When I interviewed Dominique Schlumberger de Menil in Houston in 1987 for an article on her recently completed private gallery there by Renzo Piano—the Menil Collection, now universally esteemed as a pinnacle of modern museum architecture*—I found the seventy-nine-year-old collector and philanthropist, who was four decades my senior, to be superficially gracious but frustratingly distant. Tall, slender, her silver hair in a pompadour and chignon, and dressed with almost ostentatious simplicity, she seemed preoccupied with far loftier matters, as if she were attending a novena in the back of her head. Not for nothing has the elder of her two sons referred to this pious but purposeful powerhouse, who curated some of the most admired art exhibitions of the later twentieth century, as “the Reverend Mother Superior.”
My repeated attempts to engage her by mentioning art world friends we had in common met with evident disinterest. However, when she recalled visiting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala with her late husband, the oil field services executive John de Menil, I mentioned that the previous summer I had surprisingly spotted the saffron-and-maroon-robed holy man standing in a motoscafo on the Grand Canal in Venice and eating a gelato cone with boyish glee. At last she smiled, a sign of what I took to be her more-spiritual-than-thou affect.
We met at her much-talked-about house, which happily survives with much of its art and furnishings intact and is now used for special events by the Menil Collection. This one-story International Style brick box in the city’s fashionable but architecturally conservative River Oaks section was designed by Philip Johnson in 1948 (only his second commission), and although austere on the outside is rich and strange within. As I walked through its subtly colored, quirkily decorated, art-crammed rooms—pictures by Braque, Picasso, de Chirico, Ernst, Magritte, Rothko, Twombly, Johns, and Warhol jostled for attention with prehistoric objects, medieval artifacts, and tribal sculpture—I realized that a white cube is not required for the display of first-rate art. Looking at its emphatically low-key materials (black Mexican tile floors instead of marble or parquet, painted rather than paneled walls), I then grasped the Menils’ concept of stealth wealth. As the architect who in the 1930s renovated their apartment in Paris, Pierre Barbe, averred, “Cost is really not that important to the Schlumberger family as long as you can manage to make silk that looks like burlap.”
Although I was not surprised to find hanging in the kitchen a Mexican wooden cross nearly large enough for an actual crucifixion, I was startled by the house’s intriguing mash-up of furniture styles, which included the ornate Victorian Rococo seating of John Henry Belter. For rather than submitting to the Miesian clichés pressed on them by Johnson—paired Barcelona chairs, glass coffee tables, all arranged at right angles—Dominique de Menil recalled that “John, who was always full of extraordinary, creative ideas—dangerous ideas—thought of inviting Charles James,” the ingenious Anglo-American couturier who dressed her for years, to decorate the interiors, which horrified the architect. James’s sensuous decor included his custom-made Lips sofa, a Surrealist settee that set his clients back nearly $60,000 in current dollars.
To these remarkable spaces came the hundreds of luminaries who were drawn into the Menils’ comprehensive force field, which encompassed artists (Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder), art historians (Meyer Schapiro, Leo Steinberg, David Sylvester), filmmakers (Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard), performers (Marlene Dietrich, Merce Cunningham, Dennis Hopper), social activists (Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu), and writers (Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, Maya Angelou). This determined duo’s range in both art and people was astonishing, and apart from contacts with just about everyone who mattered on the international cultural scene they assiduously developed close relationships with figures of remarkable diversity.
Their high moral purpose was reflected in their long friendship with Jacques Maritain, their veritable private philosopher, as well as their devotion to Father Marie-Alain Couturier, the Dominican priest who facilitated the construction of both Matisse’s Vence chapel and Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel. Above all, Father Couturier taught the Menils that beauty was a spiritual imperative, which profoundly influenced their views on art. Yet they were also the most important early patrons of Andy Warhol, whose freakish Factory entourage somehow did not faze them. Like few others at the time, John de Menil understood Warhol’s piercing social insights, and perceptively wrote, “His human quality is usually distorted by the desire to turn him into a star of the sensational when his pioneering work is serious and deep.”
During the summer of 1969 they invited the rumbustious Norman Mailer to dinner in Houston while he was at the nearby Johnson Space Center to report on the Apollo 11 moon mission. The novelist Jean Malaquais, his early mentor, was a good friend of the Menils, and Mailer was on his best behavior for this decorous couple. That night he was so taken by an enigmatic five-foot-high painting in his hosts’ entry hall—Magritte’s Le monde invisible (1954), which shows a huge rough-hewn rock in a room with French doors overlooking the sea—that he asked to use it for the cover of his forthcoming book about the lunar landing, Of a Fire on the Moon. If Houston had never seen anything like the Menil house, neither had America.
Baron Jean Marie Joseph Menu de Ménil was born in 1904 in Paris to a Catholic military family that had been ennobled by Napoleon. In the year of the boy’s birth his father, a cavalry squadron commander, went bankrupt covering a relative’s debts as a matter of family honor. Young Jean (who legally changed his name to John when he became an American citizen in 1962, though he’d used the Anglicized version since 1949) grew up determined to lift himself and his family out of the genteel but humiliating poverty of his youth. After repeatedly failing his baccalaureate, possibly because of dyslexia, Menil clerked at a bank until he passed the exam and entered the Sorbonne to study law. Eventually he switched to the more prestigious École Libre des Sciences Politiques, where at only twenty he took a degree in private finance. He then did his compulsory military service in French Morocco and afterward returned to the investment bank where he’d worked while at Sciences Po.
According to the journalist and magazine editor William Middleton’s deeply researched new biography, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, around this time he had a brief flirtation with Action Française, the right-wing French nationalist organization not unlike today’s Front National, although it was more explicitly Catholic. This revelation comes as a surprise since he was so identified with liberal causes in his maturity, but he ended his involvement with the group after a few years. And as he gained the confidence that his impoverished upbringing had inhibited, Menil—slightly built, baby-faced, fun-loving, charming, and titled—began to enjoy an active social life.
In 1930 he was invited to a ball at a Versailles estate once owned by Louis XVI’s sister, and there met the twenty-two-year-old Dominique Izaline Zélie Henriette Clarisse de Schlumberger, whose Alsatian family was one of the grandest Protestant dynasties in France. Her great-great-grandfather, François Guizot, was a prime minister under Louis Philippe; Marx cited him in The Communist Manifesto. Her uncle Jean Schlumberger and his friend André Gide founded the influential literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1908.
The pair quickly fell in love, but because of their religious differences their courtship was somewhat tortured. It was finally agreed that they would wed in a sequence of religious services that satisfied both sets of parents. As it turned out, the new Baronne de Menil took to Catholicism with so much fervor that she inspired her husband to an unprecedented degree of belief and observance. As her younger sister explained, “My father was of Gide’s atheist generation, and Dominique was very spiritual. She badly needed a religion.”
At that time her father was vastly expanding the family fortune. Conrad Schlumberger was a physicist who with his brother devised an electrical survey method to discover oil deposits deep underground. After using it to identify a previously unknown oil field in France in 1927, they began to expand operations to sites worldwide, which by the start of World War II included the Soviet Union, Romania, Venezuela, and Texas, while the company’s headquarters remained in Paris. Although Schlumberger recognized his son-in-law’s business acumen and tried to recruit him, Jean de Menil for eight years resisted offers to join the burgeoning concern lest he appear to have married the boss’s daughter to advance himself. But once he came on board he was instrumental, after the Nazi invasion of France, in transferring Schlumberger Limited’s base of operations to Houston and turning the firm into the world’s foremost oil prospecting consultancy and provider of drilling equipment.
The Menils had five children, all of whom have acquitted themselves very well. Christophe, a couturier, has created costumes for Robert Wilson productions; Adelaide, a photographer, collaborated with her late husband, the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter; Georges is an eminent professor at the Paris School of Economics; François is an architect; and Fariha (née Philippa) Friedrich cofounded the avant-garde Dia Art Foundation. With the windfall the elder Menils garnered when the Schlumberger company went public in 1962 they set up $30 million trust funds for each of the five siblings—the total amount is said to have been equal to half the parents’ net worth—which gave them financial independence at an early age and allowed them to freely pursue their creative interests. But although the children did not want for material things, several of them have complained about having been emotionally deprived by their mother and father.
In contrast to their monetary generosity, the Menils had a detached attitude toward their offspring that cannot be attributed solely to the hands-off parenting practices of their time and class. Even with unlimited help from nursemaids and nannies, taken for granted in their milieu, the couple felt trapped by parenthood. Jean roamed the world for Schlumberger and his wife often followed him. She left their first two daughters (Christophe and Adelaide) and first son (Georges, born in France in 1940, five months before they all sailed with their mother from Bilbao to join their father in Houston) for months at a time when they were still very young, and then again from 1941 to 1943 while she joined her husband at a Schlumberger field office in Venezuela.
During this long hiatus, the children were neglected to an extent widely noted among relatives, friends, and even strangers. A Schlumberger cousin in Houston wrote that the daughters’ English nanny “doesn’t look after them very much,” and when a cab driver “saw these two little girls, all sad and poorly dressed, he thought they were impoverished refugees…and [said] that he could give them ‘a good home.’” Their mother, writing to her grandmother from Venezuela, admitted with astounding candor, “As for Georges, we have practically forgotten his existence.”
The couple’s letters to each other demonstrate their shared ambivalence about parenthood. Dominique wrote to her husband, apropos her preference for urban life, “Nature, like children, absorbs you and smothers you.” He, in turn, confessed to her that “I am not really made to have [children], at least while they are younger than eighteen,” at a time when he already had four. No wonder that soon after she gave birth to her fourth baby, François, Dominique told her husband that if they only could enlist their nanny’s mother to help care for the newborn on a trip to Europe that summer, “we will be as free as the wind!”
To be fair, Middleton also quotes a close friend of the Menils’ who reassures us that the busy parents in fact adored their children and implies that because the progeny were so fortunate in so many other ways it is churlish for them to whine. Yet even when John came home from one of his frequent far-flung sojourns he would hole up in his study to catalog their ever-growing art collection. This prompted his spirited eldest, Christophe, then in her early teens, to barge in with a label stuck on her head and exclaim, “Look at me, I’m a work of art too!”
As a psychoanalyst niece of Dominique de Menil’s told Middleton, “I think she was aware of the problem, but I don’t think she was really moved by it.” Thus one wonders about the sincerity of this devout woman’s uncharacteristically overwrought late life lamentation: “I will burn in hell for the way I treated my children.”
John Richardson, that peerless analyst of taste, recalls:
What I loved about the [Menils’] collection is that it was utterly unconventional. One of the first things that struck me when I first came to New York [in 1960] and saw every collection that there was to be seen was how terribly conformist they were…. It was absolutely as though someone had given them a pattern to follow and they all followed: one Fauve painting and so on….
And they had no idea what they had on the walls: Mirós of flying vaginas and phalluses all over the place and these nice ladies who would give you a drink and say, “My little girl likes it so much; she likes the spiders.”
With Dominique, she knew exactly what the paintings were about. And there were some very radical surrealist images.
But far from posing as natural-born visionaries who from the outset gravitated to only the very best in art, the Menils were modest and honest enough to acknowledge that they attained their exalted reputation as incomparable connoisseurs through trial, error, and arduous self-education. Their earliest purchases included a glowering 1931 oil portrait of Othello by Christian Bérard, a contemporary Parisian lightweight tellingly nicknamed Bébé, and a sixteenth-century Russian Orthodox icon of Saint George slaying the dragon, which Dominique found in Moscow at a state-run gallery that sold confiscated art to raise cash for Stalin’s Five Year Plan.
Until they decided to settle permanently in Houston after the war—“You don’t have to be the boondocks. You can be a Paris, yourself. You can be a New York, yourself,” a young associate recalls them saying about their decision—the couple’s peripatetic life had discouraged numerous purchases. (However, after the war they maintained a townhouse in New York and kept their Paris apartment until the end of their lives.) In the spring of 1945, just as peace came, Jean made his first important art purchase in this country. He had an instinctive reaction to a minimalist Cézanne watercolor, Montagne, at a New York gallery. Father Couturier urged him to buy it, but his wife was unimpressed—she called it “an awful lot of money for such a small amount of paint” (exactly how much it cost is not specified)—although she came to appreciate this spare composition as “a miracle of tension.”
These diligent autodidacts became major supporters of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, which was founded in 1948; two years later John became its chairman. With stunning self-assurance, the couple offered to mount a 1951 Van Gogh exhibition for the fledgling operation and secured major loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. It was a huge popular hit, and led to Dominique’s involvement in shows there organized by Jermayne MacAgy, a brilliant curator they hired who was nonetheless astute enough to keep the chairman’s commanding wife somewhat at arm’s length. Indeed, the Menils’ attempts to take over Houston institutions they backed ultimately met with resistance and led them to switch their allegiance from the Contemporary Arts Museum to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, then to the University of St. Thomas, and finally to the Rice University Institute for the Arts, until the Menil Collection was opened in 1987.
All the while Dominique was an attentive student, and when MacAgy died suddenly in 1964, just weeks before a show they were working on was to open at the St. Thomas gallery, she completed the installation by herself. “It was damn near seamless,” one colleague marveled. “When no one was watching, she certainly did learn.” Dominique subsequently curated dozens of exhibitions, ranging from scholarly historical surveys such as “Builders and Humanists: The Renaissance Popes as Patrons of the Arts” (1966), “Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu” (1967), and “Art Nouveau: Belgium/France” (1976) to monographic presentations of artists the couple championed, including René Magritte (1976), Joseph Cornell (1977), and Yves Klein (1982).
In time their collection grew to the 10,000 objects given to the Menil Collection, which fall into four principal areas: antiquities, including prehistoric art; Byzantine art; tribal art; and twentieth-century art, with a particular emphasis on Surrealism. The latter category includes many postwar European works that were disdained in America long after the Menils bought them. There are numerous pieces by Klein, whose reputation in America suffered after the trashy but hugely popular documentary Mondo Cane (1962) showed the artist directing nude women slathered in blue pigment to roll around on canvases as if they were human paintbrushes. Nonetheless, one closely related example, his People Begin to Fly (1961), hung in their Houston entry hall for years. “We are collectors without remorse,” the Menils wrote in 1964. Although that declaration referred to other worthy causes they might have supported with money they instead spent on art, they could just as well have been referring to their predilection for discovering things that others have come to prize only long after they did.
Although Double Vision is exhaustively documented, with dozens of interviews conducted by Middleton over the past two decades, there is one omission so glaring that it calls into question the book’s financial support by a group of wealthy Houston donors, several of whom have close ties to Big Oil. (The first to be named by Middleton in his acknowledgements is the socialite Lynn Wyatt, whose husband, Oscar Wyatt, was once described by Texas Monthly as the state’s “most hated oilman.” He served a year in federal prison for violating US sanctions against Iraq in the oil-for-food scandal.)
Thus despite a good deal of detail about the Schlumberger family business—including a fascinating account of how Dominique de Menil masterminded a 1986 coup to oust the company’s chairman, whom she deemed unsuitable for the job her father and husband once held—there is no significant discussion about the users of Schlumberger oil drilling equipment and technology. Although John de Menil died in June 1973, four months before the Arab oil embargo began, his widow survived him by twenty-four years and lived through the first of the Iraq wars. And the even more dangerous threat of climate change caused by emissions from fossil fuels was beginning to be acknowledged by the late 1980s, a decade before her death in 1997. That none of this is mentioned, even briefly, seems strange.
An enduring mystery of the Menils is how these two enlightened, unapologetic liberals and ecumenists among evangelicals could have operated for so long and so successfully at the very heart of a community essentially opposed to the values they cherished most. Without doubt, the couple’s prestige in the international art world—which in their heyday was higher than that of any other American collectors—allowed a great deal to be overlooked by culturally aspirational Houstonians whose politics and religion were antithetical to theirs. As Paul Winkler, the second director of the Menil Collection, told Middleton, “The only reason all the conservative people respected [John] is because he was such a good businessman, he was chairman of Schlumberger.”
It also did not hurt that John—until the end of his days a grateful immigrant—knew better than to rile his powerful neighbors, but instead quietly appealed to their better angels as a wholly outnumbered and therefore unthreatening minority of one. When they first came to Texas, the Menils were appalled by the way African-Americans were treated there as opposed to Paris, where artists from Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet to Richard Wright and James Baldwin found greater respect and acceptance than in their native land. John’s willingness to work behind the scenes to achieve reformist goals that others elsewhere in the South had great difficulty achieving without open confrontation or violence is epitomized by his part in the de facto desegregation of Houston. In one of Double Vision’s most stirring passages, the Reverend William Lawson, a black Baptist minister in Houston, relates how in the mid-1960s a group of the city’s white businessmen
decided that the best way to desegregate Houston was to take down all the white and colored signs but to do it silently…. The idea was that people would go out and suddenly find that blacks are welcome: they can go to Woolworth, they can ride in the front of the buses, but there will be no publicity…. John de Menil played a very real role in that.
In a letter declining an invitation to a 1964 dinner for “true conservatives” in his hometown, the canny John gracefully wrote:
We hate to disappoint you because we consider ourselves your friends and we like both of you. I am afraid we are not “true conservatives.”… Actually, we are Kennedy Democrats…isn’t it awful?…
Conservative or liberal politics are one thing—and an important one. But what we do with our power—our overwhelming power—to stand in history as a great civilization, that is important too, very important indeed. And this is a field in which conservatives and liberals can agree and pull together.
It is almost impossible to imagine such conciliatory sentiments being expressed in today’s implacably polarized America—let alone deep in the heart of Texas—just as it is equally hard to recall a time before the art world descended into yet another global casino for freebooting plutocrats. William Middleton’s painstakingly assembled monument to John and Dominique de Menil is at once an inspiring and a sobering reminder that within living memory such paragons of rigorous discernment and disinterested generosity still lived among us. It now seems improbable that we will see their likes again.