Anne Bass, arts patron and peerless gardener, dies at 78

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Anne Bass, arts patron and peerless gardener, dies at 78
Anne Bass, center right, at a party at her Fifth Avenue home, in New York, on June 23, 2009. Bass, the arts patron who helped raise the profile of ballet in the United States, harking back to an era when art was viewed as a vehicle for beauty and moral uplift, died on April 1, 2020 at her home in Manhattan. She was 78. Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times.

by Deborah Solomon

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anne Hendricks Bass, the arts patron who helped raise the profile of ballet in the United States, harking back to an era when art was viewed as a vehicle for beauty and moral uplift, died on April 1 at her home in Manhattan. She was 78.

Julian Lethbridge, her longtime partner, said the cause was ovarian cancer.

Bass was well-established in Fort Worth, Texas, before she made her name in New York City, and her style as a patron was entirely her own. In contrast to boastful Texans with their McRanches or status-hungry New Yorkers in pursuit of donor plaques, Bass was reticent and aloof.

Slender with pale blue eyes, she armored herself with an apparent indifference to the less gracious aspects of life, which included her much-publicized divorce from oilman Sid Bass in the 1980s. She saved her energy for her interests, especially gardening and architecture, which she pursed with a seriousness that was almost alarming to those who knew her.

“Anne was a research junkie,” said Heather Watts, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and one of Bass’ closest friends. “If I told her I liked dahlias, I’d receive articles and books about dahlias.”

When Bass spoke of her “renovation” projects, she didn’t mean a new stove and kitchen cabinets. Rather, she was consumed by the restoration of sprawling swaths of land, in both New England and in the Caribbean, drawn to a vision of a pristine naturalness that predated the arrival of cars and vacationers.

Her country estate in northwest Connecticut, in Kent, fans out to cover about 1,000 acres. In addition to the obligatory emerald pastures and winding fieldstone walls, the estate embraces multiple gardens, a working farm and a herd of 97 Randall cows that evoke the bovine ghosts of centuries past.

“We have some of her cows on our property, and they’re eating the grass right now,” Agnes Gund, her neighbor in South Kent and fellow philanthropist, said this week. “I admired Anne very much, especially what she did for the land.”

Her gardens, according to her family, are to be preserved, probably as some kind of land conservancy. “Nothing will be sold,” Lethbridge said, “neither in Connecticut, nor Nevis or Texas.”

In the philanthropic world, Bass remained best-known as a champion of City Ballet and its school, where she was a board member from 1980 to 2005. She adored George Balanchine, the brilliantly inventive choreographer who co-founded the ballet, and she felt that the company, if not all of existence, declined in quality after he left.

Bass herself danced up until the end of her life. Three times a week, she put on black leotard and tights and took a 90-minute morning class in advanced ballet. Her instructor for decades, dance master Wilhelm Burmann, died only two days before her.

Anne Hyatt Hendricks was born on Oct. 19, 1941, in Indianapolis, the oldest of four children. Her father, John Wesley Hendricks, was a surgeon and urologist. Her mother, Jean (Brown) Hendricks, was an avid sportswoman whose shelves were lined with golf trophies.

Educated at Vassar College like her mother, she majored in Italian literature. She married Sid Bass, her college sweetheart and billionaire heir to a Texas oil fortune, in 1965. As a young wife with two young daughters and living in Fort Worth, she and Sid Bass, enamored of modernist architecture, commissioned a house from Paul Rudolph, an avatar of Brutalist design.

But in contrast to his signature stacks of concrete blocks, the Bass house is widely regarded as a masterpiece of lightness — an airy, all-white edifice with calming horizontal planes jutting out over the Texas hills. The grounds were designed by Russell Page, the British gardener responsible for landscaping the Frick Museum in New York.

The Bass marriage ended abruptly in 1986, when Sid Bass left his wife for socialite Mercedes Kellogg. The tabloids reveled in every detail of the romance, which reportedly began at a formal ball when Kellogg threw a dinner roll across the room at Sid Bass.

The divorce, in 1988, left Anne Bass with a settlement estimated at $200 million. She was able to hold onto the house in Fort Worth, as well as a Manhattan pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue and its lofty contents: paintings by Monet and Mark Rothko, and an original bronze cast of Degas’ “Little 14-Year-Old Dancer.”

In subsequent years, Bass became one of New York’s most respected philanthropists, supporting, in large but unflashy ways, the New York Botanical Garden, the Museum of Modern Art and, especially, the New York Public Library and its Jerome Robbins Dance Division, which is housed at Lincoln Center and holds the largest archive on the history of dance in the world.

Bass never remarried. She met Lethbridge, an accomplished artist six years her junior, in 1993. He specializes in large-scale abstract paintings that feel rooted in nature, variously evoking winter tree branches, churning waves or rosy dawns.

In addition to Lethbridge, Bass is survived by two daughters, Hyatt Bass, a novelist, and Samantha Bass, a photographer.

As a board member, Anne Bass was sometimes described as brusque and implacable. In 1987, as a longtime trustee of the Fort Worth Art Museum, she was blamed for a high institutional turnover: Within a decade, three directors and an interim director had arrived and departed in short order. Even those who admired her exacting standards could be bothered by “the Bass body count,” as Texas Monthly put it, referring to the arts administrators who had failed to cut it in her eyes.

But to many her stubbornness came to seem like inspired foresight in regard to Peter Martins, the former head of City Ballet and its school. He left his position in 2018 amid accusations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. As early as 2005, Bass had sounded a warning, resigning from the school’s board and charging Martins, in a private letter, with gross misconduct.

More specifically, she accused Martins of inflicting “cruel and excessive punishment” on a student whom he had expelled just a few weeks before graduation. The student, Sokvannara Sar, was a Cambodian prodigy whom Bass had brought to New York five years earlier and sponsored at the School of American Ballet. Martins, she said, had made the student “an innocent and disposable casualty of boardroom politics in which he played no part.”

Martins has not publicly responded to the allegations.

In the end, Sar graduated on schedule after a two-week expulsion. He achieved fame in 2010, when Bass captured their friendship in “Dancing Across Borders,” an upbeat documentary that marked her directorial debut. The film tracks Sar’s unlikely journey to the United States from his native Siem Reap, where, in poverty, he had wandered the streets without shoes.

Bass met him in 2000, at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, where she saw him dance with a folk group and was awed by his charismatic stage presence. Four months later, Sar, a 16-year-old who spoke no English, arrived in New York, a newcomer to ballet.

Now 36, Sar is a soloist with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, North Carolina. Speaking by phone, he said that he had last spent extended time with Bass three years ago, when he recuperated from foot surgery on her Connecticut estate. He often awoke to find gardening books stacked on the table beside his bed.

Sar said that Bass had seemed to enjoy nothing more than solitude. “Anne loved to be just by herself, in her boots,” he said, “picking the weeds out of the garden.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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