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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"The Mondales" (on Joan and Walter Mondale)

the mondales

Already this year, I have witnessed the death of several close and less intimate acquaintances. But hearing of the death of Joan Mondale today saddened me most. Although I didn’t know her intimately, we certainly knew each other well enough to literally embrace.

      As a spokesperson for the arts (visual art and literature), Joan brought together a fragmented Washington, D.C. community, along with international artists and craftspeople, making us all feel that there was a possibility that our voices might be heard in the halls of government, something we had certainly seldom before experienced. She regularly visited local and national art galleries; she haunted bookstores, buying up interesting new literary titles; and through her assistant for the arts, the wonderfully intelligent Eleana Canavier, brought artists and writers together on several occasions. We were also good friends with the now powerful New York real estate broker, Mary Ann Tighe, who first worked with my companion Howard at the Hirschorn Museum before becoming Joan Mondale’s personal assistant. As a curator at that museum, accordingly, Howard was invited to have lunch with Joan on a couple of occasions.
     I also met her in relationship to my publishing activities. She was a presence whom you just couldn’t resist. A handsome woman with a wide smile, she made you immediately feel that you were a dear friend. Indeed both her and her husband, Walter, were the kind of political figures who seemed to remember the faces of everyone they had ever met, immediately recalling their names.
      The Mondales, in a remarkable embracement of the visual arts, invited a great many of the most noted American artists to the Vice President’s residency at the US Naval Observatory in June of 1976 for a gala dinner. Howard was among the invitees, asking, when responding to his invitation, whether he might also be able to attend with me. “No problem,” came the answer.
      I’ll never forget the evening, as the Vice President entered, personally greeting every individual in the room in a manner which seemed to me totally authentic. At my table, if I remember correctly, we were seated next to Max Kozloff—art critic and photographer who served as a critic for The Nation and had just become the executive director of Artforum magazine—and his artist wife, Joyce Blumberg Kozloff. I don’t recall our other tablemates.  
     A few years later, when Walter was running for president, he and Joan invited me over to their home, where I remember chatting with them about their daughter Eleanor’s budding acting career (sadly, she died of brain cancer in 2011) as well as politics. Mondale was personable and friendly up close, while on television during that campaign, he often looked wooden and distant. I could never quite square the two different aspects of him.
     Several years later, after they had returned to Minneapolis, we ran into Joan again at a Los Angeles art party, whereupon she immediately came up to us, saying “Well as I live and die, it’s Howard Fox and Douglas Messerli.” Visiting Minneapolis sometime after, I ran into them on the street, where they smilingly waved before getting in their car and speeding off, the last time I saw them.

Los Angeles, February 3, 2014

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