In "Growing Up Guggenheim," Princeton resident Peter Lawson-Johnston, author of "Growing Up Guggenheim," tells the story of his family and of the New York City art museum established by his grandfather Solomon Guggenheim. Lawson-Johnston, the son of Solomon’s daughter, Barbara, signs books in two Princeton appearances: Monday, October 10, at the Princeton University Store, and Wednesday, November 9, at the Princeton Public Library.
By the beginning of World War I the Guggenheim family controlled 80 percent of the world’s copper, lead, and silver mines. The array of possible acquisitions was shrinking, and by the 1930s family members were turning their energies to philanthropy. Lawson-Johnston marvels at the history of the family, "its second life as an artistic and philanthropic dynamo," he says in a phone interview from his New York City office.
In six chapters, each of which focuses on an individual family member, "Growing Up Guggenheim" traces the family saga beginning with the arrival of his great-great grandfather, Simon, in Philadelphia from Switzerland in 1848. The story starts with Simon’s American beginnings, peddling stove and furniture polish door-to-door. Eventually, Simon went into the business of manufacturing stove polish.
The family’s involvement in mining began in 1881, when Simon’s son, Meyer, Lawson-Johnston’s great-grandfather, invested in a flooded lead mine in Colorado. Meyer’s seven sons, including Lawson-Johnston’s grandfather, Solomon, worked together to further the family’s mining interests.
Lawson-Johnston recalls visiting his grandparents on their 200-acre Long Island estate, which included a nine-hole golf course and a dairy farm. He also recalls visiting their apartments in New York City’s Plaza Hotel, where the number of pieces of grandfather Solomon’s collection of abstract art grew into the hundreds by the 1930s. To manage the burgeoning collection Solomon established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Painting in 1939 and found a place for it in a former midtown car showroom. In 1959 the museum moved to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright Building, with its spiraling interior ramp, on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th streets.
When Solomon, the last surviving sibling, died in 1949 Lawson-Johnston’s cousin, Harry Frank, became the patriarch of the family. Near the end of his life in 1968 Frank surprised Lawson-Johnston by anointing him his successor. Lawson-Johnston recalls the awe and poignancy of that moment.
In our interview Lawson-Johnston displays the same qualities that pervade the book. Born in 1927, he is charming, quick, and informal. The impetus for writing the book, he says, came when he was president of the Guggenheim Museum Board. During a taxi ride he told the head of the museum’s development department a story about his grandfather. She suggested that he write a book.
In a sense, the book brings Lawson-Johnston full circle. Immediately after graduating from the University of Virginia in the early 1950s he worked as a cub reporter for the Baltimore Sun. The job paid $35 a week, not enough to support Lawson-Johnston’s growing family, and he left.
Lawson-Johnston’s boss at the Sun was Russell Baker, then a re-write man bored with his job. Baker entertained himself and tortured Lawson-Johnston by rewriting Lawson-Johnston’s pieces to make their principal characters appear ridiculous. Eventually a columnist for the New York Times, Baker’s 1982 bestseller was called "Growing Up."
When Lawson-Johnston’s publisher suggested the title "Growing Up Guggenheim," Lawson-Johnston phoned Baker to clear the title with him because of the similarity of the names. "He said that of course I could use it, and that a title wasn’t patented," says Lawson-Johnston.
He wrote the book in long hand on legal paper. He says he is only partially computer literate and attributes his lack of computer skills by his being 78 and having had a wonderful secretary for 25 years. "I have a computer," he says, "and I use it to check the stock market. If I write another book I’ll have to learn more. My handwriting has gotten very bad."
The author lives with his wife, the former Dorothy Hammond, on a 10-acre property between Princeton and Lawrenceville that she found in 1960, when Lawson-Johnston’s work for the family’s enterprises assigned him to New York. (The price was $60,000.) "We’re Florida residents, so we’re here five and a half months during the year," Lawson-Johnston says.
The couple has been married since 1950. "The moment she said yes was the high point of my life, before or since," Lawson-Johnston writes. Their long-term commitment is a sharp contrast to the marital histories of Lawson-Johnston’s parents. His mother was married three times; his father, five times. Lawson-Johnston’s parents divorced when he was three, and he didn’t see his father again until he was 20.
The Lawson-Johnstons have four children and 10 grandchildren. Lawson-Johnston makes a point of writing birthday letters to every grandchild on every birthday. What does he say? "You tell them how proud you are of them," he answers. His attentiveness to the brood has its roots in his own childhood history, where consistent adult involvement was scanty.
The Lawrenceville School served as Lawson-Johnston’s surrogate parents. He enrolled in 1939, at age 12, shortly after his mother’s third marriage, and graduated in 1945. "I finally encountered the reliably consistent care and guidance most children enjoy," Lawson-Johnston writes. "The Lawrenceville School saved me. Whatever ambition, stability, and good judgment I carried into adulthood I owe to a few Lawrenceville teachers and older students."
Despite a grade of 36 in chemistry, Lawrenceville allowed him to graduate. Two weeks later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Italy. Upon returning Lawson-Johnston entered the University of Virginia. "I majored in philosophy because I thought I could bull my way through it," he says. "I had flunked chemistry at Lawrenceville and thought I’d better major in something where you can have a difference of opinion."
Lawson-Johnston served as president of Lawrenceville’s board of trustees for seven years beginning in 1990. He calls it "an honor that has meant more to me than any other." Now a trustee emeritus, Lawson-Johnston says, "I’m close to the school, and I go to board meetings." Josiah Bunting III, who was headmaster of the Lawrenceville School when Lawson-Johnston was president of the school’s board, wrote the foreword to "Growing Up Guggenheim."
Since 2003 Bunting has been president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim foundation, which Lawson-Johnston reactivated when he took over Harry’s leadership role in the family following Harry’s death in 1971. The foundation, established in 1929, now concerns itself with the causes and consequences of dominance, aggression, and violence. Grants are made in both the social sciences and the natural sciences. Terrorism is a current concern.
To help direct this focus in 1972 Lawson-Johnston named Mason Gross, who had just retired as president of Rutgers University, as head of the foundation. Bunting carries on in Gross’ tradition.
At present Lawson-Johnston is honorary chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. "I’ve stepped aside as president and then chairman," he says, "and they’re running out of titles." He is confident that the family presence in directing the museum will continue. "My daughter, Wendy, has been on the board for 25 years, and she’s the conscience of the board. She is vice president of the board and chairman of its governance committee. My son, Peter, has been on the board for five years. His partnership has been generous to the museum, and he’s on the finance committee."
Lawson-Johnston has definite ideas about the future of the museum. "We’ve pioneered globalization and have had some success. We’re well established in Venice, in Bilbao, our arrangement in Berlin is going nicely, and we have joint ventures with St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum." In Venice the palazzo of Peggy Guggenheim, first cousin of Lawson-Johnston’s mother, displays her art collection. In Bilbao, Spain, a Frank Gehry building attracts connoisseurs of architecture, as well as those interested in the Guggenheim collection. The Guggenheim presence in Berlin depends on renewable agreements with Deutsche Bank; its permanence is not assured. The Hermitage provides works for the Guggenheim exhibits at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel and exchanges art works with other Guggenheim establishments. The Hermitage has contributed heavily to the show of Russian art in New York until January, which shows the sweep of Russian collections from the icons of the 13th century to the present.
Whether to expand or focus on the New York museum has been a controversial matter for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. "I would like to see a modest expansion at the Guggenheim," says Lawson-Johnston. "I’d like to see something similar to Bilbao in the Far East and in South America. Discussions are underway with Guadalajara. There’s been a feasibility study. We’re talking about a feasibility study in Singapore, and we’re also having discussions in Taichung, Taiwan."
Lawson-Johnston is singularly sensitive to the business aspects of museum building. "As in business, acquisition is the lifeblood of a modern museum," he writes. While touting the fact that museums can learn from business, he adds, "On the other hand, I believe that art is an ennobling element of our pragmatic life…If political as well as business leaders can bring themselves to see all art and culture as our common heritage, transcending national barriers, these endeavors can become a powerful force for peace in the world."
Lawson-Johnston looks to the family to carry on the stewardship of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. That’s one of the reasons he writes those annual birthday letters to the grandchildren.
Growing Up Guggenheim, Monday, October 10, 7 p.m., Princeton University Store, 36 University Place. Princeton resident Peter Lawson-Johnston, speaks about his new book. 609-258-3647. Also, Wednesday, November 9, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-9529.