The walls don’t need to talk in the house that writer/photographer John Jonas Gruen and artist Jane Wilson have lived in for nearly 50 years because its enchanting inhabitants are more than happy to do the talking for them.
But oh, to have been a fly on those walls, to travel back in time to watch the likes of their famous houseguests—gifted artists, musicians and writers such as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Edward Albee, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank O’Hara and Fairfield Porter—enjoy “genuine good times and harmless merry-making” at the converted 19th century shingle-style carriage barn in Water Mill that Mr. Gruen and Ms. Wilson bought back in 1960.
But as Mr. Gruen recounted in his 2006 visual memoir, “The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons,” there was also “too much drinking, lots of pot-smoking, some casual sex, and on occasion, some very real and quite ugly nastiness.” Oh, and a little bit of skinny-dipping in the pool.
Yes, indeed, to have been a fly on the wall.
Today, Ms. Wilson—a landscape painter whose works are held in many of the world’s most famous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—is in her 80s and uses a cane to ease the pain of arthritis. But back then, she wildly danced the cha cha and the twist and listened to sultry bossa nova tunes with her close-knit group of friends, some already famous, some still yet to be discovered.
“We were young and beautiful back then, and Jane and I loved to tango together,” reminisced Mr. Gruen, an ebullient raconteur who at the time was an art and music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. “And always right there in the middle was our beautiful little Julia.”
Today, daughter Julia is all grown up and is the executive director of the prestigious Keith Haring Foundation in New York. Back then, she was a small tot often swooped up in the arms of her parents as they danced around the house.
Charlie Chaplin, Lauren Bacall, Virgil Thompson, Stella Adler, Marisol, John Ashbery, James Schuyler. Yes, they were all there too.
And Ms. Wilson—a willowy, dark-haired, full-lipped beauty who also modeled for Vogue magazine and even appeared on The $64,000 Challenge television show—was turning out gourmet meals for all of them.
“Back then, Water Mill was just a little hamlet of no particular consequence, other than it was very pretty and quiet and near the ocean,” said Mr. Gruen who went on to become a regular contributor to The New York Times, Vogue, ARTnews and Dance magazine and author of 16 books, including the 2008 memoir, “Callas Kissed Me … Lenny Too!”
“Water Mill was just a little kink in the road with the Penny Candy Store and the post office,” added Ms. Wilson, who was raised on a small farm in Iowa and knows a thing or two about kinks in the road.
Ms. Wilson met her husband in the mid-1940s at the University of Iowa, where she was studying painting and he was studying journalism (he was so smitten with her that he took art history classes just to be in the same classes).
The worldly Mr. Gruen was born near Paris, the son of an Egyptian journalist father and a Russian mother, and raised in Italy before immigrating to New York City at the age of 13 in the hopes of achieving “some sort of stardom.”
“When we met, it was a case of opposites attracting … But then, who wouldn’t have been attracted to Jane?” he asked.
“And you were death to women the minute you opened your mouth,” laughed Ms. Wilson, remembering her husband’s intoxicating charm.
After marrying, the financially-strapped young couple moved to Greenwich Village so they could be surrounded by “all the artists and playwrights and actors who lived there.”
While Ms. Wilson established herself as a painter, Mr. Gruen worked at the distinguished photo agency Rapho-Guillumete where he rubbed elbows with the likes of Man Ray and Robert Doisneau. The couple themselves was photographed by Diane Arbus for a Harper’s Bazaar feature on “New York’s Most Glamorous Couples.”
It was through artist friends Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers that the couple discovered the Hamptons in the late 1950s and its “uncanny light, at once so luminous, pearly and incandescent.”
“We could ill-afford a house in those days, but Jane had just had a show of her Long Island landscapes at New York’s Tibor de Nagy gallery, and it was a great success, made all the more exhilarating by her first sale of a large painting to the Museum of Modern Art,” Mr. Gruen wrote in “The Sixties: Young in the Hamptons.”
“Suddenly, Jane had made a small bundle of money … And there was this beautiful carriage house, and we had to have it. Jane hesitated, but not for very long. Before she could change her mind, her bundle of money was handed over to the realtor, and the house was ours,” Mr. Gruen wrote.
“Now we were genuine Hamptonites,” he remembered. “Every summer (and some springs, falls and winters, too) we luxuriated in our single acre of land, the ample lawn, the patio, and the wonderful shingled barn, with its majestic hayloft studio for Jane and its faint horsey smell of long, long ago. It sat near endless potato fields under a vast, ever-changing sky—and it was, indeed, heaven!”
The cost for their little piece of heaven was all of $26,000.
Over the years, not much has changed in their little three-bedroom, two-bath carriage house. The floor is still concrete, painted white; the 11-foot pine ceiling has been left in its natural state; and the stark-white walls are the original matchstick paneling.
Most of the furnishings are original too, including a vintage wicker sofa and chairs with lavender and white-striped cushions.
“All the money went into the house, so we were poor again and bought furniture from second-hand places out here, like M. Press and Nielsons,” recalled Ms. Wilson, who kept the color scheme throughout the house a summery blue and white.
“We liked that the first floor was a big open space,” said Mr. Gruen, giving a tour of the home. “It serves as a multi-purpose room of certain comfort and largesse, which can be made into various moments of living … Various places where we can sit, rest, chat and read.”
In the middle of the 35-foot-by-55-foot first floor space is an imposing two-sided brick fireplace. Today the couple can’t remember whether it was there when they purchased the house (he said it was, she said it wasn’t), but both agreed that they love the majestic uniqueness of it.
The openness and simplicity of the first floor layout provides the perfect backdrop for several of Ms. Wilson’s paintings. On one wall is a landscape from the early 1970s, a view remembered from a train ride from Venice to Milan. Another painting, this one created about a decade ago, offers a glimpse of the sea and a midnight sky.
As one would suspect, books abound throughout the house.
In the dining area, a Tiffany-style light hangs over the table for eight and an upright piano stands ready for someone to tickle the ivories. Nearby, the small kitchen has quaint blue and white gingham wallpaper, white cabinets and an old-fashioned blue linoleum floor. A bedroom, bathroom and laundry room complete the first floor.
Upstairs is Julia’s childhood bedroom and the couple’s all-white bedroom, which is Mr. Gruen’s favorite room in the house.
“It’s not too big and not too small. We open the windows and hear the rain and the sounds of the birds chirping. It’s very serene. And it’s close to Jane’s studio,” he said.
Ms. Wilson’s light-filled studio, understandably, is her favorite space in the house. It’s a room where, on good days, she can be found painting for hours, lost in her fertile imagination. On this day, a large canvas—already primed with a ground color of pale yellow—awaits her next creation.
“I can’t tell you what I’ll be painting. It just happens when it happens,” said Ms. Wilson, who is represented by the DC Moore Gallery in New York and recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at ArtHamptons. Elisabeth Sussman’s new book about the artist’s work, “Jane Wilson: Horizons,” will be published this September.
“I’ve loved to watch Jane paint for 60 years, but I have to ask permission first because she doesn’t like distractions. It’s a very beautiful thing when Jane allows me to observe her because it’s really a choreographed journey, the way she moves from the paint table to the canvas and the way she moves the brushes on the canvas,” said her adoring husband.
Approximately 15 years ago, the couple renovated the studio, adding walls of windows and putting sheetrock over the once-exposed roof rafters in the house’s old hayloft. “It had been very dark, and now the light just pours in,” explained Ms. Wilson.
The studio is filled with paints and brushes, an old bike of Julia’s, a daybed for resting, and stacks of Ms. Wilson’s canvases, some dating back to the late 1950s. Hanging on the wall is a poster depicting one of Mr. Gruen’s most famous photographs—a portrait of a handsome Mr. de Kooning, barefoot on the beach, wearing rumpled shorts and button-up shirt, holding a long walking stick.
“The original is in our New York apartment, but one of the prints is going to be auctioned off by Christie’s this October,” said Mr. Gruen proudly.
Above the studio is a tiny loft area, a quiet retreat with a bed with a blue and white floral quilt, standing mirror and pitcher of flowers. “It’s a wonderful place to escape and read,” said Julia Gruen, who studied dance for many years with George Balanchine and spends many weekends visiting her parents, bringing along her two beloved dachshund dogs, Charlotte and Otis.
Looking outside the studio’s windows, a lush landscape awaits. Roses climb up an ancient-looking lattice fence, and boxwood bushes surround an elegant fountain. Hydrangea, privet hedges, a gorgeous Japanese cherry tree, lilac bushes, daylilies and a wisteria-covered arbor all add to the old-fashioned charm of the property.
On this overcast, misty day, one can almost hear strains of laughter from long-gone ghosts who once sipped cocktails and dined al fresco with Ms. Wilson and Mr. Gruen on the patio.
“Sadly all of our friends are dying off. We lost four in January alone,” said Mr. Gruen wistfully. “But we still have parties for our treasured friends,” he said. And now many of Julia’s friends come—many of them famous dancers from the ballet world, like Heather Watts and Jock Soto. This house has been, and continues to be, a source of great joy to us and a wonderful place to grow old.”