"Matisse once remarked that he wanted his art to be like a comfortable armchair which surrounds a businessman," said Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Gardens."Joe was that businessman."
About 400 friends, admirers and art lovers gathered at a suitably modern-style synagogue here today to pay homage to Joe Hirshhorn, a man who was repeatedly eulogized as energetic, enthusiastic and enginmatic.
"I feel very strange talking of Joe in the past tense," said S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "I suffer from not being able to see the future clearly. I never assumed Joe would pass before I would . . . Joe seemed ageless." The one-hour memorial service included speeches from Ripley, Lerner, Hirshhorn's daughter, Robin Cohen, and Rabbi Ehrenkranz, a friend of the family.
Hirshhorn's body was in a traditional Orthodox, polished wooden casket with no metal used in the construction. All the joints were secured with wooden pegs and a Star of David was carved into the top.
"Joe wanted it that way," Rabbi Malcolm Thompson explained later. "He loved tradition; he loved ritual.He would even call up on the night of Hanukah and say, 'Where do I find the brass candles? Where are the books?' I never met a man to relish tradition like Joe did." He was buried in the Temple ShalomSholom Cemetery.
The burial in Greenwich, a "gold coast" town known for its wealthy residents, in itself was a mark of how far Hirshhorn, born to a poverty-stricken family in Latvia, had traveled in his 82 years. Before he donated his massive art collection to Washington, his magnificent house and grounds on John Street were a mecca not only for Greenwich residents but for art lovers around the world. And according to neighbors in this well-groomed community, he delighted in opening it for the known and unknown.
"I knew both him and his wife quite well and I was at their home a number of times," said Norma Perlstein, a Greenwich resident. "When I was in Washington it was fun because we would go to the museum and say, 'Hey, there's the piece that used to hang in Joe's bathroom.'"
A number of artists who shared affection with Hirshhorn attended, including Rubin Nakian, Batuz, Ella Tulin, David Douglas Duncan, Bob Eng, George Rickey and Larry Rivers, who two weeks ago had just begun a painting of Hirshhorn and his wife, Olga.
"He was a rare man," said Ripley, speaking after the serve and before some of the funeral party gathered for coffee, wine and cakes served by former Hirshhorn staff members and friends at the Round Hill Community Center. "I feel that he has left a testament of his passion of art with the Washington community. The past is full of vehement statements pro and con about his collection. But I feel that time has vindicated him well. It was a supreme gift to the nation.
"He would ask people he had just met the most personal questions," said Lerner, "and they would never mind because he was Joe Hirshhorn."
His son, Gordon Hirshhorn, speaking emotionally before the crowd in the synagogue, said, "The monks said, 'There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children -- one is roots, the other, wings.' He gave us both."
Henry Moore called me yesterday morning, it was such a surprise," said Olga Hirshhorn after the funeral. She was dressed in a white net beige dress. "He said, 'Olga I feel for you so badly.' We both wept a little, we talked a little. I told him Joe would have been so pleased to know that Henry called because he was so fond of Henry. We were so close to Henry.
"He had a real Orthodox casket, we even did the ritual rending of a garment that's personal," said Hirshhorn, holding a purple cloth remnant in her hand. "We will wear it for a week. Joe wore his tallit [prayer shawl] around him, but when his son and I were looking at him in his casket, I asked his son if he would like the tallit and he said he would, so we removed, and we replaced it with another one the rabbi had given us. It was a traditional Hebrew ceremony. I do think Mr. Hirshhorn would have liked it very much. All my friends said so. I didn't think it was showy."
She looked distracted but calm, her marble blue eyes gazing out beneath her silver gray hair.
"The best friend an artist ever had," said Ruben Nakian. "That was what Joe Hirshhorn was."
David Douglas Duncan, the photographer who has worked with so many of the world's great artists, flew in from his home in France to be at the funeral.
Olga Hirshhorn said that the family would be holding a week-long rites led by a minyan (the required 10 male Jews for religious services) at their home in Washington, beginning Sunday. "I think it is very traditional, the sort of thing Joe would have loved."