The much-celebrated Picasso biographer and art-world personage Sir John Richardson, K.B.E., F.B.A., who passed away last year at age 95, was noted for his pointed wit (he nicknamed the pretentious Park Avenue socialite Lee Copley Thaw “Lee Thal”); his heightened sense of style (hunter green and burgundy velvet dinner jackets, shed after midnight for his Meatpacking District leather gear); and his smooth English good looks, which he never really lost.
“He was the world’s most amusing naughty person,” says his close friend Annette de la Renta, a longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and widow of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. “I loved him dearly. But he was bad.”
“John was a genius,” says another one of his closest friends, Mercedes Bass, vice-chairman of both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. “He was immensely knowledgeable about music, plays, books, as well as art. He was unbelievably wicked and funny, but also very sweet and caring.”
“He was a snob yet not a snob,” adds the British fashion icon, video producer, songwriter, and brewery heiress Daphne Guinness, who was taken under Richardson’s wing in her early teens, when he came to stay with her older sister Catherine and Catherine’s then husband, Jamie Neidpath, at Gosford House in Scotland. “John loved the stage of life,” says Daphne. “He always knew the latest gossip, and would deliver the most scandalous news in this very deadpan way. He was very, very correct. Old-school and, of course, completely avant-garde. You could see him at the opera Friday, and a bondage club Saturday.”
I met John Richardson in the early 1970s, not long after I went to work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Having spent a decade successfully establishing a branch of the London auction house Christie’s in New York, he had signed on as vice president in charge of 19th- and 20th-century painting at the venerable M. Knoedler & Co. In his late 40s at the time, Richardson had been immersed in the highest levels of the international art world since his 20s, when he became the protégé and lover of the British art historian and critic Douglas Cooper. In his memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper, Richardson recounted meeting Cooper, “a stout pink man in a loud checked suit,” in London, in 1949, at the launch party for Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky. Then 38, Cooper had already amassed the largest and finest collection of Cubist art in private hands, which was estimated to be worth $10 million, an enormous sum at the time.
“You could see him at the opera Friday, and a bondage club Saturday.”
Richardson and Cooper would live together for the next 10 years, mostly at the 13th-century Château de Castille, near Avignon, where the walls were lined with masterpieces by Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Juan Gris, all friends of Cooper’s whom John would come to know well. The most important connection he made was with Picasso, then in his 70s, and the artist’s new and last wife, Jacqueline Roque, who was close to John in age and with whom, he later wrote, “I had an immediate rapport.” Picasso and Jacqueline moved from Vallauris to Cannes, Vauvenargues, and finally Mougins in those years, so there were regular visits between the couples, as well as meetings in Nîmes and Arles for the Provençal bullfights that Picasso adored, privileged experiences for John that would eventually enrich his epic biography.
By 1960, however, his relationship with the egocentric, mercurial, and jealous Cooper had fallen apart. “A devil with an angelic streak, and the devil always won” is how he would later describe his former patron and partner, noting for good measure that in bed Cooper was “as rubbery as a Dalí biomorph.”
John took off for New York, where he organized a nine-gallery Picasso exhibition in 1962 and a Braque show two years later, while advising MoMA director Alfred Barr on the museum’s acquisitions of French art. He kept the flat that he had leased in the fabled Albany on Piccadilly, subletting it one summer to Greta Garbo and finding it amusing that the staff never recognized the Hollywood legend.
A Raffiné Marlon Brando
Bright, charming, and the greatest of raconteurs—right up there with Capote, Zipkin, and Franco Rossellini, to name three I knew well—John effortlessly attracted a dazzling array of illustrious friends. To the artists he inherited from Cooper—the Cubists, Cocteau, Nicolas de Staël—he soon enough added Lucian Freud, Hockney, and Warhol, all of whom painted him. For his 1973 portrait by Andy, John turned up at the Factory in a black leather motorcycle jacket and matching cap; Andy glamorized him into a kind of raffiné Marlon Brando. (It’s worth noting that Richardson was one of the first art historians to perceive the connection between Warhol’s Catholicism and the iconic and repetitive aspects of his work.)
Three years earlier, John had discovered the great love of his life, a sultry, young Israeli-born beauty named Boaz Mazor. “We had 50 years together, 20 as partners, friends for another 30,” Boaz told me. They met a few days before Christmas in 1969, when a mutual friend brought Boaz, who was working for Oscar de la Renta, to a cocktail party at John’s extravagantly original apartment, an art–and-antiques-packed lair occupying the parlor and garden floors of a town house on East 75th Street. “It was magic, from the moment I walked in,” Boaz recalled, describing Richardson’s living room, with its treasure trove of Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Gris drawings and prints, mostly gifts from the artists, hung salon-style on mahogany-colored flock-papered walls. “And the people, everyone from New York Review of Books editor Bob Silvers to George Plimpton, Maxime de la Falaise, and Bobby Short. Even Elaine Kaufman was there. I didn’t know any of these people, but I was impressed. I had never seen a room like that before. I’d never seen a man like that before. The moment I saw John, I said to myself, ‘This is going to be my boyfriend.’”
Apparently, it was mutual love at first sight. Not long into the new year, Boaz recalls, “I was proposed to. John did it the old-fashioned way. He asked me, ‘Would you be my boyfriend?’”
In 1975, John bought a country house in northwest Connecticut, “a version of a boathouse built in 1803 by Robert MyIne in the park of Syon House, the Duke of Northumberland’s seat just outside London,” as he described it in John Richardson: At Home, a lavish Rizzoli volume published shortly before his death and dedicated “to my friend Boaz Mazor.’”
For the next 15 years, the couple spent most weekends there, socializing with such neighbors as Nancy and Henry Kissinger, Tatiana and Alex Liberman, Annette and Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass. I’ll never forget the Friday afternoon when they gave me a ride to Diane von Furstenberg’s Cloudwalk Farm, in New Milford, stopping whenever they spotted a flowering dogwood branch hanging over a hedge or fence and jumping out of the car to clip it. When Diane and I went to dinner at their place that evening, there were the purloined branches, standing majestically in a large blue-and-white Chinese vase in the center of the circular living room.
“John did it the old-fashioned way. He asked me, ‘Would you be my boyfriend?’”
By the early 1990s, there was someone new in John’s life: Kosei Hara, a young Japanese engineer employed by IBM. In contrast to the effusive and dandyish Boaz, the more subdued, erudite Kosei never quite fit in with John’s fancier friends. John and Kosei were secretly married in 2013, and divorced four years later. By then, John had become romantically involved with the late Brooke Astor’s butler, Chris Ely, meaning that some of Fifth Avenue’s grandest hostesses had to seat at their tables the butler who had once served them at Mrs. Astor’s. John was not unaware of the exquisite irony of the situation (nor were his hosts).
John liked to say that he was the son of a general and a maid, as if to explain his simultaneous attraction to high life and low life, duchesses and drag queens, scholars and scoundrels. His father, Sir Wodehouse Richardson, served as quartermaster general in the British Army in the Boer Wars in South Africa in the 1890s, and was knighted by King Edward VII. His mother, Patty Crocker, came from a long line of Rothschild servants, but worked as a photo retoucher for the Army & Navy Stores, the London-based high-end department-store chain, which his father had helped found in 1871, originally to supply the military. Sir Wodehouse was nearly 70 and vice-chairman of the stores when he met and married his 35-year-old employee in 1923. John was born on February 6, 1924, to be followed by a sister and a brother. John was five when his father died of a stroke in 1929. “His death hit me very hard,” he later wrote.
At 13, John was sent to board at Stowe School, in Buckinghamshire, where he experienced an aesthetic and erotic awakening. As he recalled in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, “The magnificence of the buildings—Stowe is one of the largest and stateliest of English houses—made up for the degradation endemic to all boys’ schools of the period. Everyday exposure to Vanbrugh’s and Adam’s façades and Capability Brown’s landscaping engendered a taste for eighteenth-century architecture, which developed into a passion.... A special veneration for the grottoes and temples that dotted the park resulted from their being the scenes of my first sexual experiences. One of these escapades ended ignominiously. A friend and I were caught on a rug in a distant folly by the Hunt Club: the club’s pack of hounds had mistakenly followed our scent.”
It was at Stowe’s progressive art school that he was introduced to the avant-garde art magazines, “which enabled me … to understand and keep up with what the masters of the School of Paris were doing. Besides triggering an obsession with Picasso, these magazines encouraged me to dabble in modern art. The results were atrocious: dumb daubs embellished with seed packets, snapshots, and railway tickets. ‘Schwitters,’ I would murmur fatuously.”
With the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, John was accepted for a commission in the Irish Guards, but was stricken by rheumatic fever and was almost immediately discharged. He enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art, which had been evacuated from London to Oxford. “I was a month short of seventeen and thrilled to be an art student. It did not take long to realize that I would never be much good—better write about painting than actually do it.”
Those Who Can’t Do …
He started writing art criticism for The New Statesman after the war and would continue all through his years with Douglas Cooper. In 1980 he gave up the last of his art-dealer jobs, as managing director of the Artemis art-investment fund, to write full-time, mostly for The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. And he embarked on the magnum opus that would consume the rest of his life, modestly titled A Life of Picasso. He did so with the encouragement and support of the widowed Jacqueline—Picasso had died in 1973, age 91—as well as the woman whom she had replaced in the artist’s life, Françoise Gilot, and Gilot’s children by Picasso, Claude and Paloma. Only someone as respected, clever, and empathetic as John could have managed that feat.
His first volume, The Prodigy, 1881–1906, appeared in 1991 and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Volume Two, The Cubist Revel, 1907–1916, was published five years later. “This is simply the best biography ever written of an artist,” Robert Hughes declared in The New York Times, “in the same class as Richard Ellmann on Joyce or Leon Edel on James.”
By then, mounting fees for researchers and reproduction rights to Picasso’s artworks had exceeded Richardson’s Random House advance. Mercedes Bass, along with the distinguished art dealer Eugene V. Thaw, organized the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research; her then husband, Sid Bass, led off the campaign with a $400,000 gift. Other donors included the Acquavellas, Blacks, Cisneroses, David-Weills, Erteguns, Kissingers, Lauders, Livanoses, Marrons, Rohatyns, Santo Domingos, Wynns, Zilkhas, Agnes Gund, David Rockefeller, Lily Safra, and Jayne Wrightsman. The philanthropist and Central Park plein air painter Janet Ruttenberg is said to have been the most generous.
“I was bowled over when John dedicated the third volume to me,” Mercedes says. “But I always said to John, if you don’t deliver the fourth volume, you have to give the money back.” Volume Three, The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932, arrived to great acclaim in 2007. John’s finances were given an additional boost when he signed on as a consulting curator with the Gagosian gallery. The first of his six spectacular Picasso exhibitions, “Mosqueteros,” drew hordes to Gagosian’s West 21st Street space in 2009; the last, “Minotaurs and Matadors,” had equal success in London in 2017.
In 2011, John was awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The following year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle; apparently Her Majesty was amused to hear that John’s father, Sir Wodehouse Richardson, had been knighted by her great-grandfather King Edward VII.
Holding Court on Fifth Avenue
In his later years, John held court at the enormous loft on Fifth Avenue at 15th Street he’d bought in 1995, surrounded by the young and creative, who ate up his stories of a life intensely lived and found inspiration in them. Among his guests were the artists Ugo Rondinone, Elliott Puckette, and Hugo Guinness.
What seemed like an endless enfilade of rooms—library, entrance hall, living room, bedroom—overflowed with a mad emperor’s horde of artworks, books, busts, pillows, rugs, pedestals, obelisks, candlesticks, mirrors, tasseled sofas, and gilded chests from every imaginable period and place. John’s Warhol portrait kept company with ones done by Lucian Freud in 2001, McDermott & McGough in 2013, and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis (who took up painting a few years ago and mostly portrays cardinals and monsignors). Pride of place was given to Careful of What You Wish For, Kathy Ruttenberg’s ceramic sculpture of a unicorn-headed girl dancing on the back of a horse; John stood it on a table with tree-trunk legs, under which he sat a large stuffed tortoise.
John’s thirst for new art and new experiences never waned, even as he entered his 90s. As Daphne Guinness says, “His curiosity was endless.” David Rocksavage, the Seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, recalls John coming to visit Houghton Hall, his 18th-century country house in Norfolk, in 2015, and raving over the light show the American artist James Turrell had projected onto the house’s Palladian façade. “He didn’t know Turrell’s work,” Rocksavage says. “But he was very enthused about it when he saw it. He always was very enthusiastic.”
A year later, he spent hours posing nude for the British painter Jenny Saville in his suite at the London Ritz. “When I suggested that we do some naked modeling for a portrait, he was frankly thrilled,” she later wrote in Art Forum. “I’d take his socks off because he couldn’t reach them, and I smiled because he wore trendy neon underwear at 90.” To Saville’s mind, “even after all of Sir John’s achievements, he always saw himself as an outsider, a trespasser at the center of the art world—not a scholar or museum person. And that was the point: that’s how he could see it all. I loved him. He was full of all that life can offer: sex, death, and magic.”
In 2018, age 94, John flew to Los Angeles to sit for his portrait by his old friend David Hockney. All the while he continued to plug away on the fourth volume, despite his failing eyesight. “He could still write longhand. He was not totally blind,” explains Shelley Wanger, his editor at Knopf, which took over the Picasso contract from Random House with the third volume. “He wrote longhand, and then an assistant would type it into the computer, and then he’d read the printout. It got increasingly difficult. I would meet with him once a week and go over what he did while I wasn’t there, and we’d polish it. He was a self-editor. He was able to look at a sentence and try it out six different ways. Each was perfect, and he’d usually go back to the first one. He had a very good sense of rhythm and what was going to carry the reader on. He’d ask, ‘Does this need to be livelier?’ And he had great instincts about the big thing and very often was right.”
Wanger credits Richardson’s collaborators, Ross Finocchio, an art-history professor at N.Y.U., and Delphine Huisinga, a Paris-based researcher, with helping him carry his last volume to near completion. “John wrote the end,” she says. “It goes till 1943. He decided he didn’t want to go through the war. He said someone else could do that.” Knopf plans to publish Volume Four in 2021.
John celebrated his last birthday in early February at his apartment with a handful of friends—Annette de la Renta, Shelley Wanger, the decorator and architect Daniel Romualdez, and the private banker Michael Meagher. The two men had grown close to John after they bought the late Bill Blass’s house in Kent, Connecticut. “He became like a coach or mentor to me,” says Romualdez. “He was always saying things like ‘That’s in frightfully good taste. Do something more adventurous.”’
John had double pneumonia twice in 2018, and “was starting to go downhill,” recalls Romualdez. But friends believe the actual cause of death may have been babesiosis, a malaria-like disease carried by ticks. Though John had sold his country house to young Stavros Niarchos, he had visited friends on the North Fork of Long Island during the summer of 2018, and could have been bitten there. In any case, he was not diagnosed with the often fatal illness until it was too late.
Gagosian gallery quickly mounted a dazzling exhibition in his honor, “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline.” The show’s organizer, Michael Carey, who had worked with Richardson on all six of his Gagosian shows, told me, “It was never easier to get collectors to loan their works, because they appreciated John.” Lenders included Steve Martin, Tom and Janine Hill, Laurence Graff, all three Picasso children—Claude, Paloma, and Maya—and two museums: the Nasher, in Dallas, and the Fitzwilliam, in Cambridge, England.
John’s great-niece Dominique Lassalle had lived with and taken care of John in his final months. According to Boaz Mazor, she had made arrangements for him to be cremated at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue, and she intended to carry the wooden box holding his ashes back downtown in a shopping bag on the subway. “I offered to call an Uber,” Boaz said. “But she insisted. So I said, ‘Well, at least let me give you an Oscar de la Renta tote.’ So here was this man who spent his life traveling on private planes and in chauffeured cars making his last trip on the New York subway. If John knew, he would have loved it. He would have roared with laughter.”
Last year, The New York Times reported that John’s Fifth Avenue loft had been put on the market for $7.2 million; Sotheby’s will auction his treasure trove of artworks, antiques, and decorative eccentricities beginning on September 11 in New York and London.
On October 24, 2019, nearly 300 of his friends and colleagues gathered at the Metropolitan Museum to memorialize and celebrate his extraordinary achievements and a life lived to the fullest. Among the throng: John’s three muses, Mercedes Bass, Annette de la Renta, and Shelley Wanger; the artists Julian Schnabel, Peter McGough, Jack Pierson, Helen Marden, and Adam McEwen; Larry Gagosian; Princess Firyal of Jordan; Princess Alexandra of Greece; Fiat heiress Delfina Rattazzi; literary agent Lynn Nesbit; Diane von Furstenberg; and enough Guinnesses to fill the Book of Records, including former Warhol sidekick Catherine Guinness, printmaker and writer Hugo Guinness, jewelry designer Peggy Stephaich Guinness, and Daphne Guinness with her son, Nicolas Niarchos, who writes for The New Yorker.
A pair of giant marble urns filled with towering branches of magenta and gold autumn leaves framed the stage dramatically, while between them a loop of larger-than-life images of John—as a boy in England, with Picasso and Cocteau at a bullfight in Provence, in portraits by Warhol and Freud—ran continuously. The Vuillaume Trio played Ravel and Schubert before, between, and after eulogies by former Christie’s International chairman Charlie Hindlip, Picasso scholar Michael FitzGerald, and Martin Filler, the New York Review of Books architecture critic. Claude Picasso kept his remarks short and sweet: “I met John when I was four, and he was 24 … He was amusing and profound.”
“Being with John was occasionally nerve-racking but always thrilling,” concluded the writer and documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild in her eulogy. “At 95 he was undimmed, mischievous, gossipy, garrulous, energetic, and sharp, treating his assorted guests the same whether they were captains of industry, artists, dealers, academics, curators, drag queens, waifs and strays, children of friends, friends of friends, sheikhs, dukes, or princesses.
“With him goes a front-row seat on some of the 20th century’s great cultural moments and characters. New York is now bereft of an institution, a Mecca of memory, and a cathedral of style. There really isn’t and won’t be anyone like him—he was our monster. Our sacred monster. I know I am not alone in missing him keenly.”
Bob Colacello is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL