The year was 1932. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. For Monroe Wheeler, however, the Depression meant little. His various businesses, a steel company, a lumber company, a chemical company, were providing millions of dollars in revenue.
Unlike his other holdings, Monroe’s son was proving to be a deficit. Jack, who looked like an idealized all-American — tall, trim, blond, blue-eyed, and good humored — wanted to be a painter. He was an inspired fan of Matisse, whom he regarded as the most important artist of the age.
Though Monroe did not own any works by Matisse, he was one of America’s foremost collectors, having a much-admired collection of Renaissance, Impressionist, and post-Impressionist paintings as well as a few by El Greco, Goya, and Turner. Curators wined and dined Monroe, hoping that he would not only loan their institutions some of his spectacular collection, but also remember them in his will; it would be a kind of immortality for Monroe Wheeler. Wings could be named for him; there could be annual exhibitions of his collection; students would flock to study and admire his collection. Books, monographs, and catalogs would attest to his perspicacity and superior taste. Monroe Wheeler would be esteemed as a great visionary.
Such were the laurels that could accrue to an important collector who chose to share his collection with the public.
Great collectors had invariably been titans of industry. They endowed museums or opened their own museums, hence the Morgan and the Frick. Collectors were to be admired; artists were the workers who produced beautiful works, but they could not be trusted. Most were children, dependent on discerning collectors and gallery owners. It would, therefore, be ridiculous that a great collector would have an offspring who wanted to be an artist. It was almost laughable to consider such a possibility. So when Monroe’s son Jack announced that he wanted to live in Paris for a year and study art, his father was baffled.
“All artists are crazy,” fumed a frustrated Monroe. “Look at Van Gogh; look at Modigliani. That’s what you want to be? Crazy and gone to an early grave?”
Monroe loved his son and wanted him to run a company in one of America’s premier industries, “a heavy industry,” if possible. Monroe was descended from captains of “heavy industries.” Not a lightweight amongst them. He expected his son not to deviate from paths blazed by his ancestors. The family tree was illustrious, each branch magnificent in its own right. And not a painter among them.
When Jack introduced his father to Samantha, a young aspiring dancer and singer, Monroe’s smile was like one of those condescending smiles that a brilliant prosecutor displays just before torpedoing an untruthful witness. Monroe knew, just as he knew the value of his stock portfolio,s that Samantha was a gold digger. And he saw his son as an unguarded mine. The merger of Jack and Samantha, thought Monroe, could only lead to bankruptcy. A bad investment all around. Monroe had nothing against dancers, just as he had nothing against painters. After all, he and his wife (now deceased) frequently went to the ballet, every Christmas season going to see “The Nutcracker.” Now his son was going to marry someone who would crack his own nuts, he thought. His smile turned to a grimace.
This was a bad play, thought Monroe. If he couldn’t close it prior to its ludicrous opening night, then he could at least attempt to change the narrative arc of the script. He bought Jack a chemical company, one in which he owned a majority of the stock. He informed the newly married Jack that he had a responsibility not to let the company fail. Many people depended on the company: investors, managers, employees, families. And in times of war, his country would count on his contributions. “Wars are inevitable and there will surely be one in the near future, mark my words.”
Samantha surprisingly chimed in, agreeing all too readily with her father-in-law. “You can paint on the weekends. We’ll make a nice studio for you in our house in the country. It will be wonderful.”
Overwhelmed, Jack glumly agreed. The newlyweds bought a house in rural Connecticut and converted a barn out back into a studio for Jack. He spent his weekends painting, while Samantha studied dance in New York with Martha Graham.
It went on that way for weeks, then months, and then years. Jack and Samantha had children, a girl and two boys. Jack began to drink, but drink did not mitigate his unhappiness. He said he drank because he was depressed, then said he was depressed because he drank. Alternations of self-pity and anger defined his personality. He found some sympathetic relief in the arms of his secretary. “You look just like my mother looked when she was your age,” he told her. And his secretary would hold him in her arms and stroke the back of his head.
As Jack sank further into unguarded gloom, he spent less and less time overseeing his chemical company. His C.F.O. enriched himself with an engorged sense of entitlement. Jack remained oblivious to it all. He had no idea that creditors were not being paid, that equipment had been ordered through the front door and sold at a discount out of the back door. The company was like a ship with neither a captain nor a rudder, and the currents of illegal commerce would soon dash it on the rocks of bankruptcy.
Though Jack often failed to attend his wife’s dance recitals, she remained furiously calm. She was also sagely quiet about Jack’s affair. There was no need to rock the boat, to take on water and capsize the whole enterprise of the marriage. But when Jack’s company tanked, hollowed out with neither inventory nor cash, Samantha filed for divorce, citing adultery and mental cruelty. The clichés of divorce courts.
The C.F.O. fled to Brazil. Jack’s secretary filed a disability claim. The company’s senior vice president was indicted for fraud. Monroe sent Jack to an alcoholic rehabilitation center, where he underwent 30 days of tedious group therapy and behavior modification.
In the privacy of his darkened library, Monroe wept over the failings of his inept son. He cursed the day the boy was born, then apologized to the ghost of his wife. Why couldn’t he raise a son as his father had, as his father’s father had, going all the way back for five generations?
Samantha invited another dancer to move into her house. Spoils from the divorce included not only the house but the car, a number of artworks that Monroe had given to Jack, a collie, and a trust fund for her kids’ education. She had Jack’s paintings, along with his paints, an easel, a palette, and jars of brushes shipped to his new apartment on Sutton Place.
Finally sober, remorseful, and angry, he decided not to fall into the clutches of another corporate career. He would devote himself to his art. On a ski trip to Switzerland in 1937, Jack met a charming ski instructor. Sonia was beautiful, intelligent, and came to him his first night in his hotel room. His entire body felt alert, possessed, and full of new blood after that first encounter. Theirs would be a marriage totally unlike the first, thought Jack.
The actors may change, the lines may change, but the plot remains the same. We are addicts of the familiar. We comfort ourselves with wishful illusions. And so Jack’s second marriage was no happier than the first.
Jack returned to scotch and bourbon as if they were old friends who welcomed him back into their embrace. He painted fewer and fewer canvases. Sonia enjoyed the benefits of his trust fund, shopping regularly at the finest stores on Fifth Avenue. She would meet her lover for lunch in the Oak Room and then spend an afternoon in a room overlooking Central Park.
Jack had his first heart attack on Thanksgiving Day, 1938. He was resting in a private room at New York Hospital. His cardiologist had told Jack and Sonia that Jack needed as much rest as possible. There should be no excitement in his life, no stress, no heightened emotions. Such could bring on a second attack and that would be worse than the first one. After a blistering argument with his wife, Jack died on a sunny Monday morning in the first week of January, 1939.
Following Jack’s death, Monroe donated a series of paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, each in memory of his dearly missed son.
Jeffrey Sussman is president of Jeffrey Sussman Inc. (powerpublicity.com), a marketing and public relations firm. None of the characters in this story are based on real people or events.