- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

A relative recalled that Catherine Conover, daughter of the late Paul Mellon, was once “seen howling like a coyote in front of a painting by artist Albert Bierstadt.” That was one of the youthful escapades enjoyed by the daughter of the National Gallery of Art’s esteemed benefactor and trustee, whose legacy was celebrated Wednesday evening by 230 patrons and guests at an elaborate black-tie dinner.

The teller of the tale was Lavinia Currier, granddaughter of Mr. Mellon’s sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, another major gallery donor.

So powerful was Mr. Mellon’s impact on museum directors that the current head, Earl “Rusty” Powell III, was inadvertently referred to as “Rusty Mellon” by current board Chairman John Fontaine during remarks in the flower-filled Rotunda.

Knowing laughter greeted the slip, with Mr. Powell later acknowledging it as a compliment.

The Andrew Mellon Dinner, named in honor of the gallery’s founder, was held to mark the centenary of the birth of his son, Paul, who assumed responsibilities for the completion of the great national art museum project following the elder Mellon’s death in 1935. A documentary (“Paul Mellon: In His Own Words”) and a host of special cultural activities are on tap throughout the museum as part of the remembrance.

“A stunning example of how an individual can make a difference,” said board President Vicki Sant of the philanthropist, noting that 4.7 million people visited the NGA last year. “This bold achievement is a benefit to all of us.”

Family members traditionally attend the dinner and mingle with a host of Washington movers and shakers, this year including Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and the ambassadors of Russia, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Ireland — countries where many of the museum’s 116,000 works of art were drawn or conceptualized.

Artist Lou Stovall, in black shirt and tie, said he thought the last such gathering had been in 2002, and Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. remembered when he had to wear white tie for the occasion. Both men are among 50 trustee council members.

Appropriately enough, too, I.M. Pei, architect of the museum’s East Building, was present, as was Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Cristian Samper. Being a scientist in the job — he is on leave as head of the National Museum of Natural History — means “you learn to look at things from different perspectives,” he said of the new title thrust on him after the resignation of former Secretary Lawrence Small.

Cocktail conversation centered on Paul Mellon’s magnanimous contributions to the gallery over many decades. “They have to rank as arguably the greatest private gift of art to the public in history,” Mr. Powell said before reminiscing a bit about visiting the late oil and banking heir in his Whitehaven Street Northwest home before his death in 1995.

“One day he told me to walk around and see if there was anything on the walls that wasn’t already on the list of works he [was planning] to give,” Mr. Powell said, adding with a chuckle that “there was nothing we needed to ask for. He had an unerring eye.”

Other gifts are yet to come. As Mr. Powell noted, Mr. Mellon’s widow, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon” (who is in her mid-90s and was unable to attend the dinner) retains a life interest in about 50 works, mostly by impressionist masters.

Sen. John W. Warner said he remained thankful to Mr. Mellon for giving him a “total introduction to art” when he joined the clan after marrying Ms. Conover, the first of his three wives, in 1957.

“He never talked about price,” Mr. Warner said, recalling the numerous works by Renoir, Gauguin, Cezanne and Matisse that filled the walls of his father-in-law’s various homes. “They were like members of the family.”

Guests proceeding up the great marble staircases to dinner after being greeted by trumpeted fanfares represented a who’s who of the art and finance world, both inside the Beltway and beyond. “There must be about $25 billion in this room tonight,” one onlooker noted in amazement before sitting down to crab-and-lobster quenelle, filet mignon and Corinthian chocolate glace accompanied by three fine French wines.

Here are some of the others who were there: Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV and John F. Kerry (the latter with his wife, Teresa Heinz); Robert and Clarice Smith; Roger Sant; former Riggs Bank Chairman Joe L. Allbritton; financiers John C. Whitehead and B. Francis “Frank” Saul II; Louisa du Pont Copeland Duemling; Dian Woodner; Max Berry and his wife, Heidi (a Giant Foods heiress); billionaire abstract impressionist collector Mitchell Rales; Jo Carole Lauder; auto magnate Robert M. Rosenthal; Immaculada von Habsburg-Lothringen; Dame Jillian Sackler; artist William Christenberry; art historian John Wilmerding; photographer Diana Walker; and Virginia “Ozzie” Warner (Mr. Warner’s daughter by his marriage to Ms. Conover).

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