‘One of the last great gentlemen and bohemians’
Recalling the rich and colourful life of Earl McGrath, a man likened to Jay Gatsby — ahead of The Collection of Earl and Camilla McGrath offered at Christie’s in New York on 1-3 March
Few individuals have ever managed to seem truly at home flitting from one arena of modern American culture — art, literature, film, music — to another with any great degree of credibility. Among that select band, none can have done it with quite as much aplomb as Earl McGrath, whose private collection is to be offered at Christie’s New York on 1-3 March.
Content to remain anonymous to the wider world, Earl McGrath was one of post-war American society’s great insiders, counting among his friends a very long list of arts-world movers and shakers, led by the likes of Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Joan Didion, Barbra Streisand, and Bryan Ferry.
‘Earl had one of the most colossal Rolodexes of all time, filled with people of all stripes,’ recalled photographer Frederick Eberhardt in a Vanity Fair tribute to the ‘many-friended’ McGrath in early 2016. From the literary world it would also have contained the names of Michael Crichton, Gore Vidal, Anita Loos, Stephen Spender, Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.
McGrath, who worked as a scriptwriter in Los Angeles during the 1960s, also socialised with Audrey Hepburn, Anjelica Houston, Dennis Hopper, Sydney Pollack, Bernard Bertolucci and Wes Anderson. Not to mention assorted tycoons, aristocrats and royalty: the Agnelli family, Prince Rupert Lowenstein, Sabrina Guinness, Prince Michael of Greece.
The McGraths became immersed in the free-spirited heyday of rock and roll, jetting alongside Ahmet Ertegun and Bianca Jagger, touring with the Stones
McGrath’s story began in Superior, Wisconsin, a small harbour port in the Great Lakes. The son of an itinerant short-order cook, it wasn’t long before the teenage Earl began to display a wanderlust of his own, dropping out of high school and leaving home, ‘hanging out with Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles and going to see Henry Miller in Big Sur’, according to Vanity Fair. In the late 1950s he served with the Merchant Marine in Africa and the Middle East, and in Italy, in 1958, he met the woman he would later marry, Camilla Pecci-Blunt — a glamorous countess, and a descendant of Pope Leo XIII.
Camilla McGrath’s scrapbook, featuring Earl McGrath at 20th Century Fox in 1964. Photograph © Camilla McGrath
McGrath was working for 20th Century Fox in the early 1960s when he met perhaps the other most influential person in his life, the legendary co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, whose artists included Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. The two bon viveurs were kindred spirits. ‘Our conversation was about the last of the Great American Sin Streets,’ McGrath told The New Yorker in 1978, which described his distinctive characteristics as ‘a smile that swallows up his face in a rather unusual way, a high-pitched laugh, and an ability to extract punchlines from unpromising material.’
Earl McGrath (centre), with Cy Twombly (left) and Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, 1976. Photograph © Camilla McGrath
Ertegun invited Earl McGrath to join Atlantic Records in 1970; seven years later, McGrath was named president of the Rolling Stones’ eponymous record label. The McGraths became immersed in the free-spirited heyday of rock and roll, jetting alongside Ertegun and Bianca Jagger, touring with the Stones, and hosting late-night jam sessions in their New York apartment.
‘McGrath reminds me of Jay Gatsby,’ mused the writer Lili Anolik in a 2016 profile of his enduring ally, the novelist Joan Didion, also in Vanity Fair. ‘Not for the obvious reason — he threw killer parties — but because the claims about him seemed outlandish yet, somehow, plausible: “he ran Bobby Kennedy’s career”; “he ran Rolling Stones Records”; “he ran an art gallery”; “he was head of production for 20th Century Fox”; “he married an Italian countess”; “he gave Steve Martin his I’m-a-Little-Teapot routine”.’
To know Earl McGrath was to be part of an especially providential circle. ‘Earl is the Gertrude Stein of our era,’ artist Ron Cooper noted. ‘He had a salon like Stein. I met Andy Warhol through him... and Dennis Hopper and Michelle Phillips and Michael Crichton and Joan [Didion] and John [Dunne] and… just an amazing roster of people.’
McGrath assembled a kind of ‘family’ who, whether born into nobility or from more modest means, all shared a common belief in artistry and authenticity. ‘[Earl] was never impressed with anyone,’ actress Anjelica Huston said, ‘and he swam in rather heady circles. There was no fandom to him at all. He had no bones for that. He really didn’t care what anybody did or how much money they had. He was always there, always wanted to join the fun — and to be the fun.’
Earl McGrath often joked that as soon as he ‘understood’ something — be it writing, the music industry, or any other endeavour — it was time to abandon it. Art, however, proved to be his ultimate passion and puzzle: an unending source of inspiration. ‘If I ever figure out this art thing,’ he once teased gallery director Joshua Dov Levy, ‘we’re going to open up a bar.’
After leaving the music industry McGrath chose to focus his energies on art, transforming his home into a space to showcase both established and emerging figures
After leaving the music industry in the early 1980s, Earl McGrath chose to focus his energies on art, transforming his West Hollywood home into an Arata Isozaki-designed space to showcase both established and emerging figures. His appreciation for the creative process was evidenced by the attitude with which he ran his galleries: eschewing formality, McGrath promoted a dialogue with anyone with a passion for art and discovery. His focus was always on artists and their work, and how to best promote multiple generations of talent to collectors and patrons.
Like all great characters, fictional or real, much about McGrath remains shrouded in mystique, yet his two galleries, in Los Angeles and New York, testify to his deep love of art. ‘Collect art that you love to have on your walls, that you want to be part of your life,’ he commanded.
At their apartment overlooking Carnegie Hall, the McGraths lived surrounded by works created by such modern masters as Cy Twombly, Larry Rivers, Robert Graham and Brice Marden, all of whom were close friends. ‘[Earl and Camilla’s] collection really was so much about their friends and their friendships,’ confirms Laura Paulson, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s.
His great friend Harrison Ford — three of whose children were among McGrath’s two-dozen godchildren — saluted him as, ‘The last of a breed, one of the last great gentlemen and bohemians.’ Earl McGrath led the kind of life of which most of us can only dream. The next best thing, perhaps, might be to own one of the superb works of art that witnessed it all unfold.