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The Genius Collector

Louise MacBain uses her classified-ad fortune, her string of art magazines,and her stunning appearance to bring some of the world’s most talented people into her orbit. To what purpose? Even she doesn’t seem to know.

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It is a warm night on Park Avenue, and Louise T. Blouin MacBain is spinning through a series of wood-paneled rooms at the Council on Foreign Relations in a tight black-lace top.

Tonight, at her Daniel Boulud dinner for 160, it’s glitter and politics, artists and Nobel Prize–winning scientists, with a sprinkling of spiritual leaders in the mix, each trailed by an assistant with a spare silken robe over his arm like a waiter in an expensive restaurant. There is His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal, ambassador to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, having a Perrier, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, wearing corduroy pants in a room of handmade suits; Richard Meier, one hand on his back after a recent trip to the doctor, discussing whether to join former Beatles manager and publicist Peter Brown in St. Barts for Christmas. A slip of a man in an askew paisley bow tie dashes by: Eric Kandel, the Nobel laureate who discerned memory in the giant marine snail. “I’m an enormous admirer of Louise,” he says, gesticulating wildly. “She brings to bear on the cultural and political scene an adolescent enthusiasm that most of us cannot generate. She’s a lot of fun!”

A mod middle-aged angel, MacBain, 48, weaves through the crowd with a ruler-straight back and a quick, light step. Single and blonde, she has the looks of Céline Dion, with a flawless figure and odd Québécois accent. Her delicately boned face is composed in a well-tempered mask. She floats over to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the bearded guru who some followers think may be the reincarnation of Krishna—“His Holiness is a great, great man,” she says breathily—and then to Richard Serra, clean-shaven and grumpy in a black cheongsam. With the half-smile that she reserves for drawing people in, she tells him about the $40 million gallery she opened this fall in a Rolls-Royce chassis factory in London’s Notting Hill. (“I’m not a social person,” croaks Serra. “I’m here because Louise seems like a mover and shaker, I guess.”)

“Seventy-eight windows in my museum,” says MacBain, in her dreamy way. “And now, today, each window filled with a light work by James Turrell.”

“No columns in the space?” he asks, a hand on his chin.

“Not one inside,” she says.

“Hmmm,” he says, hailing the waiter with the canapés. “Must’ve been expensive, huh.”

“Oh!” says MacBain, laughing girlishly and grabbing a nearby arm. “He’s telling me to watch the financials!”

An auction begins—a Robert Wilson Plexiglas chair, an Antony Gormley drawing, a tour of the Venice Guggenheim. The bids lag for the last one, and the handsome auctioneer begins to point around the room, eyeing MacBain. “Louise, what about on your jet, can you take them over to Venice? Or Eli Broad over there—can you offer your jet? Or I’ll take them on the Christie’s jet!” He dissolves in laughter. “But that jet has been broken for so many years!” Next up is a tour of the New York Guggenheim—“You don’t need Louise’s jet to get to that one,” he says, laughing. And then tickets to a Renée Fleming performance—“Oh, the holidays are so dreary, you’d have something to do, and Renée is a great friend of Louise’s, so perhaps she can arrange a private hello?” he declares. “Louise’s jet can take you backstage?”

The jet may be off-limits, but tonight, like many other nights, is primarily footed by MacBain, the unique millionairess entrant into the upper echelons of New York society, as gusty, ruthless, and frivolous as a heroine in a Judith Krantz novel. She’s the publisher of a half-dozen art magazines, including Modern Painters and Art + Auction, and an art-book company as well as international auction-pricing indexes, a business that certainly doesn’t pay for nights like this. The magazines—all this business about the hiring and departure of James Truman and other employees—are mere tabloid fodder. Her greater mission is to empower humanity via the power of the imagination. She is the muse of leading neuroscientists. She would also like to bring opera to the children of Sudan. All this is very pricey, but it is better than buying jewels.

From a corner of the room, MacBain’s friend Chuck Close looks over the scene. “It’s Louise’s money,” he pronounces. “She can do what she wants with it.”

If you wanted to enter New York society today, you could do worse than purchase a $20 million penthouse on the sixteenth floor of the Richard Meier building on Charles Street. Up there, high in the clouds, MacBain holds court in her aloof, vaguely British way. She was raised in Montreal, the youngest of six children of an upper-middle-class insurance executive. She’d had one annulled marriage, to a tobacco heir, before she wed John MacBain, a Rhodes scholar with whom she began a classified-ads empire. It was 1993, and not much was understood about moving product on the Internet, but the power-suited MacBain was an early adopter, expanding their company’s reach into trading autos and boats on the Web and amassing a nearly billion-dollar fortune over the next eight years. The couple broke up in 2000, and MacBain, spending a lot of time in Paris, began to date Switzerland-born Simon de Pury, at the time the head of the Phillips auction house, which was backed by LVMH. After 9/11, fearing a dip in the luxury trade, LVMH head Bernard Arnault balked, and De Pury was desperate for a new investor. He appointed MacBain CEO of the company, hoping she would put in some of the $250 million she received when she sold her stake after her divorce, but she never handed over a dime. The two parted ways amid whispers that he had wanted only her money. It was then she became Ms. MacBain, an independent and very grand lady.


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