When six-year-old William Louis-Dreyfus saw a blind beggar in tinted glasses waving a tin cup on a Paris street, he emptied his pockets of coins for the man. William's wealthy grandmother looked on with disapproval. "You don't know if he was really blind," she scolded. "Even then, it struck me as the most extraordinary thing for someone to say," recalls Louis-Dreyfus. He then quotes the French writer Andre Gide, "God show his contempt for money by the quality of the people he bestows it on." Ironically, God blessed 81-year-old Louis-Dreyfus with a knack for making money -- lots of it -- in the high risk field of commodities trading, and he has spent a lifetime defying Gide's corollary.
But first, let's talk about Louis-Dreyfus's driving preoccupation, his love for art. William's father Pierre Louis-Dreyfus was one of the leading Jewish officers in the French resistance and a ball turret gunner in DeGalle's air war against the Nazis. Prior to escaping with his mother to Spain, William made bearable the smothering Nazi occupation of Vichy France with an addiction to the Louvre where he developed his discriminating eye. And so, when, as a young Wall Street trader in 1965, he earned a hefty bonus William blew the wad on eight Kandinsky watercolors. He had noticed, Max Ernst's paintings were achieving extraordinary values. "I reasoned that while Ernst was a good artist, Wassily Kandinsky was a master." Louis-Dreyfus wagered that intrinsic value would ultimately trump fickle public sentiment in the marketplace. "I bet that cream would rise."
As Louis-Dreyfus's commodities wagers paid off in spades, his art collection expanded. It now includes over 3,000 extraordinary pieces -- all chosen for their intrinsic value by his discerning tastes and stored in a warehouse/gallery he purchased near his home in Mount Kisco, New York.
Louis-Dreyfus's enthusiasms are eclectic spanning two continents and running from primitive scribblings to ultra-modern sculpture. Their common thread, in Louis-Dreyfus's words, is that every piece must have "substance." He looks for art that is "considered thoughtful and worked," the product of genius and intellect as well as intense, genuine, consuming labor. The collection includes 150 playful primitives by Alabama artist Bill Traylor, a former slave, whose legacy is an elegant menagerie of vibrant animals etched between the ages 80 and 83 with crayons donated by a young white college student who stumbled across Traylor on a Montgomery sidewalk and recognized his genius; James Castle, a deaf Idaho farm boy, who never learned to read or sign and whose favorite medium was soot and spittle applied with a tree branch; the oils and complex wood and metal constructions of Thornton Dial, an African American artist from North Carolina.
These three -- all are on their way to recognition as American masters -- were self-taught outsiders who, like Louis-Dreyfus, defied convention. Art mavens characterize Louis-Dreyfus's extraordinary ensemble as a "contrarian collection." The assemblage reflects his contempt for the trendy appetites that heap rapidly shifting value upon phantasmagoria. With this enigmatic smile, the gnomish Louis-Dreyfus dispenses wisdom with soft spoken charm and Yoda-like certainty. Warhol, he observes with good natured conviction is "a joke."
In addition to Dial, Traylor and Castle, Louis-Dreyfus was an early collector of now popular works including George Boorujy's giant colored ink animals. Catherine Murphy's pencil drawings and oils and Kurt Knobelsdorf's representational paintings and the works of collagist Sam Szafran and contemporary artist Alberto Giacometti. He noticed Eleanor Ray when she was still a student at the New York Studio School and began collecting her tiny 3x5 representations and landscapes. This year New Yorker critic Jerry Saltz singled out Ray's show as the one not to miss in 2014.
Louis-Dreyfus has established artists like pop artist Claes Oldenburg and pop contemporary sculptor and realist Red Grooms both of whom he has collected since the 1960s. "I will buy anything by Red Grooms," he says. He arrives early, looks for substance and content and, when he likes an artist, he goes in depth and supports them. Louis-Dreyfus's daughter, Emmy-winning actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and her husband, former SNL comic, writer and director, Brad Hall have produced an extraordinary film about the Louis-Dreyfus collection. As the documentary shows, the art and poetry loving financier doesn't just collect art, he collects artists. "He is the classic patron," says Boorujy. "His early support allowed me to keep producing my work." He cultivated the friendship and supported the work of a legion of American artists many of whom are now recognized among the greatest of their generation. His favorite place seems to be in the company of artists. He corresponds with them, visits their studios, engages them in riveting debates on philosophy, poetry, politics, and, of course, art. The movie puts this adorable, eclectic, and opinionated father and his enchanting relationship with his artists and famous and very funny daughter all on display.
The director, Hall, constructed the film, Generosity of Eye, around William Louis-Dreyfus's recent decision to sell his treasure trove to donate the proceeds to the projects of visionary African American educator Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the immensely successful Harlem Children's Zone. (You can view the film and glimpse some of the outstanding pieces in the Louis-Dreyfus collection here.) Canada's success with inner city education are the subject of the award-winning documentary Waiting for Superman. Louis-Dreyfus learned about Canada from a 60 Minutes segment and in subsequent conversations during a Wyoming fly fishing trip with Tom Brokaw, a Canada supporter. Canada's school educates the once forgotten children of Central Harlem, one of America's most blighted neighborhoods, nurturing their values and ambitions from kindergarten to college admission. This year, nearly 400 of Canada's kids were admitted to college defying the 60 percent dropout rates in surrounding communities. "The only permanent remedy for poverty" says Canada, "is education."
The sale of his art bonanza will be a boon for discerning collectors. Louis-Dreyfus says that parting with any of these masterpieces break his heart. However, he reasons, the masterpieces that Canada is crafting will ultimately be more valuable to the world and more enduring. "I'm a patriotic American," explains Louis-Dreyfus of his decision to give away his life's work. William Louis-Dreyfus has had a quiet lifelong devotion to African American education. "I love this country and if you truly love something, you want to erase her blemishes, and one of our country's darkest blemishes is the legacy of slavery -- which are still with us."