Simon, Norton Winfred

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Simon, Norton Winfred

(b. 5 February 1907 in Portland, Oregon; d. 2 June 1993 in Los Angeles, California), industrialist and art collector who founded the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Simon was the first of three children of Myer Simon, who sold surplus goods at his discount store, Simon Sells for Less, in Portland, and Lillian Glickman, a homemaker, who died of diabetes in 1921 when Simon was fourteen years old. Myer Simon moved with his children to San Francisco in 1922 and married Lucille Michaels the following year; they had no children.

Simon had a photographic memory and a genius for calculating numbers in his head. He wanted nothing more than to go into business when he graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco in 1923, at the age of sixteen. At his father’s insistence he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, but he left after six weeks. He helped his father import and market surplus goods and pursued independent business ventures in San Francisco until 1925, when he set out for Los Angeles. His family followed in 1929. Simon married Lucille Ellis, a social worker, on 3 February 1933. They had two children.

Simon acquired the first block of his corporate empire in 1931 by investing $7,000 in a bankrupt orange juice bottling plant in Fullerton, California. He intended to sell the equipment, but his father persuaded him to operate the plant for a year. The venture was profitable, so Simon kept it going, switching from bottles to cans and from oranges to tomatoes. In 1942 he acquired a controlling interest in additional food-processing plants, most notably Hunt Brothers Packing Company in Hayward, California. Simon took charge of the little-known firm and launched an aggressive advertising campaign, “Hunt for the best.” Within three years it was a household slogan, and Hunt was among the biggest food-processing companies on the West Coast.

Known as an early corporate raider, Simon targeted undervalued companies, bought enough stock to gain control, and turned them into highly profitable enterprises. His tactics, including shrewd exploitation of wartime shortages, earned him so many enemies that in 1953 Fortune magazine dubbed him “the most unpopular businessman in California.” Simon insisted that he was merely performing a service for shareholders as he took charge of Ohio Match Company, Wesson Oil, Snowdrift Company, Northern Pacific Railway Company, McCall Corporation, Canada Dry, Knox Glass, and Wheeling Steel. By 1965 Hunt Foods and Industries, Inc., had either merged with or obtained large holdings in twenty-seven companies, giving the conglomerate a $72 million portfolio.

In 1954 Simon began to apply his business acumen and some of his fortune to a new challenge, collecting fine art. He made his first purchase, a $16,000 portrait by the French impressionist Pierre-August Renoir, to decorate his new house in the Hancock Park district of Los Angeles, and he soon became a voracious and extraordinarily savvy collector. He educated himself by consulting the best-informed scholars at great length and at all hours of the night, then made his own decisions and drove hard bargains. His initial fascination with the French impressionists and postim-pressionists broadened to encompass early modern art and old master paintings. Spanning the thirteenth through the twentieth centuries, his collection included fine works by Guariento di Arpo, Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacopo Bassano, Francisco de Zurbarán, Rembrandt, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso.

In 1964 Simon made the largest purchase of his collecting career, the entire inventory of Duveen Brothers, a New York dealership that shaped America’s greatest collections of European art from the 1880s to the late 1930s. His acquisition of more than 400 artworks, a 12,000-volume library, and the five-story building that housed them had a market value of $15 million. He paid only $4 million and recouped most of it by selling the library to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and auctioning off minor artworks and decorative objects.

Simon weathered profound changes in both his professional and personal life from 1968 to 1971. In 1968 he consolidated Hunt Foods and Industries and the companies it controlled into Norton Simon, Inc., and relinquished his administrative position. His emotionally troubled younger son, Robert, fatally shot himself in the head on 29 October 1969, at the age of thirty-one. In December 1969 Simon resigned as a director of Norton Simon, severing his last managerial tie with the conglomerate he had built. To the astonishment of his friends and family, he plunged into national politics in 1970 and ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Later that year he and his wife of thirty-seven years were divorced.

Single again, Simon accepted an invitation to escort the actress Jennifer Jones to a social event early in May 1971. The irascible sixty-four-year-old tycoon and the glamorous movie star twelve years his junior seemed an unlikely couple, but their blind date began a whirlwind courtship. They were married aboard a ship off the coast of England on 30 May 1971. The couple had no children. During their honeymoon trip to India, Simon visited the National Museum in New Delhi, where he was smitten with Indian art. Within a few years he acquired about 600 sculptures from India and Southeast Asia.

Simon also played a public role in higher education and visual art. Despite his abbreviated college career, he served as a University of California Regent from 1960 to 1976. Ever the outsider, he challenged funding cutbacks, sympathized with student dissidents, and opposed the firing of the black activist Angela Davis. In search of a home for his growing art collection, he tried to establish a museum with the city of Fullerton, became a founding trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and loaned large groups of artworks to educational institutions across the country. His quest ended with a controversial move in 1974, when he took charge of the bankrupt Pasadena Art Museum, including its debt and 7,000-piece collection of modern and contemporary art, and renovated it. When it reopened in 1975, Simon’s collection occupied three-fourths of the space. Several months later, he changed the name of the institution to the Norton Simon Museum.

Simon contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1983. Agonizing over the fate of his artistic legacy, he devised a plan to give his collection to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and considered a merger with the J. Paul Getty Museum but ultimately left his museum intact. It was not given to UCLA. At his death from complications associated with his neurological disorder, his 12,000-piece holding was widely acclaimed as the best private collection of art amassed in the United States since World War II. He is buried in Los Angeles.

Papers on Simon’s art collection are at the Norton Simon Museum. Suzanne Muchnic, Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture (1998), is the only full-length biography of Simon. Profiles include Freeman Lincoln, “Norton Simon—Like Him or Not,” Fortune (Dec. 1953), and articles in the New York (Times (31 May 1972), and Los Angeles Times (1 Aug. 1971 and 24 June 1990). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (4 June 1993) and New York Times (4 June 1993).

Suzanne Muchnic