Portrait of the Artist and the Young Man : Why a Once-Impoverished Potter Is Giving Up Georgia O'Keeffe Inheritance

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago, an impoverished potter named Juan Hamilton wangled three introductions to artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the only woman of independent means in this strangely verdant desert settlement beside a trickle called the Rio Chama.

The first time, Hamilton tagged along with a friend visiting O'Keeffe's home. It so annoyed the 84-year-old doyenne of modern American art, he remembers, that she looked right through him during the entire visit.

Another friend let the pony-tailed Hamilton, then 26, help install a wood-burning stove at O'Keeffe's house. Hamilton's mistake, he recalls, was to say that he owned a similar antique. "This isn't an antique," O'Keeffe coldly replied.

Finally, two more friends advised Hamilton to knock on O'Keeffe's kitchen door and ask for work. Again, he was dismissed. But as he walked away, the artist called after him. Could he build a crate?, she asked.

Hamilton did and when O'Keeffe, who had just lost her secretary, learned that he could also type, he got the job. So began a friendship between a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War and an artist more than half a century his senior; they traveled the world together, the closest of friends.

Sixteen months ago, on March 6, 1986, O'Keeffe died at age 98.

She bequeathed to Hamilton about 70% of an estate that includes $65 million worth of art, thousands of valuable photo negatives from her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, three large homes plus bank and brokerage accounts reported to be worth more than a million dollars.

But on Saturday, the once-impoverished potter, now 41, intends to walk into a courtroom in the ancient city of Santa Fe and relinquish his rights to most of that fortune.

What would prompt a man to sign away most of $50 million?

Hamilton, who now lives in O'Keeffe's three homes and oversees her fortune, has worked hard to keep his answers to that question private. He has required household staff, lawyers and even government officials to sign secrecy agreements as a condition of employment or settling disputes.

But, in his own words and those of knowledgeable sources, John Bruce Hamilton's reasons now emerge--as subtle and as complex as an O'Keeffe flower. Behind them lies a tale of friendship, money and power, framed by a document's critical signature that wanders like stairs built by a drunken carpenter and a wedding that never was.

O'Keeffe always did as she chose.

In the early 20th Century, her painting style was so far outside the mainstream that it took Alfred Stieglitz to recognize her genius and expose her to America. It was his Manhattan 291 gallery that exposed Americans to Rodin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.

Nearly four decades before Hefner got girls next door to strip, O'Keeffe posed for hundreds of Stieglitz photographs so erotic that they once moved even the staid New Yorker magazine to rhapsodic commentary.

O'Keeffe married Stieglitz in 1924, when she was 36 and he was 60, and moved freely through his heady world during their 22 years together, which ended with Steiglitz' death in 1946. But she always came to the desert to be alone.

She painted sun-bleached cattle skulls hauntingly suspended beside blossoms in the azure sky and tried, again and again, to express on canvas the emotions oddly engaged by a simple wood gate in the adobe wall of her Abiqui compound.

She put her brushes down only after a burst artery destroyed her central vision in 1971. The following year, when Hamilton entered her life, she saw him only as if through gauze.

Young Hamilton learned quickly just how to please the artist, by now a revered elder in the art world. After observing O'Keeffe's cook and companion of 13 years, Jerrie Newsom, cutting her meat, Hamilton took over the chore. When O'Keeffe needled Hamilton, he needled back.

"Part of what she liked about me . . . was that I didn't put her on a pedestal," Hamilton said over iced tea on a Santa Fe restaurant veranda.

Soon after his arrival, major changes began occurring, according to friends and others as well as Hamilton himself. O'Keeffe began changing cooks, lawyers, doctors, art dealers and in some cases friends.

Newsom, the cook who now volunteers at a New Mexico nursing home, said O'Keeffe "wanted me to wait on him and" tidy up Hamilton's room with its "carpet of beer cans." She left.

Then in 1977, Doris Bry, who for years had been O'Keeffe's Manhattan dealer and so trusted a friend that she was the executor of O'Keeffe's estate, was terminated as her dealer. O'Keeffe immediately sued to recover paintings and cash Bry held. Bry in turn sued Hamilton, charging "malicious interference" and claiming that O'Keeffe "because of her poor vision and advanced age, came under Hamilton's influence and control."

In 1982 and 1985 the cases were settled out of court. The settlement terms were secret.

Hamilton's influence, and affluence, grew steadily as he assumed more duties, including screening O'Keeffe's calls and letters.

Jan Sultan, a friend of Hamilton's who every few months gave the pair therapeutic Rolfing massages, said while O'Keeffe was getting the massage, Hamilton would sit nearby making calls or reading letters aloud, recommending reply or rejection.

Sultan, an ex-merchant seaman who took up Rolfing after working at Esalen as a groundskeeper, said he and Hamilton "used to really tie some on and get real personal and maudlin. I heard his struggles with whether he could stay on and put up with the demands of this old lady, who would call when he was working on his art and say 'come' and he had to come."

Among those in Santa Fe who saw O'Keeffe and Hamilton together, however, there was general agreement that they genuinely cared for one another.

Hamilton reinvigorated O'Keeffe's life, Sultan said, even getting her to try his potter's wheel. Hamilton also persuaded O'Keeffe to paint again, despite her near blindness. One 1979 watercolor, titled "From a Day With Juan No. III," depicts the Washington Monument soaring skyward.

That summer O'Keeffe, then 91, affixed her unsteady signature to a new will, naming Hamilton executor, at a fee of $200,000, and bequeathing him 21 paintings. This will left $30,000 to Jackie Suazo, 51, a poor Abiqui boy whom O'Keeffe had raised like a son; 52 paintings to eight museums, and most of the remainder was to go to charitable institutions to be selected by Hamilton.

The next year Hamilton married Anna Marie Erskine, 26, of Phoenix. "Miss O'Keeffe approved," Hamilton said. Later, the Hamiltons and their two small boys would live with O'Keeffe.

By 1978, Hamilton was managing O'Keeffe's affairs and by all accounts handled them well. She had entrusted him with producing a 1976 Viking book of her work, a volume that won critical acclaim and commercial success. He also helped with a PBS documentary and arranged well-received shows of her work.

The selective exposure helped create a soaring market for O'Keeffe's works. Sotheby's auctioned her "White Rose, New Mexico," a large 1930 oil, for a record $1.3 million in 1985. In the nine weeks she was alive in 1986, court records indicate, her taxable income was at least $1.1 million.

Hamilton was also developing his own career.

The owners of the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe and the Robert Miller Gallery in Manhattan approached him in the late '70s about selling O'Keeffe works, he said, and he suggested they handle his pots. Today the galleries handle both O'Keeffe paintings and the little-known pots of Juan Hamilton.

"I'm not saying my relationship with Miss O'Keeffe has not helped me," he said. "Miss O'Keeffe benefited from her relationship with Stieglitz. She knew there were other painters just as talented, but not as well known because they didn't have the same opportunities."

Hamilton's growing influence over O'Keeffe's affairs took a tremendous leap on Jan. 5, 1978, before either gallery deal was struck, when she affixed her by-then ragged signature to a power of attorney.

The four-page grant of authority gave Hamilton "sole, absolute and unfettered discretion" to file lawsuits, sign contracts, empty safe deposit boxes, hire and fire staff and sell O'Keeffe's property or even give it to charities. The last line stated, in capital letters: "This power of attorney shall not be affected by my subsequent disability or incompetence."

O'Keeffe could not read the document, her central vision having failed in 1971, so she scrawled on the document: "I have this this read to me Georgia O'Keeffe"

The document was notarized, establishing that O'Keeffe in fact was the signatory, but New Mexico law does not require witnesses and none attested to what she was read.

But the document did not enter the public record for more than six years. Just before noon on April 30, 1984, Hamilton filed it with the Santa Fe County clerk as a necessary prerequisite to the $2-million purchase in O'Keeffe's name of a Santa Fe mansion from Peters, the art dealer. The deal required four mortgages, which is why Hamilton's authority to act in O'Keeffe's name needed recording.

O'Keeffe already owned two large homes, but Hamilton maintained she needed the Sol y Sombra mansion to be near a hospital in what turned out to be her final 22 months.

Under their agreement, Peters retained a right to buy back the house if O'Keeffe sold it, except if O'Keeffe turned it over to Hamilton.

Anna Marie Hamilton, who by then had her two small sons, quickly made Sol y Sombra over with expensive furnishings, except for O'Keeffe's first floor room, which was as consistently Spartan as her Abiqui and Ghost Ranch homes.

About this time Hamilton also bought, in O'Keeffe's name, three new Mercedes: a sedan, a station wagon and a convertible. She already owned a VW, a station wagon and a Lincoln Continental.

Although her sight was nearly gone and she was nearly deaf, friends of Hamilton say O'Keeffe remained mentally alert. When she was 96 or 97 and "quite blind," Sultan remembers O'Keeffe pulled him to within inches of her face "and said, 'Well, I see you aren't getting any younger, either, Sultan.' "

Yet O'Keeffe had by then stopped traveling and, in fact, was no longer allowed to walk around without a nurse holding her arm. She had to be fed meals, including the onion pie she loved, and spent much of each day lying on a daybed while nurses read to her. When she felt energetic, she chatted on the phone with friends.

Thunderclouds threatened Santa Fe when O'Keeffe awoke in Sol y Sombra on Aug. 8, 1984.

O'Keeffe usually dressed in a white dress with a pink, blue or black overdress. But on this morning she told a nurse that she wanted to wear only white.

"I'm getting married to Juan today," the 96-year-old invalid announced.

Months later, Hamilton said, he was astonished to learn that O'Keeffe's household staff believed he had married her. "It's ridiculous," Hamilton said. "I was already married, so how could I marry Miss O'Keeffe?"

Hamilton said that because he and Anna Marie had a civil ceremony the household staff may have wrongly assumed they merely lived together. Yet in the 1970s, when rumors had circulated through the art world that he and O'Keeffe had wed, Hamilton refused to comment, thereby fueling speculation.

"We could have been married, it was like that," Hamilton now says, pausing and then adding, "What I don't understand is why everyone focuses on money, on sex, not on what matters, on the friendship. Why is that?"

Then he gave his own answer. "If I had been a young woman and she an old man I doubt anyone would have cared much.

"The crucial thing that gets overshadowed is that it meant so much for Miss O'Keeffe to have a young artist whose work she cared about in her life, someone she could travel with, who could help her have an active and engaging life when others think it's over," Hamilton said.

The events of Aug. 8, Hamilton agreed, could have created the impression that there was a wedding. Old friends came. Flowers filled the mansion, a bounty Hamilton laid to his wife's success at gardening. Dr. Brad Stamm took a sample of O'Keeffe's blood.

But what was going on that day was not a wedding, but a will.

Her trembling signature wandering down the paper, O'Keeffe signed two documents that day: One a codicil that increased Hamilton's share of her estate from 10% to 70%; the other a document giving Hamilton Sol y Sombra .

On March 10, 1986, four days after O'Keeffe died at age 98, Hamilton filed the will and related papers.

Four weeks later her sole surviving sister, Catherine Klenart, challenged Hamilton in court. So did grandniece June O'Keeffe Sebring. Both claimed that Hamilton had exercised "undue influence" to get the aged artist to sign the second codicil. Sebring also challenged an earlier codicil and the will itself, accusing Hamilton of "constructive fraud."

Sebring's lawyers also questioned the validity of the second codicil because O'Keeffe's near blindness forced "reliance on third parties to inform her of the contents of these documents."

Klenart, in a deposition, called Hamilton "nothing but a tramp." Her attorneys, also claiming that Hamilton had conflicts of interest, charged that he "seeks to thwart all inquiry into O'Keeffe's state of mind."

Hamilton denied any conflicts, but did get a court order limiting public disclosures about O'Keeffe's estate, arguing that details about her art and papers could diminish their value.

Sebring's lawyers went straight for Hamilton's jugular. Hamilton said he was intensely offended when they subpoenaed Donald Fineberg, a Santa Fe psychiatrist, and asked if Hamilton had been treated for drug addiction. Hamilton called the suggestion an "outrageous lie." Fineberg, citing doctor-patient privilege, refused to answer.

A crucial element in the relatives' strategy was to get the state of New Mexico to join the case against Hamilton. O'Keeffe's will directed that Hamilton give unspecified art to the state. The state, argued the lawyers, could be left with a sketch worth as little as $100.

Hamilton, not wanting the state to join the litigation, then made an offer: The state could choose six O'Keeffes, worth $1.5 million, in lieu of estate taxes if it stayed out of the court fight. His offer included a tight time deadline and a secrecy clause.

Cleta Downey, president of the Museum of New Mexico board of regents, said aides to then-Gov. Toney Anaya got her out of bed on a Sunday morning and ordered her to sign that agreement unread. She refused, and counseled patience.

Anaya said his office got complaints that "someone was trying to freeze the state out" of O'Keeffe's estate.

Anaya then asked his friend, David Cunningham of Santa Fe, once a prominent Manhattan prosecutor, to evaluate Hamilton's offer for the Museum of New Mexico regents. In turn, Cunningham used his $5,000 fee to retain Forrest Putman, a retired FBI agent who had helped catch Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Putman, who had just 72 hours to sleuth before Hamilton's settlement offer expired, quickly ran down household staffers and others who saw O'Keeffe that stormy August day in 1984.

Urged Delay

Downey said Cunningham told the regents in his secret report that he had evidence that O'Keeffe believed she was getting married on Aug. 8, 1984, the day she signed most of her estate and Sol y Sombra over to Hamilton.

Downey urged delay, but the regents accepted Hamilton's offer, including the secrecy clause. Two days later Anaya fired Downey. Today she blames it on the Hamilton dispute; Anaya says he doesn't recall if he fired her.

Paul Bardacke, then New Mexico's attorney general, said Hamilton's offer was the best deal the state could get considering the technical legal complications surrounding the will. But the Klenart and Sebring lawyers contended that the state was "foolish" and could have gotten far more.

During a subsequent court hearing, one of Sebring's lawyers tried to read Cunningham's secret report into the record, but the museum attorney objected and Judge Patricio Serna sealed it.

Meanwhile, Hamilton won a court order keeping financial and other details discovered in the will contest secret.

The relatives failed to get the state to join them, failed to win appeals of unfavorable procedural rulings and were unlikely to force psychiatrist Fineberg to testify.

Even so, last fall they got Hamilton to agree to negotiate a settlement in return for ending the inquiries into his conduct. They agreed to keep silent about what they had already learned and to keep significants aspects of the settlement secret.

Hamilton, it was agreed, could keep whatever monies he had already received from his relationship with O'Keeffe as well as some of the gifts left to him under the original 1979 will. The assets he gave up will go to create a nonprofit Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, which the Klenarts and Sebring say meets their intent to make O'Keeffe's work widely accessible to the public.

In addition, the Klenarts and Sebring each get $1 million in art. Their lawyers will split $1.8 million in fees, to be paid by the O'Keeffe estate.

On Saturday all three sides are scheduled to ask Judge Serna to sign the 36-page agreement.

Hamilton said he settled for many reasons, notably a desire to get on with his career as a potter. He called the settlement a huge emotional relief.

"If I were to fight this, spend 10 or 15 years, it would be an entire career and neither Miss O'Keeffe nor I ever intended that," he said.

"I devoted 14 years to protecting Miss O'Keeffe's privacy. To go the other way now would seem a travesty."

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