Walter P. Chrysler Jr., a voracious art collector, industrialist and theatrical producer whose father founded an automobile manufacturing empire, died Saturday of cancer at a hospital in Norfolk, Va.. He was 79.
Chrysler, who lived in Norfolk, was raised on Long Island, N.Y. He began collecting art as a 14-year-old prep school student when he bought a small Renoir watercolor of a nude, purchased with $350 in birthday money from his father.
After attending Dartmouth College, Chrysler toured Europe, where he met Pablo Picasso and other avant-garde artists in Paris. He lost no time in buying works by each, and soon assembled one of the largest and most important private collections of modern painting, sculpture, artifacts and glass pieces in the United States.
In 1934 Chrysler founded the Air-Temp division of the Chrysler Corp., which developed the first air conditioning system for cars. He later transferred the division to Chrysler's parent corporation, remaining as director.
In public life, Chrysler worked under Nelson Rockefeller as coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in Washington in 1940. When World War II began, he joined the Navy and served as an avionics officer. During the war, Chrysler met Norfolk native Jean Esther Outland, whom he married in 1945. She died in 1982.
In 1956, Chrysler retired from business to devote full time to the arts. He eventually moved his priceless collections to the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, which changed its name to The Chrysler Museum.
Although art was his chief interest, Chrysler made several forays into the world of Broadway, producing the plays "The Strong Art Lonely" and "New Faces," a smash hit which introduced actress Eartha Kitt. Chrysler also produced the film "The Joe Louis Story" and the English production of "The Hanging Judge."
There are no immediate survivors.