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Jennifer Jones Simon gave new life to husband's museum

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On a beautiful evening in early October 1999, six years after the death of her husband, Jennifer Jones Simon threw a coming-out party. Not for herself, an Oscar-winning actress who had married industrialist and art collector Norton Simon in 1971, but for the museum that he established in Pasadena.

Jones and the museum's staff planned the occasion as the unveiling of a major renovation that enhanced the collection and made the institution much more inviting. The event was an announcement that the museum was back -- and that Jones, who died Thursday at the age of 90, had assumed a new role that would become her cultural legacy.

Simon, who was America's preeminent art collector of his time, built one of the world's greatest private collections assembled since World War II. He took charge of the failing Pasadena Art Museum in 1974 and reopened it as his own museum the following year. It continued to be a destination for art aficionados after his death in 1993.

But worries began to circulate in the art world. Would the institution, which had always operated as a rather private enclave with limited public access, turn into a mausoleum? Or worse, would it be closed and the collection dismantled?

Jones, who had become the museum's president and board chairman, began to allay fears in 1996 with the announcement that architect Frank Gehry, a longtime friend of the Simons and a trustee of the museum, would transform the building's interior -- raising ceilings, adding skylights, improving artificial lighting and dividing long hallways into smaller galleries for more intimate viewing. Landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power would create a garden oasis behind the museum with a meandering pond and sculptures stationed along walkways and nestled among plantings.

The physical changes, along with increased public access, brought a wave of new appreciation for the museum and what Simon had accomplished as a collector. Long known to specialists as having one of the best collections in the country, the museum has broadened its audience, attracting about 170,000 visitors a year.

When a glittering celebration introduced an appreciative crowd to the completed project, Jones was in her element, looking fabulous and taking little credit for what had been accomplished.

She said that Simon had provided the jewels, and she just provided the setting.

Decades after most of the historic artworks worth having were thought to be owned by museums, Simon amassed 12,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs created over seven centuries -- with particular strength in European paintings and Indian and Southeast Asian sculpture.

With no formal training in art, Jones was never completely at home in the art world, and she was often seen as a figurehead at the museum, albeit a glamorous one. But Simon swept her into a sphere of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Degas, an exciting realm of galleries and big-ticket auctions, where on one occasion they mistakenly bid against each other -- she in the sale room, he on a telephone.

Behind the scenes, Jones evolved into more than the movie star wife of a notoriously tough businessman and art deal-maker. At her suggestion, the couple took a honeymoon trip to India, where Jones' interest in yoga and Eastern philosophy sparked her husband's interest in art that he had never seriously considered, launching what became a major collection.

Her Hollywood connections brought members of the film community, including writer-director Billy Wilder and actor Cary Grant, to Simon's museum and foundation boards, although they sometimes felt like window dressing.

As Wilder told me: "Cary Grant and I would drive to Pasadena for board meetings. We always had a very good lunch with a nice group of people. Then there would be a meeting, but no discussion. Norton Simon ruled."

But as his health failed, Simon expressed enormous faith in the woman he called Mrs. Simon. When I visited them in 1990, while they were living in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I pressed him about the future of his collection.

Over the years he had toyed with many options, including merging his museum with the J. Paul Getty Museum and giving his collection to UCLA. He said that he had considered selling all the art and putting the money into his wife's foundation for mental health programs.

"But you didn't," Jones said, "and I'm glad you didn't. You have put so much passion and love and energy into your collection, selling it or giving it up would be too sad."

After his death, she worked with the museum's staff to transform what had long been an insular institution into a vibrant, welcoming cultural center -- with expanded public hours and a program of concerts, lectures and changing exhibitions.

Life with Norton Simon wasn't easy, but Jones took great pleasure in his contribution to Southern California cultural life and ultimately created her own place in it. When I paid her a visit requesting access to the museum's files to write an independent biography of Simon, her only concern was that the book be about the man and his art, not about her.

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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