Saidie May and her sister, Blanche Adler, collected art not for their own use but to donate to museums for the benefit of the public. Cousins of the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, who bequeathed their amazing collection of Impressionist art to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Saidie and Blanche traveled to France frequently and befriended the struggling artists they met there. Knowing that the Cones planned to leave their collection to the BMA, the sisters concentrated on collecting more modern art that would complement and carry forward the Cone collection. In addition to the many works of art they donated, they gave generously to the BMA throughout their lifetime, Blanche volunteering with the curatorial department before serving as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees and Saidie funding an entire wing to be used for introducing children to art.
Saidie and Blanche grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore. Their father, Charles Adler had emigrated from Germany in 1856 and, with Henry Frank, built a shoe manufacturing business that enabled the family to live in a fine house in Bolton Hill and send the three youngest children, including Blanche and Saidie, to private school. They traveled back to Germany often, taking the children. Saidie's early adult life was one of marriage and domesticity but, prefiguring the changes to women's roles in the 20th century, after an amicable divorce she chose a life of art and independence. She, herself, was an artist, challenging herself to learn new techniques and try new forms right up until her death, though she recognised that her talent was not in the same league as the artists whose work she collected.
Throughout her life, she gave generously to individual artists for schooling, living expenses, art supplies, or costs related to a show. During World War II she paid for passage out of Occupied France for many Jewish artists, working with the American Rescue Committee, and acted as sponsor, providing the guarantee of support required by the U.S.
At the same time, she carried on with her life in the U.S., moving from one luxurious resort to another, painting and purchasing new works for the BMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the San Diego Art Museum. I found it a little disconcerting to read about her brilliant social life interspersed with accounts of the war and harrowing escapes from Marseilles, but of course life did go on, even during wartime. And it's a good reminder of how isolated the U.S. was from the fighting. Easy enough, even today, to go about one's life without remembering the wars our military are currently fighting.
This is an engaging book, a quick read even though it is a factual account of Saidie May's life. The extensive research indicated by proper footnotes lends authority to the work. The numerous illustrations support the text and add to the interest. Period photos and postcards evoke an earlier time.
It was a time when the rich used at least some of their wealth to benefit society, establishing libraries, museums, and charitable foundations. Today's super-rich, rivalling and outdistancing the greatest railroad fortunes of a hundred years ago, don't seem to have the same ethic. Some do, of course, such as the Meyerhoff family, Harry and Jeanette Weinberg, and Mary Catherine Bunting in Baltimore alone.
And it's not like everyone can't help. I continue to be inspired by Bea Gaddy, a former welfare recipient who used her home as a donation point for food and clothing for the poor and later as a homeless shelter. She parlayed a small lottery win—$290—into an annual Thanksgiving dinner, free to all comers, and made a point of inviting the whole city, rich and poor. Come on down, all you lonely folks in Roland Park she'd say. You're welcome, too. Since her death in 2001 her daughters have carried on her work, enabling the Bea Gaddy Family Center to continue to serve the community and carry on the Thanksgiving tradition.
Saidie May has joined my pantheon of inspirational heroes. It's true that she had the wealth to give herself a room of her own, but she devoted her life to sharing it with all of us.