Poignant Portraits of Collectors, Lovers of Art
With “A Gift for Admiration,” James Lord completes his tetralogy of memoirs, whose earlier volumes included portraits of Balthus, Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Lord turns his skills here to people who have left less permanent marks on the world but no less permanent ones on his memory and his heart.
Lord has always had a knack--albeit often cultivated--for crossing the paths of notable people. Thomas Mann wrote him in 1941, “You seem to possess the attributes which above all enable a talented person to learn. I mean the gift for admiration.” The admiring being done in this volume works in two directions: Lord’s subjects, all either collectors or advocates for the arts, devoted themselves to admiring the creative spirit, while Lord admires them for belonging to “a social homogeneity that acknowledged and personified the vivifying significance of art.”
A distinctly melancholy air hangs over the evocation of these lives. Acknowledging and personifying the vivifying significance of art is not the same as producing it; in the end, a collector is left with a mass of objects, not experience.
Consider Henry McIlhenny, who divided his time between a Philadelphia mansion and an Irish castle and entertained lavishly in both establishments, in rooms arrayed with his collection of 19th and early 20th century French paintings. Conditionally open about his sexuality, he had a love affair with a Greek boy who shared his life for a time, then moved on. McIlhenny never seemed to Lord to be truly intimate with anyone. When, in old age, he had to sell off a Seurat and a Cezanne to fund his households, this amounted to, in Lord’s view, “a perplexing denial of the self.”
Relying on objects to affirm the self would seem to doom a human being to solitude. For all her pioneering sponsorship of 20th century art, Peggy Guggenheim conveyed to Lord “a basic loneliness and melancholy beneath the public persona.” After inhabiting the busier worlds of Paris and New York, Guggenheim retreated to her palazzo in Venice, which she transformed into an art gallery. When Lord asked her who her close friends were, and Guggenheim answered that he was one of them, he was astounded: “Nothing,” he recalls, “had ever given me cause to imagine that she felt so.”
Collecting is not the only genesis of such sad and chilling moments; they can come too, it seems, from aligning oneself with artists, either as a model, mate or patron. Sonia Orwell, an editor who was married to George Orwell for just over three months, was “a romantic without the emotional resilience to make romance the mainstay of her life.” Possessed by nostalgia, she became “a woman aged before her time, lonely, drunken, and bereft.”
Lord is a writer of considerable self-awareness. He knows that he is chronicling a vanished world and preserving lives that would otherwise fade away. Writing with the long view of the survivor, he infuses these stories with a Jamesian tone of loss and disappointment (which is enlivened, however, by barbed and gossipy asides; Lord is not unafraid to speak his mind or settle old scores). Yet even he seems surprised by Ethel Bliss Platt, the widow of an Italian art collector who lived near his parents in Englewood, N.J.
Platt was a woman of ideas. Her intelligence and humor “made up a human magic that was inimitable.” In her solitude there was dignity, not pathos. To simplify her old age, she sold off the remains of her husband’s collection. Lord distills this elegant and unusual personality, then explains that he had approached Platt with the intent to admire, but "[i]n the end it was love that led me on” though he “never could say so.” It seems fitting that in drawing the last, and most moving, of these fascinating portraits, Lord should include a piece of his self-portrait too.