37.More On Avery Brundage

This one is inspired by a review printed in today's (7/8/07) NYTimes Book Review section (p. 20) of a book titled Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, by Donald Clay Large. The reviewer, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, begins one paragraph: "A movement began to call for a boycott of the Berlin Games, but one man who rose to the occasion was the appalling Avery Brundage, well-nigh the chief villain of Large's book." I was amused to imagine what the reaction would have been if some San Francisco public figure had referred to "the appalling Avery Brundage" in the 1950s, when he was being courted in the effort to get his collection for what is now the Asian Art Museum; in the early 60s, when he was being fêted as a benefactor during the preparations for the opening symposium (see nos. 32 and 36 above) and during the symposium itself; and in the years after that, until his death in 1975. I was one who could already have used that epithet for him, although there was much about him that I didn't yet know.

While still a curator at the Freer, I was invited/summoned to a weekend with Brundage in Chicago, in the hotel suite where he kept much of his collection and lived much of the time. (I am writing this part from memory, and can be wrong about details.) He had evidently heard of me as a rising young figure in Asian art studies, and wanted to consider me for the position of curator of his collection. At the end of the weekend I was offered the job, and turned it down without hesitation, for two big reasons. First, he had almost no Chinese or Japanese paintings, and no clear intentions of building a collection of them. I didn't want to spend my career working with objects--pots and bronzes and sculpture and the rest—which made up the bulk of his collection. But secondly, and equally importantly, browsing in his library and talking with him had convinced me that I wanted nothing to do with the man: he was obviously anti-Semitic, and from books he owned, appeared to be an admirer of Hitler. And thoroughly dislikeable in other ways.

(Side note: I wrote Brundage strongly recommending my friend Jan Fontein, whom I had come to know in Japan and later Amsterdam—see #26 above—and who seemed to me just the right person for the job. Jan was brought to the U.S. at Brundage's expense and spent some days going through the collection. He, too, turned down the job in the end—not because of Brundage's anti-Semitism, which he thought he could deal with, but because the job in San Francisco as curator/director of his museum offered no real security: as the person who took it, Yvon d'Argencé, eventually learned to his sorrow—see #32 above--a foreigner could hold that job only on a year-to-year basis, on the sufferance of the controlling Board of Directors. Jan, however, once set to thinking about leaving the Rijksmuseum, stayed in the U.S. to become Curator and eventually Director at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.)

Brundage's way of collecting made him unpopular with dealers, who were obliged nonetheless to offer their holdings to him as a big buyer. He would ask for large groups of objects to be sent to his Chicago (later S.F.) base on consideration, then keep them for months, showing them to experts who came through and collecting opinions, which he had recorded on cards. In the end he would ship most of them back to the dealers who were thus obliged to offer afterwards pieces already seen and rejected by some in the profession.

I once visited his home in Santa Barbara, and there met his wife Elizabeth; she later came to San Francisco. She was a crushed, tragic figure, driven to over-drinking by his treatment of her, uncomfortable in the situations she was thrust into. I can't remember whether she was involved somehow in the burning of his house in 1965; anyway, she died around then? Brundage was uncritically devoted to Yvon d'Argencé in a more-than-scholarly way (a relationship that Yvon of course cultivated and fiercely defended against all competition), and referred to him as "the son I never had," This was especially ironic because, as came out later, he had a mistress and an unacknowledged son living in Sausalito was it? In his last years he married a German sportswoman with a noble title ("Princess" something), who reportedly treated him badly—I hope that is true.

I still have somewhere—it may turn up in a "Brundage" folder in the Cahill Archive at the Freer—a hand-written draft of a long letter to Brundage, never sent, telling him how he was poisoning the reception of his collection by specialists, and its position as a center for a great projected focus of Asian art studies in the Bay Area that was to include Michael Sullivan's program at Stanford and mine at U.C. Berkeley, by putting Yvon d'Argencé in charge of it; and that has turned out to be what happened. The bad selection of directors to succeed him—Rand Castile, Emily Sano—has continued this stigma that hangs over the Asian Art Museum. I haven't heard who is to succeed Emily—maybe not chosen yet—but I hope the selection procedure is better planned this time. (A woman director of a "head-hunting" firm put in charge of the search after Yvon's dismissal was apparently convinced early on that Rand Castile was their ideal choice, and no amount of phoning around by some of us who knew better could alter the outcome. And it was Rand who chose Emily, bringing her in as assistant director before he left, with no real input from outside.)

Several years after Brundage's death there was a memorial service for him at the cathedral on Knob Hiill in S.F., with long gushing eulogies delivered by people who by that time surely knew better. Hugh Wass and I attended it together, and vowed that if ever either one of us found himself at a memorial service for the other, and the speeches turned so deeply untrue to the person, the survivor would roll a teargas cannister down the aisle and clear the place out. I was able to quote this, alas, as a warning when I gave an opening talk at a memorial service for Hugh not too many years later-–Hugh died young, of a heart attack. I must do a Reminiscence on him. Nobody had to fake what they said about Hugh: with all his personal quirks and some professional inadequacies, he was a thoroughly likeable, basically honest and decent person, notably better at dealing with people and showing consideration for them than myself. At an opposite pole from "the appalling Avery Brundage."

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