Olga Hirshhorn and The Art of Living

A look into the life of the museum's leading lady

Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn attend the opening of the Hirshhorn on October 4, 1974. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
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"Oh, there's that Barye bronze of Theseus and the centaur—it was in our garden..."

And one day in 1961 the phone rang in her office. She answered it herself. It was Joseph Hirshhorn. "I've just bought the Sinclair-Robinson house here in Greenwich," he said, "and I'm looking for a chauffeur."

"The thing I notice is how nice the patina is here on the sculptures. We used to hire college kids to polish them, and they did their best. But it's so much nicer here," she said.

It has been a long trip from Olga Zatorsky's modest home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she was the youngest of three children in a Ukrainian blue-collar family, to this spectacular museum. It's even a far cry from her second life as Mrs. Cunningham, the teenage wife of her high school English teacher, the mother of three sons at 25.

She helped support the family with a series of little businesses run from the house: a children's swimming class, then a day camp, nursery school and baby-sitting service. By the time she and her first husband separated, all this had evolved into Services Unlimited, an employment agency.

By then, Hirshhorn, a Brooklyn poor boy and high school dropout, was a multimillionaire who owned literally enough art to fill a museum.

Hirshhorn soon called again, for a cook, then a maid, then another maid. He liked Olga's efficiency, her independence and her voice. He called her a lot, like ten times a day. One day he asked, "Say, Mrs. Cunningham, how old are you?" She said she was 41. And came right back at him: How old was he? Sixty-two, he replied.

Later he asked, "Say, how tall are you?" Five feet even, she replied. This was fine with him: he was 5 feet 4. After they had dated awhile, he said, "If you lose ten pounds, I'll marry you." "I took a month to take it off," Olga confides. They were married in 1964. From then until his death by heart attack in 1981 they were a devoted couple. "My life revolved around him," she said once.

Already she had the collecting bug, mostly Victorian furniture and jewelry, hats, haircombs and such.

"But Joe brought me into a very exciting world," she told me. And this museum was part of it. Yet she made it her own, and her unassuming ways have endeared her to the guards, who greet her as an old friend.

Now we strolled among some of the famous works that were once household fixtures to her.

"Oh look," she exclaimed, "this portrait bust of Madame Renoir; that was in our dining room, I remember exactly where . . . And there's the Rodin, the Man With the Broken Nose; it was upstairs in our Greenwich house. Oh, and there's that Picasso head of a jester; Joe had two of these, one on our mantel and one in the museum.

"We had a big Rodin in the garden at Greenwich. It was a long house, with a long, narrow entrance gallery. And a huge Maillol nude at the front door with her hands outstretched; in the winter she seemed to hold two snowballs. It's really kind of fun to see all these things here."

Carefully checking a large Rodin work, she wonders if those splotches could be bronze disease. "I've learned to look for that," she says. "I was so much aware of it when these pieces were in our garden."

The garden. That would be at the Greenwich house. There was also the place in Cap d'Antibes on the French Riviera, where they hung out with painter Marc Chagall, Matisse's son, Pierre, Giacometti, Miró and the Picassos . . . the real-life Picassos, not the paintings. "Picasso gave me a fine ceramic tile he had done with a picture of Jacqueline on it. We knew them the last ten years of his life, and I resent what the new books say about him being an awful person. Jacqueline couldn't live without him."

Joseph Hirshhorn didn't speak French, but he got along just fine with the great artist. There is a picture of Picasso clowning around in Hirshhorn's jacket and tie, and once the painter put his magic signature on a dress that Jacqueline had made for Olga.

Today, Olga resides in Naples, Florida. She spends a month each spring and fall in her tiny "Mouse House," as she calls it, in Washington, absolutely crammed with paintings and sculpture—to be precise, 176 pieces ranging from Picassos, de Koonings, O'Keeffes, Giacomettis and Nevelsons to an oil by the senior Robert De Niro.

In January she visits Cuba, in affiliation with the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. She summers at Martha's Vineyard in a place she bought after Joe's death.

In October she travels. Last year it was a Smithsonian tour of Eastern Europe, and before that a rented house in Italy ("these wonderful people took care of me because I was alone"), and before that Russia ("I broke my wrist dancing in Leningrad") and Portugal. She is looking at Sicily now.

Travel was a major part of life with Joe Hirshhorn. A restless soul, he fought all his life for recognition, and he knew it was the art that would bring it. She was with him when he was courted for his collection by the Arts Council of England, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor-general of Canada and the mayor of Jerusalem.

The couple hobnobbed with O'Keeffe, Larry Rivers, Man Ray, Calder and so many others that she hesitates to name them lest she leave someone out. But the working girl had to assert herself: she did a couple of sculptures, took drawing classes, painted watercolors. Finally, she said she wanted to buy some art on her own.

"Joe said, 'Don't I give you enough?' and I said, 'Well, I never had the pleasure of making my own choice.' So I bought a Josef Albers. I paid $2,000. I remember thinking that two years earlier if someone had predicted I'd pay $2,000 for an 18-inch painting that was just a square within a square within a square, I would have said, 'Ridiculous, a child could do that.'"

Later he gave her $5,000 to buy clothes. She bought a piece of sculpture instead. Eventually she amassed a respectable collection of smaller works, which she is giving to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "I've given art to almost every museum in Washington," says Hirshhorn, who tries to visit each museum whenever she is in town.

"Joe was a wonderful man to be married to," she reminisces during our tour. "He was lots of fun, loved to dance, loved the movies, had a sense of humor. I met him at the best time in his life, when he really wanted to settle down. We traveled a lot, went on picnics, went fishing."

The uncomplicated Joe Hirshhorn remained close to his fourth wife. She converted to Judaism because she wanted to be buried beside him. He was delighted when she took him to McDonald's for a birthday lunch.

In 1981, coming back from a performance of Annie at the Kennedy Center, he collapsed outside their Washington home and died in her arms.

She told me, "It was hard. I thought my bubble had burst, and it had. But you have to learn to make a life of your own."

In her quiet way, Olga Hirshhorn has done just that. She took up skiing at 64 ("It was great: the lift was free for senior citizens!") and has given it up only this year. She still rides horseback now and then, jogs, swims in her Florida pool and rides her bike five to ten miles daily. A supporter of several women's groups, this month she is serving as a delegate to the International Women's Solidarity Conference being held in Havana, Cuba.

Meanwhile, there are the three sons, one a sculptor and Skidmore professor, another a retired Connecticut water resources expert, the youngest a retired member of the New York Stock Exchange, and the five grandchildren. Plus, Hirshhorn serves on the Corcoran board and supports various other museum projects and art associations.

And any time she feels lonely for those great days, she can always roam through the Hirshhorn Museum and look at all the famous art that used to be in her dining room, and remember the people who made the art, and what they said sitting around under the olive trees one sunny afternoon on the Riviera, and the sound of their laughter.


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