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by Thomas Hoving
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I was born in New York City in 1931 and was christened Thomas Pearsall Field Hoving.  Among upper class WASP families multiple names were gospel. I almost didn't make it. When eight months pregnant and after getting sloshed at several cocktail parties, my mother slammed the car into a ravine. Her only injury was a violent hangover. Her gynecologist shrugged.

Mom, Mary Osgood Field Hoving, called “Peter” after her father's favorite dachshund, was a member of an historic American family. The Osgood and the Field clans were hot-blooded revolutionaries. The Pearsalls were Tories. That may explain my mixed temperament. President Washington appointed Samuel Osgood to a high government post. The Pearsalls fled to England, though Thomas Cornell returned to New York, owned a large farm on the East River and became a pariah because of his British sympathies during the War of 1812.

My father, Walter, was born in Sweden in 1897 to Dr. Johannes Walter Wilhelm Hoving, a general practitioner, and Helga Petrea Adamsen, a celebrated opera singer. Johannes came to America in 1903 and established a practice in Manhattan. When he returned to Sweden to become the king's physician, my father stayed in New York. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School and Brown University, graduating in 1920. He was voted handsomest man in the class and made the national All-American football team - he called the plays for Brown's victorious teams.

After college, he worked for an insurance company in New York where the client files were stacked haphazardly in a warehouse about the size of a city block. My father told his boss, "If we put the files in a certain way and then let the file clerks use roller-skates, we could do the job in half the time and with one half the force."

The boss growled, “You think you're so smart? You're fired."

I heard that story many times when I was very young and over the years would recall it when I was about to confront my boss with what he should do - knowing he might resent it. Unlike my father, oddly enough, I was never fired because of my bluntness.

My parents met at one of the endless New York social events. A photograph in a rotogravure shows the engaged couple at opening day at the Saratoga horse races splendidly attired - he in a morning coat and she in a swath of chiffon wearing a hat the size of the Plaza Hotel. He looks like a matinee idol with a thick head of hair and a well-chiseled face. My mom, who adored parties and was the hit of every one, was not especially beautiful, but was tall and slender with a ramrod posture. Their wedding in 1924 at New York's' St. James Church was covered by all the society columnists.

The young couple first lived in fashionable Tuxedo Park, the most exclusive gated community in the East. A number of Osgoods and Fields owned mansions there. My mother was close to the major stockholders of R. H. Macy & Co., the Strausses, and talked Jack, the patriarch of the family, into hiring her fiancé.

In 1924 Walter entered Macy's first executive training course. He chose merchandising as his major subject and worked under a legendary retailer, Oscar Knauth, who was also a Professor of Economics at Princeton University. He placed my father in the linoleum department and ordered him to visit every competitor to check out prices of every piece of linoleum in town - a vast undertaking. He did and he persuaded a friend to lend him his typist and gave Knauth a beautifully typed report. Knauth immediately promoted him to be his assistant and shortly thereafter, at a surprisingly young age, he was made a merchandise manager. My father would tell me that one of the keys to becoming a top CEO was never to learn how to type. A good executive, he said, was one who delegated everything. “Be lazy and you’ll be a great CEO.”

Everyone in the training program had to attend night classes on art given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and my father credits his impeccable taste to those teachings. When I arrived at the Met I looked into starting up those classes again, but the curators objected - popular instruction for the working man and woman was no longer deemed appropriate.

In 1929, at only thirty, my father was promoted to vice president. Supremely confident about Macy's future, he took a plunge in the stock market and bought $120,000 worth of Macy's shares at $195 a share on 10% margin. The price promptly plunged to $165. Jack Strauss offered to pay Walter's enormous $98,000 margin loss.

For some reason he couldn't explain to himself at the time, he turned down the generous offer. The stock started to rebound. When the shares reached $225, he sold and made a profit. Years later when he had become a born again Christian, he told me that God had given him a sign. "Had I taken the generous offer, I would never have gone to Montgomery Ward. This was The Almighty's way of telling me to move on and up."

I nearly laughed, but I suppose it’s one way of explaining his amazing success.

And what a move up it was! At Montgomery Ward in Chicago he was vice president for sales and a member of the board. His salary was a staggering $50,000, something like half a million today. So, the series of fancy houses in the ultra-exclusive community of Lake Forest where we lived and the servants, limousines, chauffeurs, horses and stables, golf and tennis clubs, private schools and a Nanny were easily affordable. My mother had expected to become a wealthy heiress from her father's New York City real estate holdings, but the Crash had brought the real estate market - and her father - down. Nonetheless, she continued to live the rest of her life as if she had inherited a fortune even if all she had was alimony.

I must have been born with a vivid visual memory, for even today I can walk through our stately house in Lake Forest in my mind. I recall an ornate gate on a sharply curved street, abundant trees and a teardrop drive up to a large stucco house, which had a large porte-cochere over the entrance. A swimming pool was near the annex where the servants lived. In the back yard there was a steep ravine some forty feet away from the back porch of the house. When I was four one fall day my sister and I slipped to the bottom of the forbidden ravine and were coughing on some burning leaves. My father's German shepherd, Pansy, spotted us and barked non-stop at my father until he saved us.

At the entrance to our driveway was a life-sized bronze stag. Every day my sister and I would run to mount the deer. Once my father awed me by producing mystery writing from the bronze base of the statue. He placed a piece of paper over the base, rubbed a pencil over it and some magical letters appeared.

Several years ago I was able to see how accurate my visual memory was. I went to Lake Forest and found our house. The deer had been moved to a nearby park. Stamped on the base was the founder's name, Sussex, the "magical" letters my father had rubbed.

Handsome Walter Hoving was a hard-driving, highly imaginative business executive, a devotee of parties and a skilful social climber. For my sister, "Petie," and me he was also a superb actor. I remember him as a fun, loving man who had a series of delightful disguises. A gifted mimic, he “became” the dog Pansy and even transformed himself into my pet bunny rabbit. He could also ape a fast train. His favorite role for me was when he became a nutty dinosaur he dubbed a "Diplodocus." He made huge paper teeth and fashioned a tail out of netting and chased us around the large house, growling and grunting. I laughed non-stop in joy and screeched in faux-fear. At the end of the chase, which lasted almost an hour and took us to every room in the spacious mansion, he would take us to the kitchen and make hubble-bubble -- six egg yokes mixed with a quarter pound of sugar. That may explain my bad teeth.

Although father was great fun (I don't remember my mother being around much), the most important person in my life was my Scotch Nanny, Mary Stewart, a plump, loving middle-aged woman with ethics of steel. Nanny taught me every moral commandment, including never lying or stealing or screaming or pounding on my sister. My ironclad honesty and straightforwardness probably comes from her. She was the first person I recall saying that lying is hard because you have to remember every lie.

My idyllic life in Lake Forest came to an end when I was five. Suddenly we moved out of the splendid house and into the Deer Path Inn. My parents seemed to vanish. Nanny said only that there would be changes in our lives. I became something of a hysteric, repeatedly questioning her about where my parents were.

What was up was a bitter divorce. My mother always told me that the reason for the split was that my handsome father played around. But what really happened was that my mother had dumped her dashing husband to marry an even more dashing Lake Forest socialite, Prince Cantecuzene, a member of the Romanov family. But when my mother arrived in Reno to get the quickie divorce she received a telegram from the Prince, calling it all off. She never recovered from the blow. 

During the divorce my father became the president of Lord & Taylor, the upscale Manhattan women's store on Fifth and 38th street. And in 1937 he married the incredibly rich Pauline Van der Voort Steese Dresser Rogers. He was forty, she fifty-five. Meanwhile my mother, sister, Nanny and I had come back to New York.

My first meeting with my stepmother is seared into my memory. Nanny had given my sister and me the full spruce-up - fresh haircuts, fingernails cleaned, shoes polished, everything pressed. As we drove from our apartment on Park Avenue to fancy Riverhouse on east 52nd street, I was excited for I hadn't seen my father in more than a year. The building had a large iron gate and a circular drive. The entrance was a revolving door and Nanny let me push it around a few times as the doorman looked on sourly.

My instant impression of the interior was yards and yards of black and white polished marble floors through long, wide corridors. The entrance opened up onto a spacious, elegant hall with a series of glass doors looking out over a small garden. In all the years I visited Riverhouse I was never allowed to enter that garden, which became for me the symbol of needless exclusivity. I wonder if this prohibition led to my egalitarian tendencies. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t play there. And to this day I have been contemptuous of the trappings of wealth like gated communities that exclude anybody but the privileged.

Pauline and Walter lived on the ninth floor. The apartment door was open and two uniformed maids were standing there. One maid took our wraps and another guided us through a nearby door, which led into an oval library where my father and stepmother Pauline were standing. I saw a short, erect woman with auburn hair piled up high on top of her head with eyes that seemed to be popping out at me. (I was later to learn that the bug-eyes were a symptom of her thyroid condition). She had reading glasses on a golden chain and wore a necklace with a string of black pearls, which impressed me. She was dressed in what I thought at the time was a military uniform and later learned it was a favorite Balenciaga suit.

My father didn't sweep me into his arms with an explosive greeting or kiss me, which he'd always done before. He was no longer the cuddly "Diplodocus," but a stiff, threatening presence. I didn't like what I saw and from then on our relationship transformed. I blamed Pauline for the change in my father.

When he said he wanted to show us the apartment, I remember asking nervously if we were going to move in. Pauline quickly said, no, but we'd be paying frequent “little visits.”

The library, an intimate oval room, had a large fireplace on one side. Straight ahead was a bay window looking out over the East River and I stood for several minutes, entranced, as tug boats cruised by and that would become my favorite place in the apartment. The East side highway was under construction and I spent hours watching the work. I remember a huge illuminated sign across the river, "Uneeda Biscuit."

The library gave way onto a long, rectangular salon filled with overstuffed sofas and chairs upholstered in gold and silver satin. Pauline smiled stiffly and said, "Little boys and girls must never put their fingers on this upholstery."

The room contained a concert piano (I never heard it played) with another fireplace (which I never saw used). I don’t recall ever being invited into that grand salon. Chic late Impressionist paintings adorned the main wall -- they were by a fashionable painter of the early Twentieth century, Suzanne Eisendieck. One was a lovely, sweet woman dressed in a frilly white costume holding some white flowers on a whitish ground - she looked like the upholstery. Over the years I'd sit on the floor beneath the painting and look at it for hours. She was nicer than Pauline.

The salon entered into a spacious dining room. We were then taken through the bedrooms. Pauline's was a suite of three rooms, including a walk-in closet with a large safe with trays for her jewelry, which fascinated me. My father's suite had two rooms.

In the back were more family rooms and the servants' quarters. One room had a massage table and a stationary bike. I wanted to give the bike a try, but Pauline said it wasn't for "little boys." I never did use it. At the end of the corridor was a spacious, impeccably decorated room with twin beds, a dressing room and bath. This would be where I was sequestered the rare times I ever stayed overnight.

Pauline Van der Voort Steese Dresser Rogers Hoving was born in 1882 to a middle-class retailing family in Rochester, New York. She died at 94 in 1976 just minutes before I got to see her.

Her first husband, John Steese, whom she married when she was seventeen, was a Rochester banker. Steese died from unknown causes and left her a comfortable estate. This happened with her second and third husbands too. My sister and I speculated that Pauline had cooked up some exotic poison that she'd fed to her wealthy spouses. We worried that when we were bad, which to Pauline was almost always, we might be poisoned.

After Steese she married Charles Dresser, the scion of a Tulsa family who became wealthy in the 1920's oil boom. Pauline became a stunning hostess, a fashion plate and an expert in interior decor. Years later one of my Metropolitan Museum trustees, oilman Charlie Wrightsman, recalled Pauline as the premier hostess of Tulsa who single-handedly brought style to the rough-hewn oil city. He laughingly recalled how, at one dinner party, she excused herself and re-appeared disguised in black face playing the part of an inept maid who dripped gravy on the laps of guests. Everyone loved the act.

The Dressers had adopted two boys, Charles "Chuck" and Bradley "Brad," who never had serious jobs in their lives. Chuck was an ad salesman for some years with NBC TV and in his fifties was laid off and never got another job. Brad was a playboy and a sometime nightclub owner of a joint called "Brad's Place" in Nassau. Most of the time the boys lived on Pauline's largesse. Chuck rigged up a way for Pauline to give him clandestinely several hundred thousand a year that my father never knew about. Over the years the brothers accumulated a million and a half dollars each.

After Dresser died in 1925, Pauline married Colonel Henry Huddleston Rogers, the son of the Henry Rogers who was John Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil. The Colonel built a lavish estate in Southampton, Long Island, called the Port of Missing Men. The name came from a shipwreck in the nineteenth century on the beach property of the estate in which all hands were lost. The Port had 1400 acres of prime land including an 800-acre shooting preserve called The Cow Neck and a 400-acre lake, called Scallop pond.

When Rogers died in 1935 at fifty-five years of age - of a mysterious illness -- Pauline acquired the Port plus a trust fund that netted her annually two million dollars (worth perhaps a hundred million a year these days). She was to receive it until she died, even if she re-married.

The Port became a sort of finishing school for my sister and me for part of every summer. During the winter and fall we would be sent to Riverhouse to be taught manners by Pauline from how to enter a room to how not to read the Sunday funny papers. My sister was admonished severely for spreading them out on the floor of the library. We were drilled on how to listen properly, for Pauline thought listening was the pinnacle of the social arts. She emphasized that good social behavior was like acting. I saw it as being phony.

She taught us how to make small talk and avoid serious subjects such as politics and business. Culture was the only safe subject. It was okay to be witty but one had to be 'happy' witty. Sports talk was acceptable, but only briefly-- and usually restricted to tennis, golf or polo. We were told never to discuss religion, unless a famous prelate or Swami was a dinner guest.

The Hovings threw legendary dinner parties for the fashionable, the rich, the famous and the hotshot actor and actress of the day. Pauline's favorite couple was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In her later years Pauline told me of inviting their “lordships” to the Port for a long weekend. A week after the gala, she received a bill from the Windsor's' major-domo for ten thousand dollars for their illustrious presence, which she paid without hesitation.

The only thing I liked about my grim stepmother was her jewelry and one very appealing piece. I sneaked into her closet with its large safe and my eye was captured by a diminutive watch-ring made of white and yellow gold, enameled in blue and scarlet with a lid that opened smartly when I punched a tiny, half-hidden button. There were three perfect letters in the enamel, PVR, Pauline Van der Voort Rogers. Utterly captivating. In my long life of appreciating and collecting fine art I have come across few objects that sparkled like that watch. It was no mere boring diamond or garnet but was a thrilling three-dimensional mechanism. I can visualize it clearly right now. When I lifted the object into my hand I started trembling in excitement and pleasure. I had to have it. This mystical feeling was identical many I would have years later when I became a professional art collector for the Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisters.

Of course I had second thoughts about pilfering the watch. I knew I'd get caught. I stood frozen, thinking about the pain that was certain to come. I talked myself into thinking that I wasn’t stealing only “borrowing” it and would return it in a little while. Even Nanny would go along with that, I said to myself. I was profoundly conflicted, yet the beauty of the thing washed my anxieties away. So, recklessly dismissing reason, I slipped the ring-watch into my pocket and when I got home hid it in my most secret cubbyhole.

This is chapter 2 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.

THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email