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The death of William Louis-Dreyfus on September 16, at 84, deprived us of a truly remarkable man. He could be described, not in hierarchical order, as a passionate lover of art, an eager collector, a published poet, a committed supporter of the underprivileged, a defender of social justice, a lover of trees, an ecologist, a fruit farmer, a maker of excellent preserves, and a plain-spoken, unpretentious man of ineffable, self-deprecating charm – among many other things. Yet articles about this impossible to classify individual usually underscored only two of his many attributes – that he was an astute businessman and the father of the actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Born Gérard Louis-Dreyfus in Paris on June 21, 1932 into a French financial dynasty established by his great-grandfather in the 19th century, he moved to the United States as a child. “Why William in the US?” I once asked him. “When I was a child,” he said, “I had a toy theater and I was always putting on plays. My mother always said I was a regular Shakespeare.”
Louis-Dreyfus’s love of literature persisted. He was a serious, ambitious poet whose work was published in The Hudson Review and who served as chairman of the Poetry Society for a decade. “When I’m around poets,” he once said, “I’m knocked out. I’m like a kid with baseball players.” But his greatest passion was for art. Over many years, he assembled an enormous, deeply loved collection, housed in an elegantly renovated warehouse, both gallery and storage facility, near his Mount Kisco home; visitors, especially artists and art students, were often welcomed. Louis-Dreyfus often described collecting as “a kind of madness.” On one of our first meetings, I asked him why he collected. “Arrogance,” he replied. “I think I have a better eye than anyone else and I have the means to indulge it.”
That confidence in his own judgment made Louis-Dreyfus’s collection unique. Unlike most of the art holdings amassed by his high profile collector colleagues, his choices were not dictated by art advisors or influenced by art world trends. Louis-Dreyfus’s love for the art he acquired was absolutely pure, uncompromised by fashion or prevailing opinion. He was driven entirely by his own responses, whether it was to work by well-known artists such as the British sculptor Raymond Mason, George Grosz, Alberto Giacometti, or Helen Frankenthaler, or by less celebrated “artists’ artists” such as the painters Graham Nickson, Catherine Murphy, and Stanley Lewis, and the sculptor John Newman, or by artists beginning to attract attention, such as Sangram Majumdar and Karlis Rekevics. He was fascinated by particular self-taught artists and focused his attention on James Castle, Bill Traylor, Nellie Mae Rowe, Thornton Dial, and someone he regarded as his own discovery, Willie Young, an African-American man who, when not shining shoes in Houston, made obsessively complex, poetic drawings on scavenged paper. Louis-Dreyfus regarded the work of his favorite self-taught artists with the same intense enthusiasm as he did anything else in the collection. The reputation or background of the artist meant nothing to him. He was directed entirely by his own eye. “These send me!” he would say. His excitement was palpable when he encountered work that “sent” him for the first time and he remained a loyal follower of the artists who interested him, acquiring, for example, multiple works by the sculptor Paige Pedri, beginning with a group from her MFA thesis show. And there are countless examples of this kind of long-term engagement and support.
“Multiple” was the operative words. Louis-Dreyfus always acquired the work of artists he responded to in depth. “A bad habit of mine,” he would say. The George Nakashima tables in the Mount Kisco building were covered with John Newman’s quirky small sculptures. But Louis-Dreyfus put his vast, idiosyncratic art holdings into the service of his other great passion, improving the lives of people at risk, especially young African-Americans. “I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this,” he often said, “but I do.” The art he collected is earmarked to benefit the Harlem Children’s Zone, an ambitious, extremely successful birth to college program of individual and community support for poor African-American families founded by Geoffrey Canada. “I haven’t collected the usual suspects,” Louis-Dreyfus would say, “but the Harlem Children’s Zone would probably be happier if I had.” (Louis-Dreyfus’s social conscience was visible in other ways, as well. In October 2012, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging wealthy people to fight the suppression of voter rights and announcing that he himself had donated $1 million to organizations working for the cause.)
An urbane, quintessentially urban man, Louis-Dreyfus nevertheless moved permanently to his Mount Kisco home, where he had gradually turned the grounds into an arboretum of specimen trees, and provided land for the use of local organic farmers. He was proud of his orchard and turned his apples, peaches, and plums into superior preserves and conserves that were Christmas gifts to fortunate recipients. “In the autumn, I like to make things,” he said. An out-building on his property was dedicated to preserving, with shiny copper pots competing for attention with Bill Traylor drawings on the walls. I always thought of him as wearing an 18th century leather apron for his culinary activities, like Candide, cultivating his garden.
“I get a kick out of what I see on my walls,” he often said. Yet he had a policy, at least until he established a foundation to administer his art collection, that once a work of art became too valuable, it would be sold. He once complained, however, that he missed a drawing by Henri Matisse that he’d recently parted with — I think it went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “If you were so fond of it,” I asked, “why didn’t you keep it?” “I couldn’t live with something worth that much on my wall — like some kind of millionaire!” Louis-Dreyfus explained. (The friend with whom we were having dinner and I were careful not to catch one another’s eye, at this point.)
William Louis-Dreyfus was a true original, someone who made his own rules and seemed never to waver in his support of art, artists, institutions, and programs that he admired and believed in. He will be greatly missed.