One of the great ladies of New York and a major supporter of the visual arts here, Leila Hadley Luce, died on Feb. 10. In recent years neither her companion oxygen tank, to fight the emphysema which ultimately laid her low, nor a scurrilous profile in Vanity Fair could dampen or deny her indomitable spirit.
For bringing her late husband, the proud curmudgeon Henry "Hank" Luce III, out into the world, Leila should be lauded. They were the dominant force in guiding the New Museum through multiple missions and locations to the beautiful downtown space it occupies today. Leila turned Hank into an unlikely feminist, helping to fund the Sackler Center for Feminist Studies at the Brooklyn Museum and overseeing the installation of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party there.
Leila founded and funded the Wings Trust, which honored and supported the expeditions of female explorers from Antarctica to Siberia and back. She was a great friend and backer of the artist Edwina Sandys, Winston Churchill’s daughter, whose public sculpture dots the world.
But most of all, Leila was a true revolutionary of high culture, beginning with her extraordinary sail across the Pacific in the 1950s as the only woman on a crew full of rough men, an experience which she turned into a best-selling book and an early career as a travel expert. She was never afraid to put her erotic self on the line for her art, as the only woman to have conjugal relations with both J.D. Salinger and Joseph Cornell (in the latter’s bathtub), and she was a fellow journalist’s dream, always willing to share her most outstanding encounters with the great and talented.
As her friend, let me attest to Leila’s unbounded joy, enthusiasm and optimism for life, a life lived without regret or shame or looking back, always aimed for the horizon, ignoring physical frailty and celebrating the most basic gift of God from which all other blessings flow. May He embrace her soul as she embraced us.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).