The lost Gerald Ford portrait: An art mystery

Lisa Belkin
·Chief National Correspondent

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill presents Susan Ford Bales with a recently rediscovered painting of her father, President Gerald Ford, on July 14. (Photo: Mike Carter)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — This is the mystery of a painting that no one knew was missing. It’s the story of an often overlooked president, a painter’s proudest moment and a cluttered coat closet in a tony suburb of Boston. The tale begins in that coat closet (though some would argue it also begins at an unknown place and time years earlier). And it ends — unsolved but at least somewhat resolved — in a stately presidential library at noon today, where a president’s daughter is surprised to learn that the painting, and its mystery, even exist.

Late last fall Susan Edgman-Levitan finally got around to cleaning out the stack of framed pictures in her Chestnut Hill home. She had been decluttering, room by room, for months by then, and now it was time to tackle the collection of bubble-wrapped stuff behind the door of the walk-in coat closet. She had a vague memory of stowing them away back there when her daughter brought home a variety of prints from a semester abroad in 2010. Amelia had sent everything out to be framed, then took the few she liked best back to her college dorm, leaving the rest in storage with Mom and Dad.

About halfway down the pile was something that was most definitely not a reproduction print from a museum gift shop. It was in a “very primitive frame, not a professional-looking job at all,” Edgman-Levitan noticed from the back, and then she turned it around to find herself looking into the eyes of a man who felt familiar but she couldn’t immediately place. It was a good-quality oil painting, by someone with talent, of someone with presence. There was a resemblance to her brother, “but no, I don’t think that’s Tom,” she thought. Perhaps a relative on her husband’s side?

As she was staring, her husband, Richard Levitan, came into the room and looked over her shoulder at the canvas in her hand.

“Isn’t that…” he began.

The name came to her just as he said that, and they finished the sentence together…

“Isn’t that … Gerald Ford?”

Gerald R. Ford. The 38th president of the United States. Named vice president by Richard Nixon when Spiro Agnew resigned amid scandal, then President Nixon did the same. Served two and a half years before losing to Jimmy Carter because Americans were angered by Ford’s pardon of Nixon, a pardon that history would consider to be a first step toward national healing. The Gerald Ford who was mocked on “SNL” for always falling down, and who never really did get the respect he arguably deserved.

That Gerald Ford.

How the heck did he wind up in their coat closet?

*****

The first thing the couple did was call their daughter. After all, it was her collection of art prints that had been keeping this painting company all these years.

“She thought it was hilarious that Gerry Ford got lost in our house,” her mother says. “But she had no idea how it happened.”

Then they called their good friends Rose and David Thorne. That couple had lived abroad when he was ambassador to Italy between 2009 and 2013, and their daughter had stored some belongings at the Levitans’ Boston house since her parents’ home wasn’t available.

“Maybe this belongs to Emma?” Edgman-Levitan wondered.

It did not.

Next on the list, the framing store — the presidentially named Kennedy Framers on Charles Street in Beacon Hill. The owner had no memory of anyone bringing in a presidential portrait for framing over the years, and no, nobody had come in to complain that a Gerald Ford portrait had gone missing.

None in their group of friends — their very Democratic group of friends — seemed to have somehow left it by mistake after a visit either. “We racked our brains trying to remember the last time a Republican had even been in our home,” Edgman-Levitan jokes.

So behind the door it remained through much of this past winter. Then, in February, Edgman-Levitan, who when she isn’t cleaning closets is the executive director of the Center for Primary Care Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital, attended a conference at the National Patient Safety Foundation in San Diego. Also at the conference was Paul O’Neill, a member of the NPSF board, who served as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Ford administration (and, later, as secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush). O’Neill sat with Edgman-Levitan and her husband at a conference dinner, and they got to talking about his work as a founding trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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President Ford and members of his staff in 1975. Paul O’Neill, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, is fourth from left. (Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library) 

At the mention of their painted houseguest’s name, Levitan entertained the table with the story of finding him in their coat closet. “Can you help us get this to the Ford family?” he asked O’Neill.

“Send it to me,” O’Neill said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

*****

The portrait was not at all what O’Neill was expecting.

“I thought it would be some school project by a 13-year-old that someone had rescued from the trash,” he confessed.

But what arrived via FedEx at his office in Pittsburgh — insured for $1,000, which Levitan thought might be a little high but figured he should be cautious — was a true work of art.

First, O’Neill read the letter that Levitan had written and enclosed:

I have always had a soft spot for this president, even though I’m typically found on the other side of the aisle. How could one not — he was at bottom completely honorable. I hope you will agree that the portrait captures his intelligence, force, and decency. By getting this portrait to you, I’m confident you’ll be able to find the right wall space wherever that ends up being. As I recall, but for one, arguable lapse in judgment, he would have likely sailed through the primary process without the eventual bruising he took from a future president, and then onto a full term in his own right. I often wonder how much better things might have been had that scenario played out. In any event, I’m glad you were there to serve him and the country.

Regarding the history of this portrait: they say possession is nine-tenths of the law. [But] there’s no escaping the fact that Susan and I are not the rightful owner… So now we’re “paying it forward.” It is yours to keep or otherwise do as you see fit. If it does end up on coveted wall space at the library or with his family, so much the better. Do what you wish, but please send to those who knew him best our sincere gratitude for making the nation a better place during a tumultuous time.

Then he unwrapped the painting itself and, as Edgman-Levitan had done months earlier, found himself face to face with a 2-foot-by-2-foot likeness of the man who had been his boss, mentor and president. He is pretty sure he gasped aloud at his first glimpse. “This is a person I have revered, and this portrait captures the character of that man better than anything I’ve ever seen,” he says.

O’Neill’s son, who shares a suite of office space with his father, came in, lifted the painting from a desk and marched it toward the conference room, where there was a blank wall between two display cases overstuffed with O’Neill awards and memories.

It was nice to have his old friend’s face looking back at him, O’Neill says. But “it didn’t feel like it was ours to keep.”

*****

Margaret Holland Sargent had just moved to New York City from Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1974 and hoped to make her name as a portraitist.

During years of training, her teachers had always told her to paint her subjects “from life,” and she had tried to stick to that, but as the ’60s had turned into the ’70s there were fewer calls for painting with actual sittings, and she’d become adept at portraits — mostly posthumous ones, she says — created from photographs.

She’d gotten good enough, she believed, to paint for Time magazine, which, in the early 1970s, was still in the business of commissioning paintings for its covers. Landing a Time cover was still the pinnacle of the portrait painter’s world. Think Roy Lichtenstein’s cover of Bobby Kennedy in 1964. Or Andy Warhol’s Michael Jackson 16 years after that.

So on a hot, sticky day, not long before Richard Nixon would resign, Sargent trekked her unwieldy portfolio over to the Time offices in midtown Manhattan and left it with the art director’s secretary. It was, she remembers, a disheartening experience. “The girl was sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks and stacks of binders just like mine,” she says. “I never thought it would be seen.”

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Margaret Holland Sargent in her award room and her painting of Ford, commissioned by Time magazine. (Photos: Courtesy Margaret Holland Sargent)

A few days later she received a call from the Time art department. Would she paint Gerald Ford? “I had been active in local theater groups, and one of my friends was quite a cutup,” she says. “I thought it was him pranking me, but I didn’t want to take a chance.”

It wasn’t a prank, and soon she was given a selection of 35-millimeter slides and told to choose the image she’d like to reproduce on canvas. “This one was a great likeness and a nice expression,” she says. “It seemed to be the right image for a cover. I painted it larger than life, which I had never done before or since, because I felt it would photograph better and reduce to the cover size and they wouldn’t have to crop.”

She had the finished piece done by the next morning. Time paid her $500 and then decided to use something else on the cover that week. She doesn’t remember exactly what she was bumped for, but odds are it was one of the series of photographs of the new president that appeared in the magazine during the early months of his tenure, and they were likely chosen because they felt more immediate and urgent than Sargent’s somewhat dreamy, pensive painting. (No one at Time who was part of that decision could be found for comment. If anyone reading this knows more, feel free to contact the author.)

That, too, was the way Time worked. Those were flush days in publishing, and the magazine often commissioned work that was never used. Sometimes the final product just didn’t turn out right; a portrait of Stan Musial, for instance, the great St. Louis Cardinals player who won the 1955 All-Star game with a home run in the 12th inning, was painted batting right-handed when he was actually a lefty. Sometimes events defied the art director’s predictions; when Gloria Swanson didn’t win the 1951 Oscar for “Sunset Boulevard,” the portrait Time had ready to go was scrapped. And sometimes editors just changed their minds, which is what seems to have happened with Sargent’s painting of Ford.

Just the fact of having done the work, however, helped solidify her career. She painted a few more pieces for Time, none where the subject was as important, and none of which were actually used. She did a lot more private work too, much of it of living corporate executives and dearly departed loved ones from wealthy families.

Then, in 1976, she learned her Ford image would run after all, in Time’s bicentennial issue dedicated completely to American presidents. She didn’t make the cover this time, either — that went to a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. But she was told by the art director that Ford, then the sitting president, was given his choice of images, and “he chose mine, he chose it himself.” That was accolade enough, she says.

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The painting as seen in Time’s 1976 special report “The American Presidents,” and the cover. 

And a few years later, she says, “they” — she doesn’t remember exactly who — told her that her portrait was going to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., an institution that was only a decade old at the time. Time magazine had donated all past paintings to the gallery, and Sargent’s would be included in the first batch of about 300 works.

A few decades later, when she created a business website, she included an image of that painting. Its caption read “Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.”

And a few years after that, Paul O’Neill read that caption when he checked the signature on the painting that was temporarily hanging in his conference room, then searched for the artist online. (“I could kick myself for not thinking of that,” Edgman-Levitan says.)

So if this painting was in the portrait gallery in Washington, he wondered, what was it doing here with him in Pittsburgh?

Minutes later he was on the phone with Sargent. “Is it possible that there are two copies?” he asked her. “Is there a duplicate?”

“No,” she answered. “There is only one.”

“Which means I’ve got a stolen painting on my hands,” he thought.

*****

The Levitans have been to the National Portrait Gallery only once, the night of the first Obama inauguration, when Richard Levitan, who works as an energy economist, was invited to the Green Ball. The couple wandered from room to room, snapping photos of themselves in front of a variety of paintings. Everyone around them was doing the same. The portrait of the newly exited George W. Bush was apparently a particularly popular backdrop that night.

Neither Susan nor Richard remembers seeing a likeness of Gerald Ford on their wanderings — particularly not their likeness. But Susan does remember thinking, out of nowhere, “It would be so easy for someone to just walk away with one of these.”

Richard had the same thought, and he knows how that might look to some. “I can assure you,” he says, “I want you to know for the record, I have never, ever stolen anything in my life. I am not responsible for that.”

Then he adds, “If you’re going to steal something, why would you steal Gerald Ford?”

*****

James Barber doesn’t think anyone actually did. At least not from the National Portrait Gallery. And certainly not in a walk-into-the-gallery-and-walk-out-with-a-painting way.

Barber, a historian, is the curator of the entire Time collection at the gallery. In 1978, as Sargent was told, Time donated its entire archives to the newly founded museum. The first shipment was of about 700 portraits that had appeared in the magazine since it was founded in 1923 (the very first cover was a charcoal sketch of then Speaker of the House Joe Cannon). Since then the collection has grown to more than 2,000 paintings.

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The portrait of Jimmy Carter in the exhibit “America’s Presidents” at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006. (Photo: Chris Greenberg/Getty)

Most of those spend most of their time in storage. Some are part of themed collections — the Civil Rights room includes a Henry Koerner painting of Roy Wilkins and Robert Vickrey’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.; the Sports room has a Jimmy Connors painted by Ross Barron Storey.

And once in a while there are exhibits created exclusively of Time covers: “Time Covers the 1960s,” for instance, or the upcoming “Hollywood and Time.” About five years ago Barber curated a showing of Time’s images of presidents. Ford was represented in a portrait by Everett Raymond Kinstler, not the one by Margaret Holland Sargent, because, Barber says, “we never got that one. It was never here.”

Yes, he agrees, it should have been part of the initial gift, because it was painted between 1923 and 1978 and Time’s contract with the gallery includes all portraits from those years. But it is not in any of the records listing what was actually delivered to the museum. Which means it was rehomed, either within or outside of the Time offices, sometime between 1976 and 1978 by persons and in circumstances unknown. (Any readers with information are welcome to contact the author…)

Barber is not really surprised. Time magazine’s storage rooms were, well, storage rooms, not vaults, he explains, and “things walked away sometimes.” The magazine’s executives sometimes hung the paintings in their offices, and probably their homes. If the “sitter” (i.e., subject) of a portrait “had a hankering for the original of the cover, he could just request it and someone would send it to him.” That’s what happened to the cover of Tony Trabert, the 1950s tennis champion, now 84, whose cover portrait is still in his family’s hands. Every once in a while one of those wandering portraits will find its way back, Barber says, as when Mortimer Caplin, former head of the IRS, donated his 1963 cover portrait to the gallery in 2011.

The attrition rate is well known to Barber. One of the magazine’s most prolific cover artists, for instance, Boris Chaliapin (who painted Caplin’s portrait), created more than 400 pieces over the years, and only 300 of those have made their way into the National Portrait Gallery. In all, Barber estimates, there are hundreds of Time portraits out in the world, their provenance unknown even to their owners — though he suspects that few of them are hanging out in suburban coat closets, draped in bubble wrap.

“We would welcome any of them back,” he says.

*****

In a ballroom in Grand Rapids, Mich., at lunchtime today, a few miles from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport and a few blocks from the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building, Paul O’Neill is giving the William E. Simon keynote lecture at a luncheon hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Library, on what would have been the 102nd anniversary of Ford’s birth.  

He tells the story from the start, of the dinner in San Diego, and the arrival of the portrait at his office, and the word from the National Portrait Gallery that “we’ve exhaustively checked our files, we can’t find that we ever actually had possession of the painting, we don’t think we have any rights to it, so it’s yours,” as the audience begins to guess what is behind him under the black velvet drape onstage.  

From the moment it arrived in his office, O’Neill had felt sure Grand Rapids was the painting’s karmic home, in the presidential library that carries Ford’s name. So after it was appraised and insured (for $75,000, just a tad more than Levitan’s best guess), he shipped it in secret, readying for this moment.  

And now he looks out at Susan Ford Bales, who is representing the family at this luncheon, and says: “I decided there was one thing to do. I am going to take this portrait with me and give it to Susan Ford and let her decide what should be done with it, with the suggestion that it should hang in the museum in Grand Rapids where people can see it.” As the audience rises in applause, he lifts the drape — the first time this painting has been seen by more than one or two people since the long-ago issue of Time.  

“What a moment, what a story,” Susan Ford says. “I am beyond awed and grateful.”  

She is not the only one who seems pleased. When told where O’Neill would be donating it, Barber heartily approves. “That’s where it belongs,” he says, in the tone of a man who thinks of paintings as having destinies. “That is exactly where it belongs.”  

And when asked whether he thinks the publicity around the “homecoming” might lead someone to come forward and fill in the blanks in this tale, he answers as a man who also believes that paintings are entitled to their secrets.  

“You don’t necessarily want to solve the mystery, do you?” he says. “It’s a better story this way.”