Publicist Benjamin Sonnenberg was his own greatest success. He was born with the gifts of imagination and exaggeration. And his flamboyant efforts at making himself a legend have gone well beyond the grave.
With foresight and flair, he provided for himself a large splash of publicity almost nine months after his death last September at 77. As his will provides, Sotheby Parke Bernet Tuesday through Saturday will auction off 3,200 or so lots of his paintings, drawings, sculpture, works of art and furniture. They are expected to bring somewhere between $4 and $6 million. The sale will be the largest in New York since 1964 and the third largest single-owner sale ever at Sotheby's, New York.
The sale has elicited a flurry of stories in newspapers and magazines and television programs. Ironically enough, he was cheated of his obituary in the town where he was famous because he died during last fall's New York newspaper strike. But he had prepared for such contingencies, in effect, by arranging to be memorialized on the occasion of the Sotheby sale.
He was a man given not to just the turn of a phrase, but a twist of it. He is often quoted as saying that he was a cabinetmaker of large pedestals for small statues. For himself, he built a very large stage and filled it with his expansive personality. His old friend, British historian J.H. Plumb said to him (in an interview in New York recently), "He wanted to make himself memorable. Once you had seen him or his house, you never forgot him."
Sonnenberg, a small, round man, was bigger than life. He dressed to the part of "the last of the Edwardians." Everyday, he wore a bowler hat, a walrus mustache, four-button suits and an I-know-a-scandal smile. To look at him, you'd expect that any minute he'd doff his hat and, waving his cane, go into a soft-shoe routine.
He talked with all the cotton-candy embellishments of a circus barker. He had a card index of 4,000 telephone numbers, and a larger index of epigrams. He was the best known pioneer of the public-relations business, representing Lever Brothers, Pan American World Airways, Philip Morris, Samuel Goldwyn, Albert Laser and Thomas Corcoran, among constellations.
You could be excused for believing that Sonnenberg had been invented by The New Yorker. Actually, the best thing ever written about him was The New Yorker profile by Geoffrey T. Hellman in April 1950. Sonnenberg needed no fancy writing, "just give us the facts please" were all that was necessary.
Among other things, he told Hellman, "I'm the builder of bridges into posterity. I supply the Listerine to the commercial dandruff on the shoulders of corporations."
He explained his 67 suits and uncountable shirts and ties by saying, "They are insurance against the day it might all stop, and you want to anticipate living a long time, wearing those things. It goes back to your days of deprivation."
He was born in Brest-Livtovsk in Russia and came to the United States in 1905 as a boy. "Here is the phenomenon of a young immigrant," Sonnenberg said,". . . willy nilly . . . bumped on the Eastern seabord of the United States. . . . I could have sold rugs in Stamboul, but I became a ballyhoo artist. I was meant to operate from Bagdad to Trafalger Square."
His five story house on Gramercy Park, now up for sale for $1.8 million was universally agreed to be the greatest private mansion in the city. The 37 rooms were strewn over two buildings - one an 1831 house built for Stuyvesant Fish. He bought the houses almost half a century ago, when he first had to rent out part of it, but more than 25 years ago he remodeled it into one house and put in central air conditioning. The remodeling alone cost $350,000, a high price in those days.
On the top floor was a ballroom, used as a movie theater, with soft red flowered upholstered sofas and small gold chairs with red velvet seats and tassels, seating 75 or so people. "I work while I play and I play while I work," he once said. Three or four times a week he'd give a dinner for 20 or a party for 200. On entertaining he once said, "I think a really good dinner party should consist of an archbishop, an authoress, a lady of easy virtue, a tycoon and a Powers model."
"His ballroom was as big as many people's apartment," said Plumb.He was a close friend of Sonnenberg's for more than a decade. "Staying in Ben's house was as good as staying at any great house of England," Plumb added. "He was well-served. Good God, he even had a full-time launderess. I think there were seven servants. They never left him. He used to say, 'When I need another parlor maid, I go out and earn one.'"
The house was designed to look like an English country house from an Agatha Christie mystery. Plumb credits Sonneberg's wife, Hilda, with putting it all together so it would work. "She has a great eye," Plumb said.
The house was officially decorated in the late '40s or early '50s by the society decorator Dorothy Draper. Red carpet was literally rolled out through all the house. Most of the walls were painted deep, lush Edwardian hues, adding to the opulence of the furnishings. His own bedroom was a rich blueblack. The curtains were all heavy material, draped with elaborate fixtures. Garlands carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1720) festooned some walls.
Gerald Bland, Sotheby's English-furniture expert, spent almost two months in the house, cataloging the sale.
"It was really very warm with lots of nice upholstery with flowers on a red background, the sort of thing you associate with Draper," Bland said. "The house was carefully planned to be opulent without being pompous. He once said he wanted his background to look as old and well established as if he went all the way back to the Nile."
Perhaps because Sonnenberg was born with a lot of brass, that was the first thing he collected. He started buying brass when he was a young man on the East side. And graduated to Greek and Roman bronzes and Giacometti busts.
Everything was always kept in top condition, according to Bland. "Michael Dozell and Son, of 63rd Street, the firm that takes care of metals for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, would come in two or three times a week to clean the brass and copper. They told me once it would take two months to polish all that metal. The Sonnenbergs had another person who would come in once a week to wind the clocks. Everything was always in top condition. There was never an ash in an ash tray."
The profusion of objects was almost enough to overwhelm anyone who didn't spend their days amid Sotheby's treasure house. Sonnenberg didn't just have one exquisite piece, or a pair, but often a half dozen. He had six hunt tables, for instance, and four day beds. Just one of the hunt tables should bring $5,00o.
"He loved things that converted," said Bland. "The George III hunt tables, of course, fold up to be narrow and open up to serve the multitudes. They were of a very rare quality, we wouldn't expect to see one in here except at great intervals. Day beds, too. His own bed was a rare George II carved walnut settee that opened into a bed. He added permanent side panels and an upholstered headboard, which of course decreased the value of the bed, but made it more comfortable. The bed is expected to bring about $6,000.
"The fine George III mahogany rent table, circa 1760, is a real prize. It should bring at least $30,000." The William IV mahogany breakfront bookcase, circa 1835, 12 feet long and 9 feet 8 inches high is expected to sell for about $50,000.
One of Bland's favorites is the 18th century Windsor gothic triple back settee, which once stood in the Sonnenberg's hall. It's expected to go for more than $7,000.
Whereas most people would be happly enough with an alarm clock, or at the most a grandfather clock, Sonnenberg had a George III mahogany watch case, and a Dutch mahogany watch case, both with watches; a William IV% CARVED MAHOGANY LONG-CASE CLOCK; AN UNUSUAL GEORGE III inlaid, mahogany corner hanging wall clock; a George III engraved brass carved-and-turned mahogany pillar clock; an Austrian neo-classical inland mahogany clock; a George II ebonized bracket timepiece, and a number of barometers.
In his bedroom alone, he had 48 pieces of brass (or 40, depending upon who's telling the story). Three pairs of brass candlesticks stood on the mahogany desks and cabinets. The lamps were brass. And the coffee table before the fire was a George II brass bound carved mahogany oval wine cistern (expected to bring $2,000). The English and Dutch brass chandeliers, hung near the staircases on two floors are expected to sell for $2,000-$3,000.
Every flat, and some rounded, surfaces held small objects d'art - George III fruitwood tea caddies, for instance. He owned two huge 15th century cassones or chests, one Gothic from Spain or Italy, the other Italian Renaissance.
He cupboards held a great number of Wedgewood botanical plates, Chinese export porcelain, and Early Italian majolica plates and jugs.
Plumb and Sonnenberg collected antique silver together in London and brass in New York. "He'd call me and say, 'Let's go loafing,' by which he meant shopping. He had a very good eye. We would wander around Bond Street looking at the shops. He had two vitrines full of wonderful things, Queen Anne beer jugs, and such," Plumb said.
The vast silver collection included silver sugar boxes from Poland, Austria and other places; enough silver flatware (including at least three fish services and untold dessert silver) to serve 50-odd, a dozen or so tea and coffee pots and enough salt cellers to salt the sea.
One of the great stories told by Hellman is about Sonnenberg's butler, who once served the duke of Windsor. At lunch, Sonnenberg said, "Mears, you must be in love." Why sir?" asked Mears. "You have failed to remove the salt," his employer said. "Not customary to remove it at lunch sir. Only at dinner," said Mears.
Sonnenberg's collection of master drawings are considered as important, if not more, than anything in the sale. Plumb said that Sonnenberg benefited from the knowledge of the late connoisseur Robert Lehman, a friend and client. He and Lehman would visit galleries and London dealers. Sonnenberg bought drawings and more recent artists, Lehman the art works now in the Metropolitan's Lehman Pavilion.
The portrait of the "Duchess of Sutherland" by John Singer Sargent dominated the grand staircase. In Sonnenberg's own bedroom, a portrait of poet and archaelogist Trelawney Dayrell Reed by Augustus John hung in a position of honor.
The whole house was hung with drawing and paintings of famous people, as though he wanted his home to be already full of well-known personalities even before anyone came in the door. Plumb said, "He loved people and understood them very well."
It's easy to think about the little man pottering about his house, stopping to look at Sargent's portrait of Ethel Barrymore, or nodding at Jacob Epstein's bronze of Bertrand Russell, or considering the charms of Russell's Bloomsbury mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell, or shaking his head at James Abbott McNeil Whistler's self-portrait. A part of his collection of self-portraits and portraits of other artists and literary people were displayed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1971.
For his flesh-and-blood guests, he provided gilded looking glasses to reflect their own beauty in his candlelight. The William and Mary parlor, the most formal room, was hung with a splendid pair of Moore and Gumley mirrors.
In the hall to his theater ballroom was hung a fine George III giltwood mirror in the Robert Adam style - the original of the sort of mirror endlessly copied in bijou theaters over the country in the '20s. A wonderful over-mantel mirror of the George III period rests on female winged sphinx.
Plumb said, "He liked people to say, 'What is that?' But it was all bought to be used. He didn't think of things as a 'collection.' He didn't buy objects the way Paul Mellon buys, for instance, with the thought of giving them to a museum.
"He bought very sensibly. For instance, he started buying English furniture when everyone else wanted French. Now, of course, the prices on English furniture have risen steeply." Bland confirms that 17th-and 18th-century English furniture, once priced considerably under antique American, is bringing very high prices indeed.
Plumb said, "Oddly enough, Ben was very modest about the objects he owned. He never planned them to be an important assemblege to be kept together in a museum. He did, of course, give a few drawings and such to museums - including Vassar, where his daughter, now Helen Tucker, and his granddaughter went. But in his will, he provided that everything in the house - except, of course, what his wife wanted - would all be auctioned off after his death."
Sonnenberg evidently felt there was no need for such a grandiose set after the principal player had left the stage. And, as Plumb put it, he "wanted many other people to have the pleasure of owning the objects." Mrs. Sonnenberg was given her choice of 15 percent of the objects, surely enough since she's moved to an apartment. Bland said she exhibited her expert eye by selecting objects that otherwise would have been color plates in the two-volume Sotheby cataloge.
In recent years there has been an increasing number of huge estates auctioned off at the death of the owner, with fewer and fewer large collections going to museums to be kept intact. For one thing, many collectors feel that museums are so overfull, their pieces would wind up in the cellars. And for another, museums are loth to accept huge collections without a great deal of money to endow a place to keep them. Added to this, of course, many collectors have their life savings in their art objects, and the money from their sale is needed to keep their survivors. As Plumb put it, "Ben was never much for the stockmarket."
Plumb, himself is a collector of Serves porcelain, English silver and Dutch pictures. (Plumb, the warden of Christ College, Cambridge, is currently at work on a book, "Pursuit of Happiness," following a Yale Center exhibition.)
He believes art objects and city property are the best hedges against today's ballooning inflation. "Historically, this is true," Plumb said. "In recent years in England, people have been buying forward in an effort to beat the inflation - a case of beans instead of two or three cans."
"But you mustn't buy fads - a handful of glass paperweights. You must put your money in objects you can use and that people will still want years from now.
"One time I complained to Ben, 'Oh, dear, I've spent so much. I paid a $1,000 for that piece of silver.' And Ben said, 'Not spent, saved.' He felt that way about buying art objects." CAPTION: Picture 1, Benjamin Sonnenberg, photo by Nancy Crampton; Picture 2, 3, and 4, "Once you had seen him or his house, you never forgot him." Below from left, a sampling of brass in front of the fireplace in the third-floor library; a George II carved walnut table on the third-floor landing; and in the William and Mary room on the second floor, carvings by Grinling Gibbons and a pair of early Georgian gilt mirrors. Room photos by Stephen Tucker and Peggy Shannon; Picture 5, George III mahogony barometer; Picture 6, 18th-century porter's chair; Picture 7, George II walnut settee that opened into a bed; Sonnenberg added side panels and headboard to make it more comfortable; Picture 8, John Singer Sargent's "Duchess of Sutherland" hanging on the staircase wall in the Sonnenberg mansion. By Peggy Shannon; Picture 9, "Head of a Man Wearing a Cap" by Bernardino Dei Conti.