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Hirshhorn of Plenty

A leading collector, as remembered by his daughter

Jeannie Rosenfeld
July 22, 2009
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden(Chris Rossi; courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden(Chris Rossi; courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

With a spacecraft-like building alongside of the National Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is one of the country’s most visible venues for the display of modern and contemporary art. But its physical prominence is at odds with the mostly unknown story of its namesake: Joseph Hirshhorn, a Latvian immigrant, the 12th of 13 children, who once described himself as “a little Jewish boy brought up in the gutters of Brooklyn.”

Hirshhorn’s roots may have been humble, but his rise was steep. To help support his widowed mother, Hirshhorn, born in 1899, started selling newspapers at 10 and became a Wall Street office boy at 14. At 17, he became a broker and by the age of 30 he held a portfolio worth $4 million. In a prescient move, he divested two months before the 1929 crash. In later years, his business interests shifted toward mining. By 1960, he had made more than $100 million from uranium. Along the way, he became an almost compulsive buyer of art—a passion first sparked by promotional calendars illustrated with French Barbizon paintings, which came with Prudential insurance policies his mother bought after two of his sisters narrowly escaped death in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. As his wealth grew, Hirshhorn’s tastes evolved, and in 1974, he helped the United States government fulfill a languishing 1938 congressional mandate to create a national contemporary art museum by donating over 6,000 works.

The mogul art collector’s story was told in Hirshhorn: Medici From Brooklyn (1979)—but the museum’s founding director, Abram Lerner, deemed it inaccurate and it has gone out of print. Now Hirshhorn’s daughter, Gene Hirshhorn LePere, is making another attempt, with her newly self-published Little Man in a Big Hurry: The Life of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Uranium King and Art Collector. But despite the fascinating raw material, this book, too, is not without flaw.

Though successful in painting a rich portrait of the collector, LePere introduces new problems. For one, the book suffers from too light an edit. It is rife with spelling and grammatical errors, and employs inconsistent footnotes. Even more troubling, though, is the way in which LePere blurs the boundary between a biography of her father and a memoir of her own. The book will often toggle between researched reconstructions of Hirshhorn’s career and wounded reminiscences of his frequent absences. While LePere, 82, insists she worked out any conflicted feelings toward her father years ago, she may have been better served by hiring a biographer or penning a straightforward memoir.

But none of this takes away from the subject’s vividness, and LePere successfully paints a relatively balanced portrait of a complicated, contradictory man, who could be passionate and generous but also ruthless and aloof. The author also deserves credit for piecing together the broad arc of Hirshhorn’s life, from birth in a comfortable if cramped home that also served as the synagogue for the shtetl of Djukst to his sudden death the night he saw Annie and hummed “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” in his Rolls Royce on the ride back to his Washington, D.C. home.

We glean from Little Man in a Big Hurry (the title is a reference to art critic Aline Saarinen’s description of his physical stature and rapid-fire demeanor) how Hirshhorn’s ambition did not always take a backseat to the rules. Laced through the story of his tenacious rise are accounts of shady business deals and government investigations. More colorful still are descriptions of Hirshhorn storming into galleries and snapping up artworks, and of his walking around with a wad of $100 bills that he doled out to needy relatives and artists. Hirshhorn embraced his role as patron and paterfamilias even as he remained incapable of staying faithful to his wives or doting on his children.

Like his temperament, Hirshhorn’s relationship to Judaism doesn’t lend itself to simple characterization. Rejecting his mother Amelia’s strict religious observance of kashrut and the Sabbath, he was nevertheless proud of and unapologetic about his roots. He was instrumental in establishing Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue in Great Neck, New York. More significantly, he was a trailblazer against anti-Semitism even as he sometimes reinforced anti-Jewish stereotypes.

After establishing a Toronto office in 1933, when park benches still bore signs that read “no dogs and Jews allowed,” he placed a full-page ad in a local paper luring investors with the headline: “My Name Is Opportunity and I Am Paging Canada.” The conservative establishment may not have taken to the way he “worked like a robot” and “chattered like a Brooklyn peddler,” as LePere puts it, but, ultimately, a residential street in Ontario was named after him. To his own wonderment, he later sold a large stake in one of his mining interests to the Earl of Bessborough, onetime governor-general of Canada and chairman of the Rio Tinto mining company.

He was even more incredulous about the coup that would be his crowning achievement. His art collection was personally courted by President and Lady Bird Johnson. LePere relays the vigorous debate that surrounded its donation and the naming of the museum, citing an anonymous congressional statement that “the fear among politicians of the anti-Semitic label was Mr. Hirshhorn’s most important protector.” There were some legitimate critiques of the collection as being uneven, owing to the haphazard way in which it was assembled, but without Hirshhorn’s holdings it would have been virtually impossible for the government to catch up with peer institutions. In any case, the outcome prompted the Jewish immigrant from Latvia to marvel, “Just think of me, little Joe Hirshhorn, my name is going to be on a building on the Mall in Washington, D.C.—in perpetuity.”

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.

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