An appreciation for the life of Stanley Seeger, rich enough to do exactly what he liked. Dead at 81, June 24, 2011.

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Photo: Rob Riley

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. You’re old enough now to know that life, for most of us, is a series of compromises. You get some of what you want… and lots of what you don’t want. You have to buss body parts for people who insist upon you bending the knee, the better to exalt them. And all the while you think “If only…” This is an article about a man who didn’t say “If only…” He did what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted… and literally laughed all the way to the bank.

Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board, knew something about this syndrome. He snapped his fingers at conventional behavior and did it his way. That’s why he was the perfect, entirely believable person, to sing one of his signature tunes, “My Way” (recorded 1968). You’ll find it in any search engine. Go now… and listen a couple of times to get yourself in the mood and mind-set for this tale of Stanley Seeger… a man you never heard of before and never saw a picture of… who, whilst you were following The Man’s instructions… lived your dream, and smiled.

Eccentric, idiosyncratic.

First, let’s dispose of a couple of silly words found in every obituary of and article about Stanley Seeger… “eccentric” and “idiosyncratic”. Like clockwork their writers unfailingly use these highly loaded words, pointing out that Seeger lived the exact life he and his life partner (since 1979) Christopher Cone desired. Such pedestrian writers clearly believe and want you to believe that if you live the life you want you are odd, peculiar; that the only normality is living the way everyone else does. The truth is, as soon as people have the ability to live life their way, they seize the opportunity and do. The eccentric folk are the ones who live by the dictates, orders and whims of others… and never know the thrill of the open road, the road that goes to where they want to go. But which you, only dreaming of freedom, will never see…

Seeger selected just the right parents.

I often wonder how smart babies got that way, for even before they are born they have shaped so much of the remainder of their lives, making it just so. When therefore I read how odd Seeger was, I laugh. Why, he had the tremendous good sense (for openers) to select a family rich from timber and oil, two commodities the world never gets enough of. Born in 1930 in Milwaukee; the city the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company immortalized in its long-running ad as the “beer that made Milwaukee famous”,  Seeger wanted out of this beer-drenched paradise.

His first step out came when he was sent to boarding school in Arizona. There he went to a traveling exhibition of works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These paintings, dramatic, evocative, rule-breaking, challenging spoke to something in the boy. They had, as art and its masters will do, hooked him. The ramifications of this catch would be played out for the rest of his life.

Next, he went to Princeton, the most genteel of the Ivies. Like other boys of aesthetic temperament (Christopher Forbes comes to mind) he flowered at Princeton…from which he graduated in 1952 but stayed on as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts composition. It was then he took the fatal step of beginning to buy his first serious acquisitions. Like all collectors he needed good advice; he got his from New York dealer Catherine Viviano, who represented a group of young British and Italian painters.

One fateful day, he bought his first ticket to Greece, like so many of us have.  The cerulean Aegean… the riches of the Academy… the sharp taste of  retsina on a beach too perfect to be true, worked together to capture him forever; it’s what Greece does best. So, he well and truly left Milwaukee behind by becoming a Greek citizen… while giving Princeton $2 million for their Hellenistic studies program. He put his money where his heart was; no one, especially no one at beautiful Princeton, thought that eccentric or idiosyncratic.

London

In the late 1970s Seeger settled, if such a peripatetic fellow ever really settles, in London. There he met Cone, a staff member at Sotheby’s Belgravia branch. There he had another “aha” moment… this time for Victorian art. He liked Fuseli and Turner…  He also began to like moderns like Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Malcolm Morley, and Howard Hodgkin. Just where to put his burgeoning (and valuable) collection was always a challenge, for he not only collected fine art… but residences, too. He had a yacht enchantingly named “Rosenkavalier” and homes in Barbados… St. Moritz…in Berkshire… Devon…. then Yorkshire. Ownership bored him; acquisition did not.

Art needs a home, so Seeger got one… one of the best.

In 1980, Seeger bought one of the most famous estates in the realm of Britain, fabled Sutton Place. It was a red-brick manor house built in the 1520s. Among its celebrated owners was J. Paul Getty, oil magnate, then the richest man on terra firma. Getty got irked by servants and visitors using his phone to rack up huge long distance charges. When he installed a pay phone, the world ridiculed… but the world always expects rich people to cover their tabs. It’s most irritating…

Sutton Place, at the time of Seeger’s purchase, was grand, very grand indeed… 14 bedrooms, large banquet hall, 100 foot library, and more than 700 acres of grounds. But even this was not quite good enough for Seeger, who to the intense irritation of certain British critics who think foreigners should buy but never change these historic properties, started re-modeling. He modernized the decor and, imagine, hung paintings from his avant-garde collection, which hadn’t a Holbein or portrait of Queen Bloody Mary, favoring instead the bold Francis Bacon triptych of contorted nudes he had acquired for $8.5 million in 1979. This was not merely a painting; it was a bold declaration of who Seeger was and what was important to him, let the consequences be what they may. In 6 years he got tired of the effort…. and profitably sold, as usual.

And so this whirligig of a man kept collecting, enjoying, selling and acquiring some more, rich, restless, living out his dream… endlessly searching for a beauty which may only have existed in his mind. Now he’s passed on… and wherever he has gone, I feel sure he is, this very moment, focused on its enhancement… and having achieved that, be it in heaven itself, will pursue the even more perfect and desirable. It is his still unfinished destiny.

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Dr. Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling business books.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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