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Olga Hirshhorn and The Art of Living

Olga Hirshhorn and The Art of Living

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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