Industrialist, Art Collector Norton Simon Dies at 86 : Tycoon: Hard-nosed in business, he won praise for brilliance and vision as the ‘mercurial Medici of L.A. art.’

From a Times Staff Writer

Norton Simon, molder of conglomerates, world-class art collector, candidate for U.S. senator and a self-created capitalist who was extremely proud of that description, has died. He was 86.

Simon, who had been forced to use a wheelchair for the last 10 years because of the neurological disease Guillain-Barre syndrome, died of pneumonia in his sleep Wednesday night at his Bel-Air home, the Norton Simon Museum of Art announced Thursday.

His last public appearance was more than a year ago at an 85th birthday tribute in his honor at the museum.

“He may well be remembered not only as being one of the nation’s most farsighted and brilliant collectors,” Michael Shapiro, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said Thursday, “but as instrumental to the development of the fine arts in Los Angeles.”

Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and former director of LACMA, called Simon “the greatest private collector since World War II. . . . A singularly unique and independent collector (who) left an extraordinary legacy.”


“I consider him one of the truly great art collectors in American history,” said Franklin D. Murphy, Times Mirror Co. director emeritus and former president of LACMA who worked extensively with Simon in art, education and business. “He brought together a fabulous collection of works of art in an astonishingly short time.”

When Simon was hospitalized in 1989, it was announced that he had resigned as president and chairman of his Pasadena-based museum, ceding the place to his wife, former actress Jennifer Jones.

It was not the first time Simon had managed to stir up the art world. He was once described by Times art critic William Wilson as “the mercurial Medici of Los Angeles art.”

That assessment was made in June, 1988, when Simon backed out of a deal to give his vast and valuable collection (worth at least $750 million) to UCLA. Twenty years earlier, there had been similar negotiations with the county Museum of Art, which Simon had helped create. Those talks too came to nothing.

Nor had Simon gone through with his threat to move his Asian collection to San Francisco, where he had lived as a youth.

The retired industrialist built his overwhelming collection of Old Masters, Impressionists, modern classics and Asian icons by buying entire inventories of major dealers and clusters of works by such artists as Degas, Goya, Rembrandt and Picasso.

He owned more than 12,000 works, only a 10th of which are on display at his Pasadena museum.

“The Norton Simon Museum is certainly one of the great collections of our age,” Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said Thursday. “The collection is world-renowned and admired.”

“The collection is the result of an inquiring eye and the judgment of one person,” Harold Williams, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and a Simon employee in the 1950s and 1960s, said Thursday. “The man had an incredible eye and a spirit of inquiry that made the collection what it is. His persistent questioning and challenging of his own and others’ judgment is why the collection turned out to be so fine.”

John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, has called Simon “the best collector of our time.”

Although the Getty has long been rumored to be the eventual home of the collection, Norton Simon Museum officials reiterated Thursday that no major changes in its management or programs are anticipated and that there are no plans to move the museum or the collection out of Pasadena.

Before he became the best art collector, Simon was one of the best businessmen of his time.

Born Feb. 5, 1907, and raised in Portland, Ore., Simon watched as his father, who owned a small department store, was all but wiped out by the recession of 1921. At 14, after the death of his mother, Simon moved with his father and two younger sisters to San Francisco. He put in six weeks at UC Berkeley before dropping out.

“I liked money more than going to school,” he said later.

Young Simon had his father’s photographic memory and ability to quickly calculate large figures in his head. The budding entrepreneur went to work, simultaneously running a theater, buying and selling mining stocks, and wholesaling bags, towels and tissues. He moved to Los Angeles, jobbed sheet metal, played the stock market and, in 1931, bought a bankrupt Fullerton bottling company for $7,000.

He changed the name of the company to Val Vita Food Products. He bottled orange juice and canned tomatoes while cutting costs and underselling the competition. In 10 years Val Vita’s annual sales rose from $43,000 to $9 million.

He sold the company to a medium-size San Francisco cannery--Hunt Brothers Packing Co.--and, by buying Hunt stock, ultimately seized control.

The Simon economic empire had begun. With toughness and imagination, he piled profit upon profit and company upon company. With Hunt as his base, Simon moved in on--and sometimes out of--dozens of varied concerns: Ohio Match, Northern Pacific Railroad, Wheeling Steel, the McCall Co., Canada Dry and Simon & Schuster to name a few.

Acquisition followed acquisition, and Simon was always tough, abrasive, iconoclastic and generally disliked by boardroom opponents he had steamrollered. “I tried to like him, but he wouldn’t let me,” said one bloodied foe.

Simon’s tactics won him few friends. He looked for companies whose stock was undervalued and widely held, and whose unimaginative management held profits down.

When he locked onto a target, he quietly set about buying up stock either in his own name or in his corporation’s name. His purchases made, Simon would appear suddenly in the boardroom, firing questions at the directors, demanding to know why profits were so low.

But if he made enemies he also had his defenders.

One friend said some years ago: “Norton was never a raider in the sense that he drained a business and ran away. He would take a poorly managed business, move in, get good management and get it operating on a profitable basis. . . . Shareholders benefited from his presence.”

Simon was an innovator. He fought for one-year directorates to replace the traditional three-year terms in many of his companies, hoping that the turnover would, as he said, “facilitate change and overcome the apathy that stagnancy breeds.”

He was among the first to make widespread use of professional psychologists and counselors in his businesses to break down inflexibility and provide motivation and incentive for his employees.

By the early 1970s, Norton Simon Inc. was the 121st-largest corporation in America based on revenues and Simon was personally worth hundreds of millions of dollars--and somewhat bored.

He began to spend more and more time on his other interests--politics, government and the arts.

There was more than boredom involved in Simon’s turn away from business. From 1969 to 1971, he underwent a sharp personal upheaval. He not only retired prematurely from the corporation he had built into a $1-billion conglomerate, but was divorced from Lucille, his wife of 37 years, lost his youngest son to suicide at the age of 31 and married Jones, who had won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1943 film “Song of Bernadette,” just a month after the two had met.

Once a compulsively private man, Simon became an increasingly public figure.

In 1970, he decided at the last minute to run in the primary election as a liberal Republican against the late conservative U.S. Sen. George Murphy. Simon spent $2 million in a disorganized and unsuccessful campaign.

Although he lost, Simon developed the issue that Murphy later said was responsible for his defeat in the general election by Democrat John Tunney--Murphy’s continuing ties to and earnings from Technicolor while he was a senator.

Simon was appointed to the UC Board of Regents in 1960 and served for 16 years. During the governorship of Ronald Reagan, Simon more often than not sided with student protesters against the governor and the other regents, arguing that they were “representative of the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Establishment.”

But it was in the world of art that Simon was most controversial in recent years.

His interest in art dated to the mid-1950s, when he was furnishing a new home and wanted only the best on its walls. With typical Simon zeal, he went to New York, enlisted the aid of experts and toured galleries and museums. His first purchases were a Hans Hofmann, a Pissarro and a Gauguin.

His homes in Hancock Park and Malibu were hung with Van Goghs, Cezannes, Renoirs and Picassos. Art--the very best and the most expensive--was everywhere.

The beauty and rarity appealed to him, Simon said, but there was something more.

“You see creativity (in art),” Simon said some years ago. “You see that this man spent his life painting. You wonder what that expression meant to him, and you wonder what your expression means to you. What kind of nut spends his whole life painting? What kind of nut am I? What is my life expressing?”

For Simon, art was more than a key to self-knowledge. It was a way of getting others to know themselves. “Sometimes you can take a person (to a museum or gallery) and open him up in a way you couldn’t in any other way. You can start getting him to look at himself. And one of the prime problems in society is that not enough people look at themselves.”

Being one of the world’s biggest private collectors was not enough.

His desire to develop an art museum of national significance began in the late 1950s, when he was a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art. He encouraged separation of the museum and helped to found the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened in 1965.

In 1974, he took over the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, saving it from financial ruin. It became the Norton Simon Museum of Art and one of the finest museums west of the Mississippi. Simon changed the emphasis from modern and contemporary art to the Old Masters, sparking controversy.

Several former trustees for the Pasadena museum sued; Simon’s handpicked managers lost some of their control over acquisition, sales and exhibits, and an angry Simon opened negotiations with San Francisco officials to move his collection there. The collection, however, remained in Pasadena.

He was a strong man--some would say headstrong--determined, often to the point of obsession, about his enthusiasms. Simon viewed himself as an outsider fighting the Establishment.

He preached innovation and individualism. He was proud to call himself a capitalist. He was introverted for many of his years but, many who knew him agreed, opened himself up in the 1960s to new people and new ideas.

“Norton is always in the process of becoming,” his daughter-in-law, Sylvia Simon, once said of him. “He’s always developing; he never stands still.”

He was sometimes criticized for his iconoclasm, and there were those who felt he had to be different for the sake of being different.

Asked about that, Simon replied: “I don’t think I could have made it any other way.”

In 1980, the college dropout received the honorary degree of doctor of fine arts from the University of Notre Dame.

Simon served in a wide variety of posts over the years. He was a member of the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education and of the Founders, Los Angeles Music Center; a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; a fellow of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and a trustee of Reed College, the California School of Professional Psychology, the Institute of International Education and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He also was chairman of former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s California Transportation Commission.

In addition to his wife, Simon is survived by a son, Donald; a sister, Evelyn Prell, and four grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena.

Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this article.

* THE COLLECTOR’S COLLECTOR: Norton Simon was not afraid to spend his money to buy great art. F1

Jewels of the Simon Collection

The Norton Simon collection, widely acclaimed as the greatest private art collection assembled after World War II, consists of 12,000 works and dozens of masterpieces, including the following: * Gerard David, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” oil on panel, after 1500. * Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Adam” and “Eve,” oil on panel, circa 1530. * Jacopo Bassano, “The Flight Into Egypt,” oil on canvas, circa 1545. * Guido Reni, “Saint Cecilia,” oil on canvas, 1606. * Peter Paul Rubens, “Saint Ignatius of Loyola,” oil on canvas, circa 1620. * Francisco de Zurbaran, “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose,” oil on canvas, 1633. * Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance,” oil on canvas, circa 1745. * Claude Monet, “The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil,” oil on canvas, 1881. * Vincent van Gogh, “The Mulberry Tree,” oil on canvas, 1889. * Paul Cezanne, “Tulips in a Vase,” oil on paper, circa 1890. * Pablo Picasso, “Bust of a Woman,” oil on canvas, 1923. * Collection of Indian bronzes from the Chola period, considered the finest outside India.