Frances Lasker Brody, a philanthropist, arts advocate and collector who influenced the development of Los Angeles’ cultural life as a founding benefactor of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and later as a guiding patron of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Gardens in San Marino, has died. She was 93.
Brody died Thursday at her Holmby Hills home after a long illness, said her son, Christopher.
Known for her fierce intellect, strong opinions freely shared and unflagging sense of style, Brody, the daughter of advertising titan Albert Lasker, used her life of privilege to bring art to Southern California.
She was the catalyst for a major Matisse retrospective at UCLA in 1966 that, with its unprecedented loans from the Matisse family, was what Los Angeles Times critic Henry J. Seldis called “one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever organized locally.”
With her late husband, Sidney, she played a major role in the launch of LACMA, which opened in 1965, and for many years was a force on the UCLA Art Council, which she helped found and served as president. Under her leadership, the council mounted an important exhibition on the works of Pablo Picasso for his 80th birthday in 1961.
For the last 20 years, Brody was a member of the Huntington’s board of overseers and played a crucial early role in the development of its Chinese garden, which opened to rave reviews last year. “I can very safely say there wouldn’t be a Chinese garden without Francie Brody,” said Huntington President Steven S. Koblik.
Brody introduced a friend, L.A. businessman Peter Paanakker, to the Huntington. Paanakker, who died in 1999, left $10 million to the Huntington to begin building the authentic, 12-acre garden.
Brody was born May 27, 1916, in Chicago to Flora and Albert Lasker, who built the advertising firm of Lord & Thomas. Lasker was legendary in the advertising world for campaigns that popularized Kleenex tissues, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Sunkist orange juice. She studied political science, English and history at Vassar College, where she graduated in 1937.
“She had an extremely good classical education,” said David Rodes, a former longtime English lecturer at UCLA and director emeritus of its Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts. “I’m a professor in the English department, and she could out-diagram sentences and out-debate the origin of words with me.”
After college, she worked briefly as a model and saleswoman at a swank dress shop near Chicago. During World War II, while serving in a volunteer ambulance corps, she met Sidney Brody, a decorated Army lieutenant colonel who flew missions in Europe. They were married in 1942.
After the war, they moved to Los Angeles, where he built a fortune as a developer of shopping centers. He died in 1983.
In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Susan Lasker Brody; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Services will be private.
At the suggestion of Brody’s father and stepmother, medical philanthropist Mary Lasker, she and Sidney began collecting art. Through her work with the UCLA Art Council, which was founded in the early 1950s, she fell in love with a Henry Moore sculpture. “Sid put it under the Christmas tree. And well, by then I guess we were hooked,” she told The Times in 1969.
They built a modernist masterpiece in Holmby Hills designed by architect A. Quincy Jones and decorator William Haines that became a gathering spot for a dazzling cross-section of the city’s elite, from old Los Angeles families such as the Chandlers to Hollywood icons Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. It also became a showcase for a stunning art collection, which included works by Braque, Chagall, Degas, Dufy, Matisse, Renoir and Rodin, as well as Calder mobiles, Etruscan artifacts and Japanese prints.
A story often told about Brody involved the couple’s visit to France in 1953 to commission a work by Henri Matisse for their house. They did not like the maquette, or paper cut-out, of the artwork he proposed for them. As the story goes, the Brodys asked the master of modern art if he could try again. Frances Brody later said that their request wasn’t as audacious as that, but those who knew her said it would not have been out of character for the art maven, who often seemed imperious to those around her. The story ended happily, with Matisse creating a 12-by-11-foot ceramic-tile wall mural for their courtyard that is one of only a few such murals the artist made. It will be donated to LACMA, according to her family.
Brody’s style was blunt, but friends say she expected the same forthrightness from those around her. “Francie was one of those originals -- really smart, inquisitive,” said longtime friend Robert C. Ritchie, the Huntington’s director of research. “As a collector, she knew what she liked and knew what she didn’t like and . . . you knew where she stood. It was never unpleasant, just ‘Here’s what I think.’ ”
She acknowledged her penchant for unflinching candor in an 1999 article in Town & Garden magazine.
“When I was 14,” she said, “I had bushy black hair and I said to myself, ‘Well, you’re not going to be any beauty, so you’d better just be yourself and have a good time.’ And I did.”