The De Menils

Slow Dancing with the Muse

William Middleton landed a contract to write a biography of John & Dominique de Menil in 2002. After more than a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplemental fundraising in support of the project, there’s still no book. What happened?

By John Lomax April 29, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Few couples have ever altered a city as indelibly and imaginatively as John and Dominique de Menil altered ours. Although they were beneficiaries of a vast fortune and had homes on three continents, the aristocratic French couple chose to settle in Houston, arriving here from Nazi-occupied France in 1941.

Houston arrived with them. Among the many gifts this remarkable pair would give the city over the next half century: the Renzo Piano–designed Menil museum, oft-recognized as one of the world’s great buildings, and the breathtaking history- and world-spanning collection within; the Rothko Chapel; Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk; the Cy Twombly Gallery; much of the University of St. Thomas; and “Do-ville,” the dignified campus around the museum with its gray bungalows and spreading live oaks. 

The de Menils created nothing less than a city-within-a-city, one with such a powerful sense of place that it sometimes seems to possess its own tranquil microclimate. Without them, one thinks, Houston might still be Dallas or Atlanta: a Sun Belt city with the veneer of high culture, but lacking the freewheeling, revolutionary spirit of a true art center. 

The de Menil story is unquestionably an incredible one. And yet somehow a major biography of these titans of twentieth-century art collecting, these Houston Medicis, has gone unwritten.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. A de Menil biography has been in the works for some time. Nearly a dozen years ago, a journalist with impressive credentials embraced the de Menil story, a major publishing house awarded him a contract to write it in 2002, and he’s been working on the project, seemingly diligently, ever since. And yet, as of this moment, the book is just over half written. To comprehend why, you have to understand the fascinating and troubling figure at the center of the project, a man whose story is in some ways so epic, confusing, and complex, it might itself make for a great book.

Residents of the state of Kansas are used to their children being lured away by the wider world. They’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, after all, like the rest of us, so the odyssey of William Middleton can hardly have come as a surprise. Still, it isn’t every day that a kid from Wichita ascends to the rarefied climes of the New York magazine publishing world, and one imagines that Middleton was something of a local hero back home, no small feat in a state whose second greatest export, behind corn, is celebrity expats. 

True, he was only the fashion features director for Harper’s Bazaar, but that publication was not his destiny. The Bazaar years belonged to the early, less interesting part of William Middleton’s biography, chapter 3 or 4. A reader interested in learning about his Real Life would most likely skim through these pages, if they read them at all, stopping only when they came to the autumn of 2000, when Middleton’s plane touched down on a Houston runway. 

He had been only once before to that strange city, a place utterly unlike Wichita or New York. Nevertheless, Middleton came up with the idea for Bazaar and chose to pen the article. No, not an article, an article that was part of a six-part series of the sort Bazaar specialized in then: a perspicuous examination of the smart-set doings in a sextet of burgs in the primitive wilds of flyover country. Such an assignment might seem like something of a come-down for a man whose early career had included stints in Paris for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazines, but by all accounts Middleton embraced it gladly, quite as if he knew what humid fate lay in wait for him in that gauche locality with the charming nickname, the Bayou City.

In fact, Bazaar’s man in the bush knew only a little of Houston and almost as little about the de Menils, aware only that there was some sort of large cultural institution in town with a French connection. And while his early trips to the Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel left Middleton impressed, neither proved to be a road-to-Damascus moment.

The exact spot where his religious conversion occurred—the Paul Claudel stone marker in Notre Dame—was in River Oaks, specifically the de Menil mansion, that Philip Johnson model of modernity on San Felipe. In some ways this was to be expected. Middleton had built up something of a portfolio as a profiler of famous homes, and certainly must have recognized the manse’s historical importance as “the first great Modernist house in Texas,” as he wrote later. But it wasn’t the architecture, as he remembers it, that transfixed him, it was the gorgeous Charles James interiors, most of which had been kept as-is in the three years since Dominique’s death. So frozen in time was the place that one wouldn’t have been surprised to see Dominique herself tiptoe across the black Mexican tile, swaddled by an inside-out fur coat, a green shoe on one foot, a blue one on the other.

 “You felt very much her presence,” Middleton says now, “and I remember thinking, ‘How did this happen? This couple came here from Paris in 1941. They did all of this. Why here?’”

It was an old question, very old. The de Menils themselves must have been asked it many times, and yet throughout their half century in Houston and beyond, it remained an open one. That Dominique’s father, Conrad Schlumberger, had invented a subsurface prospecting technique that had forever changed oil exploration and made him very rich, was not in doubt, nor that the United States headquarters of the Schlumberger Limited oilfield services company were in Houston. Still, Dominique Schlumberger and her wealthy banker boyfriend, John de Menil, might have elected to gambol about the globe aimlessly during their younger days in the ’30s. After they married and John moved into Schlumberger management, the de Menils might have decamped to any of a number of world capitals, including New York or Caracas, site of another Schlumberger outpost, where they indeed spent several pre-Houston years. 

But as the German occupation of  France continued and intensified, the de Menils came to Houston, which embraced them full throttle, like many odd birds before and since, up to and including William Middleton. And the de Menils returned the favor, embracing swampy southeast Texas with a creative vision that hadn’t been seen since the days of John and Augustus Allen. As the Houston Artists Fund, soon to figure prominently in William Middleton’s life, put it, “It would be impossible to overstate the de Menils’ impact on the development of Houston, the cultural scene throughout the state of Texas and the course of twentieth-century art in America.” There were the buildings, of course, but also the amazing art collection—15,000 works—in addition to the couple’s devotion to civil rights and other progressive causes.

Few who came into contact with the fascinating couple were left unaffected. The boy from Wichita, who never even met them, grew increasingly spellbound by his original question—Why here? Soon, he was having visions, visions of a book deal. 

“And then I heard that there was interest from a publisher in New York in a biography,” Middleton recalls, “but they hadn’t found a writer. So I decided to work on a proposal.” 

February 2001. Middleton’s Bazaar Houston story hit newsstands, exploding like a bunker-busting bomb in the stylish salons, tony boutiques, and tennis bubbles of the Bayou City’s society set. Cultural anthropologists of varying degrees of acumen scrambled to explain the article’s far-reaching implications, including Shelby Hodge, Houston’s own Claude Lévi-Strauss, who wrote that Middleton’s piece “could not have been more positive if it had been a plant by the Houston Image Group.” Hodge’s subsequent research led her to amend her findings a bit, and in a later Chronicle column she allowed that Middleton’s piece had “ruffled a few fashionable feathers.” But it had all been worth it for the “glam color photo” of über-socialite Lynn Wyatt and two friends “delicately chowing down” at Otto’s, the city’s then favorite barbecue shack and preferred slumming spot. 

The following spring, another bombshell: Middleton was awarded a contract to write his de Menil book for Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Knopf—the house whose biography of Willem de Kooning had won the Pulitzer Prize, the house that was publishing a multivolume Picasso biography by John Richardson. Best of all, Middleton’s editor would be Shelley Wanger, who shepherded both the de Kooning and Picasso books. The book was scheduled for publication in 2006.

Middleton was also awarded an advance of about $40,000, not bad for a first-time author, although he seems to have known even then that more funds would be required for his magnum opus. “It wasn’t enough,” Middleton says now, “but I also understand Knopf’s position. If you are a publisher in New York and this magazine journalist comes to you and says, ‘I want to write a book about these two French-American arts patrons in Houston, Texas,’ you’d be saying ‘Oh, okay. How does the proposal work? Is the writing good?’… They have to protect themselves.”

And then there was the state of the publishing business in 2002, a particularly sorry one even by industry standards. As Middleton laments, “Had I been working on the proposal five years before, I might well have had a healthier advance, but book publishing has changed, unfortunately.”

Nevertheless, the writer went to work. It was a foregone conclusion that any biography of this towering duo would require copious research and dozens and dozens of interviews, although one gets the sense that Middleton was not quite prepared for the biographical blizzard to come. The Schlumberger line had to be traced all the way back to fifteenth-century Alsace, the de Menils to the time of Napoleon. (“Her family history begins in 1400 with Hans Schlumberger, a full 16 generations before the birth of Dominique,” he says, reflecting on his early research days.) He would need to decipher the handwriting in John and Dominique’s letters to one another, a correspondence that began after they met at a ball at Versailles in 1930; one batch ran for 190 pages, and that represented just the early years. There also were 240 pages of letters to Dominique’s mother and grandmother. 

And then there were the interviews. “I have conducted something like 140, and I probably need another 15 to 20,” he reports. “The interview transcript is now 1,921 pages.” Over the years he has interviewed three of the couple’s five children (Adelaide, Francois, and Christophe de Menil), a one-time first lady of France (Claude Pompidou), and a one-term president (Jimmy Carter). And could any biography of John and Dominique be judged complete unless its author visited the couple’s house and apartments in and around Paris, and the Schlumberger château in Normandy, and Alsace, where the family’s roots lie?

“I … think the de Menils are the type of people we need to be reading about today,” Middleton says now, providing an interesting and odd justification for his efforts. “Right about the time I was working on my proposal, Enron happened, and I think of the de Menils as the anti-Enron. They always had a house in New York, they always had a place in Paris … but most of what they did was here, and the reason for that was that they felt like they were needed here. They made their money here and it was important for them to give back.” 

Over the next two years, amidst the Enron scheme’s unraveling, Middleton remained in New York, toiling away as a freelancer, working on the book when time and money allowed. Among his freelance distractions: “an editorial love song,” as Shelby Hodge put it, that Middleton penned for Bazaar in 2003, an update on Lynn Wyatt’s doings that ran around the time of the Iraq invasion. 

Finally, in 2004, the time came to focus. He pulled up stakes. His destination? The city in which so much of his book would be set, Houston, where he would promptly move into a Montrose high-rise and buy a bicycle, perhaps a nod to his European past. Why Middleton decided to move here may not be as compelling a question as when applied to the de Menils, but you have to wonder. Maybe he felt his project was becoming overwhelming and he needed a fresh start. Maybe he wanted closer contact with the de Menil family archives. Maybe he needed to reconnect with that Philip Johnson house, his original source of inspiration. 

One thing’s for certain, however. He soon needed money. 

“It’s interesting that fundraising for a book would be necessary,” William Middleton tells us. “It’s not something that I ever considered.” But the immensity of the project, he says, next required the hiring of research assistants in both Houston and Paris, as well as typists to transcribe the more than 1,900 pages of interviews. He also needed money for further cross-continental exploration—“there’s been a lot of travel involved”—and to support himself all the while.

It was altogether too much money for one man to raise on his own, and so, in 2005, Middleton enlisted the aid of the Houston Artists Fund, a tax-exempt charity that sponsors “art-related projects and organizations that intend to raise funds from individuals, foundations, and corporate donors, but do not have their own tax-exempt status,” according to its website. The HAF began to approach foundations on behalf of the de Menil book, thus theoretically freeing up Middleton to continue his research and writing, but also conferring further legitimacy on the still-nascent project. At any rate, the organization soon proved to be a huge boon in terms of financial support.

“I don’t know the exact figure, and to be honest with you it’s probably not a figure that the Houston Artists Fund will publicize,” Middleton says now. That’s not the conclusion one draws from a perusal of the group’s website, however. “The HAF,” it proclaims proudly, “has raised over $350,000 from 150 individuals and foundations in Houston and in New York,” all for Middleton’s book. Among those willing to offer the author a hand were wealthy couples like Sara Dodd-Spickelmier and Keith Spickelmier, who are listed as $15,000+ patrons on the HAF site; Amber Capital ($25,000+); and the Houston Endowment ($50,000+), a philanthropic organization founded by Jesse Jones that dates back to 1937.

Middleton says he did not receive the funds in full but gets a monthly stipend, the amount of which he declines to disclose.

A good chunk of the money—$150,000—was raised by 2006, at which point Middleton was able to hire his research assistants and transcribers and fly to Paris to continue his research. It didn’t prove substantial enough to sustain the author himself, who was forced to take on “freelance magazine work to pay the rent,” he says. The assignments required arduous and distracting work in such places as Careyes and Cuixmala on the Mexican Riviera. Middleton even had to take an assignment from his old buddies at Bazaar, trekking to Palm Beach for a profile of the $30 million home of heiress Veronica Hearst.

“Houston glitterati turned outin force Monday night to come to the aid of a member of the literati—William Middleton—in need of a financial boost to complete research for his biography of renowned art patrons John and Dominique de Menil.”

The year was 2008, the writer was once again Shelby Hodge, and the glitterati’s favorite member of the literati had his hat in hand once again. A further round of fundraising for the de Menil book was required. Enter Armando Palacios and Cinda Ward. Under the arched ceilings at Armando’s eponymous Mexican bistro in River Oaks, amid terrific art from Mexico City’s jazz age, and over top-shelf margaritas and chipotle crab cakes, some 150 generous souls chipped in a minimum of $100 a head to patch up the sails of Middleton’s now listing ship.

The evening was an unqualified success, even as troubled seas lay ahead. Just seven months after Middleton’s February fundraising effort, Hurricane Ike blew into town, creating chaos and confusion both within Houston’s society set and beyond. Soon, the world economy would collapse, Shelby Hodge would leave the Chronicle, and Middleton would be forced to scrounge around for ever-dwindling and lower-paid freelance assignments, including one for 002 magazine, a well-meaning local effort but worlds away from the vaunted pages of Harper’s Bazaar. His photo appeared on the contributors page adjacent to one of a masked author named Señor Dummy.

There were bright spots amid the despair, a champagne reception, for instance, which Middleton attended with an old friend, the shock-headed, Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, an evening so memorable that photos of it still retain pride of place on the author’s Facebook page. But by this point the whispers had already begun: where was the de Menil biography?

“He should have been working on the book,” growls one of Middleton’s $100 patrons, clicking on Middleton’s Facebook pictures recently. The whispers continued. One detractor quipped that Middleton might well become one of the last people on earth to make money on a book devoted to high art. 

In other circles of society, however, Middleton’s cachet continued to grow. Hodge, now writing for CultureMap, dutifully reported a sighting of Middleton, along with Lynn Wyatt and others, backstage at a Lady Gaga concert. (“When I grow up, I want to be Lynn Wyatt!” Gaga allegedly quipped, in praise of a friendship she and the society doyenne had struck up previously in England, at Elton John’s country estate.)

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that writing a biography takes a long, long time,” Middleton says now, acknowledging the book’s delay. It also seems to take a great deal of money, because by November of 2010, the total amount donated by the HAF—$350,000, as of then—was apparently gone, or, at the very least, greatly diminished. Meanwhile, the author had submitted just five chapters to his editor. Five chapters of a projected 17.

At this point, the HAF seems to have felt that its only option was to double down on William Middleton. “We are writing about a project that we all believe in and want to see completed,” began a letter from the fund dated November 17, 2010. The plea, signed by Wyatt, the Spickelmiers, and others, expressed belief in the project’s worth, something no one could argue against. The letter also reads as a genuine expression of feeling from Houston’s moneyed elite, who asked for generosity, both toward the de Menils, whose influence they championed and which many had witnessed first-hand, and toward Middleton, of course. “Your participation,” it concluded, “can make a tremendous difference for this book that can mean so much to the Menil Collection, to the memory of Dominique and John de Menil and to our city.” 

The letter’s stated goal was to raise an additional $150,000 so that Middleton might “see this project through to completion,” according to the HAF website. The charity’s goal was to raise $75,000 from targeted donors and $75,000 from an anonymous private foundation willing to pony up a matching grant. “Please help us make this book a reality!” added signatories Ann and Mathew Wolf in a handwritten note next to their names.

Middleton himself spoke directly to potential patrons in a personal letter that accompanied the call for contributions. It was a progress note of sorts, one in which he expressed confidence that the 12 remaining chapters would be completed by the summer of 2011, if of course he was given the proper assistance by donors. The letter speaks of his gratitude for their prior help, and notes that with their assistance, and “one final research trip to Paris—funded by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York,” the book will be “an important work that will honor this extraordinary couple and, especially, the great city of Houston.”

The great city of Houston has been awaiting its great de Menil biography for more than a decade now, and it appears that the waiting is far from over. Cite magazine, which focuses on architecture and design in the Bayou City, reported in the fall of 2011 that Knopf would be bringing out Middleton’s book in 2012.

That did not happen, nor will the book see publication this year, as Middleton himself is the first to admit. After all, the book is just “a little more than halfway finished now,” as he puts it, although the latest plan, he says, is to finish the manuscript by this fall, so that Knopf can publish his de Menil book in fall 2014. But how likely a scenario is that? “I’m hoping that will happen,” he says.

Maybe it will. Then again, isn’t a certain amount of skepticism natural on a book that’s barely beyond the 50-yard line, given 11 years of work and fundraising that Middleton acknowledges tops $450,000? He asserts that that figure is far from unusual among biographers these days. John Richardson, Middleton claims, raised even more in support of his Picasso opus (“I don’t know the exact figure, but I know it was over a million dollars. I think … it was closer to $1.5 million”). Furthermore, Richardson’s multivolume biography of the Spanish painter took 30 years to complete. 

“Robert Caro has spent 40 years on LBJ,” Middleton says. “The de Kooning biography was written by two people and took 15 years, the recent van Gogh biography, again, [was] written by two people and it took them 10 years, but I believe they had five full-time research assistants. Which is something that I’ve never been able to have.”

Jack Massing, one half of the two-artist team the Art Guys and a member of the HAF board of directors, admits that it’s a little “hubristic” of Middleton to place himself up there with legendary biographers like Richardson and Caro. Still, he remains in the boy from Wichita’s corner.

“Until I read the book I can’t really criticize it,” Massing says. “I do know he’s doing his due diligence on it, and there’s no pressure from anybody to have this book done, which may be one of the faults of the process. It’s his muse he’s dancing with. It’s a slow dance but that’s fine. 

“If he puts out a great book nobody will criticize it. If the book is terrible, there will be reason for griping.” 

None of the major donors to the project is griping (at least publicly). “I’m very proud of our donors and what we raised,” says Middleton, though the quest for cash continues. “We never raised enough money to complete the project, and we still haven’t,” he adds, noting that the next target is an additional $50,000. “We only raised enough money to continue raising money. This allowed more progress on the book than had ever occurred before. We need to go the next step and raise the other fifty.”

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