I was saddened to read, early Saturday morning, of the death of Vartan Gregorian. You’ve probably never heard of him. I hadn’t, before I met his son, Vahe, and later the man himself, during my year in Ann Arbor. Vahe, a sportswriter then in St. Louis and now in Kansas City, was in my Knight-Wallace Fellowship class. Vartan was invited to be one of our seminar speakers later that year.
Like I said: Never heard of him, but then, I was a Midwestern girl. He was president of the Carnegie Corp., and about as big a cheese as you could be in New York City, as we were all soon to learn.
Vartan served as president or provost at several universities, but his real claim to fame, and the centerpiece of his NYT obit linked above, was that he saved the New York Public Library from near ruin. He had his work cut out for him:
The underpaid, overworked staff was demoralized. The beautiful Gottesman Exhibition Hall had been partitioned into cubicles for personnel and accounting. Tarnished chandeliers and lighting fixtures were missing bulbs. In the trustees’ board room, threadbare curtains fell apart at the touch. Outside, the imperious marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, and the portals they guarded, were dirt-streaked. Bryant Park in the back was infested with drug dealers and pimps and unsafe after dark.
But the main problems were not even visible. The library faced a $50 million deficit and had no political clout. Its constituencies were scholars, children and citizens who liked to read. The city had cut back so hard that the main branch was closed on Thursdays, and some branches were open only eight hours a week.
To Dr. Gregorian, the challenge was irresistible. The library was, like him, a victim of insult and humiliation. The problem, as he saw it, was that the institution, headquartered in the magnificent Carrère and Hastings Beaux-Arts pile dedicated by President William Howard Taft in 1911, had come to be seen by New York City’s leaders, and even its citizens, as a dispensable frivolity.
He seemed a dubious savior: a short, pudgy scholar who had spent his entire professional life in academic circles. On the day he met the board, he was a half-hour late, and the trustees were talking about selling prized collections, cutting hours of service and closing some branches. He asked only for time, and offered in return a new vision.
It so happened that 1980-ish is when I started receiving the Columbus Dispatch fashion editor’s copies of Women’s Wear Daily, and I remember that new vision appearing in its society columns: The Literary Lions, a huge fundraising effort led by business titans, socialites like Brooke Astor and Vartan, which coincided with the city’s comeback and the flood of financial-industry money rolling in from Wall Street. What better, what nobler cause than libraries and literacy? People like Jackie Onassis and Isaac Bashevis Singer jumped on board, along with…pretty much everybody.
It was a huge success. The grand institution was saved. By the time he spoke to our group in Ann Arbor, he’d long since moved on. The night he visited, Wallace House was at standing room only, with many of the guests other university administrators who’d worked with him at one of his previous posts — Brown, Penn, University of Texas. The atmosphere was like a low-key Bruce Springsteen concert prelude. I soon learned why.
He spoke that night about his stewardship of the committee that chose the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan. (This was 2004, and I believe Maya Lin’s design had recently been revealed to the public.) As you can imagine, every macher in New York wanted to be on that committee, and the ones who were selected all had their own ideas about how it should do its work and what the winning design should look like. Vartan talked about how he tamed these mustangs, hitched them to his wagon and got them pulling in one direction as a team.
Wallace House seminars were officially off the record, and we were discouraged from even taking personal notes. If I had a recording of that talk, I could sell it as a MBA-level class in effective management. I can’t even recall individual details now, but how he made them all responsible for the entire group’s success, kept them from leaking to the media to their advantage, and even showing up to every meeting so that their work could proceed smoothly and quickly? Was genius, like watching someone work a complicated math proof in 30 seconds. And he did it all through charm and ego-stroking and flattery; I doubt he had enough strong-arm in his personality to lift a coffee cup, but he could levitate it and make it dance in the air through the focus of his attention.
I got a glimpse of that part later. We had the chance to ask questions, and I posed an overlong and convoluted one. I’d recently read a scathing critique of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial in the New York Observer, and the writer made the case that its biggest flaw was: Too Soon. Tragedies need time to understand, particularly those with political elements, and in its rush to honor those who died in the Murrah building that day, the designers had left out the Why of it all.
So I asked Vartan about Too Soon, but said that lower Manhattan real estate was some of the most valuable in the world, and was the goal to get an appropriate memorial up while they still could, or something like that. I don’t recall his response (probably “yes”), but I do remember afterward, when we were introduced and he said, “That was such a smart question! Why aren’t you working for the New York Times?” He had that gift, so vital in a fundraiser, of making the person you’re talking to feel like a) the focus of 100 percent of your attention; and b) the most interesting person in the world. And to somehow do it without a whiff of ass-kissing or sucking-up or smarminess. He just liked you so much! Thought you were great!
His late wife, Clare, called him “the one-man swarm,” someone who could pay a call at any Upper East Side apartment and leave with a check worthy of transport in an armored car. No wonder he saved the library. No wonder he boosted the endowments of all his academic employers. No wonder he appeared so often in Bill Cunningham’s Evening Hours column that after we met, I started looking for him there. I thought of him as the Silver Goatee of Merriment.
Anyway, because of my belief that personalities are always more interesting with a little shadow in the picture, I should also say that Vahe, Vartan’s son, said his upbringing wasn’t always easy, that as the American son of an Armenian immigrant, they had profound differences as he grew up. I’m sure that as a PhD who wrote books and spoke seven languages, it probably drove Vartan crazy to have a son who played football and read Spider-Man comics. But by the time I met them, they seemed to be on the best of terms. In his later years, with the Carnegie Corp., Vartan mostly gave money away, and often took his family with him to faraway destinations to watch the check-passing and do a little sightseeing after.
One such trip was to a town in South Africa, where Vartan was endowing, what else, a library. The rest of the family arrived jet-lagged and slept through the ceremony, all except for Vahe’s wife, Cindy, who was a witness. She told me the town made a big fuss, and the fuss included a band with high-stepping dancers, or majorettes, or something, and how delighted Vartan was to see it all. He would have been around 80 by this point, a man who’d stood in the Oval Office to receive the Medal of Freedom, whose Rolodex and life experiences included literally everybody who was anybody all over the United States, and he was thrilled by a band in a dusty town in South Africa.
That, I’m telling you, is how to live your life. Condolences to his family, and all who knew him. The hole he leaves in the world is immense.
Postscript: If I’d had a chance to meet him in recent years, I’d ask him about Donald Trump. Trump’s rise coincided with the Literary Lions, and I’m sure that social-climbing piece of crap got his foot in the door of a few of those dinners. I bet he had some stories. I hope he told them to someone before he left us.