Martin Filler

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - by Wil­liam Mid­dle­ton

Dou­ble Vi­sion: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars

Do­minique and John de Me­nil

Dou­ble Vi­sion: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Do­minique and John de Me­nil by Wil­liam Mid­dle­ton. Knopf, 760 pp., $40.00


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-and­ma­roon-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-thanthou 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 cus­tom­made 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 five­foot-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 twen­tytwo-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-in­law’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.

Do­minique de Me­nil with art­work by Magritte and oth­ers, at the Me­nil Col­lec­tion, Hous­ton, 1990; pho­to­graph by Do­minique Nabokov

Max Ernst: Por­trait of Do­minique, com­mis­sioned by the Me­nils, circa 1932

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