Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

The Day I Met Georgia O’Keeffe

I first met Georgia O’Keeffe on a spring morning. I had been invited to meet her because of my job as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico. I had studied her and knew that she could be cranky and that younger women fawning over her was one of her pet peeves. Nevertheless I could not resist bringing her some white lilacs from a beautiful old bush that had been planted by one of her old enemies, Edgar Hewett*.

So, like so many others, I watched as she came out of her Abiquiu house, dressed in black, looking exactly as she did in the famous photos, and wearing the spiral Calder brooch. I was struck speechless.

As I was introduced, she looked hard at me and said: “Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, how did they let that happen?” I had no idea what to say, so I didn’t say anything, and she went on: “A woman, how did they let that happen? Come in.”

“I brought you some lilacs.” I finally ventured.

“They are dead,” she said. She was right; they were. It had been a hot drive from Santa Fe and I didn’t have the stems in water. “We have very good lilacs here in Abiquiu.” “I know,” I said, “but these are the last lilacs from a bush planted by Edgar Hewett.”

“Oh, then I like them very much,” she smiled.

I decided then that I wouldn’t talk anymore, having gotten out of that tricky situation, I was going to be more careful. But O’Keeffe continued to talk to me. I know now that she was pretty deaf, and that she liked talking to one person more than listening to a group.

“Would you like to see the house?” she asked. I assumed that she meant the group of lawyers and other men who were also there to see her. I stepped back so they could follow her. “No, I just mean her,” she snapped at them, and off the two of us went to see the famous Abiquiu house.

This was the beginning of a little friendship. O’Keeffe invited me back to see her in Abiquiu and I was amazed and flattered. She was funny and sharp and well aware of her place in the art world, not, as she was quick to say, as a woman artistbut as an artist.

*Edgar Hewitt, archaeologist and director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, famously feuded with O'Keeffe.

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