"In those days, in the movies, the white folks let my momma sit up in the balcony. But they wouldn't let me in," said Mickey Leland, the black congressman from Houston.
He was standing by the stairs in the house of the vice president speaking of the start of his political career, and of John de Menil, the multimillionaire from France "who became my father," and of a ghetto theater "out on Lyons Avenue, the one called "The Deluxe."
Dr. Frank Snowden the classicist from Howard University, was sitting on the sofa, a picture book on his lap, looking at the faces of black men now long dead. Some had lived in Egypt, some in Athens, some in Rome. Their faces reappeared now, carved in roman marble or on Hellenistic coins, in the pages of the book that was the reason for this party, a book he helped write.
Joan Mondale, the hostess, was speaking of the last of Mark Rothko's paintings, the black ones in the chapel beside the pool in Houston, when she said exactly what the scholar and the politician had just said before. "none of it would have happened without the De Menils."
Their money came from oil, from the technology of drilling. Some of it they used to send young blacks to college. Some of it they used to buy African art. In the last years of the '60s they bought a giant sculpture by the late Barnett Newman and offered it to Houston as a city hall memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King. The city turned them down.
For the past 17 years, some more of their money -- about $500,000 -- has gone to the production of a set of lavish volumes called "The Image of the Black in Western Art."
"It cost John de Menil about $100,000," the Democratic representative remembered, "to fix up 'The Deluxe.'
"I talk about him as if he were still alive," said Leland. "I really loved him. He was a feisty guy, he didn't give a damn for the establishment. He had me find the theater, it was falling all to pieces, and then he fixed it up for this terrific exhibition of modern abstract art."
"Sam Gilliam was in the show, he's here at the party," said Walter Hopps, a former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "They called it 'The Deluxe Show,' and it was just that. They had pictures by Ken Noland and Peter Bradley, and Clement Greenberg, the critic, flew to Houston just to see it -- Clem Greenberg in the ghetto. You should have seen the show."
The mayor was at the party. So was his predecessor, Walter Washington, and Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), and Livingston Biddle, the Arts Endowment's chairman, and Peggy Cooper, chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, and Warren Robbins, the founder and director of Washington's Museum of African Art.
"We are here to celebrate the publication of these wonderful volumes," said Joan Mondale. "These books are like time machines. The evidence has been there all along in our vaults, our libraries, our museums -- but we had not the eyes to see."
"You will see within these books," said Dominique de Menil, "all the fears and dreams, fantasies and prejudicies that Europeans entertained about Africa and Africans." She picked up Volume One, "From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire," and then she put it down. "I am not strong enough to hold it." Already in her 70s, she is gray-haired, frail, beautiful. "Why was the black portrayed in antiquity without scorn or prejudice? Why did the Holy Roman Germanic emperor in the 13th century choose St. Maurice, a black man, as his patron saint? When do we first see the face of the black king who brought gifts to Jesus? These books hold the answers. These books are very scholarly, but they are not just for scholars. They are for all those who need to know about the past in order to keep fighting for the present and the future."
"For the first years of my political career, John and Dominique de Menil were the lights of my life," said Leland. "I see her as incandescent. She's more than a patron, more than a philanthropist. She's a fighting human being, fighting for us all." He was standing on the stairs speaking to the crowd.
"Maybe I was elected to the Congress just to arrange this evening," Leland remarked, and his audience laughed.
"I can't tell you how much I meant what I said," said Leland. "I loved John de Menil. I was a hard guy in those days, a firebrand, a fighter. I went to the McGovrn convention and came back just disgusted with the system. I couldn't bear the sell-outs. John said, 'Take a trip. Go anywhere you want.' I said, 'I'm going to China.' He said, 'No you're not. You're going to Africa.' I went out for three weeks and I stayed three months. That voyage changed everything. John paid my way. It wasn't a grant from the De Menil Foundation. It was a gift from his personal self -- to his son."