While doing research for setting up production of Savonnerie carpets in China in the 1990's I spent a considerable amount of time in the French Galleries of The Metropolitan Museum, New York and specially in their Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts. I remember being amazed at the time by the extensive and lavishly decorated rooms that showed how Savonnerie rugs related to all the other objects in the room such as the Sèvres porcelain, paneled boiseriere and silk brocades in an 18th-century French château. I remember wondering who the Wrightsman's were to have made such generous donations to the Met. It is only recently that I stumbled on a Vanity Fair article by Francesca Stanfill that I learnt the fascinating rags-to-riches story of Jayne Wrightsman and how she rose to the pinnacle of New York society from the humblest beginnings. Wrightsman not only became one of the greatest benefactors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art but she also quietly mentored Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis behind the scenes during the 1961-63 restoration of the White House and let Jackie take all the credit for the superb rejuvination of the interiors of the White House.
Born Jane Kirkman Larkin on October 21, 1919, in Flint, Michigan to a modest family who found itself in difficult circumstances during the Great Depression, Jane, her mother and siblings left Flint without the father, for Los Angeles, which in those days offered sunnier prospects. If you are interested in further details I thoroughly recommend Francesca Stanfill's well researched article in Vanity Fair. The quotes in this blog post are courtesy of Francesca Stanfill.
Jayne Wrightsman became a close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1960's when the Kennedys were frequent guests at the Wrightsman's Palm Beach house. Image Pinterest: Celebrity Interiors.
Jayne Wrightsman and Jackie Kennedy in 1960. Image courtesy Francesca Stanfill.
Jayne Wrightsman. Image courtesy chicsavage blog.
How did Jane Larkin from Flint, Michigan become Jayne Wrightsman? There are many different stories of her early life in Los Angeles. While still a teenager attending Los Angeles High School she added a "y" to her name, perhaps an early sign of her desire to re-invent herself.
After high school she worked at a succession of humdrum jobs and according to some, could also have worked as a model and even gotten minor roles in movies. Nelson Seabra, a South American heir, remembers her as "a very pretty girl who worked at Saks in the glove department."
Next we hear of her being admired by Hollywood artists, producers and actors. A friend of the famous set designer and artist Tony Duquette tells how Duquette ".. always remembered her at the beach in a one-piece white bathing suit against her tanned skin, long red nails, and diamond rings."
Stories are told of men who used to purposely lose at cards to Jayne, including producer Delmer Daves, actor Randolph Scott, Cary Grant, and Townsend Netcher an heir to a Chicago department-store fortune.
Things really changed in the early 1940s when a recently divorced oilman and avid polo player Charles Bierer Wrightsman arrived in Hollywood. J. Carter Brown a celebrated director of Washington's National Gallery of Art relates "What I was always told was that she had a job as a bathing-suit model at a department store in Los Angeles. Charlie saw her and said, 'I want that-the girl, not the suit.'" Charlie and Jayne eventually got married.
The wealthy oilman had great soical ambitions and sensed that the best way to break into the upper reaches of society was by becoming a patron of the arts, in other words a modern day Medici. He shrewdly sensed that his young wife was someone who could be sculpted, shaped and polished so that she would be received as a woman of refinement in the drawing rooms of the international set. Jayne would become his instrument for gaining admittance. Despite the enormous wealth he had derived from the rough and aggressive world of oil and gas, Charles was not at ease in the social world.
Charles employed the finest tutors and curators for Jayne and her rigorously coached in the arts, literature and design.
The Wrightsmans felt that Palm Beach would be easier place to start their social climb compared to the intimidating barriers that New York offered. In 1947 they got the opportunity to buy an oceanfront estate comprising six manicured acres that included a 1920's house designed by the famed Maurice Fatio about whom Cole Porter wrote the song "I want to live on Maurice Fatio's patio.."
Stephane Boudin in the Treaty Room of the White House, photographed by Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston. Image courtesy tdclassicist blog.
During her tutoring in art and design Jayne met the suave interior designer Stephane Boudin whose famous Paris based design firm Maison Jansen had decorated the Paris home of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor as well as the palace of the Shah of Iran and homes of international celebrities. Jayne proved to be an excellent student and was soon going far beyond the world of decoration to becoming a connoisseur of 18th-century French furniture and learning the many fine distinctions of quality, history and terminology.
Jayne Wrightsman in 1959 in her Palm Beach library re-decorated by Stephane Boudin of Maison Jansen with a fabulous Savonnerie carpet. Museum quality antique furniture was supplemented by handmade new furniture made in the Jansen workshops. Image courtesy tdclassicist blog.
Boudin was a great teacher and made learning fun for the Wrightsmans. He also had access to amazing resources in France and found boiseries, furniture, porcelain and even parquet flooring from the Palais Royal in Paris. All of this was transported to Florida to transform the Fatio designed house into a French chateau by the ocean in Palm Beach.
Jayne Wrightsman. Image courtesy chicsavage.blog.
The Wrightsman's social position was cemented in the 1960's when their name became linked with the young John F. Kennedys. Jayne had recommended Stephane Boudin to Jackie for the White House's restoration and this warmed their relationship and Jacqueline Kennedy became a friend an admirer of Jayne. The Kennedys became frequent guests at the Palm Beach house. It had a large saltwater pool that was heated to 90 degrees- a balm for the president's injured back. Image courtesy Pinterest Chic Society Ladies: Jayne Wrightsman.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo: LIFE magazine, 1961. Image courtesy tdclassicist blog.
"Jayne was a very good member of Jackie's White House [fine arts] committee," according to Jackie's social secretary during the White House years Letitia Baldrige. "She contributed a great deal and impressed everyone. Not pushy like some of the others.... Jackie later sought her friendship in New York-they were not warm, cozy friends, exactly. But Jackie wasn't like that with anyone." Jayne's smoothed the working relationship between Boudin and Sister Parish who had been hired to do the family residence. Jayne also contributed money for the Blue Room re-furbishing. This was rewarded by carefully designed publicity for the Wrightsmans by Vogue which was then under Diana Vreeland.
The Wrightsmans belonged to the very exclusive club of Vermeer owners, with there being only 24 known paintings by the master in the world. They also lived with furniture and Savonnerie carpets made for the Kings of France. Image courtesy Pinterest Chic Society Ladies: Jayne Wrightsman.
The Wrightsman's soon ascended from Palm Beach to the social world of New York. The French furniture, gilded boiseries, paintings and Savonnerie carpets were moved from Palm Beach to their New York apartment and eventually to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met's curator Fahy tells this story, "We were having lunch one day and someone-I can't remember who-dropped a cigarette on it. Peter Wilson [then head of Sotheby's] was alarmed and said, 'That's a $2 million carpet!' It is said that right after this Charlie Wrightsman had the Savonnerie carpet sent to the Met. Among the treasures donated to the Met is a red lacquered desk made for Louis XV's study at Versailles. Image courtesy Metmuseum.
Jayne Wrightsman and Brooke Astor with the Metropolitan curator Daniel Walker 1999. Image courtesy Francesca Stanfill.
Jayne and Charles Wrightsman, Palm Beach, 1950's. Image courtesy Francesca Stanfill.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 25, 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.