Illustration by Tablet; photo by author
Illustration by Tablet; photo by author
Navigate to News section

The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Herbert Lust

The University of Chicago literature professor turned Wall Street titan talks about art collecting, intellect, and why he only became proud of being Jewish when he was 35

Periel Aschenbrand
March 17, 2017
Illustration by Tablet; photo by author
Illustration by Tablet; photo by author

Herbert Lust is a self-described farm boy from Indiana. But don’t let his charm or modesty fool you. This former literature professor, Fulbright scholar, and chairman of the board of two New York stock exchange companies has an intellect as sharp as his tongue, a wit as wicked as his sense of humor, and an art collection that will bring you to your knees.

He is 90, has a busier social calendar than most 25 year olds (and is more in demand), stays out dancing until 2 in the morning, and knows more about the history of the novel than probably nearly anyone on earth. At first glance, you’d never guess he raised millions of dollars for the Tel Aviv Museum and donated hundreds of pieces of artwork from his personal collection. But then, you see what’s around his neck: Hanging from a thick, gold chain, is a very large bronze medallion with a portrait of someone’s head. It’s Giacometti. The portrait and the medallion. And it was a gift. From Alberto, to Herbert. Which is to say that the more you talk to him, the more apparent it becomes that Herbert Lust is a living legend.

I met him at a French restaurant near one of his homes on the Upper East Side and as we walked there, he told me he often quips he’s the happiest man in New York because he’s less miserable than everyone he knows.

PA: You gave 200 Giacomettis to the Tel Aviv Museum!?

HL: Yeah. Prints and drawings and photographs.

PA: Why’d you pick them?

HL: Because I’m a Zionist. And all the attention goes to the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem but I think Tel Aviv is a far more important city than Jerusalem.

PA: What does someone say when you call them up and tell them you have 200 Giacomettis you want to give them?

HL: They were astounded, of course.

PA: Where are the rest of your Giacomettis?

HL: In storage, some here, and some in my house in Connecticut, which is where the basis of my collection is.

PA: You also have a Calder in Connecticut.

HL: Two great Calder drawings, a lot of Calder jewelry, and of course, a great sculpture.

PA: And you gave the Tel Aviv Museum five Hans Bellmers also?

HL: I made them number one in the world for Bellmer because of that gift.

PA: I thought you were number one in the world for Bellmer?

HL: Well, I am! They’re second to me. But I’m talking about museums.

PA: You actually have the biggest private collection of Bellmer in the world, is that correct?

HL: I have more Bellmers than the top four museums put together.

PA: How did that come to be?

HL: It came to be like a lot of things—by accident. My real background and training is to teach literature, which I did at the University of Chicago. My first 12 years of education were completely involved in literature. Then by accident, again, I went to Wall Street because I met somebody who courted me. And then I became rich and began collecting. Gertrude Stein inspired me to collect.

PA: Did you know Gertrude Stein?!

HL: No. I knew Alice B. Toklas extremely well. I used to have dinner with her once a week, regularly for six months. Anyway, I began collecting. My first major piece was a Tanguy painting, but then I bought a few Bellmer drawings. They were very beautiful and they were only a hundred dollars a piece. Nobody had any interest in Bellmer then. What I really wanted was a Magritte painting. But Magritte was very famous then and Bellmer was still alive. Bellmer’s vision, in addition to being very sexual, is very tragic. He wasn’t liked in America at all. And I became known as this moron who would buy Bellmers, so they were just throwing them at me. I wanted a really great Magritte painting. But you could get 50 great Bellmers for one great Magritte. And art collecting is no different than buying a property. It’s shopping. You want to get the best bang for your buck. Magritte is a greater artist but he’s not 50 times greater or even 20 times greater.

PA: Really!?

HL: And today, for the young people, according to Barbara Gladstone, which in many ways is the greatest contemporary art gallery, the only surrealist that young people look at anymore is Bellmer. And why is that? It’s because the main subject of surrealism, according to all the scholars, is sex. I don’t believe that. I don’t buy it. But it’s in all the books. I think it’s other things but anyway, he took sex and pushed it to an extreme. So it was like a lot of things in life. An accident.

PA: You went to Paris on Fulbright. How long were you there for?

HL: I got the first Fulbright from the University of Chicago when I was 22 years old to study the influence of the American novel on the French novel. And I was there for two years.

PA: And how did you find Giacometti?

HL: Again, by accident. I was the youngest person ever to get a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in Mathematics and Philosophy. I got that at 21 years old. My teacher then was very famous. He was a Jew who had been imprisoned and escaped from the concentration camps and he was Sartre’s teacher. He actually flunked Sartre. But anyway, he introduced Kierkegaard to France and he ended up teaching at the University of Chicago. And he was one of the guys on my master’s degree thesis on Nietzsche.

PA: Mmmmhhm.

HL: I don’t know how it happened but I was a born politician. I realized he wanted to see parts of Chicago, as all Frenchmen did, which was jazz and black nightclubs. So I took him and his wife. I had a lot of nerve. I was 21 and he was this prestigious guy but he was so eager to go and so he fell in love with me. And that’s one of the reasons I got a Fulbright. So, at 22, I ended up in Paris. And he had a salon every Wednesday night. Everyone you could think of came to these things. I would help them clean up. And they couldn’t believe that. Anyway, I met a guy, who was unknown at the time, John Russell, who was eight or nine years older than me and became probably the best known art critic in the world, but at that time, he didn’t know shit about art. He was like me—he knew a lot about the novel and poetry, and we got together and we hit it off. I was about 22 and he was about 29 and he was married and I wasn’t. And he subsequently separated from his wife and became the lover of one of the most famous women in Bloomsbury and she knew Giacometti well and gave a luncheon for him. John had given her the manuscript for Violence and Defiance, my first novel, and she loved it and wanted to meet me. I write about this luncheon in my book about Giacometti, Friendship and Love. So that’s where I met him. It always amuses me when everyone says I was lucky that I met Giacometti. Thousands of people met Giacometti and none of them pursued him. I pursued him. Because of scholarship. I didn’t like his work, but I knew that I was wrong. So what I’ve really come to think is that life is a complete and utter mystery and everything is meaningless because the greatest mystery in the world is your IQ. Why some people have it and some people don’t have it. It determines so much. I really believe if I had 5 points less, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done. I don’t feel very proud about it but the failure in life—almost everything in life—every bad thing in life, is a failure of intellect. That people do not think things through carefully and therefore they make terrible mistakes and I think that every failure, every tragedy, every defeat, almost always has been the failure of intellect, of thinking clearly. So it amuses me. Thousands of people met him, but I’m the only one who wrote books about him and wound up with a great collection. He was already very famous when I met him. He was certainly as famous as Picasso was, at least in France. And Picasso would complain, ‘Why is Alberto as famous as I am!?’ He was a pig for fame, Picasso.

PA: Ha ha!

HL: I was the one who did it, because I figured it out.

PA: Because you were smarter than everyone else.

HL: It’s a question of luck, like everything else. There were people smarter than me who have ruined their lives.

PA: How does one ruin one’s life?

HL: Well, I’ll tell you. The only thing I really know well is the history of the novel. One of the things I do, being a great scholar, is study every great novel. I’ve combined that with my knowledge of things like Nietzsche. One of the most famous quips by Nietzsche is ‘the body thinks.’ And Freud very generously admits that all his thinking comes out of Nietzsche. In other words, it’s the ego—the unconscious— that determines everything. So I’ll say my heroes of the novel: James Joyce. Kafka. Proust. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Faulkner. Henry James. All seven were very unhappy. All seven ended up badly. All seven had bad lives. Think about that, Periel. They all had bad lives. Because the body thinks. They all made bad choices in their personal lives. They all had nervous breakdowns…

PA: This is very depressing.

HL: All seven had nervous breakdowns. Even Henry James, who you think of as the most rational, brilliant American who ever lived. After he wrote The Golden Bull. He was in his early 60s and he had a nervous breakdown and he was in bed for four years. Life is too tough, people are too rough, he wasn’t able to handle it. This is the most incredible story, but it applies to all of them. Listen carefully. When James Joyce was 38 years old, his doctors tell him, you’ve got to stop being an alcoholic. You’ve got to stop drinking or you’re going blind. Going blind. Think what he chose to do. He’s starting Finnegan’s Wake at that point, he’s already the most famous novelist in the world in the avant garde, soon to be on the cover of Time Magazine. He could not stop drinking. Think about that. And not only did he go blind, but his body was wracked by pain for the last 20 years of his life, he destroyed his wife, who was a great woman, destroyed his two children, he had no friends, he hated everybody. And why? Because life is fucking hard. You just have to have luck. And the right parents, and the right neighborhood. A whole combination of things have to happen. Lincoln Kirstein once said something incredible to me that Marianne Moore said to him, which is that common sense is sacred. Why did I have common sense? It’s just luck. According to Freud, my parents were perfect.

PA: Were they?

HL: Of course not. No one is, but for parents, they were. According to Freud.

PA: Where were they from?

HL: Chicago. My father was very successful and wealthy. His parents were like closet Jews in Kenilworth, which was a restricted area at the time. They came here before the Civil War. My mother was the exact opposite. They were working class Jews who came here in 1890 and my mother was one of my father’s four or five secretaries. She was very beautiful. He got a divorce when he was 38 from a very interesting woman to marry my mother who was a little 23 or 24 year old Jewish girl from an Orthodox Jewish family, working class. My maternal grandfather was a manual laborer—he pressed women’s evening gowns. So I come from two complete opposite ends of Judaism—the wealthiest and the poorest, the most established and the least established. My father gave me critical faculties, which I think is pure luck and saved my life. The worst thing that ever happened to me was when he was killed in an automobile accident when I was 9. I am, unfortunately, coming to the point of view that everything in life is luck.

PA: Don’t tell me that.

HL: It’s luck if you have the ability to figure things out.

PA: OK. That’s better.

HL: I was able to do it because I had the right parents. Kafka had mental breakdowns his entire life. He wrote all these books but he couldn’t understand himself. Because he had the wrong parents. Joyce had the wrong parents. Faulkner’s parents, awful. Hemingway’s parents were the worst. You go back to all these idols of mine and all of their parents weren’t good. The other thing that helped me a lot—which was luck, again—that my father did, because he didn’t want his kids raised in the Jewish ghetto, was move us to central Indiana when I was five years old, where there were no Jews at all. So I was brought up in a working class community, I didn’t know any middle class people. We were the only Jews.

PA: Did people know you were Jewish? Was there anti-Semitism?

HL: A third of the town was Ku Klux Klan. But that happened because of the Depression and then we were virtually run out of town.

PA: Because you were Jews?

HL: Yes. Basically.

PA: Did you grow up with Judaism?

HL: The opposite. I didn’t even know I was Jewish until my grandfather insisted I be bar mitzvahed.

PA: What did you think you were?

HL: One of the boys. I didn’t think I was anything!

PA: So how did you become a Zionist?

HL: From reading. From thinking about it. From having had a few cousins murdered in Poland. We tried very hard to get them out. It’s no different than today. Roosevelt would not let in the Jewish refugees.

PA: So you developed an affinity for Israel that started then?

HL: The more I read, the more I studied, the more I understood it. It’s a great heritage but I wasn’t proud of being Jewish until I was about 35 years old. Before that, it meant nothing to me.

PA: Does anything help?

HL: Understanding Buddhism is a very big help.

PA: That’s good. Anything else?

HL: The mantra where I grew up in Indiana—and no one questioned it—was work hard or die. No excuses. I don’t believe in excuses. Everybody has excuses. Joyce, Faulkner, they’re gods to me, they had plenty of excuses. Didn’t do them any good. But you can correct your mistakes, which is what I learned from Sartre’s book on Baudelaire, which I’ve read about five times.

PA: You’ve been ignoring the fact that you’re also very charming.

HL: That’s also luck. The essence of charm is being a good listener and people don’t want to listen.

PA: Frankly, I’d listen to you all day long but I’m going to have to, unfortunately, cut this short and pepper you with a few quotidian questions. What’s your favorite drink?

HL: Wine. Cabernet.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

HL: Any way.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

HL: With cream and sugar.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

HL: Passover.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

HL: If it’s good gefilte fish, it’s very good.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

HL: Rockports.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

HL: The usual things: keys, wallet, cell phone, handkerchief, and my tremendous ego. It’s always with me.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.