Meeting 3 generations of American originals

June 17, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

The Clarks of Cooperstown

By Nicholas Fox Weber

Alfred A. Knopf / 420 pages / $35

Robert Sterling Clark and Stephen Carlton Clark didn't see eye to eye about anything. Reserved and responsible, Stephen married well, lived in Cooperstown, N.Y., helped manage the fortune accumulated by his grandfather and amassed a dazzling collection of modern art. Audacious and outrageous, Sterling served in the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion, moved to France, married an actress from the Comedie Francaise and purchased a breathtaking array of Old Masters. When Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he called "Rosenfart," took the United States off the gold standard, Sterling plotted to raise an army to march on Washington to oust the president. And when he lost his suit contesting the terms of the Clark family trust, Sterling blamed "that swine and sneaking Stephen" -- and ceased contact with his brother for 40 years.

In The Clarks of Cooperstown, Nicholas Fox Weber provides portraits of three generations of American originals. An independent scholar, Weber is at his best describing the paintings acquired by the Clarks. He is not, alas, a gifted stylist and has a tendency to step on his own narrative, often with both feet. Blessed with access to Sterling's splendidly revealing diaries, The Clarks of Cooperstown is impoverished by an absence of documents generated by Stephen -- and marred by the author's gushy encomiums to his favorite sibling. But Weber is right about one thing: This idiosyncratic family is worth getting to know.

Weber begins with Edward Clark, a lawyer from Athens, N.Y. Sometime in the 1830s, Clark began to represent Isaac Merritt Singer, an uncouth adulterer who produced 24 children and a state-of-the-art sewing machine. In return for one-third interest in the company, Clark defended Singer in a suit for patent infringement. As manager and then president, he introduced installment buying. And as Americans sewed, Clark reaped, leaving an estate of $50 million when he died in 1882, including an opulent summer home in Cooperstown and a spectacular apartment building, the Dakota, in Manhattan.

Alfred Clark, Edward's son, was shy, scholarly, pious and philanthropic. He married Elizabeth Scriven in 1869, and appeared to be a pillar of society. Weber makes a strong case -- even without a "smoking gun" -- that Alfred led a double life. Traveling in Europe as a young man, he met Lorentz Severin Skougaard, a Norwegian tenor, and brought him home to be "adopted" by the family. After Skougaard's death, Clark discovered George Grey Barnard, a hunky sculptor, eighteen years his junior. When Barnard (who wore a restraining device to suppress his sexual desire) announced his engagement to Edna Monroe, Clark offered him a house in Paris and $50,000 a year if he stayed single. Even before Barnard bailed out, Clark lavished attention -- and financial assistance -- on young male urchins in distress. He died in 1896, along with his secret passion.

Since Singer sewing machines kept on humming, Alfred left more than $50 million to his wife and four sons. Sterling and Stephen emerged as the forces to be reckoned with in the family.

Sterling Clark impressed art dealers with his judgment, as well as his uncanny ability to spit into ashtrays at long distances. Contemptuous of any work that lacked verisimilitude, Sterling hated the Cubists -- and other modernists avidly acquired by his brother. By the late 1940s, according to Weber, Sterling owned masterpieces by Goya, Monet and Pissarro, and 39 Renoirs. Just after his death in 1956, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Willliamstown, Mass., a structure strong enough to withstand a nuclear bomb explosion, was completed.

Relying on previously published work, Weber adds little to our knowledge of Stephen, who had the foresight -- and good fortune -- to buy Van Gogh's The Night Cafe and gobble up Cezanne's Still Life with Apples and Pears and Georges Seurat's Circus Sideshow. As chairman of the board of trustees at the Museum of Modern Art, Stephen discouraged acquisitions concerned with film, photography and industrial design. He fired Alfred Barr Jr., MOMA's director, an action Weber defends, improbably, as "a conscious effort to engineer what would be best for civilization as a whole." In fact, Weber's misty-eyed devotion for Stephen, who died in 1960, approaches idolatry. "What courage the quiet, taciturn, seemingly gloomy Stephen had," he writes, "and what an eye for creative spark!" Stephen was "in many ways, his parents' perfect son," Weber proclaims, "devoted to the public good, able to comport himself with the restraint and dignity expected of an American Puritan aristocrat."

Stephen, we can guess, would have had the good grace to be embarrassed. No wonder, as H.G. Wells reportedly said, "A man's biography should be written by a conscientious enemy."

Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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