A Most Epic Book — Houston Author Spends More Than a Decade Working on Highly-Anticipated Tome: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of William Middleton’s Menil Opus

BY // 09.11.17

For more than 10 years, author William Middleton has immersed himself in deciphering, unraveling, researching, and writing the story of two of the most influential yet intensely private collectors of the 20th century, John and Dominique de Menil. Founding Houston’s Rothko Chapel and The Menil Collection doesn’t begin to describe the artistic accomplishments of this riveting couple.

In a PaperCity exclusive, Catherine D. Anspon debriefs William Middleton, the former Paris bureau chief of the Fairchild empire — and soon-to-be Knopf author — on his upcoming epic biography.


The question at hand: Have you completed the de Menil biography?

The manuscript is finished; we are now working on the final edit. It will be published next spring by Alfred A. Knopf. The title: Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.

How big will it be?

Texas sized! It is not yet known how large the finished book will actually be. We are trying to trim right now, but it will probably be more than 800 pages.

Since this is an art book as well as a biography, will there be images?

Absolutely. The lives of Dominique and John de Menil were very visual, so it is important the book reflect that. There will be around 150 photographs in black and white, and 36 pages of color images. Photographs will show them throughout the decades, many of the most important works of art they acquired, and the projects they built, from a chapel in the Alps completed in 1940 to the Rothko Chapel to The Menil Collection.

We will also have never-before-seen images of places they lived: the de Menil apartments on the Left Bank in Paris, the Schlumberger family country house in Normandy, the de Menil country house north of Paris, their townhouse in New York, and, of course, their house in Houston.

Trajectory from magazine journalist and editor to author of an epic biography: What sparked this volume?

We have to blame it on France. I lived and worked in Paris for a decade and have long been sensitive to the language, the culture, the history. And I had known that there was this interesting French connection to Houston. In 1986, when I was living in New York, there was a cover story in The New York Times Magazine on Dominique de Menil and her children, a piece entitled, “The Medici of Modern Art.” So, I learned that there was this museum in Houston that had been funded by revenue from Schlumberger Ltd.

The assignment that was the catalyst.

In the fall of 2000, I was again living in New York and working for Harper’s Bazaar. I came to Houston to do a story on the city, which was the first time that I had seen what the de Menils had created. I visited the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, and Richmond Hall, the permanent installation of light sculpture by Dan Flavin. I saw the one- and two-story bungalows that surrounded the museum, all painted the same shade of gray. Like many, I was astounded by the quality of the art and the almost sacred power of what had been created in this little neighborhood.

The most potent experience took place at the de Menil house on San Felipe Road in River Oaks, with its modernist architecture by Philip Johnson and its voluptuous interior by Charles James. That visit was not even three years after Dominique de Menil had died, so the house was essentially as it was when she and her husband had lived there. I remember so clearly standing in that living room — with the black floors, the sensual furniture, the dense, layered collection of art — and looking out the floor-to-ceiling glass at the atrium filled with tropical plants. I considered the Rothko Chapel and the museum and everything else I had seen and thought to myself:

‘How did this happen? How did this couple come here from Paris in the 1940s and do all of this? And why here? And, really, what is this place, this strange city that is not quite like anything I have seen?’ 

Your own bio?

I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, the only child of Virginia and Bill Middleton. My father had been a jazz musician when he was younger — tenor saxophone and clarinet. In fact, during World War II, he was in the Navy Jazz Band. But, by the time I came along, he decided to be responsible and had a career in real estate investment (apartment buildings, etc.). My parents were married for 61 years. My mother died in 2011; my father, in January of 2016.

Because my parents had both been creative — my mother loved to paint — they had friends and experiences that were more bohemian than might be expected from mid-century Kansas. They also believed in the importance of traveling and took me with them from a very early age. I must have been seven or eight when we went for the first time to Spain and Morocco, and we took regular trips to Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. Seeing the world early, I now realize, had a marvelous impact on the direction of my life. Although, I do remember on that first trip, as we went through the Kasbah in Tangiers, being told that I needed to stick with our small group because American boys and girls were often kidnapped, and I remember thinking, “Why can’t I go to Disneyland like other children?”

My parents were always very supportive of my work, regardless of where in the world it took me, and were very encouraging about the de Menil biography. After my father died, I received a modest inheritance, a sum that allowed me to finish writing the manuscript without worrying about where my next meal might come from — which, as any author will tell you — is an incredible luxury. 

On becoming a writer.

I had always been fascinated by reading and writing. My first-grade teacher had a program where, after we read 10 books, we were allowed to make a little velvet-covered booklet with a sheet of paper listing the titles. I think I read 120 books that year or some absurd number. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. My senior year, I wrote film reviews; unfortunately, I was also taking A.P. English and was intent on developing a huge vocabulary, so there are words in those reviews that, even today, I have no idea what they mean. So, a little pretentious there at 17.

I studied journalism at the University of Kansas. My first job out of college was in Kansas City, working for American City Business Journals, the publisher of the Houston business weekly. Because I knew that I wanted to work in magazines, I moved, at the age of 23, to New York. My first job in Manhattan was at Fairchild Publications, for Daily News Record, the daily newspaper of the men’s fashion industry (the companion to the group’s Women’s Wear Daily). I then worked for Connoisseur, the arts magazine run by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, and then for Metropolitan Home, which was at the time, an award-winning, modern design magazine.

After more than a decade, William Middleton has completed a marathon biography set to be published by Knopf, a division of Random House, in Spring 2018.

Your Paris chapter.

Even before I went to France for the first time — Christmas 1989 — I had long been fascinated by France. One of my most prized possessions was a little Galeries Lafayette map of Paris I had from the time I was in college. So, nine months after my first trip to Paris, I decided to take the plunge and move from New York to Paris. I was 28.

On life in France.

I took a quick course at the Alliance Française in New York, began the immigration process, and made the move as the Paris city editor for Metropolitan Home. I was soon fluent in French. Although I studied for one term at the Sorbonne, one of the most effective ways for me to learn the language was from recording interviews. I remember sitting in my tiny first apartment, on the rue des Mauvais Garçons, listening to the tapes and looking up words in the dictionary. For Met Home, I wrote about innovative architects, designers, and dealers of 20th-century design. I also wrote for other publications, including a profile of the Austrian designer Helmut Lang for Esquire and a story on leading French architect Jean Nouvel for the London publication Arena.

Eventually, if you live in Paris and write for English-language publications, you find that the subject that is most of interest is style. What oil is to Houston, fashion is to Paris. So, I began writing more style-related subjects and was hired by the Paris office of Fairchild Publications, to be the associate editor for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. Long an insider society and fashion publication, W had just converted to its larger format and our team in New York was intent on turning it into an innovative monthly fashion magazine. The Paris office of Fairchild Publications had a staff of around 25, including 11 journalists. It was far and away the largest foreign bureau in Paris. Soon, I was the Paris bureau chief for Fairchild Publications, overseeing WWD and W.

Being in charge of the Paris office was, in the world of Fairchild, quite a responsibility. As the only daily newspaper for women’s fashion in the world, it was critical that Women’s Wear Daily have any important news before anyone else. I used to wake up every morning, terrified that Yves Saint Laurent had died overnight and I did not know. If a major event like that happened, and another publication anywhere in the world had the story and we did not, I would be in huge trouble! Mr. Fairchild, and our senior editors in New York, expected us to know everything first.

For W, I published major features on the 40-year career of Yves Saint Laurent, went with Karl Lagerfeld to his hometown of Hamburg as he photographed his latest villa, and traveled to Beirut to document the bustling city after 17 years of civil war, and to Marrakech with Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzanni for a feature on her spectacular riad. I lived in Paris for 10 years, from 1990 until 2000, a period that was essential for my development as a journalist and an author.

In the library/living room, a George Nelson daybed by Herman Miller, Napoleon III méridienne covered in brown velvet, custom aluminum bookcases by Modern Shelving, and Marcel Wanders for Moooi lamp. Middleton moved into the Mirabeau B., a sustainable apartment building developed by Joey Romano, in the summer of 2014, after living at the modernist Parc IV on Montrose Boulevard during the beginning years of developing his book.

The seeds of the de Menil biography.

In January 2000, I was hired to be the fashion features director of Harper’s Bazaar and moved back to New York. Not having lived in the United States for a decade, I felt that magazines did not write about many subjects outside of New York or Los Angeles. So, I decided to start a regular feature that would select six cities around the United States and document, in-depth, the local lives and style. I had known Dallas quite well growing up — went to SMU once for summer school, made trips for Texas-OU weekend, and still have very vivid memories of the Starck Club. But, because the 2000 presidential election was in the air, it seemed right to select Houston for the first subject in our series. So, I went down to see the city and report the story. I spent more than a week in Houston, meeting people and getting to know the city — it is rare to be able to devote that amount of time to reporting a story. Then, I went back to New York and presented everything to our editor — and came back to Houston with a photographer and stylist.

From magazine article to book proposal.

I soon left Harper’s Bazaar to focus on writing freelance for such publications as Vogue, Travel & Leisure, Out, and The New York Times Magazine, and to try to work on something longer, ideally a book. From Houston, Fredericka Hunter told me that a book publisher in New York was interested in commissioning a biography of Dominique de Menil. I met with that editor and began working on a proposal. I read up on the subject of the de Menils and interviewed about a dozen of their friends and associates. When finished, the proposal was 25 pages long and over 12,000 words — already the longest piece I had ever written, at that point.

On securing an agent and publisher.

When I had been living in Paris, I had the possibility of writing a biography of Yves Saint Laurent — after that big profile in W. Although the return to New York took place before I could finish a proposal, I had secured an agent: Amanda [Binky] Urban from ICM. So, with the idea of a book about the de Menils, I began working again with ICM. Once the proposal was finished, Binky Urban suggested an editor at Penguin Random House, Shelley Wanger.

On the dream editor.

The daughter of legendary Hollywood producer Walter Wanger and actress Joan Bennett, Shelley [Wanger] is one of the most respected, serious editors in New York. She worked with John Richardson on his masterful multi-volume biography of Picasso, with Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan on their Pulitzer-prize winning biography of de Kooning, and with Joan Didion.

On landing a publishing contract.

From our first meeting, Shelley and I agreed about the inspirational nature of the de Menil story. We both felt that it would be of great interest to those in the art world, of course, and to many in Texas, but that it also, even for those who had never even heard of Dominique and John de Menil, had the power to inspire. So, in 2002, a contract for a de Menil biography was signed with Shelley Wanger, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf [a division of Penguin Random House.

On winning the trust of the de Menil progeny.

One of the first objectives was to contact the five de Menil children, all living primarily in New York, to make them aware of the project and to seek their cooperation. Shelley and I had meetings with many of them to discuss the project. From the beginning, it was clear to me that it was my responsibility to make the family feel comfortable with the project. And one family member suggested that the best way to do that was through knowledge of the subject — I have tried to take that to heart and be as diligent as possible in the research.

The forgotten man.

From those first contacts, the de Menil siblings made it clear that John de Menil was crucial to everything their parents had accomplished. Because John died at the age of 69, on June 1, 1973, while Dominique went on until her 90th year, dying on December 31, 1997, his role had largely been eclipsed. The more research that was done, the more obvious it became that he needed to be restored to their narrative. So, very early, the focus of the book changed from a single subject to a joint biography. That meant two family histories — hers, the Schlumberger family, as well as his, the de Menils — and much more focus on their relationship and what it meant to their accomplishments.

Laying the groundwork.

The first few years of work on the book were spent in New York, making research trips to Texas, when possible, and working freelance for magazines. Because all of the archives were at The Menil Collection in Houston, and many of the interview subjects, it made sense to move to Houston. I found other biographers that had made such a move — Robert Caro, for example, when he began his biography of Lyndon Johnson, moved to the Hill Country. Once I had settled in Houston, I soon discovered how important the move was: Understanding the city and the state has been essential to this book.

Becoming a Houston resident.

My move to Houston was a little naive, to be honest. Not having owned a car for 20 years, I thought that I could live in the center of the city and, in order to save money, get by with only a bicycle. That lasted for two very long, hot, and humid Houston summers. I was finally forced to rejoin the automotive world (finding an old-school Mercedes diesel on eBay in Los Angeles and driving it back to Texas).

Barely getting by.

It was an incredible honor to have a book contract with Knopf, which I have long felt is one of the best publishers in the United States. The size of the contract, however, was modest. Imagine a first-time author going to a leading New York publisher to say, “I want to write a book about two Franco-American art patrons from Houston, Texas.” It is encouraging if the editor feels the project has merit, but the publisher is not going to see this as an obvious commercial venture. So, the first installment of the advance, paid in the spring of 2002, was about what I had brought home in five weeks at my job at Bazaar.

The savior.

There was a time when I was afraid that I was going to have to abandon the project, move back to New York, and admit that I just could not make it work financially. But then, in 2005, the book became a sponsored project of the Houston Artists Fund, a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt public charity that is an umbrella organization for the Houston arts community. That allowed me, working with a committee of supporters, to approach foundations and gave individuals a means of making tax-deductible donations.

On funding a book spanning Paris, New York, and Houston, and encompassing the 20th century.

Over more than 10 years, beginning in July 2005, we raised $700,000 to support the research and writing of the de Menil biography. That support allowed for research trips to many of the sites that were important to the story and provided for the hiring of research assistants, for limited periods, in Paris and in Houston. It is no exaggeration to say that this book would never have been published without the generous support of a host of foundations and individuals in Houston and in New York.

On who contributed — and whom you did not ask.

Interestingly, there were several sources of funding that might have seemed a natural that we could not approach: the Menil Foundation, the de Menil children, or Schlumberger Ltd. Accepting funds from any of those entities would have compromised the editorial integrity of the book. Each are a part of the de Menil story, so readers would be unable to trust the narrative if they were also funding the project.

Instead, we sought those who supported the institutions they founded or believed that a book about the de Menils mattered, for their memory, and for the city of Houston. Our lead donors for the de Menil biography are The Brown Foundation Inc, Houston Endowment Inc., and Louisa Stude Sarofim. Other major donors include the Anchorage Foundation of Texas, the Margaret and James A Elkins, Jr. Foundation, Lynn Wyatt, Nina and Michael Zilkha, Ann and Mathew Wolf, Sara Dodd, and Marion and Ben Wilcox. Grants and contributions from more than 100 foundations and individuals made this book happen.

Your scholarly process.

I interviewed over 200 friends, family members, and colleagues of the de Menils. Some were lengthy interviews over a period of days — like [the now late] Walter Hopps, the founding director of the Menil Collection — and many were interviewed multiple times about different subjects. The transcripts of the interviews must number close to 3,000 pages. Many of the interviews, over 1,600 pages, were transcribed by Kevin Cassidy, a former student at the University of St. Thomas, who had known the de Menils in the 1960s. Mary Jane Victor, another former St. Thomas student who worked for many years as a collections registrar for the de Menils, transcribed some interviews and was an invaluable research assistant, particularly on any issues connected to works of art. Their contributions to the research has been essential and would not have been possible without the budgets provided by the Houston Artists Fund.

On your home away from home: The Menil Archives.

I spent many hours in the archives at The Menil Collection, which has to be one of the largest private archives in the United States.

It is in the basement of the museum. On my first research trip to Houston, I noticed that next to the archives is a small staff kitchen and little bathroom with the perfect bench and a shower. Taking in the sheer amount of archival information that was available, I thought that it would have been ideal to move into that bathroom!

On sifting through a voluminous trove of vintage photos and ancient letters.

In addition to the Menil Archives, I have been able to review, thanks to the generosity and openness of the five de Menil children, a tremendous amount of material from the de Menil Family Archives, most of which has never before been studied. That includes some 10,000 family photographs — beginning in the 19th century — and probably 5,000 letters, most handwritten and probably 95 percent in French. I studied more than 1,000 letters, notes, and postcards between Dominique and John de Menil, beginning in 1930, the year they met. Their correspondence, monumental in its own right, is an invaluable source for the book. That amount of research in French was certainly daunting. Even more challenging was the handwriting. Two French nationals living in Houston, Frédérique de Montblanc and Marie-Pascale Ware, were invaluable in deciphering the handwriting. A native speaker is more comfortable with difficult-to-read correspondence. Frédérique deciphered and transcribed several hundred pages of letters, while Marie-Pascale processed more than 1,000 pages. Reading the correspondence, editing and processing it, and then translating it was a lengthy process. This mass of material, however, is key to serious, detailed literary biography.

On time and research.

The sheer volume of information is one reason why this book and many other heavily researched works of nonfiction take so much time to complete. John Richardson published the first volume of his Picasso biography in 1991 (covering the first 25 years of the artists life). Volume two was published in 1996; volume three in 2007; and he is currently working on the fourth volume. Robert Caro published the first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson in 1982; the fourth volume was published 30 years later; volume five is still in progress. De Kooning: An American Master, took two authors almost 15 years to research and write. All three of these biographies are Knopf books.

I have long enjoyed researching and have tried to be as thorough as possible. But the amount of research involved in the de Menil biography is so much greater than anything I have ever encountered. It includes the interviews; the correspondence, archival research from around the world, and scores of books on a vast array of subjects from biographies of 19th-century French statesman (François Guizot, Dominique de Menil’s great-great grandfather) to the history of the oil industry in Venezuela. To process all of that and to become familiar enough with it to be able to put it into a narrative was quite a process.

Who you interviewed just in time: On hanging out with Walter Hopps.

I interviewed the late Walter Hopps several times. First, over the phone from New York, then in one of the bungalows by the museum, and finally over two full days in his house on Blossom Street. As the founding director of The Menil Collection, he was essential to understanding the institution and the de Menils’ approach to collecting art. His stories, often very colorful, could be long and winding until just when you thought he had lost the point and he would come out with an observation that was revelatory. He is quoted throughout the biography. He died in 2005.

There were so many Houston residents who were important interview subjects, who have since passed away. Jane Blaffer Owen told me about her memories of the de Menils beginning in the 1940s, shortly after they had moved to the United States. Anne Schlumberger (her father Pierre was Dominique’s first cousin) shared memories of her family and private correspondence. Peter Marzio, former director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, told me of Dominique’s sustained connection with the museum during his tenure; Edward Mayo, the MFAH’s former registrar, discussed his memories of former MFAH director James Johnson Sweeney and the de Menils.

Other essential interviews included MFAH’s current curator of modern and contemporary art, Alison de Lima Greene, who shared her expert knowledge on Mark Rothko and the Rothko Chapel. Sissy Kempner spoke of the de Menils’ involvement with the Contemporary Arts Museum, and art history professor Bill Camfield reminisced about the de Menils’ engagement with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University. Other interview subjects included Jasper Johns; John Richardson, the Picasso biographer; Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son; Leo Steinberg, the great art historian; Philip Glass, the composer; Robert Wilson, the theater director; Renzo Piano; and President Jimmy Carter.

Beyond Houston: Where you followed the trail.

I took multiple trips to places that had been important for the de Menils. On my first research trip to France, I visited the Left Bank apartment that Dominique and John moved into in 1931; the chateau in Normandy, the Val-Richer, that has been the center of Dominique’s family since the 19th century; and a chateau in Alsace, owned by Dominique’s cousin that inspired the de Menils to hire noted Paris architect, Pierre Barbe, to renovate their apartment and their country house north of Paris. I did extensive research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, at French National Archives, Bibliothèque du Saulchoir, the library for the Dominican order of France, and the Conrad Schlumberger Archives.

I interviewed many members of the extended Schlumberger and de Menil families in France. Other friends and associates included Claude Pompidou, the former first lady of France; Jack Lang, former French minister of culture; Werner Spies, the curator and art historian; Euan Baird, the former chairman of Schlumberger Ltd.; and Jean-Yves Mock, a former curator at the Pompidou Center who had known Dominique and John since the 1950s; and Alfred Pacquement, the former director of the Pompidou Center.

How it feels to have passed the finish line in writing: Bringing the book to press.

Ouf! It was a tremendous relief to have a completed, edited manuscript. In April, I had a one-week trip back to New York to meet with my editor on the selection of photographs. Messengered to my hotel was a printout of the edited manuscript — the first time I had seen it. It was an enormous object — over 1,000 pages — and, for me, a very powerful moment: this book was really happening!

I have since discovered that there is still a lot of work to do. After the photo selection, and some more cuts, the manuscript was copy edited and fact checked. That took about one month. I have been astounded at how meticulous their work has been on the manuscript. My editor and I are currently reviewing all of the changes and queries and will keep moving the manuscript along. Then, there are more choices involving the color photography, the cover, and the design of the book. The seriousness of the process is encouraging and humbling — what a gift to have such a diligent effort by such a capable team.

Biggest revelations about the de Menils uncovered by your book.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is just how dedicated they were to making Houston a better place. They always maintained their apartment in Paris and they had a beautiful townhouse at 111 East 73rd in New York. Their lives in both cities were very full and inspiring. And, yet, they concentrated their activities on Texas. It is also interesting to consider just how they chose to engage with the city. In the fall of 1950, only several years after they had begun collecting in earnest, the de Menils began organizing their first exhibition of art. It was to be held at the Contemporary Arts Museum, housed in a very small, modernist building downtown. Dominique and John decided to do a show of Vincent van Gogh. They worked with museums and collectors around the world and ended up bringing to Houston 21 perfect little paintings, watercolors, and drawings from every phase of the artist’s life. During its three-week run in February 1951, the exhibition attracted over 14,000 visitors — it was, far and away, the most exciting cultural manifestation ever seen in Houston.

On the de Menil standard.

The de Menil ethic was made clear from that moment [with the 1950 van Gogh show at the Contemporary Arts Museum]. They decided that if they were going to do something in Houston, that it would not just be good for the city, or good compared with other events in the state or even the region — they insisted that everything they did should be as good as anything in New York or London or Paris; that it should be measured by international standards. And they sought that level from that first exhibition until the day Dominique de Menil died. How inspiring for the other members of the cultural community in Houston. The de Menils helped raise the intellectual and artistic standards of the city.

The untold romance.

Another key discovery was finding out that the relationship between Dominique and John de Menil was a beautiful, sustained love story. From the moment they first met, at a grand ball in Versailles in the spring of 1930, until the day he died, 43 years later, they shared an incredibly powerful, complex union. The depth of their commitment to one another is seen throughout their correspondence. And, in the remaining decades of her life, she always insisted that she was only carrying forward the plans he had begun.

Beyond the art world.

First of all, he was born on January 4, 1904, while she died on December 31, 1997 — so it is essentially the 20th century. Their story is also heavily focused on Paris, New York, and Houston, the three cities that meant the most to them. But the book touches on so many more subjects including the history of French Protestants, what it means to be an Alsatian industrialist, the beginnings of Schlumberger Ltd., World War I, Paris between the wars, the fall of France during World War II, the European expatriate community in New York during the war, booming Houston, the Civil Rights struggle in the South and the international fight for human rights. Add in architecture and art — from prehistoric to antiquities to Byzantine to the greatest artists of the modern and contemporary movements — and you have quite a feast of subjects. 

The de Menils, the movie.

All I have done is write the book. If someone wants to make this into a film — and I do think that there are many parts of it that are cinematic — they will have to make those kinds of decisions. Although there is a young actress in France, Léa Seydoux, who looks exactly like Dominique when she was young — primarily because she is from the same branch of the Schlumberger family (her great grandfather, René Seydoux, was married to Dominique’s cousin Geneviève).

How you made it to the finish line.

This has not been an easy process, for a host of reasons. But one of the things that has kept me going over the years is my complete conviction that the de Menils were such extraordinary people, that they were completely committed to making the world a better and more interesting place, and that those are exactly the kind of people that we need to be reading about right now.

For updates on the de Menil biography as it heads to press, follow the author’s Instagram and Tumblr: @wfmiddletonauthor.

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