NEW YORK CITY — The crowd that gathered in the Tiffany Room at the Park Avenue Armory on January 28 to remember Wendell D. Garrett, who died November 14 at 83, was a fraction of the devoted following that Garrett developed as editor of The Magazine Antiques between 1972 and 1990, and later as a Sotheby’s executive and Antiques Roadshow appraiser. But it was representative of the diverse public for whom Garrett’s thoughtful interpretation of American arts and letters had deep personal meaning.
In print and in person, Garrett touched lives. Generous and gregarious, he did so by nurturing the talents of others. He was a mentor in the classical sense of the word, a trusted counselor and guide, said Catherine Sweeney Singer, executive director of the Winter Antiques Show. Noting Garrett’s gravitas, wit and elegance, she concluded, “His life was a gift to us all.”
Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the first of three colleagues to speak at length about their friend at the program organized by The Magazine Antiques and jointly hosted by the publication and the Winter Antiques Show, where Garrett served as honorary chairman of the vetting committee for two decades.
Calling him a remarkable and much beloved American and a unique man, Heckscher retraced Garrett’s journey from California, where he was raised; to Boston, where he embarked on a distinctive career straddling academic life and mass-market publishing; and New York, where he thrived in a cosmopolitan milieu.
“Wendell Garrett was a populist who published 16 books over 49 years for educated but general audiences,” said Heckscher. “Graham Hood called him ‘the peerless proselytizer for American art.’ The Magazine Antiques was Wendell’s pulpit for spreading the gospel. All told, he influenced two generations.”
Heckscher said Garrett accomplished his mission by treating people equally, being industrious and tenacious, and believing in the American dream.
“He was a fan of three presidents. Washington he admired as a model of civility. Adams he knew best, having edited the Adams Papers. Jefferson he loved most for the way that his art reflected his sophisticated political philosophy,” said Heckscher.
“Garrett was a California Yankee. That dichotomy was at the core of who he was,” said the art historian and consultant Jay Cantor.
“Wendell encouraged and enabled many different story tellers,” said Cantor, noting the energy, dedication, enterprise and bonhomie that Garrett brought to all he did. “He was everywhere. No worthwhile venue was complete without Wendell on the program.”
Self-made, Garrett fashioned a private life as richly imaginative as the one he lived publicly. Country life at his house in Vermont was filled with hard work, much play, good food and better talk.
“Here, as elsewhere, table conversation might touch on interesting topics of research or writing….The seriousness could quickly devolve into hilarious banter,” said Cantor.
Robert A. Leath, chief curator and vice president, collections and research, at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., described Garrett’s passion for the South, where he was a frequent guest and lecturer.
“Wendell loved the South and the South loved him back,” said Leath, describing his first introduction to Garrett in Natchez, Miss., where Garrett helped found the Natchez Antiques Forum.
“You have to understand that, for Southerners, Natchez is a little like training camp for the second coming. Making the milk punch, getting out the crinolines. For the ladies, it was about Wendell Garrett coming to town,” said Leath, noting that Garrett, an American for the American Century, was imbued with the gregarious sensibility of a Southerner, the sunny optimism of a Californian, the intellectualism of a New Englander and the cosmopolitan regard of a New Yorker.
Invoking Thornton Wilder, Leath concluded, “Wendell was the tie that binds ‘Our Town’ together.”
Winter Antiques Show exhibitor Elle Shushan and Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate director for collections and administration, Metropolitan Museum of Art, read from the notebooks that Garrett filled with apt quotations from American thinkers, Lincoln to Faulkner. Leslie Greene Bowman, president, Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, recited an ode to Garrett’s favorite architectural structure, Monticello. The service concluded with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for The Common Man, performed by the trumpeter Woodrow English, sergeant major, US Army.