Jayne Wrightsman, who died on Saturday at the age of 99, was a legendary cultural philanthropist—a brilliant autodidact who became an expert in the arts of the 18th century and a fabled enricher of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other notable institutions. She was also a renowned and inspirational hostess as well as a best-dressed style-maker and mentor known for her unerring eye, exquisite taste, connoisseurship, and sly wit.
Jayne first sat for Vogue in 1946, arriving at the studio where Cecil Beaton was working only to discover the exquisite actress Vivien Leigh “coming out of this bower of lilac,” as she recalled. “She was so beautiful.” So beautiful, in fact, that Jayne was taken aback when she learned that she was expected to sit on the same set. ‘Mr. Beaton, I’m not staying here to be photographed,’ she declared. ‘Oh yes you are!’ he said,” as she recalled. “Then he snapped the picture!”
Although the portrait of the new Mrs. Charles Bierer Wrightsman was not published at the time, Jayne and Beaton nevertheless “became friends from that day. I loved him—he was such fun. And such a good photographer. Thank God we had Cecil, or we’d have no Mrs. Wrightsman,” she added, in her characteristically self-deprecating way, “He used to come every year and say, ‘My dear, shall we do it once more? One last time?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes!’ ”
Many of these images were published in Vogue, which tracked Jayne’s arc from preternaturally elegant newlywed to revered society doyenne and connoisseur. The magazine’s first image of Jayne—published a year after the first Beaton sitting—was shot in Palm Beach, where the Wrightsmans had recently acquired a 28-room house, designed by architect Maurice Fatio.
“It was very, very pretty,” Jayne recalled of the legendary property, “with beautiful gardens” created by another fabled fashion plate, Mona Harrison Williams. That chatelaine’s interior, by Syrie Maugham, was, as Jayne remembered, “all white—white lamb or fur carpets—with that beautiful Chinese wallpaper. The living room was as big as the Musée d’Orsay, and the whole thing was covered in all-white sofas. It was very smart.” The Wrightsmans lived for a time with the modish Maugham decor before they acquired a mania for 18th-century France. “And then I started sort of Marie Antoinette–ing it up,” Jayne said. “We did a lot when we started collecting French things.”
Born Jane Kirkman Larkin in Flint, Michigan, hers was a classic American story of determined reinvention. Her father was president of the Realty Construction Company, and her whiskey-voiced mother, Aileen (known as Chuggy), who hailed from Alabama, seems to have been as louche and untidy as her daughter was straitlaced and disciplined. (Vogue would later speculate that Jayne’s “zealous pursuit of perfection must always have been there as an outlet for idealism and to confirm a need for stability.”) Jayne endured a broken childhood, and after her parents separated she moved with her mother and three siblings to Los Angeles, where Chuggy frequented the bohemian Cafe Gala (and where her daughter added the quirky ‘y’ to plain Jane). In high school, she was known as ‘Little Egypt” for her dark bobbed hair and sophisticated use of eyeliner—and was already noted for her immaculate clothes.
After high school, Jayne sold gloves in a department store and modeled swimsuits. Her fine-boned elegance and lipsticked glamour caught the eye of both playboys and young actors and led to invitations to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. (At the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum’s 2008 gala for “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” Jayne, dressed in Karl Lagerfeld’s Dresden pastel faille Chanel couture, especially admired Victoria Beckham among the fellow guests—seeing perhaps, in Beckham’s pearlescent Armani lace shirtwaister, perfect French pleat, scarlet lips, and careful elegance a reflection of her own younger self as a Hollywood glamour girl.) Style icon Slim Hawks (on whom Lauren Bacall based her on-screen persona) described Jayne at the time as “the only extra girl who was respectable.”
It was apparently at a dinner party that she caught the eye of the canny, Oklahoma-born Charles Wrightsman, the president of Standard Oil and a recently divorced father of two daughters. At the time, Wrightsman was dating socialite Martha Kemp, but when he was hospitalized for lip cancer, Kemp was off gallivanting while Jayne maintained a bedside vigil throughout his illness. Wrightsman was evidently moved by her attentions, for when he recovered they married. Jayne was 24—as she playfully told me, “an ignoramus”—but she would soon prove to be her socially ambitious husband’s secret weapon.
Wrightsman was a notoriously complicated and difficult man whose first wife and both daughters effectively ended their own lives. When Nancy Mitford met him, she wrote to Evelyn Waugh that “he is the 7th richest man & about the 4th nastiest but I love him, he makes me scream with laughter.” His money-making instincts, however, were remarkable: He taught himself to speak Cajun dialect in order to acquire vast tracts of Louisiana swampland for (highly successful) oil prospecting, and ventured into Soviet Russia in 1921 for Standard Oil when other American companies did not dare. (Jayne would later become a significant benefactor of the Hermitage and arrange magical trips with her friends to the country.) Wrightsman overcame childhood illness to become a World War I aviator, a crack polo player, and an avaricious but discriminating collector. (The Wrightsmans’ acerbic friend John Pope-Hennessy recalled that Charles believed that “everything is for sale in the end.”)
The Palm Beach mansion fed his social ambitions. Vogue noted in 1947 that Jayne—appropriately photographed in Hattie Carnegie’s ice-blue satin “Watteau” coat—“travels constantly in this country and Europe for part of the year. But winter finds her in Palm Beach, where her great house is always decorated with people and parties.” The salt water in their pool was changed twice daily and permanently heated to 90 degrees—something their Palm Beach neighbor and friend John F. Kennedy found to be a boon for his bad back. Jayne was the consummate hostess—one who discreetly asked her guests about their favorite flowers, which would soon miraculously materialize in their rooms.
Wrightsman had determined that the only sure way to secure a place in society was through art or horses—and happily for us all, he decided on the former. As the Metropolitan Museum’s former director Philippe de Montebello has noted, Jayne’s contribution to the museum has been “colossal.” Her passion turned out to be European art from 1300–1900, with an emphasis on the Italian Renaissance. (“She is oblivious to American art,” noted Vogue.)
As a young wife, Jayne burnished her voice into a patrician, Edith Wharton–esque quaver; acquired elegant French; and set about to teach herself all there was to know about French 18th-century art by “listening, looking, reading, and traveling,” as she put it. In less than a decade, she and her husband accumulated such wonders as Louis XV’s own red lacquer desk; Houdon’s bust of Diderot; a 1680 royal Savonnerie carpet designed by Charles Le Brun for the Grand Galerie of the Louvre; a dainty Martin Carlin table set with Sevres plaques made for Duchess Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Paul I, son of Catherine the Great; a brace of chairs signed by Jacob for the royal palace of Fontainebleau; and Madame du Barry’s rock crystal toilet bottles, which sat on Jayne’s dressing table. (The Wrightsmans also owned Vermeer’s Portrait of a Young Woman, 1665–7—then thought to be a portrait of his daughter—and Georges de La Tour’s magisterial The Penitent Magdalen, circa 1640, both now at the Metropolitan Museum. There were four Canalettos, an El Greco, and works by Oudry, Renoir, and Monet.)
As the decorator Henri Samuel of the great French house of Jansen worked on the decor of the Palm Beach house, the Syrie Maugham scheme was transformed—with original parquet de Versailles laid underfoot and 18th-century paneling installed in the rooms—into a Louis Seize mansion framing views of perfectly placed palm trees and tropical flora. (Later, Vincent Fourcade added an almost orientalist layer of splendor to the scheme with Indian furniture, capacious ottomans, paisley upholstery fabrics, and a 17th-century Persian carpet.)
Now Vogue really sat up and paid attention to this supremely elegant, reed-slim chatelaine, who was taking her style cues from best-dressed automotive heiress Thelma Chrysler Foy, another aficionada of 18th-century French taste. (In turn, Jayne later mentored ambitious society mavens, including Mercedes Bass and Susan Gutfreund, and inspired a younger generation, including Lauren Santo Domingo and Sabine Getty.) As Vogue’s Horst and Beaton bore witness, Jayne showcased both her figure and her romantic tastes in the prettiest dresses from Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. “A self-made scholar, Mrs. Wrightsman is unique,” noted the magazine approvingly, “for her mind is as well-dressed as her body.” Jayne would later dress with Balenciaga and Givenchy and Saint Laurent, with her beloved friend Oscar de la Renta, and with her admirer Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Many of these masterworks—now in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum—show that her choices were not always stately: The whimsical 1965 Balenciaga gown trimmed with tremblant fronds of ostrich feather, for instance, is included in this year’s exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”
In New York, the couple moved from an apartment at the Pierre Hotel to 18th-century furniture guru Baroness Renée de Becker’s sumptuous apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue—acquiring many of its contents in the process—where Maison Jansen’s fabled Stéphane Boudin set the scene. Vogue noted the apartment’s livability along with its splendor. “An antenna-eared television set is plainly on view,” the magazine noted, approvingly. “It rests on its metal table up against the exquisite boiserie of an 18th-century bedroom.” Through Jayne’s offices, Boudin would also covertly help her friend, the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, redecorate the public reception rooms of the White House with chic and impeccably executed historicism. (Jayne would later work with Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the First Lady’s other White House style mentor, to visually orchestrate Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s funeral service.)
In 1960, Cecil Beaton photographed Jayne—clad in Saint Laurent for Dior—in her splendid drawing room at 820 filled with magnificent Louis XV and XVI pieces, including a number of pieces by Bernard van Risenburgh, the Dutch-born cabinetmaker to Louis XV and his court. (To preserve the apartment’s museum-quality treasures, Jayne ensured that it was scrupulously maintained at a permanent 72 degrees, with humidity of 55%.) The acquisition spree continued unabated: When Sir Francis Watson was summoned from the Wallace Collection to document the collection, it took him three years to produce a scholarly six-volume set, by which time he realized that he had little more to teach Jayne, whose knowledge was by now nigh on unmatchable.
Charles Wrightsman was made a trustee of the Met in 1956, and when he became trustee emeritus in 1975, his wife was elected to the board. “Jayne Wrightsman’s incredible impact on the Metropolitan Museum of Art cannot be overstated,” the Met’s director Max Hollein told The New York Times. The couple created a public showcase at the museum for their nonpareil collections in the Wrightsman Galleries, a series of 18 stately and intimate rooms—originally suavely arranged by Jayne with the help of the modish decorator Henri Samuel—mostly created from contemporary paneling and original storefronts. In recent years, Jayne, who had been delighted by opera director and designer Patrick Kinmonth’s evocative mise-en-scènes for the Costume Institute’s 2006 “Dangerous Liaisons” exhibitions in these rooms, invited him to rearrange them in a more authentic 18th-century manner. As part of the project, Jayne endowed a bursary to allow scholars to research the period’s upholstery techniques and re-cover the furnishings accordingly.
The Wrightsmans continued to entertain on a grand scale, and also organized highly elaborate cruises where visits to historic sites were prioritized. Itineraries were delivered months in advance in red leather dossiers, and the schedule, as Deeda Blair recalls, was unforgiving, with time slots for swimming precisely indicated. (Lee Radziwill recalled, of a cruise of the Adriatic, that their host would not let them swim in waters off Tito’s Yugoslavia that he deemed “Communist.”)
After Wrightsman died in 1986, his widow blossomed. Jayne’s entertaining was legendary, her guest lists mixing society beauties with scholars, curators young and old, and, more often than not, the dashing scion of a storied English country house (she had a weakness for English titles and counted the late Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the fabled Mitford sisters, amongst her intimate friends). In the dining room, Jayne had placed on an easel an 1810 picture by Louis-Léopold Boilly depicting the great and the good of Napoleon’s court—including the artist himself—admiring the unveiling of David’s epic painting of their emperor’s coronation.
Dinners were served on 18th-century porcelain, accompanied by vermeil cutlery, and the menus were of an Edwardian refinement and splendor. (At one such feast, honoring a newly appointed trustee to the board of Jayne’s beloved Metropolitan Museum, I was surprised to see the flotilla of waiters arrive with humble slices of watermelon for dessert. I soon discovered that the fruit’s flesh was an airy watermelon sorbet that had been carefully arranged in a watermelon husk, and that the pips were in fact molded from chocolate: a characteristically Wrightsmanian refinement.)
I was the sittings editor when Jayne was photographed with her beloved friend and fellow Metropolitan Museum trustee Annette de la Renta in 1999 in the museum’s galleries. (Annie Leibovitz initially placed these legendarily slender ladies beneath Courbet’s voluptuous Woman with a Parrot, but the published image shows them instead in front of Jacques Louis David’s 1788 portrait of the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife Marie-Anne Pierrette—given, of course, by the Wrightsmans). As I walked through the galleries with Jayne, we stopped before Winterhalter’s 1854 study of Napoleon III’s Empress Eugenie dressed as her idol Marie Antoinette—a picture surely after Jayne’s own heart, although the label indicated that it had been donated by Mrs. Claus von Bulow. Jayne turned steely: The legendary dealer who had been selling it made the mistake of offering it to Sunny von Bulow first, and she had jumped at it. Jayne never shopped with him again—and decades later, the episode clearly still rankled.
Sometimes her pursuit of desired objects took years. When Jayne set her heart on acquiring Jean-Léon Gér?me’s magnificent 1868–69 portrait of a Nubian soldier, titled Bashi-Bazouk, which had recently come on the market, her husband point-blank refused to countenance the acquisition on, frankly, racist grounds. The work was acquired instead by a museum but later deaccessioned, and on a visit to Jayne’s London apartment looking over Green Park in Saint James, I was astonished to find it hanging over the fireplace in her drawing room. It is now one of the almost countless treasures with which she has enriched the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (In addition to many of the wonders already mentioned there are, for instance, Canova’s 1798–99 terra-cotta study for Venus and Cupid; a Louis Seize circa-1775–80 neoclassical giltwood and velvet lap-dog pavilion by the cabinetmaker Claude Sené; Paul Colin’s circa-1925 ink sketch of Josephine Baker; an early-14th-century Iranian dish depicting pheasants in flight; and so many of the dainty little 1770s tables by Martin Carlin set with Sèvres porcelain plaques that Patrick Kinmonth set up a vignette in the museum’s 2006 “Anglomania” exhibition to suggest Carlin’s shop.)
I first visited the fabled Wrightsman apartment on Fifth Avenue in 2001 during research for my Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library”—and under the kind aegis of Caroline Kennedy, on whose account the generally reticent Jayne was extremely helpful, if self-effacing.
To my great joy, she gave me an apartment tour, and I was astonished by every exquisite thing in it—not least by the embarrassment of Ingres drawings in her private sitting room and bedroom (lately redone by decorator Francois Catroux), which were propped up on consoles and against mirrors in the insouciant manner in which some of us might arrange favorite postcards.
Philippe de Montebello, as The New York Times noted, once looked at an intriguing notebook that was lying on a table in the entrance gallery beneath a swagger portrait attributed to the Jacobean artist William Larkin. He asked his hostess what it was. “Marie Antoinette’s last diary,” she told him coolly. Decades earlier, Vogue had marveled at “a succession of great works in a house that is not at all a museum . . . the house has life, scent, prettiness, the flowers, the essence of the world of Watteau and Fragonard.” For all the splendor of the objects in it, the apartment was almost cozy.
Jayne had asked the renowned Renzo Mongiardino to titivate Boudin’s original scheme, and she pointed out how Mongiardino had effectively transported the drawing room from Paris to Venice simply by picking out elements of the Louis Quinze paneling in a brilliant turquoise glaze. The haunting Vermeer—which once traveled back and forth across Fifth Avenue to the Met during the winter season, when the Wrightsmans were in Palm Beach, and back to them in the spring—had long found a permanent home across the way, but the many wonders in this room still included a Tiepolo, a Winterhalter, and a superb Liotard pastel.
In 2012 I returned to 820 to discuss an upcoming sale at Sotheby’s of some of Jayne’s legendary jewels. She was perched in her library beneath a portrait of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria. “I love jewelry. Period. Per-i-od,” she told me, and indeed: The great jewelers of the age, from Verdura and Schlumberger to Joel Rosenthal of JAR, created remarkable pieces for her, while her historic jewels included examples that had once belonged to Princess Marina (great-granddaughter of Czar Alexander II) and Helena Rubinstein. “I love all the old photos of the royals in Europe with diamonds going like that,” she explained, using her attenuated fingers to indicate swathes of jeweled rivières and dog collars. But our conversation ran the gamut from newly elected President Hollande’s France to Karl Lagerfeld’s diet to the current exhibitions at the Petit Palais—on the legendary muse Misia Sert, whom she had known—and the Musée d’Orsay. Jayne was interested and informed about it all.
“That’s the first picture that Sorolla ever painted,” she told me when she noticed me admiring it. “Isn’t that sweet?” I was also enraptured by a small but very beautiful Romantic-era study of two dashing gentlemen on a blustery hilltop. “The Goncourt brothers,” Jayne helpfully explained.
She could be mischievous, too. Bidden to escort her to a London party, I couldn’t bear to wait in the entrance gallery of her flat—glamorously appointed as it was, with a superb Louis Seize commode attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener and a battalion of Georgian Blue John urns on the mantel—and had wandered into an adjacent drawing room, where I was lost in admiration of a Tissot painting of indolent ladies in a high Victorian conservatory. Jayne came noiselessly into the room in blush pink Chanel couture chiffon. “Snooping?” she queried with a playful glint in her eye—before telling me everything about this lovely picture and many of the other wonders in the flat.
Naturally, she wrote me one of her sprightly thank-you notes after the party, noting how “peppy” the evening had been.
Having grown up in a disordered household, Jayne ran hers with a fastidious rigor. Her standards were giddyingly high—and she expected her intimate circle of friends to live up to her antebellum standards. (She once started a grand dinner ten minutes before the illustrious, though faintly tardy, guest of honor arrived.) Her appearance was immaculate and ageless, but although formidable, she could be kind, thoughtful, playfully conspiratorial, and extremely droll. Her all-seeing eye didn’t miss a trick, and that eye had seen it all: a century’s worth of roiling change, which she navigated with consummate elegance, style, and curiosity. The era has ended.