Phyllis Weston’s recent death, after a very long and singularly fruitful career in the arts in Greater Cincinnati, certainly represents the end of an era, and I think that the era which she helped to define and in which she dominated, may have been a gentler one, certainly one in which the force of a personality like hers was able to supersede all the marketing and branding campaigns, all the MBA-ese, of our current era.  Not only did Phyllis Weston have a very fine, keen eye for quality in the visual arts, but her leadership manifested itself in other art forms, such as ballet and opera; she was also , along with Irma Lazarus and Patricia Corbett, one of the founders of Young Friends of the Arts, later called Enjoy the Arts: she was concerned that younger people be able to afford tickets to our performing arts, in particular, and her personal liberalism had an interestingly populist undertone to it: she was inclusionary, not exclusionary.  For all of her hospitality–I must have been at hundreds of parties at her house over the years, along with thousands of others–a Jewish mother was imbedded within her, and she welcomed people into her house/hearth and equally into her very large heart.

I’d known Phyllis since around 1964 or so; her sister, Ruth Rosen, and my own mother, were very close personal friends, and when Phyllis arrived in town, and then married the charming and intellectually delightful Leo Weston, their paths crossed, as paths do and will in smaller cities like ours.  The Westons’ marriage was one of those truly lovely partnerships, and fun to watch: one might, at one of their parties, stumble into Leo in his bathrobe, wandering around that downstairs study of which we were all so fond, looking for a book, rather oblivious to the party at hand, while Phyllisgreeted her guests: she was famous for her most outstanding brisket, often paired with grits and greens. Most of these parties centered around a visiting artist whose work was being shown at The Closson Gallery downtown, which she admirably ran for decades, and her house was a frequent setting for many Boards of Trustees, the wonderful white-covered furniture being a terrific foil for the art and extraordinary Persian rugs, huge Victorian-style windows in one of the most beautiful houses in this region , and its spectacular river views (which she shared with many during her annual Labor Day fireworks parties). The house reflected the woman: it was gracious and elegant, yet comfortable and welcoming.

And for all of her accomplishments in the arts, the Procter and Gamble collection was probably her greatest–it’s a superb collection of Cincinnati artists, originally meant to cover from Duveneck to Dine, but it never got past the forties.   The llth, or executive floor, at Procter was artless, and the idea for this collection germinated between Phyllis Weston and John Smale, as I recall.  Whether the art she showed at Closson’s, and later at her own gallery and/or the Annie Boling-PhyllisWeston Gallery and finally at PAC Gallery, was by artists of national renown, or newly emerging regional ones, her eye for talent was nearly unprecedented, and her intuitive marketing abilities legendary. At heart, Phyllis Weston loved to sell art; it was the selling, the pairing of the right person with the right work of art, that gave her the most genuine of pleasures, and she was superb at this particular role, and I think it’s the role that suited her best.  One was greeted by her at the old Closson’s Gallery as if one were the only person who interested her; she would approach you closely, and in a nearly whispered, hushed tone of voice, drop something  in your ear that made you think that you were the most special person in her life that day, week, whatever……and her eye really was superb; she understood the need for work by artists like John Ruthven and John Stobart as much as she did High Modernism and emerging regional talents like Michael Scott and Constance McClure, Cole Carothers, and, later , Holly Shapker.

But I think that her role as ‘hostess’ was the one in which all of her defining characteristics came together.  Cincinnati, like all other cultured cities, had a cadre of women hostesses, known for their large and usually elegant parties (this side of Cincinnati history has really never been written about in depth).  Women like Phyllis, Irma Lazarus, Helen Martin, and Bets Fern, to name just a few, were carrying on a tradition first established by Mme. de Sevigne and her cohorts in the Paris of Louis XIV; the so-called “art of conversation” was invented by these fashionable women, and their dinner parties were mixes of people from the aristocracy, the Church, the Military, and the Arts, so that people cross-fertilized at them and what became known as “French culture” , using the word “culture” in the sociological sense, comes from that era.  The role of these hostesses cannot be underplayed; those in positions of power met and talked and dined together in settings of extraordinary beauty; hostesses like Phyllis Weston of our own era had an uncanny sense of whom to invite with whom, whom should meet whom, and the like.  When the benefit party of our times replaced the private party, for many reasons, we have been lessened as a society, as a culture; networking as a phenomenon is in no way a replacement for the planned party or the genius of the private hostess, and Phyllis Weston was the last of these Society hostesses, and with her death, one of the most important socio-cultural eras in Cincinnati history leaves with her.  (It’s possible, or even probable, that her acting background–she was nearly a Hollywood ingenue–may have assisted in this role, but it also came naturally to her, I believe).

Phyllis Weston enjoyed, loved, her life, and her zest and enthusiasm for life and art–for her, life was art and art was life–showed in everything she did.  Bringing people together was, I think, her greatest gift, on top of her skills as art dealer and community leader, mother and grandmother, good friend and hostess.  For those of us who knew her, consider us lucky and the recipient of her many gifts.   With her passing–and she lived for almost a century–an entire era of gracious living departs with her, and so we mourn for her and we mourn for what she represented, as we celebrate her myriad contributions to fine living.

–Daniel Brown

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