“Perfection is everything to Anne Bass,” wrote André Leon Talley in a 1988 paean to the philanthropist and balletomane who has died this week at the age of 78 following a long illness.
Born in Indianapolis to a distinguished surgeon, Anne Hendricks studied art history and Italian literature at Vassar, and in 1965 married her college sweetheart Sid Richardson Bass, whose family built a Texas oil fortune and subsequently diversified into investments that included, in the early 1980s, the Walt Disney Company, of which they were then the biggest shareholders. The couple had two daughters, Hyatt, a novelist, and Samantha, a photographer.
The soft-spoken Anne had antebellum manners, great cultural curiosity, a “Midwest work ethic that shapes her persistence and sense of duty,” as Vogue noted (she once confided that her childhood reading was primarily biographies of “women who were pioneers—Clara Burton, the student nurse who went to the trenches, and Agnes de Mille”), and, lurking perhaps unsuspected beneath the very highly polished veneer, a streak of wry humor. Although she rose to social prominence on the Manhattan scene in the glittering 1980s, Anne was always distinguished by her lack of ostentation and her quiet, under-the-radar philanthropy.
As a young mother in Fort Worth in 1970, she built a house of astounding modernity with Paul Rudolph (who in 1966 had designed the Sid W. Richardson Physical Sciences Building at Texas Christian University), a structure of jutting white painted steel and concrete planes set in manicured gardens created by the revered landscape architect Russell Page. Page’s careful orchestration reflected the sleek interiors, with their impeccable Bauhaus Mies van der Rohe furnishings in white and chrome, as well as walls hung with artworks by Morris Louis and Frank Stella (with family portraits by Andy Warhol, set en bloc above a Rudolph dining table of mirror and subway grating).
In the early ’80s, the Basses moved to Manhattan, where they acquired a soaring-ceilinged Rosario Candela apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue, and Anne, a dimpled blonde beauty, was soon a star in the city’s social and cultural firmament. Although she disdained the spotlight, she was always exquisitely dressed with quiet but imaginative elegance in haute couture by designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, and subsequently John Galliano at Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, and Jean Paul Gaultier. (Many of her couture masterworks have been gifted to the Metropolitan Museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center through the years.) Anne spent four years at 960 Fifth Avenue working with the decorator Mark Hampton, a fellow Indiana native and a courtly perfectionist with Anglophile tastes, to create one of the most remarkable and distinguished residential spaces in the city. He and Anne decided to retain the apartment’s classical 1920s architecture. “The vocabulary is traditional,” Anne explained, “and it would have been a sin to remove it and make it totally modern.”
In the living room, Anne matched a brace of joyous orange and yellow Rothkos (Shades of Red, 1961, and Number 1, 1962) on either side of a door that framed a moody Monet nocturne of London’s Houses of Parliament, and was placed as an eye-catcher over a dead center Georgian mantelpiece in the mirrored dining room (where more Miesian chairs had come to rest). On the opposite wall of the vast living room, an amber-color Morris Louis completed the sunset effect. Between them a suave arrangement of George II furniture, stripped of its water gilding and quietly upholstered in oyster damask, was set on a late 18th-century Axminster carpet, with flowers blooming on an earth-color ground. The fresh flowers were usually pale and invariably perfect: A brilliant but indiscreet florist once confided that nosegays of lily of the valley were dispatched and replaced the moment they threatened to show signs of fatigue.
For Vogue’s December 1988 issue, John Heilpern was sent to profile Anne, while André Leon Talley detailed “the careful cultivation of Anne Bass’s style.”
“Fresh linens are ironed and meticulously folded, carried to closet or bath in blond wicker trays, lined in scalloped-edged French piqué,” Talley noted, “In the linen closets, towels and linens are layered with handwoven faced laced in vetiver from Louisiana.”
“I wanted my bed to look like a 17th-century dress,” Anne declared, and it was hung with swags of dove gray silk faille, a color repeated in the entrance hall. (“I think the hall has about a hundred shades of gray to get that color,” she told Talley.)
The elegant biscuit-and-ivory library was filled with rare books on gardening and ballet, many of them exquisitely bound by a custom bookbinder. Anne was a voracious reader, although she admitted that it took her a decade to get through Proust: Her copies, as Talley noted, were “stuffed with airline boarding passes.”
The effect was entirely breathtaking, but despite the magnificent quality of everything in the apartment, it was ultimately designed as a backdrop for people and Anne’s prodigal entertaining, and when it was filled, everything blended into an extraordinary harmony, like the music that a renowned maestro could be expected to perform on the gleaming grand piano.
In 1986, the Basses separated and Sid married the exuberant Mercedes Kellogg, as extrovert as Anne was introvert, as passionate about the opera as the first Mrs. Bass was about the ballet. The gossip columnist Aileen Mehle (aka Suzy) broke the news and the event was cast as one of the preeminent society scandals of the decade, excruciating for a woman who was, in many ways, despite the outward glamour of her public appearances, intensely private and essentially humble.
Anne’s subsequent long-term partner was the wry British abstract artist Julian Lethbridge, with whom she always seemed to share a wonderful complicity.
Anne’s settlement, said to be the most generous ever in Texas at that point, allowed her to quietly assert her position as a cultural force to be reckoned with as her vision and philanthropy benefitted and shaped institutions that include the New York Public Library, Museum of Modern Art, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, New York Botanical Garden, and New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, among many others. She soon proved herself a formidable board member and persuasive fundraiser. In 1984, as chairperson for the 50th anniversary fund drive for the School of American Ballet, Anne raised $10 million.
Ballet was a great love, inherited from her mother, who was discouraged from pursuing it as a career (she took up golf instead). At the turn of the 1980s, the New York City Ballet company came to perform in Fort Worth and Anne was able to see them rehearse backstage, an experience that proved revelatory. “I remember the shock I felt,” she told Heilpern, “the breathlessness, perspiration, dancers dying at the effort. In a way it wasn’t even pretty to watch.” She was, however, bewitched by the art form. She numbered Mikhail Baryshnikov, Heather Watts, and Jock Soto among her close friends, and when her daughters left home, Anne returned to dance classes. (Degas’s Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, one of six original 19th-century artist’s casts, complete with its original and very fragile-looking plastered net tutu, was prominently if unnervingly displayed at 960 Fifth Avenue, set before Balthus’s Young Girl at the Window, 1955).
In January 2000, while touring Cambodia with the World Monuments Fund and exhausted from a day’s sightseeing, Anne was reluctantly persuaded to attend a dance recital in Preah Khan, in the magical 12th-century temple complex of Angkor. There she was captivated by the dance talents of Sokvannara Sar, a pupil at the local Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance. “I started thinking about Sy’s performance and the fact that he didn’t have a future there,” she told The New York Times. “And I couldn’t bear to think of that talent going to waste.” With what she admitted was a degree of naivete, Anne brought him to America to train as a classical ballet dancer. Sar’s uneven transition from village life in Cambodia to the rigors of ballet training, the surreal adjustment to American life in the Bass lane, and ultimately becoming a dancer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, was documented in Anne’s 2010 documentary Dancing Across Borders, coproduced by Catherine Tatge.
Anne’s flair for gardens was manifest in a property on the Caribbean island of Nevis and in a rambling estate in Connecticut, where she curated the view by apparently buying up everything in sight, restoring farmhouses and cottages for friends and family, and laying what appeared to be miles of handlaid dry stone walls. When driving in the adjacent countryside, where there were relaxed zoning laws in place, one was transported back a century or more into a seemingly untouched Currier and Ives landscape of pretty clapboard houses set in bucolic grounds, with still ponds and meadows, where Anne had introduced Randall cattle, a breed threatened with extinction, from Virginia to graze. As with everything she touched, the effortless elegance was achieved as the result of a great deal of thought, work, and rigor.
“It’s an amazing illusion,” Anne noted to Heilpern, talking of the gymnastic grace of ballet, although she might have been describing her own modus operandi. “You don’t see the strain at a performance. You shouldn’t. The better a performance, the more effortless it looks. Not many people really know the discipline that goes into striving for that…perfection.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue