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Queen of Arts

Muriel Newman excelled at the art of collecting. One expert called the paintings that graced her Gold Coast apartment “the greatest private collection of abstract expressionists in the world”—and Chicago’s art scene shuddered when she bequeathed most of those paintings to a New York museum. But no one seemed to blame Newman, whose gregarious personality and boundless generosity endeared her to local art institutions and patrons. Nearly a year after her death, a look back at the colorful 94-year life of an unforgettable grande dame

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Muriel with her first husband, Jay Z. Steinberg

 

“Through the nineties, groups of people were always going out to dinner or the movies,” Rorimer recalls. “And Muriel was always there.”

“The lunches and dinners together were wonderful,” says Horwich. “With Muriel around, the conversation never flagged.”

She had always been interested in fashion, and she approached it as she had art—choosing from the best designers who were pushing the envelope in new and creative ways. Among the dresses she donated to the Chicago History Museum was a haute couture black taffeta sheath gown from the House of Dior, says Timothy Long. “The serial numbers inside the dress tell us when she ordered it, who worked on the dress, everything about it,” he explains. Another notable gift from Newman was a black wool afternoon dress by Balenciaga, currently on display at the History Museum’s exhibition Chic Chicago.

Related:

Golden Eye »
A look at Muriel Newman’s art collection

Photo gallery »
Newman through the years

By the early 1980s, Newman was taken with the Japanese revolution in fashion. She often dressed in black—one notable exception was when she wore Issey Miyake’s gray zigguratlike Staircase dress, which set off her silver-gray hair. (“She always cut it herself,” says the Chicago boutique owner June Blaker.)

One of Newman’s favorite designs was a jersey dress from the 1983 all-black Paris debut collection of Comme des Garçons. By then, she was sporting thick-framed round glasses made in Europe and similar to those worn by the architects Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei. And she was always wearing an incredible sculptural piece of jewelry: a Chinese jade archer’s ring or ancient stone seals from Lebanon strung together as a necklace. Sometimes she attached nuts and bolts bought from a street vendor to a set of 1920s Cartier earrings. And she loved a metal-mesh handbag with a wraparound rhinestone snake; supposedly Gloria Swanson had carried it in one of her movies. Miyake came to her apartment once and reached for a sculptural item. “You’re holding a walrus penis,” Newman delighted in telling him.

Behind the whirl of parties and dinners and boldface names, there was a down-to-earth practicality. “My grandfather always tried to teach me worldly things, like how to get out of a sand trap or how to think strategically by learning chess,” says Steinberg. “And while my grandmother loved to talk about art, she also taught me how to clean smudges from my glasses.”

Steinberg’s sister, Ellen Steinberg Coven, recalls learning to walk as a toddler by pulling herself up on the Giacometti sculptures owned by her grandmother. “She lived a full and passionate life in all aspects,” says Coven. “She was an accomplished Chinese cook, a vigorous vitamin taker, and an avid reader. She would talk about French conceptual art, and she would also sing to her grandchildren over the phone.”

In conversations about art, Peter Steinberg remembers his grandmother talking about the emotion of artwork and how art takes one to “places beyond our ken. She was very serious about that—that the art was struggling with emotions that were very difficult to put into words.”

In 1988, after her husband, Albert, died, she carried on. “I would fly in from college and go straight to her place for visits,” says Steinberg. “It never mattered how late it was. She was a night owl, and she loved to sit up and talk.” She read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every day, clipping out articles and mailing them to Steinberg and Coven. In 2004, Newman’s son, Glenn, an urban planner, died as a result of a medical mishap. “She tried to stay upbeat,” Rorimer says, “but of course it was a terrible shock.”

That year, Newman was also diagnosed with neuropathy, a disorder of the central nervous system, and she found it harder to go out. For a while, friends and associates came to visit her. The History Museum’s Timothy Long says he spent hours talking with her about her life and her clothes. “Not only was she a fascinating woman and great company,” Long says, “but through the story of her life, the museum was able to document so much about a specific time and style.”

“She liked to discuss things right up to near the end of her life,” says Rorimer. “I called her not long before she died. She said, ‘I don’t have the—what’s the word?’ And I said, ‘Energy?’ And she said, ‘That’s it.’”

“Artists try to grapple with the world in their own ways, and that was what she was interested in,” says Steinberg. “She was interested in it in the mystical sense—what does this say about the human race?—and in the aesthetic sense. And she tried to convey that interest to others, in her own marvelous way.”

Photograph: Courtesy of the family of Muriel Newman

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