'My nets grew beyond myself and beyond the canvases I was covering with them. They began to cover the walls, the ceiling, and finally the whole universe' Yayoi Kusama, 1964
From the paneled drawing rooms of Embassy Row to the silvered walls of Andy Warhol’s Factory, few individuals so effortlessly navigated the spheres of both the old and the new as the collector and cultural patron Ina Ginsburg. Elegant, quick, and always charming, she exuded an Old World refinement that secured her place as one of Washington, D.C.’s most esteemed hostesses and public figures. Behind the Continental exterior, however, was a fiercely intelligent woman in conversation with many of the greatest artists, politicians, and thinkers of the twenty-first century. In her many years as a doyenne of Washington society, Ina Ginsburg brought an international flair and, above all else, commitment to ideas that left the nation’s capital forever changed.
A CONTINENTAL UPBRINGING
Born in Vienna in 1916, Ida Spira—later called ‘Ina’—enjoyed a cultured upbringing in the great cities of Europe. Her family was comfortably placed within Austrian society, allowing the collector to experience the art, film, literature, and music of the classical era through the pre-war period. Ginsburg’s love of the arts would come to inform her very public role as a staunch advocate for their role in the public sphere. Enriched by the cultural vibrancy of her youth—“Where I come from, opera’s kind of in your blood,” she declared—Ginsburg would devote herself to bringing that same dynamism to the United States. Her keen sartorial eye was developed with the guidance of her mother, a dressmaker and designer who traveled with her daughter to visit couturiers such as Christian Dior in Paris. Recognizing the crucial role of individuals such as her mother, Ginsburg argued against those who failed to recognize the importance of fashion: “I was trying to support the industry,” she said of her reputation in style, “[and] the many, many people behind the designers, the entire ensemble.”
Educated, chic, and talented, the young Ina had the world at her feet. Like so many of her generation, however, the collector’s life was forever changed by the arrival of the Second World War. With the German annexation of Austria in 1938, the Jewish Spira family converted to Catholicism; with her blonde hair and light eyes, the collector could avoid confrontation with the occupying forces. Ginsburg managed to flee to Paris with her first husband, the Austrian fencing champion Kurt Ettinger, and found work as a film extra, among other ventures. The couple were separated when Ettinger was sent to a concentration camp; although he survived and ultimately relocated to the United States, the war ended the marriage.
As the conflict in Europe pressed on, Ginsburg made her way through Franco’s Spain and into Portugal. There, she bribed her way onto the S.S. Quantz, a Portuguese steamship filled with passengers seeking refuge in North America. The story of the S.S. Quantz and its passengers, which included Ginsburg and the Casablanca actress Madeleine LeBeau, became a matter of public concern in 1940. After many of the passengers were denied entry into both New York and Mexico, the ship stopped to refuel in Norfolk, Virginia. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the remaining travelers, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally intervening to ensure their entry into the United States. Safe from the conflict on the Continent, Ginsburg traveled to Chicago, where she established a friendship with the lawyer and businessman A.N. Pritzker. He assisted the collector in obtaining American citizenship, and Ginsburg enthusiastically embraced her new homeland.
The young woman’s beauty and charisma earned her early acclaim in the United States, when she acted under the stage name Christina Esslay with the Hilltop Players, a Baltimore theatrical troupe. Yet despite her fascinating and unique personal trajectory—one that stretched from Vienna, Paris, New York, and beyond—Ginsburg forever maintained a dignified reticence toward her life before the war. Indeed, it was not until her marriage to the lawyer and activist David Ginsburg that the collector would embrace the very public persona for which she became known. It would be a narrative of her own making, one that embraced the possibilities of art, philanthropy, and community in the nation’s capital.
DOYENNE OF THE DISTRICT
The collector met David Ginsburg in Vienna, where she had returned to reclaim family property lost during the war. An aide to General Lucius D. Clay, Sr., overseer of the remaining American forces in Europe, Mr. Ginsburg was a major force in reorganizing the post-war German economy. He would later lead President Lyndon B. Johnson’s groundbreaking 1960s commission on race relations, and served, alongside his wife, as a major Washington social figure until the couple’s divorce. The Ginsburgs settled in the capital’s historic Georgetown neighborhood, where they raised their children Jonathan, Mark, and Susan. It was also in Washington that the collector would establish her own sterling reputation as a hostess, intellectual, and icon of taste. Through some ten presidential administrations, Ina Ginsburg epitomized the cachet of the city Warhol referred to as “Hollywood on the Potomac.”
From dinners with President John F. Kennedy—the collector memorably hosted the president during a Washington blizzard—to masked opera balls and dining at home with Elizabeth Taylor, Ina Ginsburg was a woman whose social circle ran the gamut of politics and culture. Of a 1979 gala hosted by Ginsburg in honor of the film Cabaret, the New York Times reported that guests “danced under crystal chandeliers with Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Treasury Secretary G. William Miller, and the Crown Prince of Lichtenstein”—such was the diverse coterie with which the collector surrounded herself. A frequent guest in the Kennedy Center’s presidential box and a fixture of the capital’s most important cultural and political engagements, Ginsburg’s relaxed nature put her at ease with individuals of all backgrounds and histories. Acting as a kind of gatekeeper to the close-knit realm of capital high society, the collector’s joie de vivre brought tremendous life to an oftentimes-staid city.
Despite her local prominence, Ginsburg always preferred to promote art and culture over herself. “I don’t think I could have been as active in the arts in any other country,” she quipped, “as very few devote so little resources to the arts as the United States.” The collector worked tirelessly to bring together the elites of art, politics, law, and business to support the arts’ essential national role. Chairman Emeritus of the Fans of the American Film Institute—former AFI director George Stevens, Jr., called her the “Godmother of Movie-Going at the Kennedy Center”—Ginsburg employed her social connections to promote the study, preservation, and dissemination of film. Over the years, the collector established a star-studded subscription film club for the AFI; a film festival for the European Communities; showcases for new Arab cinema; and, at nearly ninety years old, the popular Opera Goes to the Movies series of embassy screenings. “My dream,” Ginsburg remarked, “has always been to bring Europe and the U.S. together. Billions are spent on public diplomacy but sometimes smaller ways can be very effective.”
Ina Ginsburg’s prodigious philanthropic eye extended throughout Washington, D.C. By supporting institutions such as the American Film Institute and Washington National Opera, the collector immeasurably raised the profile of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Ginsburg’s presence at the capital’s most important cultural events—alongside names such as Halston, Graham, and Kissinger—brought a kind of European sophistication and New York energy to the relatively demure city. Appalled by the “embarrassingly empty” walls she encountered during a reception at the Federal Reserve—“The main reception room had a still life of a dead fish,” Ginsburg lamented—the collector became instrumental in the creation of a fine arts advisory board and exhibition program at the prestigious central bank. No one who encountered Ina Ginsburg on the social circuit or her own elegant Georgetown residence could fail to appreciate her absolute dedication to fostering beauty and art in both Washington and beyond.
A LEGACY IN ART AND IDEAS
In a diary entry from August 1980, Andy Warhol describes attending a party with Ina Ginsburg at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan: “Ina knew everybody,” he writes, “and was introducing us to everybody, but I could only remember half of the names of the people I knew, so I wasn’t so good for her.” Warhol’s modesty masks the indelible contribution both collector and artist made to each other. Ginsburg’s life was spent bringing out the very best in those around her: whether in music, film, fine art, or conversation between friends, her signature achievement was to incite a culture of Washington enlightenment that continues to this day. Even into her later years, Ginsburg could be found at parties, dinners, and charitable events across her beloved city, a stylish force for good wherever she went. Of her life in the United States, the collector declared simply, “It’s a very unpredictable country – and I don’t think I could live anywhere else.”