrewdly. Though his paranoid streak was far from being a clinical affliction, his own insecurities and fears of being bested helped him understand how to exploit similar weaknesses in his competitors. He did not employ a press agent and disdained the notion of public relations as a legitimate profession, but he came to appreciate the value of images conveyed by the media, learned to manipulate the press, and created his place as a newsmaker.

    Adopted by a less complex achiever, Simon's doctrine might have been quite clear and straightforward, if fundamentally cynical. As he saw it, the road to success was paved with sudden turns, potholes, and obstacles. Any assessment of his life must take into account the force of his personality and his equivocal behavior. But there is widespread agreement on one thing: Norton Simon was America's preeminent art collector in his time. By the time he died in 1993, at the age of eighty-six, he had built one of the world's greatest private collections of art to be assembled since World War II, rivaled only by those of two European industrialists: Peter Ludwig in Germany, whose encyclopedic holdings include few old master paintings, and Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen Bornemisza of Switzerland, whose collection (now in Spain) is often said to be second only to that of Queen Elizabeth II of England, which was established by her predecessors. Like the monarch, Thyssen inherited family treasures. Simon started from scratch. Long after most of the historic artworks worth having were thought to be owned by museums, he amassed twelve thousand paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings created over seven centuries. All these works are lodged at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, which endures as Simon's legacy and a tribute to both his artistic taste and his financial acumen.

    Simon made a mark in the business world by spotting mismanaged companies, quietly buying up their stock, taking control, and making them more productive. A self-made man, his achievements were hard won, but the odds of having comparable success in art collecting were far less favorable than they had been in commerce. Simon had no formal training in art, he started collecting quite late, and he was based in Los Angeles, a cultural backwater at the time in comparison to New York, London, and Paris. But the innate qualities that helped him build his business empire served him well in the art world.

    Possessed by a need to excel, endowed with the intelligence to get the best possible advice, and compelled to make his own decisions, he developed his natural eye for quality. In thousands of private transactions and dozens of widely publicized auctions, he bought old master paintings by Raphael, Botticelli, Rubens, Bassano, Cranach, and Zurbarán; impressionist and modern art by Van Gogh, Degas, Cézanne, and Kandinsky; massive bronze sculptures by Rodin, Moore, and Maillol; and prints by Rembrandt, Goya, and Picasso. After he married the Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Jones in 1971, she persuaded him to take his first trip to India and thus inadvertently directed his collecting into an entirely new direction. Smitten by the art of regions he had scarcely considered before, he became a major force in the Indian and Southeast Asian art market.

    What Simon accomplished in his collecting probably will never be matched, and not merely because the supply of world-class historical material on the market is steadily shrinking. His particular combination of financial resources, intelligence, taste, and tenacity equipped him to go after, and get, the best. Often vilified in the business world as a corporate raider, he offended entrenched forces when he took over ill-managed companies and turned them into profitable enterprises. In cultural circles, he was accused of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, but he won respect for his grand acquisitions, shrewd negotiations, and unorthodox tactics.

    As a collector of art, Simon set his own standards. He followed the tradition of America's nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors—most notably Henry Clay Frick, who bought widely and extremely well—while effectively pitting himself against such wealthy contemporaries as the uranium magnate Joseph Hirshhorn and the oil tycoons Armand Hammer and J. Paul Getty. Hirshhorn has a museum on the mall of the nation's capital, but his collection of modern and contemporary art lacks the depth and breadth of Simon's broad holdings. Hammer used his eclectic collection for political purposes and his lack of aesthetic discrimination led him to buy more trinkets than jewels; notable exceptions include pictures he purchased from Simon. Getty endowed a museum whose collection may one day be better than Simon's, but only because Getty also left sufficient funds to upgrade his eccentric accumulation of antiquities, French decorative arts, and European paintings.

    The story of how Simon arrived at a position of such prominence is also a tale of the cultural coming of age of Los Angeles. When Simon bought his first artworks in 1954, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was merely part of an undistinguished, multipurpose institution in Exposition Park, not the massive structure that has since become a fixture on Wilshire Boulevard. The J. Paul Getty Museum was open to the public for two days a week in 1954, but it was housed in a residence on a sixty-five-acre citrus ranch in Malibu. In 1974 Getty opened a new museum in Malibu, patterned after the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum; after his death in 1976, the J. Paul Getty Trust commissioned yet another Getty museum, as part of the massive Getty Center in Brentwood, which was opened in 1997. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art—founded in part by initial supporters of the Pasadena Art Museum—was not opened until 1983, when Simon's collecting days were waning. The same is true of the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood. Established with funds from Hammer's principal source of wealth, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, and operated by the University of California at Los Angeles, it was founded in 1988 and opened in 1990. Yet each of those institutions owes a significant debt to Norton Simon. His vision, entrepreneurial drive, opportunism, and impassioned connoisseurship were an immense force in shaping southern California's cultural landscape. Over the years, Simon flirted with the possibility of giving his collection to other institutions and occasionally talked of selling it. Yet he knew that it was his greatest achievement and that his name would live if his museum survived. He was right.

What People are saying about this

John Walsh
Muchnic draws a sharp picture of Simon's astute collecting and his constrarian career. The setting is fascinating too -- Los Angeles since the 1950's, making itself into a cultural capital.

Meet the Author

Suzanne Muchnic is a writer for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles correspondent for Artnews.

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