Friday, January 8, 2016

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, Her Life in Greenwich… and in the Arts

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn
If you were to pick up the Greenwich Oral History Project interview conducted July 17, 1975, entitled, “My Life in Greenwich,” you would be fascinated. Here is the story of a woman, born in Greenwich in 1920, the daughter of immigrant parents who lived a good part of her early life on LeGrande Avenue, who went to public schools, who married young, had three children, and who, in order “to make ends meet,” started her own small business in town that would blossom into a successful employment agency called Services Unlimited. An American success story, you would say. The story of an independent woman, who made it on her own, and these assessments would, of course, be true.

But keep reading, because that is just the beginning…

This is the story of Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, famous art patron, philanthropist, and art
Olga Hirshhorn posing next to Abel Chretien's sculpture fo her.

collector, who died October 3, 2015. She was the widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Their marriage lasted from 1964 until his death in 1981. He would introduce her to a life she never would have envisioned for herself, and yet all the while, she maintained her down-to-earth attitude, never forgetting her humble roots. Those same qualities that must have attracted him to her from the beginning sustained them, and their story reads like a movie script.

As Mrs. Hirshhorn told the interviewer in 1975, their first interaction, a telephone call to her agency did not hold much promise. She happened to pick up the office phone herself on this particular day when a voice on the other end snapped, “This is Mr. Hirshhorn. I’ve just bought the Sinclair-Robinson house on John Street, and I’m looking for a chauffeur.” One or two sentences more, and he hung up. She then said aloud, within earshot of her office staff, “Imagine, the nerve of this man.”

And yet he kept calling, admitting much later in their relationship, which was to grow over the next few years, that her voice had intrigued him. She too was intrigued, as she tried to find him a driver, as requested.

Eventually, she found herself on his doorstep delivering a message from a would-be chauffeur who had been held up. She was led to the garden where the artist and sculptor Laura Ziegler was creating a bust of her famous client. Until then, Olga had no idea who Joseph Hirshhorn was. As she was about to leave, saying she was on her way to Tod’s Point for a swim, her host invited her instead to take a swim in his pool. And so she did, and that was the beginning of what ostensibly was a professional relationship—she would help with his transition to his Greenwich home—but which instead turned into something much more meaningful.

Olga was divorced from her first husband, John Cunningham, in 1962, and married Joseph Hirshhorn in 1964. It was a small wedding, in the garden of their Greenwich home, under a Henry Moore sculpture, the Glenkiln Cross.

From the beginning, she immersed herself in art, particularly in the art of collecting, and before long, she began to acquire a collection of her own. One of the first art pieces she acquired was a Joseph Albers, and then another, proving from the beginning her own fine

Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1968. Sketch the artist gave to Olga Hirshhorn

At the time of her death, Olga Hirshhorn had acquired a collection valued at approximately ten million dollars.

When asked by the Greenwich Oral History interviewer to tell about the “most important and influential circumstances” of her life, she replied, “having the great opportunity of having been born in Greenwich, having had three sons born in Greenwich, and raised in Greenwich….I think living in Greenwich with the opportunities that were here for development of a person would be the first.”

(Photos, Smithsonian Libraries Blog, "Remembering Olga Hirshhorn.)

Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn’s interview, “ My Life in Greenwich,” conducted by volunteer, Penny Bott, July 17 and 25, 1975, is available in book form, A First Generation in Greenwich, 1976, through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library. The interview transcript is located in the Greenwich Oral History files of the reference area on the first floor of the library. To see Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn commemorated, drop by the office to see her photo and other information pertaining to her interview on the Greenwich Oral History office “Greenwich Wall of Fame.”