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Olga Hirshhorn and The Art of Living

Olga Hirshhorn and The Art of Living

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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.

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