"I must tell you that my husband died in my arms, and my life was shattered at that moment. It is a horrible thing to see someone you love die, especially if you were close, and we were very close."
It has been more than four months now since the multimillion-dollar financier and art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn collapsed of a heart attack outside his Kalorama home after he returned with his wife Olga from a performance of "Annie" at the Kennedy Center. Ambulances rushed the 82-year-old Hirshhorn and his wife, who had already attempted to revive her husband through cardiopulmonary resuscitation, to the George Washington University Hospital only minutes away. But at 11:59 p.m. he was pronounced dead. They had been out dancing only the night before.
When the details of his will were released, the public learned what Olga Hirshhorn, his fourth wife, had more or less known all along -- that Hirshhorn, the immigrant boy who had become one of the canniest money managers of his time, had left his entire personal art collection, a $5 million bequest, as well as the rights to oil royalties from some of his Canadian holdings, to the Smithsonian for the exclusive use of the Hirshhorn Museum. His original gift to the nation in 1965 had created the museum. His final bequest would sustain it.
The bulk of the remainder of his property -- his homes, his Rolls-Royce, his collections of American and English furniture, his collection of Oriental rugs -- were to be sold as part of the disposition of his estate. Olga, his wife of 17 years, was to receive a trust fund of $750,000, as well as their home in Naples, Fla., according to court papers in Florida; and she had received many other bequests of art over the years."I knew from the beginning he had always made provisions in his will to give everything to the museum," his widow reflects now. "It was pretty clear-cut. Those were his wishes. There were no problems with it."
What was a problem was how to go on without Joe Hirshhorn, the dynamic man whose wishes had been her pleasures ever since they first met in 1961 in Greenwich, Conn. He had called her employment agency in order to find staff for a home he had just purchased there. "I'm not much of a women's libber in the true sense, even though I worked," she volunteers now. "I liked being taken care of and protected. I liked being loved, and I had all that with my husband . . . I did the things that he wanted to do first."
It was not that she wasn't prepared for his death: After all, he was 21 years older than she was and had already survived two heart attacks. But "my whole life revolved around Joe," she says.
These days her life is still revolving around Joe Hirshhorn. Keeping busy with the details of an estate of such magnitude -- she is one of its three trustees -- has become her daily occupation. "It keeps me from crying in every corner of the house," admits Olga Hirshhorn, a pretty woman who looks like a figure painted by Renoir. By 9 o'clock each morning, she is dressed and ready to start the day, seated in the study that was her husband's, behind the sculpture-laden walnut desk that was his. Her workload is so demanding that she has had to give over her own desk and study to a secretary.
Olga Hirshhorn has a busy and consuming routine -- attending to the daily details and eventual sale of the couple's two Washington houses as well as their New York apartment; replying to the mountains of mail she receives; speaking regularly with the staff at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, the international auction house which, for a fee, is doing the inventory and appraisal of the art that will go to the museum as well as auctioning the furniture and rug collections; disposing of the contents of the houses; traveling to New York to confer with her husband's lawyers about general business matters.
Olga Zatorsky Cunningham Hirshhorn was, in fact, a businesswoman when she met her future husband. The youngest of three in a Lithuanian blue-collar family living in Greenwich, Conn., she had married her high school English teacher at 18. Mother of three sons by the time she was 25, and worried about paying for their education, she had managed several businesses from their home despite her lack of advanced education. A learn-to-swim group for toddlers had led to a day camp, then a nursery school, a baby-sitting service and finally an employment agency called Services Unlimited.
She met Joe Hirshhorn initially on the telephone when he called her agency to inquire about a chauffeur. She found him abrupt. He found her charming. He also had learned that she was separated from her husband. "He said he was attracted to me by my voice, by my efficiency, by the fact that I ran my own business, that I'd created it," she recalls. "He was a creative man himself, a self-made man. I like to think of myself as a self-made woman."
The Hirshhorn house required a large staff, and there were many phone calls to Services Unlimited. By the second or third call, Joe Hirshhorn surprised its proprietor with a direct inquiry. "Say, Mrs. Cunningham, how old are you?" Then by the fourth or fifth conversation, the dapper, and diminutive, Hirshhorn became even more direct with, "Say, Mrs. Cunningham, how tall are you?"
He phoned for help frequently, "10 times a day," she remembers, and eventually she went to work for him herself, directing the placement of his sculpture collection on the estate and generally helping to separate the Greenwich business affairs from those of the New York office. Two and a half years later, and after her 1962 divorce, they married. "I thought he would never ask me," she recalls.
For 17 years the Hirshhorns enjoyed a close married life. He had retired somewhat from the press of business that had absorbed him earlier, and they spent much of their time together. She shared busy years with him, years when his collection was courted by the governor general of Canada, the queen of England, Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York; years when he worked to establish good relations with the children of his earlier marriages, and the tumultuous time -- tinged with anti-Semitism -- in which his collection was argued about and then finally accepted by the nation in a museum bearing his name on the Mall.
In recent years here in Washington, where they moved in 1969, they established something of a routine. After breakfast he would settle down in his study, and she would go off to play tennis. When she returned, it was to lunch with Joe, to work in her own study, and a familiar question: "Did you beat her?" he would ask.
"Our marriage had a kind of craziness," she says now."We had such fun. Sometimes once or twice a month we would just lie in bed all day. Of course, it would always be on Sunday when the market was closed. We would giggle and think how silly this is. I miss that. Joe was a very simple man. He liked plain spaghetti. He didn't like steak. On his last birthday, one of my presents to him was to take him to McDonald's for lunch."
"And when he was here," she says, gesturing around the walls and table tops and corridors which overflow with his purchases of paintings and sculpture, "the whole house resounded with his presence."
Olga Hirshhorn has no timetable for her own life now. She is surrounded by friends and has not, in fact, spent one night without company or an invitation since her husband's death. But it is hard, she admits, to figure out a direction for herself. "For the first time in my life I don't have a man's arms around me. My children are all grown and I have nobody else to think about but myself. That's hard."
She does, however, have to accustom herself to thinking about business matters. "When I met my husband, I had to choose whether to learn about art or finance or mining, and I chose art," she explains. "As a result, when he died, I still didn't know the difference between a stock and a bond because it was just not important to me."
In fact, one of the first things that she did, almost automatically, after her husband's death was to cancel The Wall Street Journal. When the other executors told her she had to get involved in the business aspect of the estate, she groaned and said that she didn't even know how to find out the interest rates. She recalls their command with a smile. "It's all in The Wall Street Journal, so get it back."
Two days before Hirshhorn's death, his wife had had "the first and last and only lesson in finance that Joe gave me," she says. Her mother had died, and she was anticipating a small inheritance. She wanted to know what he thought she should do with the money. "First Joe said, 'Put it in a money market fund,' " she recalls, relishing the irony of the story. "Then he said, 'No, put it in tax-free bonds.' I said, 'I thought you didn't believe in bonds,' and he said, 'You know, there comes a time when you change your mind about things like that. I'll tell you what I'm buying . . .' "
At that point the phone rang. "Now," she says, "I've learned about treasury bills and notes, and bonds, and government funds. But not from Joe who could have told me everything I needed to know. Now I'm learning to read the reports myself."
If Joe Hirshhorn didn't actually imbue her with his business principles, some of his attitudes seem to have rubbed off. On a recent morning, dressed in a white blouse, light blue trousers, a matching blue cashmere cardigan, and espadrilles, she fielded phone calls from all over the country and Canada. As she efficiently ticked off the day's responsibilities, some of her husband's no-nonsense approach was evident in her conversations. She explained to a senator that he could have her support for a project, but not her financial support. She succeeded in completing the sale of a valuable and cherished piano in order to "stop bickering." She graciously refused a luncheon invitation she could not fit into her schedule, and joked that a widow would rather be invited to dinner.
Her manner was as polite and winning as ever, but her words left no doubt that she is developing an instinct for her task:
* "That's half of one percent off the top. Joe would never have let him get away with that. Why should we," she complained to a colleague about a fee.
* "I'm the buyer. You're the seller. You should come to see me," she explained, with delight at that particular discovery, to a real estate agent who was trying to interest her in a house.
Has she picked up any of his style? "No, although I suppose being exposed to him, you develop a hard-line attitude. And we are trying not to get rid of things too cheaply. I bargain hard even though I get no personal gain. I am afraid people will take advantage of me because of my inexperience."
"And I'm learning a lot. It keeps me busy. It doesn't give me a chance to cry."
Quietly stoking the fire in her husband's study, the fire that he loved to watch, she says she wishes they had spoken about the future. The only discussion they had involved his wish to be buried in a plain pine box, in accordance with Jewish tradition. But when it came to choosing the coffin, his widow, who herself converted to Judaism in 1973, was dismayed. For Joe Hirshhorn, she laughs, "They were really plain."
And the closest they ever got to discussing her future without him was his joking that after he died, "Olga will find two 40s for one 80."
"So did I.