The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoirby Flora Miller Biddle
At a time when American millionaires and institutions invested only in European art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney took the risk of collecting and showing the paintings of American contemporary artists. In 1931, the institution called The Whitney Museum of American Art was officially born. After Gertrude's death in 1943, her daughter Flora took the helm, which she in turn passed on to her daughter, FloraBiddle, who here chronicles the life and times of three generations of Whitney women. Today, the museum is thriving as one of the most prestigious homes for American art.
Author Biography: Flora Miller Biddle currently lives in New York City with her husband, Sidney. Her daughter, Fiona, is the fourth generation of Whitneys to be intimately involved in the museum.
The New York Times Book Review
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Ever since I can remember, the Museum hovered at the edges of my consciousness.
At first, like New York, the Museum was another faraway place to which my parents would disappear for weeks at a time to see "Mama," my mother's mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. "Mummy needs to see her Mummy, too, just like you do," my nurses would say. "She'll be back soon." Small comfort. She was surely too old to need a mummy.
The image of the Museum grew as I did. Much later, in the '50s, it came to symbolize a completely different way of life from mine.
I had chosen marriage and family over college and career. My mother, wanting me home, arranging for me to "come out" in society, had persuaded me to give up my dream of going to Bryn Mawr College to attend, instead, New York City's Barnard. Barnard is an excellent college, but living at home was a return, in part, to my protected childhood. Loving my mother, still wanting her approval, I had agreed. And then, that same year, at eighteen, I fell in love with Michael Henry Irving, a Harvard graduate who had served in the Navy as an officer in the Pacific theater during World War II. Astonishingly, this charming, intelligent friend of my older brother's loved me too and I was bowled over. Besides wanting to be with Mike, I felt stifled by what I perceived as my parents' indolent lifestyle and saw marriage as a chance to have an independent, adult life with a mature, responsible man. We were married in June of 1947.
Over the next ten years, we had four children. I aimed tobe the perfect wife and mother, in contrast, of course, to my own mother, and to her mother, my grandmother, Gertrude. Not for me the round of parties, beaux, trips, or a career spiriting me away from the home where I belonged. Mike's and my relationship would be a loving, happy one forever. Our roles, while intersecting and blending, would be clear: he would be the primary worker outside the home, on the way to becoming the successful architect he deserved to be, while I would keep house, care for the children, and limit my outside activities to the school and church within which our children would flourish. And in fact this is the way we lived for many years. Mike was a kind, loving, and thoughtful husband and father, and a very hardworking architect who designed distinguished houses and commercial buildings in Connecticut, where we lived after our first few years in New Jersey and Long Island. We took vacations with the children every summer in the Adirondacks, fishing, swimming, and camping in the very same places where my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and I had fished, swum, and camped. Later, we also cruised up and down the coast of New England because Mike was a skilled sailor, and the children grew to love sailing as much as he did.
I felt, at that time, morally superior to my grandmother, whom I criticized for having neglected her young children. While my mother had survived marvelously well, her brother and sister had, I thought, been harmed by their parents' lives of traveling, parties, and work away from them, and had passed on their wounded psyches to their own children. Without really knowing, I made unjustified assumptions, blaming my grandmother for the woes of my daring and dazzling but often troubled cousins. Today, I see that I was overlooking part of my own nature. The whole idea of being such a perfect wife and mother was impossible; I was hiding my subconscious aspirations. When I came to recognize them, in the '70s, that ideal family life no longer seemed possible. I didn't manage to live in several worlds, as my grandmother had, but chose instead to leave our home and the husband I had loved for so many years.
All the while, I know now, my grandmother secretly attracted me. Her ways, her style, her behavior, were compelling. Not only had she transcended mediocrity, she had eluded the traditionally confining role of women. Moreover, after her death, she had left to the world the rich legacy of her talents: her large monuments, smaller bronzes, and stone carvings, as well as a whole museum bearing her name. An institution -- I was looking through my much younger eyes where art was all over the walls and floors for us to see. Where creativity reigned. Where people laughed and drank and discussed ideas. Where one could penetrate the mysteries of art. And seek the truth.
In 1942 my mother, Gertrude's oldest and closest child, had inherited her mantle.
In 1967 my mother, Flora Whitney Miller, passed it on to me.
As I spin out the thread of my life, stretching from a small southern town to a northern New Mexico village, and now back again to New York City, it weaves and knots with people and places. A mother and a father, two husbands, four children and their husbands or wives, all greatly loved. Eight grandchildren, a great-grandchild. A sister, two brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends. That memorable grandmother. Houses, which did or did not become homes, on red clay roads, sandy roads, paved roads; near forests, rivers, mountains, oceans, or lakes.
Much more past than future, now.
Joye Cottage, the house I grew up in and still dream of, at the corner of Whiskey Road and Easey Street, in Aiken, South Carolina; the house Mike designed for us in the Connecticut woods, with big windows and warm colors and materials, that gave our family a sense of both openness and intimacy; and the adobe house where I lived in the '90s in Taos, New Mexico, are like shells, protecting, sheltering, and expanding as we grow. The sense of peace emanating from those New Mexican walls, from the landscape, from the air itself, was familiar, linked emotionally to that house in Aiken with expansive radiating wings that, as a child, I wore like a skin.
So different, those two villages, those homes, from New York's noisy, exciting energy, where temptations to look, to listen, and to play abound. In Aiken, as a child, I learned to read, to be alone. In Taos, I found the same kind of serenity in which to write. In New York, where I lived in the late '70s and '80s, I could not have written this book.
One August night in Taos, wakeful, as mountains loomed black in the brilliance of a full moon and coyotes howled, I drifted in memory to the Aiken of my childhood. I saw again the long-ago firelight flicker on my bedroom ceiling as I fell asleep, hearing the clip-clop of horses' hooves, while a mockingbird sang outside my bedroom, perched in the magnolia tree whose luminous, waxy flowers' sweet scent weighted the air.
I heard again the stair creak under the worn red carpet as my brother Leverett and I, at about, respectively, the ages of six and nine, tiptoed past our sleeping parents' doors. We passed quietly through the big, square red and white living room, past the fox heads mounted on the wall over the bar, through the billiard room where the smell of chalk lingered on the tips of cues lined up against the wall, to the dining room where we sniffed the odor of pancakes and syrup from the kitchen beyond. That house rambles forever, as, in memory, I walk through its rooms: the wide porches with their "Aiken sofas" covered in pale corduroy, the yellow "dove room" where my father eats his poached eggs on a tray borne by fat and dignified Herbert, the British butler, who props the Herald Tribune on a silver holder for my father to read. My older, braver siblings call him "Dirty Herb," and demand Horses' Necks and other exotic drinks for themselves and their gang, undeterred by the sometimes hysterical scolding of Sis, their French governess, whom they adore but seldom obey. Afternoons, Sis and I take long walks on the soft roads, across log bridges, past bushes of sweet star jasmine, by big houses set in green lawns where gardeners clip and rake, and further, to cabins with swept dirt yards where we wave at children with tight braids. Singing, singing, singing she's teaching me French, and French history as well. Sis describes the dreadful revolution as we bellow out "Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!" and then we launch into my favorite, the song of the "petit navire qui n'avait ja-ja-jamais navigué" who ends up in a stewpot for his starving shipmates. I took for granted, somehow, the bloodthirsty nature of French nursery songs, although that brave little sailor tugged at my heart for years.
Across the hall, in the pink bedroom, my mother sleeps away most of the morning. At each corner of her French bed, four twisted, inlaid brass posts stand like guardian angels, holding a tulle canopy high over her head. Her dark curls froth over monogrammed linen sheets. By the time her tiny, frazzled French maid Josephine "Peenabo" to my older sister and brother, who played infuriating tricks on her allows me in, around eleven, my mother is awake, wearing a quilted satin bedjacket, leaning against her lacy pillows, eating tiny triangles of toast, sipping coffee from a delicate Sevres cup, and talking on the telephone. Captivating smells waft around her: honey, Turkish cigarettes, Chanel perfume, her own particular fragrance.
Oh, to be grown-up!
My images of adult life come from my mother and father, my idols. They bring me visions of future happiness. Of pleasure, once freed from the discipline and regularity imposed on my brother and me. Of the never-ending joys of reading, shooting, riding, and fishing. Of late evenings with friends, drinking and playing games after delicious dinners.
I'm always longing for more attention from my parents than I get. A reward, I've decided, that will come from accomplishment, manners, and "being good." I'm well on the way to becoming a perfectionist, a burden that haunts me still.
These moments of longing recur when I hear, for instance, all these decades later, the sounds of clinking ice at someone else's cocktail time.
My father has taught me to carefully measure gin and vermouth in the silver shaker. The quiet of tea time, now over, swells as people arrive, talk, tell stories, laugh. Sometimes my parents argue. Oblivious, fixed in the center, I shake and pour and measure again. Nine years old, and I can make the consummate martini. I am showered with praise, until for the moment I have enough.
Summon all your energy, I tell myself then. Will the darkness away. It is merely a phantom.
Good cheer is real. The world is in order. God's in his heaven. Be perfect, I tell myself. Win love.
May to November, from 1992 to 1998, my second husband Sydney and I lived in Taos, where I wrote most of this book. We looked over a green well-watered valley where horses and sheep grazed, where orchards flourished. Storms and brilliant sun, sunrise and sunset, turned the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance from green to blue to red to purple, as clouds, lightning, or rainbows made vivid patterns on their rocky flanks. Infinite space lay before us, although we shared adobe walls with neighbors on two sides.
As Sydney and I moved into our old house, I watched Antonio Martinez, the carpenter, punch a doorway in a wall about two hundred years old. The powdery surface fell away, revealing thirty-pound adobe bricks, their binding straw still gold in the shadows.
Antonio removed bricks reverently. Then he mixed a paste of mud and water, and patched and sealed the doorway. Our neighbor, Jim Heese, applied the final coat along the edges: a thin solution of terra vaillita, a pink-beige mud painted on with sheepskin in big sloppy zigzags that would look smooth and creamy when dry. Jim taught me the ancient technique. I delighted in the mud's smell and silkiness, and in the rhythm of sweeping the walls with the wet, furry scrap of wool. Our house was connected to Jim's, in the Spanish village way, and for six years Jim was the best neighbor anyone could ever have. We worked side by side in the garden, we ate together, we hiked way up to a mountain lake, we talked about everything. Jim expanded my experience with clay by taking me to his pottery class, where I learned with great satisfaction to make bowls from an Apache master. That sharing walls could lead to such friendship seemed a miracle, beyond even the magic of the house itself and the surrounding landscape.
This process, this mud, these walls, the friends we made, contributed to the peace we felt. Life was quieter. We were more likely to reflect and accept.
These two places, Aiken and Taos, seemed to bracket my life, until last year when, wanting to be closer to family, we moved back to New York City.
One other place was never far from my consciousness, for many years. This was the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Few days have passed without my awareness of the Whitney Museum. Mail, faxes, phone calls, memory, or dream, the Museum is always with me. It has provided me worthwhile and deeply satisfying work. Sometimes I embrace its current values, sometimes I abhor them. Sometimes, too, in rejecting my goals and hopes for it, it has seemed to reject me. In some ways, the Museum embodies that part of my family heritage I most respect, a heritage, too, that's far from perfect.
Once, giving a talk at the Whitney, my mother, who was then its chairman, said, "My mother left me the Museum she said I could keep it, or sell it. I decided to keep it."
So it was that my mother Flora's care kept it going from 1942, when Gertrude died, until 1966, for the twenty-five years of her presidency. For my mother, the Museum embodied not simply her love for her mother but her admiration, as well, for Gertrude's achievement as founder of the Museum. In the same way, the part of the Museum's story I myself can tell is also a love story.
I'm writing it because I want to discover more than I now know. What really happened? I hope, with the distance I now have, with the comparative serenity of my life today, with the few but treasured advantages of age, that the years of turmoil will seem clearer, that some truths will become apparent.
Always, the Whitney represented one kind of home. Always, the Museum has been a dream for me, as it was for my grandmother and my mother. I was formed by these extraordinary women. With time, however, I became increasingly influenced by others, by the Museum's directors, its curators, and by new, nonfamily trustees. The Museum changed continually over my forty years of involvement as a trustee, as vice president, as president, as chairman, and as honorary chairman.
Since I can remember, art was magic.
That has never changed.
Artists, I knew, saw the world through different eyes. If I applied myself and looked enough, I told myself when I was young, I, too, could see what they saw. Work and exposure would bring clarity and understanding along with happiness. What could be better for the world?
But can one ever cross that bridge? Can one really pierce to the heart of creation? Only by a lifetime of making or studying works of art. I will continue to be rewarded by all forms of creation, including nature itself but a barrier will always remain between me and the world I crave, because I haven't given myself to it fully and always. Very few have.
Early on, though, the Museum, for me, was the force that could bring about wonder and understanding for all who came.
My grandmother, right from the start, had wanted the American public to become aware of its rich heritage. When the Whitney Museum opened to the press and special friends on Monday, November 16, 1931, she said:
I have collected during these years the work of American artists because I believe them worthwhile and because I have believed in our national creative talent. Now I am making this collection the nucleus of a Museum devoted exclusively to American art a Museum which will grow and increase in importance as we ourselves grow.
In making this gift to you, the American public, my chief desire is that you should share with me the joy which I have received from these works of art. It is especially in times like these that we need to look to the spiritual. In art we find it. It takes us into a world of beauty not too far removed from any of us. "Man cannot live by bread alone."
At the time Gertrude spoke these words, the Great Depression had begun. Today, other problems confront us: small but devastating wars; the spread of drugs, of violence, in our disaffected youth; the erosion of our cities, and the erosion, as well, of a moral climate in which to bring up our young. In the face of all this, one may well question the validity of Gertrude Vanderbilt's words, of the value of art itself. But I continue to believe that art is here to tell us who we have been, who we are, and who we can become. Whether its prevailing expressions seem dark and ugly or transcendent and sublime, artists, as always, remain our shamans and seers. They offer us the prophetic gifts of a Jeremiah, an Isaiah, or the Sibyl of Cumae. We are obliged to look and listen. Sometimes, to understand.
This is what I still believe, although, with the years, I've grown far less innocent and more pragmatic. As reality demanded, my early adolescent views altered. I came to see that artists and museums, like the church, in which I had also fervently believed as the force that could transform all of humankind for the good, were prone to flawed vision and human error. Yet, at heart, I still clung, and continue to cling, to the belief that creativity brings truth, that art inspires wisdom, not only for artists but for their audience. Even at its most uncomfortable and probing, even when bizarre and impenetrable, art remains an affirmation of life.
One answer to my current questions, then, is that the Museum supports this affirmation, communicating it to anyone who wishes to explore artistic vision and, in turn, to experience life in greater depth.
In my grandmother's time, it was simpler to do this. For one thing, she provided both the concept and the money. For another, there were far fewer artists.
Today, the Museum has become institutionalized, complicated. No one person can make all the decisions. A lot more money must be found to carry on its programs. As a result, and by definition, Museum policy involves many people. Along with their various skills and talents, they provide a diversity of viewpoints. Our discussions and decisions are spirited and sometimes heated. Yet those who give money are not always equipped to make judgments about the Museum they generously support. They may not know enough about art and they may not have time enough to learn. Moreover, those who are giants of industry are accustomed to control. When they meet the lively, free ideas of art, especially within the fragile institutions mediating between the public and the artist, it is not surprising that fierce struggles sometimes ensue.
Changes. Growth. Constraints. As in the earth itself, as weather and seasons dictate.
My views have changed since I began my story. Writing does that. Events of the more recent past have merged with older memories, with the Museum's history and with my own, becoming part of a more thematic, consistent progression. Ten years hence, would I write differently? Perhaps. All I can hope is that this time is the right time for me to tell my story.
My daughter Fiona represents the fourth generation of Whitney women to serve the Museum. Her devotion to the Museum is already bearing fruit, and her understanding is wise as well as caring. The Museum is now a public institution with a vast, existing, and untapped audience. I have faith that she will help it fulfill its promise.
Meet the Author
Flora Miller Biddle was president of the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1977 to 1995. She has four children. Her daughter, Fiona, following her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, has been elected to serve on the Whitney board of trustees.
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