On a hot, sticky night in the summer of 1979, Jennifer Rubell, a rising fourth-grader at P.S.6, accompanied her uncle Steve to a small dinner party at his friend Halston’s townhouse. The air-conditioning was cranked to icebox high, and guests—Liza Minnelli, Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O’Neal, and Andy Warhol—were seated in front of a roaring fire. Warhol had a sudden urge to draw Farrah. Halston clapped his hands, and his butler, Mohammad, appeared with folded white napkins and black markers, served on a silver tray. Warhol began, then changed his mind and began sketching the 9-year-old instead. “Your parents are those art collectors, right?” he asked her as he drew. “How do you spell Jennifer?” She spelled it for him several times. “Too confusing,” he said, and wrote, TO J.R. LOVE, ANDY.
“You have to understand that Andy and my uncle were best friends,” says Rubell, 41, laughing as she tells the story. She also recalls being so freaked out by Ryan O’Neal’s lighting up a joint that she begged her uncle to take her home. These are the sorts of formative experiences you have when your uncle was Steve Rubell, the co-owner of Studio 54. He and business partner Ian Schrager eventually lost the nightclub and were imprisoned for tax evasion. When they got out, Rubell channeled his high-gloss sense of where people wanted to socialize into their boutique hotels. Hospitality, along with art collecting, became the family business.
Jennifer’s parents, Don and Mera, a physician and a schoolteacher, had started buying contemporary art in the mid-sixties on a $25-a-month budget. Their discernment and enthusiasm built their collection into something that fills an entire museum in Miami today.
For the Rubells, it wasn’t just about collecting objects: Mera and Don delighted in getting to know the artists and talking the (somewhat academic) art talk, which they slip in and out of like it’s a native tongue (they even kvell over Jennifer in art-speak). This world, with its language and rituals, intrigued Jennifer growing up. “My parents would go to art dinners, and I’d ask them to tell me every single detail, not just what was served but what the table was like, who was there,” she says. “In my mind, it was so much more fantastical than it was.” In the eighties, her parents became renowned for their Whitney Biennial parties at their Upper East Side townhouse, with guest lists that included Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They were friends with Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Jeff Koons, for whom Jennifer interned when she was 19.
Growing up in that environment was, for Rubell, exciting as well as a bit intimidating, since she was trying to find her way creatively. Her older brother, Jason, 43, who together with their parents runs the family’s two hotels (the Albion in Miami and the Capitol Skyline in D.C.), is also a collector. But Jennifer worked in food, then wrote about food, and then became known as a “food artist.” At the moment, she’s preoccupied by the industriousness of bees and their honey.
Becoming a conceptual artist “was a huge leap of faith on Jennifer’s part,” says her mother. “Just imagine your parents thinking you’re the bad artist in the family.” After all, her parents were far too knowledgeable to be able to be unconditionally supportive. “For years we said, ‘It’s so difficult to be friends with an artist whose work you don’t like,’ ” says her father. It would be hard for Jennifer not to internalize this. Besides, “Look at how many collectors’ children are artists,” she says. “It’s a number approaching zero. And because of my parents, even if I was half-decent, I knew people would think it was handed to me.”
After graduating from Harvard in 1993 with an art-history degree, Rubell focused on food. This wasn’t a surprise: Her mother says she threw her first dinner party when she was 9. “The first course was tomato juice in wine glasses with lemons on the edge,” says Rubell. “Very seventies.” She attended the Culinary Institute of America, interned for Mario Batali at the Food Network, then moved to Miami, where she had plans to open Jennifer’s, a Morris Lapidus–designed restaurant, in the early nineties. The restaurant “didn’t work out, thank God,” she says. For nearly a decade, she worked on the food and entertainment side of the hotels. She also became known in South Beach for her extravagant dinner parties, which led to her becoming a food and home-entertaining columnist for the Miami Herald and Domino and writing Real Life Entertaining: Easy Recipes and Unconventional Wisdom.
Around the time Domino folded in 2009, Rubell was reassessing her career. She’d been living in New York for several years and had become a mother—daughter Stevie, named for Rubell’s uncle, is now 5 1/2;—and “realized that there was no conceptual or intellectual underpinning” to her writing. “It was a totally unsatisfying path.” But she wasn’t about to write off food.