Hammer's Magic Mistress

September 23, 1996

by Edward Jay Epstein

On November 25 1990, Armand Hammer readied himself for the black-tie dinner celebrating the opening of an institution that he had erected in marble-- the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. He knew from the grim prognosis he had recently received from his doctors that this might be his last public appearance. He was 92 years old and suffered from chronic anemia, bronchitis, prostate enlargement, kidney ailments and an irregular heartbeat and cancer that was rapidly spreading throughout his body. He also ever more frequently lost contact with reality and hallucinated. His night nurse, who twice earlier that fall had used artificial respiration to revive him, had now been instructed not to intervene again. But even in a weakened condition, he was determined to attend this event.

He had had a massive blood transfusion, which made his mind more acute. He also had a large dosage of analgesics, which relieved the pain in his body. He had his hair trimmed and was fitted with a new tuxedo designed to conceal his recent weight-loss. He was then strapped into his wheel-chair and, barely conscious when he was carried down the steps of his home in the Westwood section of Los Angeles to the waiting limousine.

Up until 1987, he had planned to leave his art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But when he revised his terms for the gift that year and demanded that it create a virtual museum within a museum for his collection-- one which would be run by a curator that was appointed in perpetuity by him or his designated agent, the Armand Hammer Foundation, its Board of Trustees refused to acquiesce to that extraordinary arraignment. He then revoked his pledge gift and proceeded to build a museum that he could control posthumerously through his foundation.

Although it would cost over eighty million dollars, he relied on Occidental Petroleum Corporation to provide the financing. He had built this company from a near-bankrupt corporate shell in 1955 to the fourteenth largest industrial company in the U.S. Though he owned less than one percent of its stock, he was chairman and could count on it to do his bidding. He had often used its corporate treasury to fund his art acquisition as, for example, when he had it secretly donate the $6 million to his foundation in 1980 that he used to buy the celebrated Leonardo da Vinci notebook, which he then renamed the Hammer Codex and exhibited around the world. He now wanted a special hall in the new museum dedicated to the Hammer Codex. He also wanted the museum erected adjacent to Occidental's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, with its outer walls build of white marble imported from the same quarry in Italy that Da Vinci had used five centuries earlier and his name carved in letters three feet high on two sides of the museum.

Occidental accommodated him by donating to the museum the real estate its corporate headquarters stood on (and then leasing back its office building) and constructing and the edifice according to Hammer's approved design. It also provided it with a $36 million endowment that would be used to subsidize its operating expenses. Even though some Occidental shareholders had sued the company over the expenditures it had made on this enterprise, which Newsweek described it disparagingly as "more like a mausoleum than a museum," Hammer was not deterred. He was determined to open it on schedule.

He had assembled that night at the Armand Hammer Museum the leading lights of Los Angeles society.) He now enjoyed the status not just of a captain of industry but of a world celebrity. He could claim to have been received by no fewer than eight American Presidents in the White House and by almost as many Soviet Presidents, as well as Lenin himself, in the Kremlin His international awards included the Soviet Union's Order of Friendship, America's National Medal of the Arts, France's Legion of Honor, Italy's Grand Order of Merit, Sweden's Royal Order of the Polar Star, Austria's Knight Commander's Cross, Pakistan's Hall-I-Quad.-Adam Peace Award, Israel's Leadership Award, Venezuela's Order of Andres Bello, Mexico's National Recognition Award, Bulgaria's Jubilee Medal and Belgium's Commander of the Order of the Crown. He even had a school, the Armand Hammer World College, named in his honor. Though still woozy from drugs and blood transfusions, he greeted the long parade of acquaintances-- the executives at Occidental, who were waiting to take over from him, the art curators, who had authenticated his paintings for decades, the politicians, whom he had helped finance, the doctors, who could do little further for him, the lawyers, ready to litigate his estate and his surviving family-- his only son, Julian, 61 years ago, and his grandson, Michael, the executor of his estate, and granddaughter, Casey.

After cutting the ceremonial ribbon, he took his seat at the table of honor. On his right, was Danielle Mitterand, the wife of the President of France. She had agreed to come to the opening after he had pledged a $300,000 donation to President Mitterand's private foundation in France. Across from him was Tom Bradley, the Mayor of Los Angeles, whose re-election campaign he had generously supported and Rabbi Harvey Fields, who was helping him organize an extraordinary bar mitvhah ceremony that was scheduled to take place in two weeks. Although Hammer had never had the traditional bar mitvah at the age of 13, and denied his Jewish heritage most of his life, he now wanted at his advance age to undergo this rite of passage. On his left was Hilary Gibson, a white-haired women with striking features. She had played an instrumental role in creating the museum. Grasping her hand under the table, he said "We did it." It was the culmination of a 17 year long relationship in which she was, as she would put it, his "confidante, friend, business associate, co-habitant, consultant, nurse, mistress and lover." He had been her King Pygmalian, transformimg her over these years into a totally new identity.

When she had met Hammer in August 1974, her name was not Hilary Gibson; it was Martha Wade Kaufman. She was then an exceedingly comely 38 years old woman with flaming red hair. She was married to a USC professor and the mother of two young daughters. She had come to California from Ohio as an airline stewardess but then earned a degree in fine art at California State University. She had decided to try her hand at art journalism and Hammer was her first assignment. East-West Publications, which publishes magazines for airlines, had commissioned her to write about Hammer's art collection and Occidental's public relations department had arranged for her to meet Hammer at 9 a.m. in his office that day. But, when she arrived that morning, he was not there. She elected to wait-- sitting in a cubicle outside his door most of the day. When he finally arrived at five in the afternoon, he profusely apologized for the eight-hour delay and ordered his secretary to bring them both ice teas. He was heavier than she expected (he weighed almost 206 pounds) but walked with a robust spring in his step. She noticed that he was dressed in an immaculately tailored gray suit, a white shirt and an elegant tie. He also had a deep tan that set off his lucid eyes. He looked remarkably vigorous for a man she knew was in his late seventies.

She watched him assess her carefully. (He later would tell her "You didn't stand a chance." ) She began the interview trying to be as professional as possible. She asked him his motive for collecting art and whether he considered it another business investment or a profound passion.

Instead of answering her questions, he abruptly changed the subject to a painting in his collection. He showed it to her in the catalogue of his private collection. "It could be you," he said looking at her with a fixed gaze. He then explained that the artist's mistress was the model for that painting and told her that her colors perfectly matched the flesh tones in the painting. He then looked at his watch and told her he had an appointment with his barber, and asked her if she minded continuing the interview while he was getting his hair cut.

She had little choice if she wanted to complete the interview. At the barber shop, instead of the discussion about art she expected, he interviewed her about her marital status. She told him that her marriage was rocky and that she wanted more out of life than being someone's wife and that she was in the process of separating from her husband.

When his hair cut was complete--which took only a few minutes-- he had another surprise for her. He pulled her towards his waiting limousine and told they would have to complete the interview en route to the airport where his private plane was waiting to fly him to Moscow. Again, rather than discussing his collection, he preferred telling him about his unique standing in Moscow. He told her he had met Lenin and almost every other important Soviet leader. She was impressed. As they neared the airport, he guardedly scribbled a question to her on a piece of paper-- as if he was afraid his spoken words might be monitored. What was her home telephone? She answered it and, passing the paper back to him, was amazed to see him erase his orinal question. She was intrigued by the layer of conspiracy he had imposed on a simple request.

Hammer called her a few weeks later. In a very business-like way, he told her he was back in Los Angeles and he had thought about her questions and now wanted to complete the interview. He suggested that she meet him that afternoon at a private suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel which he used when he did not want to be disturbed by routine office business.

He opened the door for her when she arrived at the suite and seated her on a sofa across a table from him. When she took out her pad to take notes, he told her that what he was saying was not for publication but he wanted her to hear him out. She was slightly mystified by the request but put down her pad.

Speaking with almost brutal frankness, he told her about his interest in building a serious collection. He explained that art for him was neither a business nor an aesthetic passion; it was a means to achieve an end-- immortalizing his name. He wanted to leave behind such an unrivalled collection that future generations would associate the Hammer name with greatness. To do this, he intended to spare no expense in buying renowned masterpieces. To give it prominence during his lifetime, he would exhibit the collection in the great museums of the world. After his death, it would be housed in a separate building in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it would stand, forever, as a monument to him. He told her he had already made the preliminary arrangements with the Los Angeles County Museum but he still had to improve the collection and create a global reputation for it. He then told her the real purpose behind this meeting: He wanted her to leave journalism and work closely with him in realizing this prodigious ambition. She would act as his personal art consultant, curator and liaison with museums around the world. She would have her own office at Occidental and travel with him on his private jet. She would help him make the arrangements for exhibiting the Armand Hammer collection around the world. He then leaned close to her, suggesting this would be more than a professional relationship, and told her he was offering her a new life. If she accepted, she would, as he put it, "never have to worry about money again."


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