Hilla von Rebay: Westport’s Other Baroness

Gabriele von Langendorff — the subject of a recent “06880” story — is not Westport’s only baroness.

Lrt’s not forget Hilla von Rebay.

According to the German website Spiegel, she was “an obsessed patron of art, and the long-time girlfriend of one of the United States’ richest men.”

She also inspired the Guggenheim Museum.

Hilla von Rebay, around 1915.

Hilla von Rebay, around 1915.

Von Rebay was born in Alsace in 1890. Her father was a Prussian general. She attended a private school in Paris, then “dove head first into the bohemian lifestyles of Munich, Berlin, and sometimes Paris, before spending time with the Dadaists in Zurich.” She had “numerous affairs,” including one with Hans Arp.

In 1926, she came to the US. She was soon known as “one of the most powerful but also most eccentric women in the art world.”

She met Solomon Guggenheim — who was 30 years older — and one of America’s wealthiest men. She inspired his interest in art, and advised him on what became his noted and extensive collection,

The pair — with Guggenheim’s “querulous looking wife” — traveled throughout Europe. They met “young and wild” people like Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, and bought hundreds of pieces of art.

Guggenheim and von Rebay rented an apartment at New York’s Plaza Hotel, and put on art exhibits there. They formed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1939, and planned a new building on Central Park.

The baroness was influential in selecting Frank Lloyd Wright (who called her a “superwoman”) to design what became the Guggenheim Museum. It took nearly 2 decades to complete, due to problems with finding a proper site, revisions of plans, and material and labor shortages during and after World War II.

Hilla von Rebay with a model of the proposed Guggenheim Museum, 1946.

Hilla von Rebay with a model of the proposed Guggenheim Museum, 1946.

During the process, von Rebay had a falling-out with the Guggenheim family. “My aunt was a difficult person who liked writing nasty letters,” said her nephew Roland von Rebay. Three years after Guggenheim died in 1949, the family ousted her from the museum’s board of directors.

She was not invited to the opening of the new Upper East Side building in 1959. In fact, she never set foot in it.

That chill thawed in the 2000s. A Guggenheim exhibit showcased “this extremely independent woman.” A book and documentary honored her life and work.

So what’s the Westport connection?

Baroness von Rebay owned an estate at 83 Morningside Drive South, called Franton Court. She bought it in 1937 and retreated there after battling the Guggenheim family, finding solace in her lawns and gardens. Every year, tulips were shipped from the Netherlands.

Hilla von Rebay in Westport in the 1940s, with Rudolf Bauer, Fernand Legerand and others.

Hilla von Rebay in Westport in the 1940s, with Rudolf Bauer, Fernand Legerand and others.

Former Westporter Vivianne Pommier remembers her well. The house was filled with “millions and millions of dollars of art.”

“We would be invited over for lunch or dinner,” Pommier recalls. “She would pull Klees and Kandinskys from behind the toilets. Amazing paintings were crammed into every place possible — on walls, and behind things.”

Hilla von Rebay: a self-portrait.

Hilla von Rebay: a self-portrait.

The Westport Historical Society featured her in a 2005 exhibit. It included her paintings and pochoirs, and works of artists she promoted like Vasily Kandinsky, Rudolph Bauer and Alexander Calder.

Von Rebay died in 1967. She left much of her personal collection to the Guggenheim.

Two acres of her estate — including her home and outbuildings — were sold. Four other acres became building lots.

But 8 1/2 acres of Franton Court are now part of the  Aspetuck Land Trust. Those gardens, specimen trees, wooded wetlands and trails are preserved as a nature and wildlife sanctuary — and are open to the public.

You won’t see any art there. But you will feel connected to one more rich — if long-forgotten — piece of royal Westport history.

Part of the Hilla von Rebay collection.

Part of the Hilla von Rebay Arboretum.


17 responses to “Hilla von Rebay: Westport’s Other Baroness

  1. Dorrie (Barlow) Thomas

    considering this address and that there was an estate with, no doubt, a nice, big house, I remembered the home of a childhood friend…Maybe someone else who knew this friend can chime in to corroborate? I am from the Staples class of ’86…I think she moved away before high school, but we went to Greens Farms & Long Lots together…anyone else remember Dada Mahr? I don’t know what country she was from, but I recall her parents did not speak English. I just looked up the property on Google Maps and the Franton Court house was definitely her house! It was a very grand house that included a ballroom…as a 6th grader, that seemed utterly amazing! The property was huge, with a cottage and scores of beautiful flowering trees and gardens.
    I’ve always wondered about that mysterious house–thanks for this post, Dan!

  2. Vivianne Pommier

    It was an amazing property, and house, and an incredible woman that because of my parents, I was able to learn about art.
    It actually carried me through college as an art history major being able to see these many many paintings not hung in a museum was quite an experience.

  3. Thank you for this lovely retrospective of Hilla Von Rebay’s life, Dan. Our Rebay Preserve is a beautiful spot and is located here: http://aspetucklandtrust.org/17120

  4. Fascinating story, Dan. Thanks. I already checked out the map at the Aspetuck Land Trust site, but could have come here for David Brant’s comment and found it even more easily. I will visit there soon. Do you know how a baroness ranks with other titles?

  5. Hey Dan, heard somewhere she was investigated / jailed for pro German sentiment in World War One, or something like that?

    • Wow — very interesting. And apparently correct. According to the Dictionary of Art Historians (https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/rebayh.htm):

      “She was arrested in the United States during World War II on charges of being a Nazi sympathizer (which were later dropped), and for hoarding rationed foodstuffs, which were sustained.”

    • Randy Hammond

      Dan –

      Thanks for the story – so interesting.

      Also I did find an article in the Syracuse Herald-Journal from December 7, 1942 – aside from being the 1st anniversary of Pearl Harbor, our Baroness was being held in Boston…

      Baroness Arrested As Possible German Alien in OPA Raid

      Boston, Dec 7 (INS) – Baroness Hilla von Ehrenweisen Rebay of Bridgeport, Conn., was held in Boston today pending investigation of her status as a possible German enemy alien.
      Arrested by Federal authorities at her Green Farms estate yesterday, the baroness was brought here when purported Nazi propaganda and letters were found. Also uncovered were 1,400 pounds of sugar, 500 pounds of coffee and three cases of tea.
      OPA officials, who also took part in the raid, said the hoarded foodstuffs would be sold at auction.

  6. David Squires

    Great History of a Beautiful spot i drive by many times per day! Thanks for the back story Dan!

  7. The Rebay Preserve is one of those “hidden gems”, hiding in plain sight in Greens Farms. Yet another wonderful asset preserved and cared for by the Aspectuck Land Trust. Many thanks to those who support ALT!
    Art Schoeller
    Greens Farms Association

  8. Wendy Cusick

    I’ve been driving by this for years! Always enjoyed this section. Never knew it was part of the Land Trust! Thanks for the story and the link from Mr. Brant.

    By the way, does anyone have any news of the 12 acres of the open land (Clapboard, Morningside Dr and Turkey Hill) and the house (former farm) on Morning Side Drive. The For Sale sign is gone and they’re air rating (spelling is off) the land with the white pipes (methane gas?). Kowalsky’s own it I think? Or a another long time native Westport family?

  9. We lived across the street and we used to play in the gardens as kids before the property was broken up. It was like a private park. It’s too bad lawyers found a way to break up one of Westport’s gems.

    • Do you know the story of how the land went to the ALT? I heard something about the estate originally giving all the land to the town, which then sold off a couple building lots and gave the rest to the ALT. – chris woods

  10. Vivianne Pommier

    I had also heard from my parents about her investigation concerning her loyalties to Germany. There was also some “rumors” that pieces of art from her estate was also sent back to Germany.
    This I can not verify.