Noguchi’s Loyal Mistress

Priscilla Morgan met Isamu Noguchi 45 years ago today, on Bastille Day, July 14, 1959, though she already had taken note of him, and he of her, at places like the Artists’ Club in Greenwich Village. He was a dashing world-renowned sculptor; she, a successful William Morris agent. Both were already divorced. When an invitation to dinner arrived-in Italy, in the form of a note left at her hotel that began “Dear Miss Morgan”-Ms. Morgan was, in her own words, “very drunk, having been out all night with a very grand and elegant White Russian composer.” Noguchi was leaving at 6:30 in the morning for three days, but would like to take her to dinner upon his return; barring that, perhaps they could meet up in Germany or Paris. She wrote him a gracious (if unsteady) reply, agreeing to a date. The phone woke her at 6:30 a.m. It was Noguchi. What the devil did her note say? Was she meeting him or not?

In Paris, he was at her doorstep the instant her telegram said she would arrive. Later at his place, by mistake, he poured her a glass of soy sauce, which he was keeping in the brandy decanter. Then she remembers, as if reading the voiceover for a film: “That was the week of Quatorze Juillet , and we danced in the streets of Paris for seven days, then flew back to New York-and that started the whole thing.”

The “whole thing” was a love affair that lasted for nearly 30 years, with never a thought of marriage. “No one could own Isamu,” declared Priscilla Morgan in her East 67th Street apartment, and when you meet the bohemian grande dame who worshipped and wrangled with the intractable genius until the day he died in 1988, you get an inkling that she herself is not so easily tamed.

Ms. Morgan will turn 85 in October. She finds herself busier than ever this year, which marks the centenary of Noguchi’s birth (in Los Angeles), an occasion being celebrated by last month’s reopening-after a massive, two-and-a-half-year-long renovation-of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City (which tapped Robert Wilson to design the inaugural installation), as well as a major Noguchi retrospective to be mounted at the Whitney Museum this October. As an honorary life trustee and board member of the Noguchi Foundation, Ms. Morgan worked tirelessly with the Garden Museum’s director on the reopening and is busy arranging one of her signature dinners to celebrate Noguchi’s birthday on Nov. 17. She and her assistant are organizing her papers, which Vassar College is eagerly awaiting for its archives. She is working to produce a film based on the short stories of Ellen Gilchrist and remains on the Board of the Lacoste School of the Arts in Provence. And then there are the sundry galas and interviews and parties and openings-to say nothing of the entertaining she does in her own home.

“I don’t have time to get older,” she said. “Famous last words-I’ll pop off next week and you’ll say, ‘Look at her now.’”

She is that rare kind of patron whose phone book is more important than her pocket book. She has always been a curator of people selecting from her impeccable taste and nurturing more with friendship, encouragement, ideas and moral support than with money, though she has given plenty of that, too, over the years. She admits to having had “the most extraordinary men” in her life, including her former husband (“one of the great naval aviator heroes of the Pacific”) and the countless artists who attended the frequent gatherings at her garden apartment-from Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning and Richard Lindner to Christo and Saul Steinberg. But after that Bastille Day 1959, her center was Isamu Noguchi-the protean sculptor who designed furniture for Herman Miller, flatware for 1950′s futurists, dance sets for Martha Graham and lamps for the common man. Though she will confess he wasn’t always faithful to her, nor she to him, it was, she says, an arrangement that suited them, up to a point.

If fidelity, in the marital sense, was never the hallmark of their relationship, unreserved loyalty was. She still carries grudges for him, which is why you will not find her name on the membership list of the Museum of Modern Art, which she feels neglected Noguchi’s sculpture late in his life.

“He was the great love of my life,” she said. “I mean, there were always other women-I want to be clear that that’s understood-but as long as I knew I was No. 1, it was fine for me. He had to have that. And if I ever thought I was just one of the women, he would never see me again-he was smart enough to know that.”

Born in Poughkeepsie in 1919, Ms. Morgan arrived in New York City at the age of 12, when her inventor father-a former assistant to Thomas Edison-lost his fortune and moved his family to an apartment on 18th Street between First and Second avenues.

After two years at Vassar, she convinced her parents she was ready to begin her life, moved back to New York, received secretarial training at the Katharine Gibbs School (at her mother’s insistence), and found herself at 19 typing advertising insertion orders for Young & Rubicam. Once war broke out, she began working as a production assistant on The Kate Smith Hour , a radio showcase for the celebrated singer who was fast popularizing Irving Berlin’s anthem, “God Bless America”; Ms. Morgan traveled with the band-shooting craps on the floor of the bus from naval station to naval station-while managing to conduct her first hot love affair with the show’s assistant director.

“I was having the time of my life,” she said. It was her brother, a naval enlistee, who returned from abroad and tried to bring some seriousness to his sister’s life: “Are you aware the world is on fire?” he asked her. Priscilla joined the WAVES-the naval corps of Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. From 1943 to 1946, she worked in public information, interviewing heroes back from the fleet, which is how she met a decorated Nebraska night flier named Ralph Waldo Cummings, whom she married 13 weeks later in St. George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square.

The couple eventually moved to a cold-water fifth-floor flat on 48th Street opposite the Rockefeller garage; Cummings was a “starving composer,” so Priscilla worked at WNEW radio to earn enough money to eat. (Ms. Morgan said fondly of the time, “It really set me on the path of living with the gypsies.”) She was sitting in Schraft’s eating an egg-salad sandwich when she made yet another of the impetuous decisions that had served her well thus far: She decided-out of the blue-to become an agent for writers. Through friends, she was introduced to Audrey Wood and William Liebling, the couple who ran the powerhouse agency that represented, among others, Tennessee Williams. Ms. Morgan was brought on to develop a television department, another instance of propitious timing-it was the dawn of the golden age of live TV. In three years, she had her own agency and a roster of clients that included legendary live television producers Fred Coe and Martin Manulis; she operated out of her garden apartment on East 61st Street, where the Regency Hotel dining room is now. “In my garden, I would have Fred Coe and Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and Tad Mosel,” she said in a distant, low-grade flush.

“It was where all the writers and actors would come,” Ms. Morgan said. “We would have rehearsals and end up there, where we drank and laughed and carried on and fought over scripts and plays.”

She brought every one of her clients to William Morris in 1955 when the agency offered to buy her out, after which she spent a decade representing the likes of Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn from a corner office that looked down Broadway.

In 1958, she bumped into composer Gian Carlo Menotti in Rome; he invited her to Spoleto, where he was launching an arts festival. Soon Ms. Morgan had brought the distinguished Festival dei Due Mondi to William Morris, where she represented the television rights. It was around then, she remembers, that “I realized my heart wasn’t in the razzmatazz of Broadway and Hollywood show business,” and so she began another chapter of her life-in art. She dove into the work of the festival, took an apartment overhanging the Duomo and fell in love with the paintings of Piero della Francesca. She’d be involved with the Spoleto Festival for some 15 years, eventually becoming an associate director.

She sat for lunch in her dining room recently for a beautiful and simple seafood salad with bread and cheese and wine and dessert (she declines the last, having just begun the rigors of the South Beach Diet, but will take a little red Jello, which she confesses she is fond of, as were “Bucky” and “Isamu”), and she talked, spinning further and further off her original track in a mesmerizing ellipse. There is the time she went on a 10-day leave to meet her brother during the war, when she rode out to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and climbed aboard a J2F “Navy Duck” wearing her best Mainbocher WAVE uniform and a parachute on her back (with instructions to eject on the pilot’s command) and headed west of the Hudson River for the first time in her life, changing planes and companions (at times an escort of 40 guys, at others only a pilot named Johnny who she insists never got fresh) as she hopped from base to base, from Winston-Salem to Shreveport to Abilene to Phoenix to San Diego. She used to drink martinis with Walker Evans at New York’s old Ritz-Carlton and watch him smoke little Camel cigarettes; she used to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel and have dinner with Fred Coe and “Bogey and Baby.” She will get misty while discussing old friends and old flames.

“I was capable of liking a lot of people at one time,” she said. Such people include a titan of Wall Street with whom she danced at El Morocco and ate at the Colony and who first took her to Paris and called every morning at 9:15 until the day he died, as well as the Pan-Am executive who had been in love with her during the war and would roll out the red carpet every time she flew the airline, and so on; an assortment of dalliances and romances, some minor, some not, with the likes of artist and fashion illustrator Rene Bouche, who flew to meet her in Mexico City, where she was getting a divorce (from Cummings, after a union of seven years). Ms. Morgan said he changed her life-introducing her to what it was like “living with a true artist” in his top-floor apartment/studio on Central Park South, through the door of which would stroll Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Richard Lindner, Saul Steinberg, Calvert Coggeshall and Barnett Newman. But these men were simply preludes, “the build-up,” she said, to the true love of her life, Isamu Noguchi.

“Isamu was very pure and very elegant,” Ms. Morgan said. “He never used four-letter language; I never heard him tell an off-color joke. He had a wry and sly way that I loved. And he looked like a beautiful animal, like a tiger, with those spots in his eyes.” He was always early, he was fond of hats, he rarely drank. Born out of wedlock to parents of mixed ancestry, he once told a reporter, “Being half-Japanese and half-American, I am always nowhere.” His five-year marriage to Japanese film star Shirley Yamaguchi had ended in 1957, two years before Ms. Morgan met him. He could be glum, as when he would tell her that he had no friends, and he could be glamorous, ever with a beautiful woman on his arm.

Almost immediately upon their return to New York-after their fateful Parisian encounter on that Bastille Day 1959-Ms. Morgan persuaded Noguchi to turn the autobiography being ghost-written for him into a true autobiography.

“Every night Isamu would come to my apartment, and I’d get rid of everybody and I’d serve him dinner, and then I’d work with him on the book,” she said. “I typed most of it. And parts of it I couldn’t understand. I’d say, ‘I don’t understand when you say this about Martha Graham, and I’m not that dumb but it just …. ‘ And he’d say, ‘Yes, you are!’ And then he’d get mad and rip up the paper and throw it in the basket, and I’d get it out of the basket and practically iron it, and then we’d start all over again.” The process took a year. ( Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World was re-released by Steidl Publishing this month.) She helped him pick out his Long Island studio, where she often would clean and cook for him. (He preferred simple dishes, like boiled beef with vegetables or “a beautiful fish.”) She nursed him through excruciating back operations, reading long books aloud in an un-air-conditioned hospital room and arranging for visitors when visitors were called for, and for solitude when they were not. She put the drops in his eyes after two cataract surgeries.

He would meet her in Italy for the Spoleto Festival. There were dinners in Rome with long tables of dancers and singers. Ezra Pound would be there with Olga Rudge, his longtime companion. Ms. Morgan would always seat Pound next to Noguchi.

“Ezra, of course, never talked,” she said. “He was famous for that. And sometimes he wouldn’t eat. So Isamu would lean over and take the knife and fork, cut Ezra’s food for him, and hand them back and say, ‘Now, Ezra, eat!’ And Ezra would pick up his fork and start eating.”

When Pound died, in 1972, Ms. Morgan asked Noguchi to come to Venice to design his gravestone. He sculpted a platform on which to place Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s famed oversized bust of Pound and delivered it to the Cini Foundation, a cultural institution on the island San Giorgio Maggiore. The foundation never placed the sculpture at Pound’s grave on the Isola di San Michele, for fear it would be desecrated by Italians who decried Pound’s fascist wartime politics. Years passed. Last fall, Ms. Morgan returned to San Giorgio and visited the foundation, which was undergoing construction. The bust was in a wooden box; no one knew the provenance of the base, which was unprotected. Since then, Ms. Morgan has received a letter from the organization, promising that the sculpture will be returned to its original position, where it will be cared for.

Such moments are partly the reason Ms. Morgan wakes each morning at 6:30. There is a particular urgency to her routine. She is fighting to protect the memory of her long-departed lover from the daily corrosions of time and neglect, as well as the petty slights of unjust critical and institutional opinion. Through his refusal to mine a singular vein, Noguchi inspired many imitators but no successors. His variegated mark can be seen on a range of artists-from Maya Lin to Richard Serra-but the years have bestowed a thorny, if not thwarted, legacy. He was an applied artist who refused to toe the modernist line, a genius who stooped to design children’s playgrounds and living-room lamps. William Rubin, the headstrong former director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, reportedly did not favor Noguchi’s later work; MOMA collected little after the late 1950′s. Today, Noguchi often is referred to as an artistic designer rather than as an artist who designed.

These sins, among others, strike Ms. Morgan personally, and she feels a responsibility to turn the tide of neglect-but it is heartbreaking work. She mourns the demolition of Shin Banraisha, a memorial space dedicated to Noguchi’s father at Tokyo’s Keio University, which was replaced last year by a law school. She has heard rumors that a pair of bridges Noguchi designed for Hiroshima’s Peace Park are in danger of being enlarged-and thereby destroyed-to increase traffic flow. An undulating ceiling Noguchi designed for the St. Louis American Stove Company Building-now a U-Haul rental and storage center-hides beneath a false ceiling and recent-vintage sprinkler system. The Garden Museum once dispatched a conservator, who wriggled into the crawl space and pronounced that the work could easily be dissected and moved, but the museum doesn’t have the funds, and the local landmarks commission shows no interest.

Thus, after so many years policing the sidelines of greatness-and intervening when necessary-Ms. Morgan finds herself worrying about art all over the globe, a spiritual curator to a dispersed body of work impossible to oversee, fated for loss. And so she takes a car to Long Island City once or twice a week, where she meets with the dedicated staff of the Garden Museum, many of whom were intimates of the artist and-like most who knew him-do not take the matter of his legacy lightly. She is looking forward to speaking on the record to her friend, the celebrated biographer Hayden Herrera, whose next subject will be the life of Noguchi.

Ms. Morgan’s apartment is filled with pictures of her, of Noguchi and of their circle-Buckminster Fuller and Willem de Kooning, in particular-taken all over the globe. The rooms are lit almost exclusively by Akari, the serene mulberry-paper and bamboo lamps designed by Noguchi. There is art everywhere. In the living room hangs one of the first gifts Noguchi gave her, a long scroll brush drawing he made in 1930. Between a tall and short Akari stands a waist-high bent-metal sculpture. In the garden is a pierced table and two seats, one of only two sets the artist cast in bronze-one for him, one for her. Many of the volumes lining her bookshelves are inscribed: from Noguchi, from Ezra Pound, from Groucho Marx, from Buckminster Fuller. After some prompting, Ms. Morgan says Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped buildings for her and de Kooning made a poster-as did Lindner and Steinberg. (The gift from the latter hangs discreetly on a wall and is signed, “With true love, Saul St.”)

Perhaps speaking to the experience of many, Sandy Kenyon, a contributing editor of Parade magazine and CNN’s former senior entertainment correspondent, recalls his precocious-and admittedly undeserved-induction into her salon while working as her assistant in the early 1980′s: “I can remember walking into her apartment and seeing Isamu Noguchi in deep conversation with Steinberg, with Harvey Lichtenstein listening, and some of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen-ready to talk to and date if you could tear yourself away from listening in on the giants-with Priscilla spinning around filling everybody’s wine glass.” Ms. Morgan continues to fill her circle with young people, such as Puna Ram Khanal (or “Pushkar,” as he is known), a 26-year-old Nepali chef who cooks for her and with whom Ms. Morgan worked for a year to secure an O visa, an immigration status given only to those non-U.S. citizens who demonstrate “extraordinary” talent.

Christo calls Morgan “the great connector,” and remembers her early support back in 1979 for his work The Gates , which will be installed in Central Park this February. Across the title page of her copy of Nine Chains to the Moon , Buckminster Fuller once wrote: “To Priscilla, whose prescience in respect to creative events and recognition of creative competence, combined with her loveliness, integrity, and dedication, has made her the twentieth century’s last half’s greatest and most effective shepherdess of many of life’s most significant creative regenerations.”

She has brokered some epochal encounters. She introduced Arthur Penn to Warren Beatty, who went on to star in the director’s seminal film Bonnie and Clyde -and there, in a long-forgotten folder, is a picture of her and Mr. Beatty in Venice in 1965. She arranged for a 30-year-old Philip Glass to perform under a Buckminster Fuller dome-dubbed the Spoletosphere-for the festival in 1967. “I had an instinct about him,” she said. Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman (the Tony Award winner responsible for Hello, Dolly! , Mame and La Cage aux Folles ) says Priscilla discovered him playing a revue at the Theatre De Lys in Greenwich Village when he “looked about 17.” She would have her industry friends over for dinner and invite the young composer; after the plates were cleared, she would casually ask Herman to play the piano she had bought just for him, and he remembers how what was once a party would slip easily and elegantly into a showcase. Calling from California, Mr. Herman said, “Without Priscilla, we wouldn’t be talking.”

On a recent spring evening, seated in antique carved Belter chairs around Ms. Morgan’s ample Victorian table-the same table that once hosted Noguchi, Fuller, Steinberg, de Kooning and the rest-were Arthur Penn and Harvey Lichtenstein and their wives, along with architects Jonathan Marvel (just back from Uruguay) and Hugh Hardy (on his way to China). Ms. Morgan told her old friend Mr. Lichtenstein that he should sport a single earring, then tugged at his nude lobe. At the moment, Mr. Penn is directing Sly Fox on Broadway, and over lamb curry he and Mr. Lichtenstein discussed the state of the theater today; they made plans to see Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul , which opened the following week at B.A.M.

Once her guests said goodnight, Ms. Morgan noted that the conversation was not as “steamy” as it has been in nights past-everyone got along marvelously.

Leaving, she pressed a piece of paper into a reporter’s hand, something she recently stumbled across from Nabokov: “To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate.” Before shutting the door, she said dramatically, “That is my life.”

Ms. Morgan wishes she had kept a diary of her decades with Noguchi, but she was too busy. When she shows photographs of her late lover, she still occasionally sighs, “He was handsome, though.” In a stack of cloth-bound books, Ms. Morgan keeps her correspondence with Noguchi: letters and telegrams that range from the mundane (“I have writer’s cramp from writing to Shoji in Detroit”) to the wry (“One could spend one’s life writing letters and talking. I believe some people call that work”) to the elegantly moving (“My memories of my last trying times are brightened by all the real kindness you gave me. How can I ever be worthy? I don’t know”). After Ms. Morgan read the last, she stopped and said, “Now if that doesn’t make life worthwhile …. “

She was with him when he died, in December 1988. He had been sick for only a week. The doctor said he had pneumonia and told Ms. Morgan, who had been taking care of him, to get him to the hospital. As the ambulance drove down Second Avenue, on its way to New York University Medical Center, Noguchi looked up from the gurney and told Morgan he wouldn’t leave the hospital alive. She told him it was just pneumonia. But he was right.

To make that final trip to the hospital, Noguchi got fully dressed, then put on a dapper tweed hat. As Ms. Morgan emerged with the bag she had packed, she said, “Why get all dressed up? We are just going to the hospital.” Noguchi looked at her and said, “If you don’t dress appropriately, they won’t treat you appropriately.” And then he added, “You wouldn’t understand that.”

These days, when she is getting dressed, Ms. Morgan often thinks of that, then heads out the door to keep long-distant fires burning.